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The `Ascension' of Jesus

His Eminence Shaikh Mahmoud Shaltout - Rector of Al-Azhar University
The Review of Religions, December 1993

[The following is the reproduction of a fatawah (decree) which was originally published in the monthly Al-Majallah, Cairo, and reproduced by Mohtamim Nashr-o-Isha'at Sadr Anjuman Ahmadiyya, Rabwah, Pakistan. We are thankful to Mr. Ishaq Khalil for sending this English translation printed in Nusrat Art Press, Rabwah, Pakistan.]

In three chapters the Holy Qur'an deals with the question of Jesus' end. First, God says in the chapter of `Al-Imran:

But when Jesus perceived disbelief on their part, he said "Who will be my helpers in God's way?" The disciples said: We are God's helpers. We believe in God, and bear thou witness that we are submitting ones (the Arabic word used in the text is Muslims). Our Lord, we believe in that which Thou hast revealed and we follow the Messenger, so write us down with those who bear witness. And they (the Jews) planned and God (also) planned. And God is the Best of planners. When God said, `O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who disbelieve to the day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return, so I shall decide between you concerning that wherein you differ. (3:51-54)
Secondly, in the chapter `Al-Nisa, God Exalted says:
And for their disbelief and for their uttering against Mary a grievous calumny (We condemned them): And for their saying. We have killed the Messiah. Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God, and they killed him not; nor did they crucify him, but a likeness of him was shown to them. And certainly those who differ therein are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge about it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for certain. Nay, God exalted him in His presence. And God is ever Mighty, Wise. (4:158-159)
Thirdly, in the chapter of `Al-Ma'idah God says:
And when God will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, didst thou say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides God? He will say Glory be to Thee: it was not for me to say what I had no right to (say). If I had said it, Thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. Surely Thou art the great Knower of the unseen. I said to them naught save as Thou didst command me. Serve my Lord and your Lord, and I was a witness over them so long as I was with them, but when Thou didst cause me to die Thou wast the Watcher over them. And Thou art Witness of all things. (5:117-118)
These are the verses in which the Qur'an makes references as to how the life of Jesus with his people ended. The very last verse of Al-Mai'dah bear a special significance where they deal with Jesus and his mother as being worshipped by their people. They make it clear that Jesus, peace be upon him, did not say to his people anything except what God had commanded him to say i.e., Serve God, my Lord and your Lord. They also state that he was a witness of his people when he was among them, but since the time God caused him to die, he knew nothing about what they did.

The Meaning of the Word Tawaffa (To Cause To Die)

The word tawaffa is frequently mentioned in the Quran to mean to cause death. This is the first and foremost sense of the word whenever it is mentioned. If it is used to mean something other than that there is always with it which points to the new meaning in which the word is used. The following verses show what the word and its derivations originally mean. The Qur'an says Qul yatawaffakum malakul-mout, which means, Say, The angel of death, who is given charge of you, will cause you to die. (32:11) As for those whom the angels cause to die (this is represented in Arabic by the words "tawaffahum ul-Malaikah") while they are unjust to themselves. (4:97) And if thou couldst see when the angels cause to die those who disbelieve - this is represented in Arabic by the words "yatawaffa al-ladhin kafarou al-malaikato" (8:50) Besides these, there are many verses to support this view.

It is logical, therefore, that the word tawaffaytani - mentioned above in connection with Jesus in the passage of Al-Mai'dah - should mean natural death in the normal way which people conceive and which the Arab-speaking people understand from both the text and the context. So it we take this passage in its original and proper sense, it should be concluded that Jesus died and that there is no argument to justify the notion which assumes that he is still alive and to him death never came. It is also unreasonable to say that the word death, wafat, in the passage means that Jesus will die after his descent from heaven - according to the opinion which presumes that he is alive in heaven and will come down at the end of the world. This is because the passage speaks in clear terms of his relations to his own people, not to the other people who will exist near the end of the world and who are unanimously conceived to be Muhammad's people and not the people of Jesus (peace be on them both).

The Meaning of Rafa (Exaltation)

The fore-mentioned verse in the chapter of Al-Nisa, which reads Nay, God exalted him (Jesus in His presence) is taken by the majority of interpreters to mean that the body of Jesus was elevated to heaven where he is alive now, and from where he will come down to earth at the end of the world to kill all pigs and smash all crosses. They derive this opinion from narratives which indicate that Jesus will come down at a certain time near the end of the world. They do that in spite of the fact that these narratives are inconsistent and equivocal, and are reported through questionable sources. They hold this opinion unaware, perhaps, that they contradict themselves and twist the meanings of the Qur'an and the Traditions by ascribing to them meanings which they cannot support.

If we leave these interpreters aside, and come to reflect on the verse of Al-Imran in which God says: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die, and exalt thee in My presence. Together with the verse Nay, God exalted him in His presence we shall find that the former verse indicates a promise from God the fulfillment of which is revealed and attested by the latter one. The promise of God as stated in the former verse, was that He would cause the death of Jesus, exalt him and clear him of the charges of those who disbelieve. The latter verse makes no reference to these meanings as such but is confined to the mention of exaltation in God's presence. This means that the two verses should be interpreted in the light of each other to be consistent, which in turn - means that God actually caused the death of Jesus, exalted him in His presence and cleared him of those who disbelieved. The great authority of Qur'anic exegesis al-Alusi interpreted the sentence will cause thee to die in a way as to mean that God made Jesus complete his life and die a natural death without being forsaken by God to the enemies to kill him or do to him the afflictions they intended to do.

It is obvious, therefore, that Jesus was exalted in God's presence, because the Arabic word rafa is mentioned in the verse after the word death, and so it means exaltation of Jesus, not the elevation of his body to heaven. This meaning is supported by the statement in which God promised to clear him of those who disbelieved, which indicates that the whole matter signifies honour and veneration for Jesus. It is also supported by the usages of the word rafa in many Qur'anic verses and various classical expressions. Consequently, the word used in connection with Jesus can reveal one sense only, the sense of care and protection by God. Any other interpretation would do injustice to the Qur'an and would only appear as unfounded stories and fabricated narratives.

After all, Jesus is but a messenger before him messengers have already passed away. His people opposed him and on their faces appeared signs of hostility and evil. He, like all other prophets and messengers, took with God Who saved him with His Might and Wisdom and frustrated His enemies' planning. This is the proper sense embodied in the verses which read as follows:

But when Jesus perceived disbelief on their part, he said "Who will be my helpers in God's way?" The disciples said: We are God's helpers. We believe in God, and bear thou witness that we are submitting ones (the Arabic word used in the text is Muslims). Our Lord, we believe in that which Thou hast revealed and we follow the Messenger, so write us down with those who bear witness. And they (the Jews) planned and God (also) planned. And God is the Best of planners. When God said, `O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who disbelieve to the day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return, so I shall decide between you concerning that wherein you differ. (3:51-54)
These verses explain that God's power of planning is far superior to that of His enemies who plotted the assassination of Jesus and whose tactics in that matter ended with mere frustration, while Jesus was saved and protected by God. This was the fulfillment of the promise of God Who said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve. In that promise God gave him the good news that He would save him from the plots of his enemies and frustrate them, and that he would complete his course of life to die in a natural way without being killed or crucified and would be exalted in His presence.

This is the understandable sense of the Qur'anic verses related to the end of Jesus with his people. It is easily conceivable by the reader of these verses, once he acquaints himself with the way of God concerning His prophets when their opponents turn against them and quote stories and narratives to which the Qur'an is not to be subject. It is hard to perceive any other sense. One wonders as to how the salvation of Jesus by taking him from among his enemies and elevating his body to heaven could be considered the planning of God, and how this could be described as better than and superior to the planning of the enemies who could not possibly resist or avoid the action of God which is beyond human power.

The conclusion we come to from the thesis of this discussion is:

(a) There is nothing in the Qur'an or the genuine Traditions to establish the belief that Jesus was elevated with his body to heaven where he is alive now and will continue to live until he comes down to the earth near the end of the world.

(b) All that which can be understood from the verses concerning that matter is a promise from God to cause the death of Jesus, exalt him and clear him of those who disbelieve, a promise which was thoroughly fulfilled and according to which Jesus was not killed nor accursed by his enemies but was made to enjoy his life fully and to be exalted in God's presence.

(c) The rejection of the notion that Jesus was raised to heaven in his body where is alive now and from where he will come down to the earth when the world comes near its end does not drive a Muslim out of Islam or faith. Such a rejection does not justify the verdict of apostasy passed against those who question the notion. They are Muslims, believers, and should be treated as such during their lives as well as upon their departure because the rejection of this notion does not imply a rejection of any fundamental principle of Islam.