There was a time when the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion of Hazrat Jesus(as) was a matter of great debate between Ahmadis and non-Ahmadi Muslims.
Whereas Ahmadi Muslims believe Hazrat Jesus(as) was a prophet who died like all other human beings, a great majority of Muslims held the view that Hazrat Jesus(as) was taken to Heaven by Allah and a Jesus-look-alike was crucified by the Jews instead.
Few non Ahmadi scholars today like to raise the topic of the death of Hazrat Jesus(as). To most it has become a non issue. They would rather vigorously propound their interpretation of khatam nabiyyin. It has become the “flavor of the month” so to speak. The majority of Muslims appear to be indifferent or just plain uninterested.
A more interesting change in the attitude of Muslim scholars has been in the total abandonment of the belief that Hazrat Jesus(as) is alive in Heaven. Only recently I ordered books from the Juma Masjid in Toronto, the largest non-Ahmadi Mosque in Toronto. One book entitled “Myth of the Cross” by Al Hajj Ajijola gave full support to the Ahmadiyya view that Hazrat Jesus(as) died a natural death. Similarly, well known Muslim scholars such as Ahmed Deedat back the Ahmadiyya position on Hazrat Jesus(as). Moreover, several commentaries of the Quran from Egypt, one of them endorsed by Al Azhar, now interpret the verses regarding the death of Hazrat Jesus(as) as Ahmadis do.
A four part series of articles on the death of Hazrat Jesus(as), based on the Quran, the Hadith, and books of history is presented.
Dr. Tahir Ijaz, M.D.
Evidence in The Holy Quran
The so-called orthodox Muslim belief that a Jesus-look-alike was crucified instead of Hazrat Jesus(as), and that Hazrat Jesus(as) was raised to heaven, to descend a later day, has no support in the Holy Quran. The origin of this popular belief is from Christian sources, as will be shown in a future article.
The Quran is quite clear that Hazrat Jesus(as) has passed away, and gives no support to the concept of Hazrat Jesus(as) physically going to heaven. Some specific verses will now be considered:
“Jesus said, I am a servant of Allah. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be and has enjoined on me prayer and alms-giving so long as I live. He has made me dutiful toward my mother, and He has not made me haughty and unblessed. Peace was on me the day I was born, and peace there shall be on the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised up to life again.” (19:31-4)
The verse shows Hazrat Jesus(as) must have died, and could not exist in heaven with his physical body:
- If he was still alive, he would have to give alms in heaven, but who would need alms there?
- If he would descend again to earth alive, he would have to follow the Jewish prescriptions on both prayer and alms-giving – and could not be a follower of Islamic law.
- Did his mother accompany him to heaven physically? How could he otherwise behave like a dutiful son towards her?
“Keep in mind when God will say to Jesus, son of Mary: Didst thou say to people: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? – and he will answer, Holy art Thou, I could never say that to which I had no right. If I had said it, Thou wouldst have surely known it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. It is only Thou who art the Knower of hidden things. I said nothing to them except that which Thou didst command me: Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. I was a witness over them as long as I remained among them, but since Thou didst cause me to die, Thou hast been the Watcher over them, and Thou art Witness over all things.” (5:117-8)
The verse proves that:
- The corruption of Christian doctrine took place after the death of Hazrat Jesus(as). If Hazrat Jesus(as) is still alive, as some Muslims believe, then Christianity must still be pure.
- The same Hazrat Jesus(as) will not appear a second time in this world, as he would then become aware that Christians had now taken his mother as Divine, and could not, therefore plead ignorance in front of God’s judgment seat.
The Quran says about persons or beings worshiped as God:
“They are dead, not living; and they know not when they will be raised.” (16:22)
If Hazrat Jesus(as) is alive, as some Muslims believe, he must be God?
The notion that Hazrat Jesus(as) floated into the sky towards God is an Un-Quranic concept. Before going into the specific verses which refute this popular belief, it should be noted that Heaven is a spiritual state which our souls experience after death. It is not a physical location beyond the stratosphere. By climbing Mount Everest, we do not come closer to God!
Humans, according to the Quran, must live and die in the physical universe:
“And for you there is an abode on the earth and a provision for a time, He said, therein shall you live and therein shall you die and therefrom shall you be brought forth.” (7:25-6)
“Have we not made the earth so as to hold the living and the dead?” (77:26-7)
On one occasion the enemies of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, challenged him that they will not believe in him unless he “ascend up into heaven” and “send down to us a Book.” (17:93) The Holy Prophet(saw) replied: “Holy is my Lord! I am but a mortal sent as a messenger.” (17:94)
Thus the Prophets, like all humans, lived and died on the earth. If Jesus is alive today, he must be more than a mortal.
If any human being was able to go to heaven with his physical body then it would have been our beloved Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw), the greatest of all prophets. But the verses above indicate that since he is but a man, it is not possible.
“I will cause you to die”
An important verse is the following:
“When Allah said, O Jesus, I will cause you to die and will raise you to myself, and will clear thee of those who disbelieve, and will place those who follow thee above those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection, then to Me shall be your return and I will judge between you concerning that wherein you differ.” (3:56)
The verse clearly indicates that Hazrat Jesus(as) was to die a natural death and then only would he be raised to Allah. The verse does not say that Hazrat Jesus(as) will be raised first then will die.
An important word used in the Quran is mutawaffi, derived from tawaffa. When God is the subject and a human is the object, tawaffa means to take away the soul, i.e, death.
Zamakhshari (467-538 A.H), an Arab linguist of great repute says, “Mutawaffika means, I will protect you from being killed by the people and will grant you full lease of life ordained for you, and will cause you to die a natural death not being killed (Kashshaf).” Scholars and commentators like Hazrat Ibn Abbas, Imam Malik, Imam Bukhari, Imam ibn Hazm, Imam ibn Qayyin, Qatadah, Wahhab and others are of the same view.
Note that the same word Tawaffa, has been used in other places in the Quran to indicate death. For example, 2:235: “and those of you who die (yatawaffou-na) and leave wives behind, these wives shall wait concerning themselves for four months and ten days.”
Another important word is rafaa, which means raising, elevating, lifting, exaltation, honor. When the rafaa of a man is spoken of as being towards Allah, the meaning is invariably spiritual elevation and exaltation. For example the Quran says about Prophet Enoch: “We exalted him to a lofty station (19:58).”
A commentary of the Quran by Ibn Khatib (“modern” Egyptian Commentary) summarizes: “And those who assert that Jesus is dead, point to the word of the exalted God: every soul shall taste death, and Jesus, peace be upon him belonged to the human species for which death is ordained. Some people presume that he is dead, and lies buried in a locality which they mention by name, and may be it is India, and God – may He be exalted – knows best what He has said and done.”
The verse that refers to the crucifixion is 4:158-159:
“And for their saying, We did slay the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah; whereas they slew him not, nor did they bring about his death upon the cross, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified; and those who differ therein are certainly in a state of doubt about it; they have no certain knowledge thereof, but pursue only a conjecture; and they did not arrive at a certainty concerning it. On the contrary, Allah exalted him to himself. And Allah is Mighty, Wise.”
The argument of the Jews was that because Hazrat Jesus(as) died on the cross, considered an accursed death according to the law of the Torah, Hazrat Jesus(as) could not be a true prophet. The Quran rejects the slaying of Hazrat Jesus(as) in any form, including killing by nailing to the cross. Nothing in the verse suggests Hazrat Jesus(as) was NOT nailed to the cross: the verse only denies DEATH by nailing to the cross.
The words “Shubbi-ha la hum” means “he made it or him to be like it or him”, or “dubious.” The question arises, who is the person who was made to appear “like one crucified.” Clearly it was Hazrat Jesus(as) whom the Jews tried to crucify or slay. The theory invented by some Muslim commentators that someone else was made to look like Hazrat Jesus(as) and was then crucified in his place, is simply absurd. The context of the verse cannot be twisted to make room for someone else. No one else is mentioned. Besides, the belief that God made someone else, an innocent person, look like Hazrat Jesus(as), and die in his place, makes God look very cruel.
As will be shown later in this article, the belief of a Jesus-look-alike dying on the cross instead of Hazrat Jesus(as) has its origin in Christianity, and came into Islamic belief through conversion of Christians to Muslims.
So the Quran is clear that Hazrat Jesus(as) only appeared to be crucified, and in fact the Jews were in a state of doubt.
The last portion quoted above refers to rafaa, spiritual exaltation. The plan of the Jews to make Hazrat Jesus(as) appear accursed by making him die the accursed death of crucifixion failed, and on the contrary, Hazrat Jesus(as) survived the crucifixion. In the sight of Allah, Hazrat Jesus(as) was not accursed.
In summary, according to the Quran, humans live and die in the physical universe. Prophets are human beings. Prophets, like all humans, are subject to hunger, pain, death, etc. The Quran is clear that Hazrat Jesus(as) was a human being like the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw). To say that Hazrat Jesus(as) is alive today, 2000 years after he was born, is to make him more than a human. The Laws of God do not change. In fact, the Quran makes a general statement: “But you will never find any change in the way of Allah, nor will you find any alteration in the way of Allah.” (35:44)
The fact that Jesus (peace be upon him) is dead is clearly mentioned in the sayings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
These will be outlined below:
- “If Jesus and Moses had been alive, they would have had no choice but to follow me.” (Kathir vol II, p 245 and al yawaqit wal Jawahir, part 2, page 24).
- “Jesus son of Mary lived for 120 years, and I see myself as only entering upon the beginning of the sixties.” (Kanz al Ummal, part 6, p.120).
- In Bukhari, it is reported that in the spiritual event known as the miraj, the Holy Prophet(saw) saw Hazrat Yahya(as) and Hazrat Jesus(as) in the second heaven. If Hazrat Yahya(as) is dead, then Hazrat Jesus(as) is dead, for the dead do not keep company with the living.
- In Bukhari, it is recorded that after the death of Hazrat Muhammad(saw), some of the companions, among them Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab(ra), doubted he was really dead. However, Hazrat Abu Bakr(ra), ascended to the pulpit in the Mosque and recited the Quranic verse: Muhammad is only a Messenger. All Messengers before him have passed away. If he dies, or is killed, will you then turn upon your heels? (3:145)After the short speech and recitation of this verse, the companions realized that indeed, the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) had passed away. No one objected that Hazrat Jesus(as) or any other prophet had not died. Everyone accepted and confirmed the death of all previous prophets. This was the first Ijma’ or consensus of the Muslim community.
- The family of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) were also agreed on the death of Hazrat Jesus(as). Imam Hasan(ra), recounting the events relating to the death of Hazrat Ali(ra), stated, “he (Ali) died during the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, the same night that the spirit of Jesus was raised to heaven.” (Tabaqat Ibn Sa’ad, vol III Page 26).
The words of the Holy Prophet(saw), his family, and his companions all indicate that Hazrat Jesus(as) passed away like all mortals.
Connection to Christianity
The death of Hazrat Jesus(as) in Islamic Christology is a complex and controversial subject. In some Islamic circles, the crucifixion of Hazrat Jesus(as) was denied altogether. Instead, according to some Muslim scholars, Allah miraculously transformed a disciple of Hazrat Jesus(as) into the physical image of Hazrat Jesus(as), and the Jews crucified the disciple, thinking him to be Hazrat Jesus(as). This concept may be called the “Substitution theory.” Hazrat Jesus(as), having been saved from such suffering and death, ascended to God in Heaven.
As mentioned in the previous articles, the substitution theory and eventual physical ascension of Hazrat Jesus(as) is not substantiated by the Quran and Hadith. Rather, the Quran and Hadith is clear that Hazrat Jesus(as) died a natural death. However, the theory of substitution has figured prominently in Islamic tafsir literature. The purpose of this final part is to explain how the substitution theory was introduced into Islam. I will show that the belief of Hazrat Jesus(as) not being nailed to the cross and a Jesus-look-alike replacing him was introduced into Islam from the teachings of certain Gnostic Christian sects. These teachings were brought into Islam through conversion of the “People of the Book.”
1. Different Versions of Substitution Story in Islamic Literature
The belief that someone substituted for Hazrat Jesus(as) on the cross has been mentioned by various Muslim commentators of the Quran over the past centuries. Most of the traditions relating the details of the story of Hazrat Jesus(as) are told on the authority of Jewish or un-named Christian converts (reference: “Towards an Islamic Christology: The Death of Jesus, Reality or Delusion” in The Muslim World vol 70, No. 2, page 96). The commentary of Tabari (d. 923 A.D) relates on the authority of Wahb (a Jewish convert) that when the Jews were seeking Hazrat Jesus(as) to crucify him, God cast the likeness of Hazrat Jesus(as) on seventeen disciples. The Jews threatened to kill them all, but instead took just one in the group and killed him, believing him to be Hazrat Jesus(as).
In the next stage of development of the substitution theory, one of the disciples of Hazrat Jesus(as) voluntarily accepts to die on the cross for the purpose of saving his master. Such a story may have originated to avoid a major problem associated with the idea of substitution: Why would God force an innocent person to suffer and die to save another? Tabari relates on the authority of Qatada: “It has been related to us that Jesus, son of Mary, the prophet of God, said to his companions, Who among you would consent to have my likeness cast upon him, and be killed? One of them answered, I would, O Prophet of God. Thus that man was killed and God protected His Prophet and took him up to Himself.” A similar account is mentioned in the traditions of Ibn Ishaq. His source was an unnamed Christian convert. In this story, the person who offered to bear the likeness of Hazrat Jesus(as) was not one of the twelve disciples, but a man named Sergus.
In other versions, the miracle of transforming a person into the likeness of Hazrat Jesus(as) was a form of Divine punishment for that persons’ persecution and betrayal of Hazrat Jesus(as). For instance, it is said that the enemies of Hazrat Jesus(as) sent a man named Tityanus to kill him. However, God foiled the plan by raising Hazrat Jesus(as) to Himself and miraculously causing Tityanus to resemble Hazrat Jesus(as). Tityanus was subsequently put to death on the cross by the Jews. BUT, God cast the likeness of Hazrat Jesus(as) only on the man’s face and not the body. Thus the people were confused as to the identity of the man killed. This is added to explain the Quranic verse 4:158 which states that those who differed concerning him followed only their conjecture. (reference, The Muslim World same issue as quoted above).
2. Origin of Substitution Theory in Islamic Thought
The substitution of Hazrat Jesus(as) on the cross for someone else has no basis in the Quran or Hadith, as mentioned earlier. This concept likely originated from the influence of Gnostic Christianity on Islam. Several Gnostic Christian sects were known to flourish from the third to the ninth centuries A.D. They were regarded as heretical by the Roman Church. These sects eventually disappeared, both as a result of persecution and gradual conversion of their followers to the fastest growing faith at the time, namely, Islam. Most of the persecution was at the hands of the Roman Church. In the 1940s, documents and writings of these sects were discovered in Egypt, and they became known as the Nag Hammadi documents. These documents are valuable in understanding Gnostic Christian theology.
It is not my purpose here to go into details of Gnosticism. Only the philosophy of docetism will be discussed here. Docetism was a prominent feature of Gnosticism, which held that matter and spirit are antagonistic; matter was considered evil, and spirit considered good and holy. Docetism proposed that Christ only “appeared” to have a real human body, and that Christ only “appeared” to suffer and die on the cross: it was either an illusion or someone else was substituted for him. This tendency to deny or at least diminish the reality of the humanity and suffering of Hazrat Jesus(as) was central to the docetic view. It is believed that docetism had its roots in the difficulties some felt in the notion of the Incarnation of God in the person of Christ – it was difficult to associate a Divine-incarnate Son (spirit) with a human being (matter) subject to suffering and death (reference: “Gnosis” by Geddes MacGregor).
A reference from the Nag Hammadi documents demonstrates the docetic view of Hazrat Jesus(as). The book “Apocalypse of Peter” relates a vision of the disciple Peter. He sees Hazrat Jesus(as) apparently nailed to the cross and another Jesus floating above the cross. Hazrat Jesus(as) explains to Peter: “He whom you see above the tree (cross), glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But the one whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute…one made in his likeness.” (Reference: “The Laughing Savior“, by John Dart, Page 107).
In summary, the death of Hazrat Jesus(as) in Islamic thought has been that of controversy and debate. It is clear that belief in the ascension of Hazrat Jesus(as) and death of a Jesus-look-alike did not exist in the original teachings of Islam. The existence of such speculations in the Quranic exegesis appear to have resulted from the influence of certain Gnostic Christian philosophies such as docetism.