And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger – they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise. The Noble Qur’an 4:157-8
Christian apologists love to cite the above passage as flat-out proof the Qur’an is bogus: how can the author be God, they say, when he can’t even get basic facts of history straight? “The one indisputable fact about Jesus of Nazareth that is recognised by every historical scholar is that Jesus died by crucifixion”, as William Lane Craig puts it, “and yet this is the one historical fact about Jesus that the Koran denies”.
…the emphatic negative “wa maa salabūhu” literally seems to deny that Jesus was ever placed on the cross. In taking this position, Muslim exegetes seem to rely on the lexical meaning of the word, “being placed upon a cross” – for the Qur’an uses this word in other areas to indicate punishment that does not in and of itself result in death.18 The term, in Christian usage, however, is rather clear that it necessarily leads to death – as explained, for example, in the Dictionary of Christianity, where it is given as “execution by being nailed to a cross.”19 If the Qur’anic verses are read in terms of Christian terminological usage – given that many words are so used in Islam’s main text – then what may be argued is the placement upon the cross as being the cause of Jesus’ death, rather than denying his being put upon it.20
Nonetheless the latter view has long been “a sort of shibboleth of orthodoxy” (Reynolds) among Muslims, the culmination of dubious1 (and eschatologically useful) traditions to the effect that someone else (who?) was crucified instead of Jesus and miraculously assumed his physical appearance for the purpose.
Rodney Otto explains orthodox aversion to accepting Jesus’ crucifixion:
…for the Muslim the crucifixion could not have occurred if Jesus was to be a great prophet of Allah. Success is the mark of greatness for a Muslim prophet. Certainly no great prophet could be crucified…If Jesus had been slain by the hostility of evil men, this would have been a divine failure of Allah. All the prophets saw the confusion of their opponents and the vindication of themselves.
The fact is, however, that some of the prophets of Allah were murdered by their people.4 This does not mean that Allah “abandoned” them: since His Will is all-perfect, there must have been a greater wisdom in Him allowing them to be slain. The fact that we mere mortals cannot comprehend this wisdom – although Dr. Ali Ataie has offered three (see 2. Divine Rapture) – does not mean that it does not exist. For all we know, Allah (swt) in His mercy may have miraculously anaesthetised Jesus (as) during his violent ordeal so that he’d feel no pain! Allahu ‘alim.
Noble Qur’an 4:157 may simply be denying Jewish (as opposed to Roman) responsibility for the crucifixion, the Jews being its mere instigators. Below I offer a few additional interpretations of this enigmatic passage, though its true meaning is known only to Allah*.
1. “Figurative Docetism”
Think not of those, who are slain in the way of Allah, as dead. Nay, they are living. With their Lord they have provision. 3:169
In this regard, Dr. Ali Ataie quotes another relevant passage:
Ye (Muslims) slew them not, but Allah slew them. And thou (Muhammad) threwest not when thou didst throw, but Allah threw…Qur’an 8:17
Scholar Todd Lawson explains this new interpretation, which he calls “figurative docetism”:
…the “appearance” [in 4:157] refers to the body of Jesus which was certainly crucified as distinct from his spiritual and eternal reality which, by its very nature, is invulnerable to suffering and death…Thus, even if to all outward appearance they did actually kill and crucify Jesus, it was only trough the mysterious working out of the Will of God. They ultimately had no agency in the matter: “it only appeared so to them”.2
Two important Sunni scholars – Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and Fakhruddin al-Razi – seemed to have endorsed this view, as did the Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj.3
2. Divine Rapture
Proposed by Ataie, this interpretation states that Allah took Jesus’ soul when the latter offered it up. He explains:
Jesus offered up his soul8…and God intervened and received it in full directly, before natural biological death could set in, as evidenced by the language of the Gospels7 as well as the Qur’an…In other words, he died on the cross, but was not killed by the cross. He did not die at the hands of his enemies; that’s what they thought. He was raptured up by God directly: ya ‘Isa inni mutawaffika warafiAuka ilaya (“O Jesus! Lo! I am gathering thee and causing thee to ascend unto Me” – Qur’an 3:55).
Citing Psalm 20:6 and 91:14-6 as possible messianic prophecies of this event, Ataie notes how the latter ends with the aspirated form of Yeshua (lit. “he is saved”8), Christ’s original Hebrew name. He also notes the correlation between 91:14’s phrase “He shall call upon Me” and Mark 15:37 (“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”).
Ataie infers three wisdoms behind Jesus’ (as) death: it gave a practical example of the important virtue of self-sacrifice in Allah’s cause, postponed Allah’s wrath upon the Jewish nation, and made it possible for the gentiles to hear the Gospel (Injeel) via apostolic preaching.
3. Spiritual Substitution**
Judas’ soul, after he hung himself, was transferred to Christ’s body after Allah raptured up the latter’s soul during his overnight custody. Consequently, historians then and now have misidentified the man on the cross as Jesus (as). This theory eliminates the substitution legend’s problem of witnesses, and the historical fact that the disciples believed to their graves that Jesus had in fact died and resurrected.
*Since Jesus’ crucifixion is not an issue of ‘Aqidah, Allah was under no obligation to make the verse clearer. Most Muslims agree on its (mid)interpretation, while the minority that do not are in no way construable as disbelieving apostates.
**This is my own theory.
What about the Resurrection?
Even if the resurrection of Christ three days after his death really occurred (notice that the swoon theory is the only interpretation that cannot reasonably account for his empty tomb and post-mortem appearances), that doesn’t mean he died for our sins etc. as misconstrued by the disciples (ra), but that Allah simply vindicated his messiahship. This renders theologically moot the question as to whether or not it really happened, for it would only justify belief in Christianity in the absence of evidence that Islam is true. Since this is not the case, the historicity of Christ’s resurrection has no bearing on the truthfulness of the Christian faith.
- Concerning the erroneous ascription of one of these traditions to Ibn ‘Abbas (ra), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanwir_al-Miqbas and Andrew Rippin, “The Exegetical Works Ascribed to Ibn ‘Abbas: An Examination”
- https://archive.org/details/ToddLawsonTheCrucifixionAndTheQuran/ pp. 5 and 10
- Al-Ghazali, al-Mustazhiri in Ignaz Goldziher, Streitschrift Des Gazali gegen die Batinijja-Sekte (Leiden 1916), p. 30
- The Noble Qur’an 2:61; 2:87; 2:91; 3:21; 3:183; 4:155. Also see 3:144, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#John_the_Baptist_passage and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zechariah_(New_Testament_figure)#In_Islam
- Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), p. 121
- Abd al-Tafahum, “The Qur’an and Holy Communion”, The Muslim World (07/59) XLIX:242
- See Mark 15:37, Matthew 27:50, Luke 23:46 and John 19:30
- Lexicon Strongs’ Concordance; Yeshua, Ataie notes further, is an abbreviation of Yehoshua (Joshua), which means “whose salvation is Yahweh” according to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon