I had started my journey towards Islam full of misunderstandings, with the belief that I was right, and that my Muslim friends were wrong: out of my love for them it was my duty to guide them to light. But instead what actually happened is that they guided me.
After a five year journey of discovery, I had reached a place of dilemma: I loved my religion, but I loved their religion too. I loved the Gospel (good news) that I read about in the Bible but I couldn't deny the beauty I was discovering in the Quran. I was somewhere between the two. Was I therefore more Christian than Muslim, or more Muslim than Christian? Was there something stopping me accepting Muhammad as a prophet of God, although I was clearly moving towards Islam, and if so what was it?
After stripping out the differences of traditions, histories and rituals that have grown over time and getting down to the fundamental beliefs of Islam and Christianity I found that there were really just two unanswered questions that were stopping me from accepting Muhammad as a prophet and fully embracing Islam. Finding the answers to these two questions I knew would unlock a gate, would help me to move forward on my journey of faith.
1. Was Jesus crucified?
2. Is Jesus 'divine'?
Here I discuss the matter of the crucifixion.
I had heard a number of different theories to explain verse 4:157 in the Quran. You can read a number of translations here but I always prefer to look at the Arabic and get a word by word translation to fully appreciate the original revelation. This is sometimes a little difficult to grasp without full understanding of Arabic due to word order and grammar complexities, but reads something like this:
"And for their saying 'indeed we killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Maryam, the messenger of God', and not they killed him and not they crucified him but so it was made to appear to them. And indeed those who differ in this are surely in doubt about it. They do not have any knowledge about it but they are following assumption. And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards Him. And God is All Mighty, All Wise." HQ 4:157
We know from the context of the previous verses that this passage was talking about the Jews, in regards to any boasting of how they had killed Jesus.
As a Christian I had no difficulty with the part 'And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards him'. This is entirely in keeping with what is said in the Bible:
"But God raised him up and put an end to suffering of death, since it was impossible for him to be held by it, " Acts 2:24We are also reminded that martyrs are alive by this verse in the Quran:
"And do not think of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. No! They are alive..." HQ 3:169But to suggest that Jesus had never even been crucified was problematic. I came to learn that for many Muslims what happened to Jesus isn't considered of any great importance, since this is just one passage in the Quran that has a lot of other things to say; it is rather rather a side debate, usually in my experience to try and prove to the Christians that they got it wrong. But for the Christian, who has understood the beauty in sacrificing your life to save your friends, in not fighting back when provoked but rather transcending oneself spiritually above pain, to then suggest that they were deceived, that Jesus wasn't actually crucified, well this point is a show stopper. If you tell a Christian that Jesus was never crucified it's actually really difficult for them to see past this issue to look at other teachings across Christianity and Islam that are actually exactly the same.
Personally, I really struggled with this matter, because to get this wrong, and to deny Jesus his martyrdom for the message of good news that he brought to the world would surely be a great injustice on my part if I was wrong. This wasn't a matter I could just brush aside.
Seemingly the most common belief expressed by Muslims today, in trying to explain what actually happened to Jesus, is that someone else was crucified in Jesus' place and he was raised to Heaven without experiencing death - the details of which vary depending on who you talk to, taught by which scholar. This theory didn't make much sense to me from a logical viewpoint, but rather seemed like a story that had been constructed through filling in the gaps with some creative thinking. The various theories of substitution also then run into problems of conflict with some other verses in the Quran regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus (see notes below) which people try to explain away without, in my opinion, sounding very convincing.
But then I learnt that there has been much debate on this issue, tracing back to the work of some of the earliest scholars, and even today there are Muslims who believe that Jesus was actually crucified. See here a table listing various Muslim exegetes over the centuries. The 'theory' column lists 6 different arguments that were given by the scholars to explain verse 4:157 as follows:
1. Substitution (someone other than Jesus killed); 2. Dual-spheres (the body of Jesus was crucified, but His soul was not killed); 3. Knowledge (the passage refers not to Jesus being killed but about knowledge being killed, argued from a different interpretation of the grammar); 4. Sovereignty (the Jews may have killed Jesus but God allowed that to happen); 5. Critical/unsure of Substitution; 6. Figurative Docetism (similar to Dual-spheres).
A different understanding to the currently popular view, as seen in the above table, is derived though placing the emphasis on 'they' - as in they, the Jews, did not kill Jesus, but that does not mean to say that Jesus was not actually crucified.
So if it wasn't the Jews who killed Jesus, who was it?
One explanation is that it was God that allowed this to happen. This would fit in perfectly with a very similar verse in the Quran 8:17 where the Muslims were rejoicing following their win at the Battle of Badr, so a verse came to remind them that the victory was actually due to God allowing that to happen and not by their own might. It also confirms what is said in the Bible, Acts 2:23 "This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge".
Another explanation regarding who killed Jesus if it wasn't the Jews is that it was actually the Romans who did, although the Jews were perhaps framed to make it look like it was them, and indeed history has proven that it was actually the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews.
I have come to understand that many verses in the Quran often have a dual meaning, that the ambiguity is there for a purpose: that we might use our reasoning so that truth may be revealed, in its fullness, as we search with sincerity and also as we share our thoughts and listen to the ideas of others.
There is an in depth study here of the scholarly debate of Muslims regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, by Glenn M. Miller who is actually a Christian. I believe we shouldn't be afraid to listen to the ideas of Christians regarding debate over Quranic interpretation, but on the contrary Muslims have been explicitly advised to consult the Christians regarding any revelations of which we may be in doubt:
"So if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you." HQ 10:94Here is another excellent discussion I found by a student of Islam, Abu Amina Elias:
'Was Jesus Christ crucified or someone else?'
After much prayer for guidance, study and reasoning with sincerity, I conclude that this verse confirms that God allowed Jesus to be crucified, as it was in keeping with His divine plan, and in addition it wasn't actually the Jews who crucified Jesus but the Romans. In allowing this to happen, God raised Jesus up to himself, and he is alive.
I hope that in sharing my thoughts on this matter that other Muslims may be encouraged to reflect carefully on this issue too, before arguing that Jesus was not crucified, since to argue something that may not be true could be preventing many Christians from considering further the Prophethood of Muhammad pbuh and the revelations in the Quran.
The answer to the second question, 'Is Jesus divine?', was something I could reason about but I needed conviction, which eventually came to me by way of personal revelation which I relate here.
Thank-you for reading and reflecting. Allah knows best, may He guide us all.
I was asked to include further references to what else is said regarding Jesus in the Quran in regards to his death and resurrection. So as not to make the above discussion too complicated I have included 3 points below (again I give the word by word literal translations that may be a little awkward to read):
1. Some people argue that God would not allow his prophets to be killed. I believe that argument is contradicted by this verse:
"And indeed we gave Moses the book and we followed up from after him with messengers. And we gave Jesus son of Mary clear signs and we supported him with the Holy Spirit. Isn't it so that whenever a messenger came to you with that which you did not desire yourselves you acted arrogantly? So a group you denied and a group you killed." HQ 2:87
2. The following verse has Jesus talking from the cradle about his birth, death and resurrection:
"'And peace be on me the day I was born and the day I die and the day I will be raised alive.' Such was Jesus son of Mary, a statement of truth of which they are in dispute." HQ 19:33-34Since the substitution theory is that Jesus didn't die on the cross, that someone else did, but that he was raised directly to Heaven still alive, this verse presents a problem, so the explanation continues that this verse refers to Jesus' second coming, when he will die a natural death before being resurrected at the end of time. Personally I find this reasoning a little convoluted.
Note that this verse is almost identical to a verse shortly before, regarding John the Baptist:
"And peace be upon him the day he was born and the day day he dies and the day he will raised alive." HQ 19:15There is no suggestion here in the grammar that the death was to happen in a future coming. It could be that the repetition of this verse is to remind us that Jesus is human as was John the Baptist. One might then question the meaning of resurrection here, since all people are resurrected after death, but the matter of the resurrection is a separate discussion.
3. There are two verses in the Quran that are frequently translated differently to other instances of the same verb used elsewhere, probably to get around the complication of explaining that Jesus didn't die before being taken to Heaven. This verb 'tawaffa' in 23 times out of 25 is translated as 'to die', but in two instances it is frequently translated instead as 'raised' or 'taken'. The translation of 'taken' is acceptable since the root of the verb lends itself to a literal translation of 'taken back in full', but the instance of 'raised' is doubtful. Below I list the two verses in question with the translation 'to die' in accordance with the other instances, which I believe is more fitting:
"I did not say to them except what you commanded me to, that 'You worship Allah my Lord and your Lord' and I was a witness over them for as long as I was with them, then when you caused me to die you were The Watcher over them, and you are a witness to everything." HQ 5:117The above verse tells of Jesus giving an account of his life, in the past tense, suggesting that he did die at the end of his life on Earth.
"When God (Allah) said 'O Jesus! Indeed I will cause you to die and raise you to myself and purify you from those who covered up the truth on the Day of Judgement. Then to me is your return and I will judge between you about what you were in it differing." HQ 3:55Again using the same translation as other instances of this verb, this verse suggests that Jesus did die before being raised to Heaven.