“It Was Made to Appear Like that to Them:” Islam’s Denial of Jesus’ Crucifixion

Gregory R. Lanier
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando


“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” —Mark Twain[2]

Of the major theological divides that separate Islam and Christianity, one of the most difficult to pin down is the denial of the crucifixion of Jesus in Muslim tradition. Though the assertion that Jesus did not die on the cross appears in only part of one difficult verse in the Qur’an (Q4:157, see below), scholars agree that the majority view within Islam is that this verse “affirms categorically that Christ did not die on the cross and that God raised him to Godself.”[3] In fact, the rejection of the crucifixion has “become a sort of shibboleth of orthodoxy,”[4] thus presenting a significant challenge for Muslim-Christian engagement.

This dogma is not, however, without its difficulties: it requires rejection of the broad scholarly consensus that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth outside Jerusalem under the oversight of Pontius Pilate is an indisputable historical fact; it strains exegesis of other parts of the Qur’an and appears to rely on strained exegesis of one verse; and it has spawned a wide range of often speculative and contradictory explanations.[5] But does the Qur’an itself actually deny the resurrection? Such is the question this article attempts to answer. By analyzing the textual data and interpretive history, it will be argued that the belief that Jesus was not crucified actually stems from an anti-Jewish polemical passage that was misinterpreted along both Shi’a and Sunni lines and cemented by medieval orthodoxy. In other words, it is not the Qur’an itself that indisputably denies the crucifixion, but the scholars defending Islamic orthodoxy.

We will proceed in three steps: examining the Qur’an’s view of Jesus’ death in itself; outlining three options within Islamic tradition that attempt to explain why the denial of the crucifixion became dogma; and proposing an alternate explanation for the long-standing durability of this denial within Islamic thought. This third step will identify the root cause of the debate—scriptural exegesis versus dogmatic tradition—which in turn will prompt reflections on Christian-Muslim engagement as well as similar “in-house” tensions within our own Christian traditions.

The Qur’an’s Teaching on Jesus’ Death

Given the primacy of place given to the Qur’an in all Islamic schools, the logical starting point is to examine the textual data within the Qur’an that has led to this denial of the crucifixion.[6] Two aspects of the question should be distinguished but not separated: what does the Qur’an say about Jesus’ death in general, and what does it say about the crucifixion in particular?

Can Jesus, as a Messenger of Allah, Actually Die in Principle?

The antecedent question to that of the crucifixion is whether the Jesus presented in the Qur’an could actually die a normal human death to begin with. Within Islamic interpretation, there are two competing lines of thought: (i) given Jesus’ elevated status as Prophet, Messenger, and Messiah (which, incidentally, the Qur’an does not quite define clearly), he could not actually die but instead “was raised body and soul to heaven,”[7] where he met Muhammad during his Night Ascent;[8] or (ii) Jesus, just like Muhammad and other prophets, will—or already did—die from natural causes.[9] Most scholars agree that four verses deal with the possibility of Jesus’ death[10]:

Q3:55—God said, ‘Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Me: I will purify you of the disbelievers. To the Day of Resurrection I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieved. Then you will all return to Me and I will judge between you regarding your differences.

Q3:144—Muhammad is only a messenger before whom many messengers have been and gone.

Q5:117—[Jesus said,] I was a witness over them during my time among them. Ever since You took my soul, You alone have been the watcher over them: You are witness to all things.

Q19:33—[Jesus said,] Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’

A few observations may be made about this selection of verses. First, Q3:144 indicates that not only is it possible for Messengers of Allah to “pass away”[11] but, in fact, some have done so.[12] Second, Jesus appears well aware of the possibility that his time on earth will cease. In Q5:117, he speaks of a distinction between the time he was among humans and the time when Allah took his soul; likewise, Q3:55 speaks of Allah’s removal of Jesus to heaven. Scholars are divided over the interpretation of these verses, however, due to the difficulty of the verb tawaffa in each. It can be taken four ways: “cause to die,” given its typical use in the Qur’an;[13] Allah’s act of raising Jesus, body and soul, to heaven while bypassing death; some sort of soul-sleep that was not death; or the termination of Jesus’ time on earth without reference to physical death at all.[14] Third, verse 19:33 perhaps resolves the conundrum by indicating that Jesus expected a literal, physical death.[15] Taking stock of the exegetical options, the most natural answer to the question posed is “Yes”: on the whole the Qur’an does not explicitly deny the possibility of Jesus’ death in principle (regardless of his special status) but, rather, strongly implies “that he can die a ‘normal biological death’” just like any other Messenger.[16]

Was Jesus Crucified on the Cross?

If Jesus could in principle die, the focal question becomes whether crucifixion—as attested in the Gospels and affirmed by historical scholars—was the cause. The locus classicus of the debate is Q4:157, for which various translations are provided below:

Haleem—[Jews] said, ‘We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him.)

Sahih International—And for their saying, ‘Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.’ And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but another was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

Yusuf Ali—That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’; – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not.

This notoriously difficult verse is the only reference to the crucifixion in the Qur’an, and the apparent denial of the crucifixion is, as is clear in Haleem’s and Ali’s renderings, a parenthetical statement modifying the primary clause speaking of the Jew’s claim of killing Jesus. The underlined portion represents the fundamental exegetical challenge of the verse. The passive verbal phrase shubbiha lahum (“caused to appear”) is a hapax legomenon (appearing only once in the Qur’an) that has generated numerous interpretations which can be grouped along two basic understandings of the verb.[17]

The most common interpretation, often called the “substitution theory,” takes the implied object of the verb to be Jesus himself: namely, it was not Jesus who was crucified, but someone who “appeared” like him to the Jews and was killed in his place (e.g., the Sahih International rendering). This theory maintains that the Jews intended to crucify Jesus, and a historical crucifixion indeed happened, but Allah controverted the Jews by placing Jesus’ visage on another person who, subsequently, took his place on the cross. Islamic exegetes have generated a plethora of possible identities of the person who bore Jesus’ image and replaced him on the cross: a passing Jew, a Roman soldier, Judas Iscariot, Simon of Cyrene, or one of the apostles such as Tatanus, Sergius, or Peter.[18] In short, the substitutionist reading, which is the most popular among Muslims today, is “that someone was, in fact, crucified, but it was not Jesus.”[19]

A less common but exegetically valid theory holds that the verbal phrase “is applied not to Jesus, but to the event of the Crucifixion.”[20] That is to say, the implied object of the verb is the act of crucifixion itself, suggesting that no one actually died on the cross, but rather it only “appeared” to take place, thus fooling the Jews into thinking they had successfully killed Jesus (e.g., the Haleem and Yusuf Ali translations). Proponents of this reading shift the emphasis in the direction of vindicating Allah’s protection of Jesus from suffering an unnatural, violent death at the hands of his enemies, the Jews.[21] The event of the crucifixion was a mirage.

Notably, both of these exegetical options allow room for difference of opinion regarding whether Jesus could (in theory) or actually did die a physical death; where they agree, of course, is denying the possibility that, even if Jesus as Messenger and Messiah could die, he certainly did not die through crucifixion at the hands of the Jews.

Three Explanatory Frameworks for the Denial of the Crucifixion

The preceding cursory summary captures the orthodox position within both Sunni and Shi’a traditions, which interpret the Qur’an as rejecting Jesus’ crucifixion at Calvary outright (at least in some form).[22] We will see below that some voices within Islam in recent years have begun to question this dogma. But before doing so, let us explore why this mainstream Islamic creed has been so persistent. How has the doctrine been so “sticky” over time? Three frameworks may provide part of the explanation for the doctrine’s entrenched status.

Docetism and the Person of Jesus

A common explanation offered by outside observers (not necessarily Islamic “insiders”) focuses in the impact of Christian heresies on Muhammad and his contemporaries. It is often observed that Q4:157 has a noticeable Docetic feel to it, whereby “Jesus’ suffering only ‘seemed’ (dokein) to be physical but had, in fact, more of an apparitional quality.”[23] Some scholars detect similar notions elsewhere in the Qur’an, and many argue that various Christian sects holding unorthodox christological views were active in the Arabian peninsula during Muhammad’s day and likely influenced him, including Monophysites, Julianists, Gnostic Basilideans, Nestorians, and other groups.[24] If true, the influence of such group (or groups) upon early Islam might explain the Docetic/Gnostic tenor of Q4:157, whereby Muhammad and his followers may have believed that such an apparitional crucifixion was, in fact, “perfectly in line with the early and apparently widespread Christian perspective” they had encountered.[25] In other words, Muhammad thought his teaching on the crucifixion was the Christian teaching as well—unaware that it was a version of “Christianity” deemed heretical. There is a prima facie appeal to this explanation. However, the main problem with the Docetism theory, as many scholars have observed, is that Docetism and other Gnostic strands emphasize Jesus’ absolute divinity and deny his real humanity (Jesus only “seemed” human), while the bulk of the teaching of the Qur’an and Hadiths—even if Muhammad was in some way influenced by such groups—emphasizes precisely the opposite, namely, denying Jesus’ divinity and affirming his humanness.[26]

The Relationship of Allah to Jesus as Prophet

A second explanation focuses on the Qur’an’s teaching about Jesus’ position with respect to Allah. There is a “notable selectivity with which the Qur’an describes and approves of Jesus Christ.”[27] Jesus is mentioned in 15 Suras and 93 verses; while this is not trivial, Abraham is mentioned over 240 times and Moses over 500 times. The Qur’an affirms some basic facts about Jesus life, such as his virgin birth, moral righteousness, reception of the Injil (gospel), and various miracles. However, even in the presentation of supernatural events surrounding Jesus, the Qur’an takes a fairly subdued position that assigns little if any theological significance to them.[28] Islam places the emphasis not on the special nature of Jesus but on the working of Allah; various literary devices in the Qur’an are used repeatedly to “minimize the role of Jesus in initiating and carrying out the miracles” and onto the power and permission of Allah.[29]

Against this backdrop, it is argued that Muslim interpreters have maintained the denial of the crucifixion out of a combination of a disinterest in reconstructing the historical Jesus (negative aspect) and a strong desire to make a theological statement about Allah (positive aspect).[30] The statement is simply this: Allah will not let his enemies vanquish his chosen Messenger. The denial of the crucifixion is a denial of the power of mankind to overturn Allah’s will; the Jews cannot kill Jesus because Allah is the ultimate responsible actor who will determine when and whether his anointed Messenger will die.[31] In short, if anyone will put Jesus to death, it is Allah—not the Jews—for he has promised to vindicate his prophets; if Jesus were crucified, Allah would be contradicted.[32] While this construction rightly draws upon key themes pertaining to the qur’anic conception of Jesus, it tends to downplay the high status placed on Jesus[33] and the bare fact that many Messengers, including Muhammad, have indeed died—and often brutally.

Islamic Conception of Salvation

A third approach locates Islam’s trenchant denial of the crucifixion in its attempt at “undermining the construct of redemption.”[34] On this view, by calling into question whether Jesus actually died on the cross at all, Islamic scholars have severed the link between the crucifixion and the redemptive importance assigned to it by Christianity. Given the Qur’an’s denial of Jesus’ divinity as well as its generally negative stance towards the biblical idea of human depravity or original sin,[35] Islam does not teach a concept of atonement, which is obviously tied up in the event of the cross for Christians. Thus, not only is the crucifixion of a Messenger of Allah (even a special one like Jesus) soteriologically unnecessary in Islam, it would actually contradict the general teaching of Islam regarding the nature of salvation; “since Islam has no such doctrine [of redemption], such a death never would take place.”[36] In other words, the denial of the crucifixion is a kind of doctrinal Occam’s Razor: it serves no purpose, so it is rejected.[37] Though it is generally the most compelling option, the problem facing this explanatory framework is that it assumes the Qur’an has soteriology in view in 4:157, which may not, in fact, be the case.

Constructing a Possible Explanation

If the preceding explanatory frameworks are inadequate to account for why traditional Islamic teaching so strongly clings to the denial of the crucifixion, what may account for it? As some Islamic scholars have begun to acknowledge, the starting point may lie in “exegetical atomism,” that is, “studying quranic verses in isolation.”[38] This method has dominated Islamic scholarship from its earliest days, and generations of interpreters have accordingly built a doctrine denying the crucifixion based solely on the exegesis of a single part of a debated verse, without paying attention to its context.[39] In other words, the crucifixion has become heresy in Islam due to inadequate hermeneutics. A more nuanced approach to Q4:157 shows that the single text that appears to reject the crucifixion actually may not actually do so at all, but through non-contextual interpretation it has been appropriated by Shi’a and Sunni traditions to serve competing doctrinal agendas.

Exegetical Context of Surah 4: Jewish Polemic

The broader context of the key passage indicates that the most sound reading of Q4:157 is that it functions as a polemic against the Jews, not as a denial of a historical fact about Jesus or doctrine of Christianity. If the exegetical window of 4:157 is expanded, one finds that the surrounding verses strongly accuse the Jews—who, as is well known, are treated by the Qur’an quite harshly in some cases, and with some mutual respect as “People of the Book” in others—of various forms infidelity:

4:153 Worshipping the golden calf—“Even after clear revelations had come down to them, they took the calf as an object of worship”

4:155a Breaking the covenant—“for breaking their pledge”

4:155b Rejecting revelation—“for rejecting God’s revelations … for saying ‘Our minds are closed’”

4:155c Murdering prophets—“for unjustly killing their prophets”

4:156 Slandering Mary—“they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary”

4:160 Various wrongdoings—“for the wrongdoings done by the Jews, We forbade them certain good things”

4:161 Financial abuse—“for taking usury when they had been forbidden to do so … for wrongfully devouring other people’s property”

The entire passage is a sharply-pointed rhetorical onslaught against the faithlessness of the Jews, concluding thus: “those of them that reject the truth [Allah] has prepared an agonizing torment” (4:161b). The verse about the crucifixion, then, forms a key part of broader attack on the multitude of sinful acts committed by Jews, culminating in their rejection of Jesus himself, which was forbidden: “there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death” (4:159).[40] In other words, 4:157 indicts of the Jews for their attempt to crucify Jesus, to gain victory over him, and to repudiate him as their specific Messenger from Allah.[41]

If this is true, how should the key verb shubbiha lahum (“caused to appear”) be taken? Verse 4:142, which introduces this series of condemnations of hypocrites who disobey God (including the Jews), provides the exegetical key: “The hypocrites try to deceive God, but it is He who causes them to be deceived.” In light of the surrounding verses, a straightforward reading of 4:157 becomes evident: the Jews have claimed to controvert Allah by crucifying Jesus, but Allah has deceived them into thinking they have won, when in fact they stand condemned.[42] In other words, given the focus of the entire passage, “the Crucifixion [is] one example of Israelite infidelity. … The Quran intends to defend Jesus from the claims of the Jews. … Whether or not Jesus died is simply not the matter at hand.”[43] Put differently: the issue in Q4:157 is not the historicity or non-historicity of the crucifixion at all. That is simply not the point of the passage. Rather, the crucifixion episode is yet another way in which Jews (according to the Qur’an) have rebelled against God; they thought they won, but they were deceived. Whether or not the crucifixion actually happened in Jerusalem is not the focus of the passage at all.

Such a re-reading does justice to the context of the Surah and resolves a nagging historical question: if Muhammad did in fact make the astounding historical claim that Jesus was not, in fact, crucified on the cross (which, recall, is widely accepted among secular historians and which was the source of long-standing conflict between Christians and Jews for six centuries before Muhammad), “such a revolutionary account—if any—would be well remembered and well preserved.”[44] But in fact the opposite is the case; Muhammad left behind only part of one ambiguous verse to that effect.

In fact, as scholars have begun increasingly to recognize the pitfalls of traditional Islamic “atomistic” hermeneutics, some have argued that the Qur’an is ultimately silent or, at least, ambivalent regarding the actual historicity of the crucifixion. Consider three scholarly samples:

Over the last thirty years, scholars have found that the Qur’an does not clearly reject the idea that Jesus was placed on the cross and died there.[45]

The meaning of verse 157 is best understood not as a statement of historical fact about Jesus but, rather, as a rebuke of the Jews. The operating hermeneutic here is to situate the denial of crucifixion within the Qur’an’s negative attitude toward the Jews; this allows an interpretation that shifts our attention away from what happened to Jesus in the direction of what the Qur’an says about the Jews.[46]

The underlying theme of the set of ayas in which the reference to the crucifixion verse is situated relates specifically to the condemnation of disbelief (kufr) and has little bearing on the discussion of the historicity of the crucifixion.[47]

These observations fit quite logically with the Qur’an’s general lack of interest in presenting the “historical Jesus” and its pervasive treatment of Jesus as primarily an argumentative prop for elevating Muhammad (among other things).[48] Thus, the Islamic dogma that emphasizes the denial of the crucifixion may have arisen from the overly narrow hermeneutical approach used by the majority of traditional Islamic commentators—an approach which becomes particularly problematic when dealing with a verse that hinges on an ambiguous hapax legomenon.[49] A more contextually sensitive reading of the key verse makes clear that what is in play is not a denial of a historical crucifixion but a polemical attack on those who sought it. What, then, has given such an interpretation its staying power?

Sectarian Conflict: Shi’a vs. Sunni Eschatology

I suggest that the primary reason the denial of the crucifixion attained creedal status relates to eschatological conflicts “connected to the sectarian milieu in which Islamic doctrine developed.”[50] While the Sunni Hadith never actually mentions the issue of the crucifixion at all, the Shi’ite Hadith “explicitly denies that Jesus was crucified.”[51] The reason on the Shi’a side is fairly apparent. As Shi’a doctrine developed (particularly the Twelver strand), Jesus quickly became associated with the Twelfth Imam (Madhi), and both men will play prominent roles in their return at the end of the world. The denial of the crucifixion, and the related view that Jesus did not die at all but was raised directly to heaven, became a perfect fit with the Shi’a concept of occultation: both Jesus and the Twelfth Imam have remained alive in a state of hiding, awaiting the second coming.[52] Sunni eschatology, however, insists that there would be no other Madhi, that the Twelfth Imam is a myth, and that Jesus himself is this single eschatological figure: “Jesus became the Sunni answer to the Shii … and his preservation from death was accordingly emphasized.”[53] In short, both main divisions of Islam have made use of the denial of the crucifixion to support their competing eschatological doctrines which, somewhat ironically, ultimately rely on the same essential tenet: Jesus, as an eschatological redeemer figure, could not undergo the humiliation of death by crucifixion.

Fortress Mentality of Orthodoxy

Once the atomistic reading of Q4:157 was firmly integrated into the eschatological framework of either division of Islam—regardless of the flawed underlying exegesis—it became nearly impossible in practice to question. Though only a single quranic verse mentions the crucifixion, and though any further references in the accepted Hadith and Sunna are quite rare (and absent altogether on the Sunni side), the interpretive tradition of commentators (tafsir) from the Middle Ages onward has been an imposing force in shaping how Muslims read the Qur’an. One could describe it as interpretive inertia: “over successive centuries the discussion of the crucifixion within the Islamic tradition … evolved to accommodate the doctrine of denial in a way which obscured the neutrality of the original Qur’anic position.”[54] Even as alternative approaches have been voiced, they have had little impact on either mainstream (conservative) scholarship or the average Muslim, for the “majority of traditional scholars in all sects of Islam are not willing to question medievalist constructs.”[55] Given the inherent priority Islam places on upholding the accepted traditions, accepted tenets are rather difficult to change; medieval exegesis, however flawed, has a conditioning effect on all subsequent scholarship. There are dangers in assaulting the fortress of orthodoxy. Consequently, “the point is that tafsir, not the Qur’an, denies the Crucifixion.”[56]

Conclusion and Reflections

Factoring in all the data, the denial of the crucifixion within Islam ultimately seems to have developed as follows: competing opinions existed about the possibility of Jesus’ earthly, physical death; a single qur’anic text ambiguously describes how Allah would confound the Jews into thinking they had succeeded in crucifying Jesus, as part of a larger polemical attack against Jewish unbelief; Shi’a and Sunni scholars in the Middle Ages appropriated this verse to support their own views of Jesus’ role in the eschaton; and this medieval rejection of the crucifixion has proven difficult to dislodge.[57]

This evaluation of a stronghold doctrine within Islam raises a few important questions pertaining to how Christians should engage with the Qur’an and Muslims. Whose version of Islam should be considered normative? How should a Christian interact with a subject if the Qur’an leans in one direction, while orthodox dogma is calcified in another? Does one side with the Qur’an or with the scholars? How should Christians sensitively navigate the tension between what seems to be the teaching of a given qur’anic verse and a cherished position that a Muslim friend might have been taught for years? How might Christians best seek inroads into the Muslim worldview by examining the Qur’an with fresh eyes and respectfully asking questions that might lead a Muslim friend to do the same?

Moreover, the juxtaposition of scriptural teaching with dogmatic tradition outlined here should prompt all Christians to pause and reflect on areas within our own theological system (Reformed or otherwise) where such tensions may be at play. In essence, the Qur’an says one thing, but through a series of interpretive maneuvers made by folks who were attempting to defend a certain position and maintain that position at all costs, an erroneous interpretation became the overwhelmingly accepted orthodoxy. This can happen in Christian circles, too. We can learn at least three things from this discussion.

First, with respect to the doctrinal “fortress mentality”: we should be ever-willing to examine our own thinking (or that of our church, seminary, favorite theologians, etc.) to determine if there are any areas where we have developed a view that may not be exegetically bulletproof (and may, on close inspection, be simply unfaithful to Scripture), but which we implicitly treat as the “litmus test of orthodoxy” against which everyone else is measured. Are there any doctrines, particularly secondary ones, for which more charity is needed towards those who sincerely interpret things differently?

Second, with respect to “atomistic” exegesis: we should strive as best we can to interpret any given biblical text in a way that is faithful to its local context (the surrounding verses of the passage) and its broader context (the message of Scripture as a whole). If our exegesis of a single verse militates against the plain sense of other passages—as with Q4:157 versus other passages on Jesus’ death in the Qur’an—we should perhaps rethink our exegesis.

Third, with respect to “scripture” versus “dogma”: we need to work very hard faithfully and soberly to ensure our exegesis and doctrinal formulations mutually inform one another in a healthy, balanced way. Within the Reformed tradition we reject the view that scriptural exegesis and systematic theology are somehow polarized. We strive, rather, to ground our systematic theology in sound exegetical work, while simultaneously admitting that a central feature of “sound exegetical work” is the shaping influence that theology (church fathers, confessions, Reformed covenantal theology, etc.) has on the very endeavor of interpreting scriptural texts.

  1. This essay is a revised version of a course assignment for the inaugural Christian Encounter with Islam course at RTS. I extend my thanks to Dr. James Anderson (RTS-Charlotte) for his constructive feedback and to the other faculty members of RTS who are engaged in teaching this important curriculum throughout the seminary. I hope this piece reflects the important role this initiative will play in ensuring RTS graduates are equipped with both a heart for the Muslim community and a mind that understands Islam at a level that is more than cursory—both of which are increasingly needed in the current cultural, political, and religious climate.
  2. From a note to a friend in 1897; often misquoted, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
  3. Michael F. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death by Crucifixion in the Qur’an: An Issue of Interpretation and Muslim-Christian Relations,” JES 29 (1992), 442. This view is held not only within popular Islam but among mainstream Islamic scholars; e.g., “Most people familiar with the topic understand that the Qur’an denies Jesus’ crucifixion” (W. Richard Oakes, “Review of The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought,” The Muslim World 101 [2011], 119). While we want to avoid painting all Islam(s) with a broad brush—there is, of course, much diversity among the major branches as well as among individual clerics and believers—the standard view is widespread enough that it has its own Wikipedia page!
  4. Gabriel Said Reynolds, “The Muslim Jesus: Dead or Alive?” Bulletin of SOAS 72/2 (2009), 237; he further notes, “most critical scholars accept that this is indeed the Quran’s teaching. … The prevalent Islamic teaching [is] that Jesus escaped death on the cross, that instead God raised him body and soul to heaven, and that God will send him back to earth in the end times. … This teaching is standard in classical Muslim literature.”
  5. Reynolds comments, “[The theories of classical commentators] are inconsistent and often contradictory. They have all of the tell-tale signs of speculative exegesis” (“Muslim Jesus,” 258).
  6. Two objections might be raised at this point. First, why privilege the Qur’an’s interpretation of history over biblical and extrabiblical sources (e.g, Josephus, Tacitus) that, in the hands of modern scholarship, have rendered the Jesus’ “death by crucifixion … so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts’” (James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003], 339)? Second, why privilege the Qur’an over, say, the Hadiths, Sunna, or other popular and authoritative Islamic literature? The simple answer to both is that, if we are to allow Islam to speak for itself, we must recognize “the particular importance of the Muslim belief that the Qur’an conveys God’s definitive word on all subjects, including Christianity” and any historical events that the Qur’an addresses (Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 433; emphasis added). Much like how many Christians (particularly those within the Reformed tradition) take the OT and NT to be normative (in some sense, which is, of course, debated) on our interpretation of historical data, so also Muslims.
  7. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 245.
  8. Khaleel Muhammad, “The Case of the Overlooked Fatwa,” JES 46/3 (2011), 381-382. The basic premise of this view is that Jesus, by virtue of the special status given to him by the Qur’an (which, of course, still falls short of divinity) cannot be allowed to die by Allah.
  9. Muhammad, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 384.
  10. Unless otherwise noted, the Qur’an translations are taken from The Qur’an (Trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Another key data point for the possibility of Jesus’ death is 4:159, which will be covered below in our treatment of 4:157.
  11. Other translations render the verse more clearly as referring to death or passing away than that of Haleem: e.g., “many were the messenger[s] that passed away before him” (Yusuf Ali).
  12. “There is little doubt that the Qur’an affirms that prophets die. … Moreover, the Qur’an also asserts that prophets have been slain” (Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 441).
  13. E.g., the Shakir translation of 5:117 reads, “but when Thou didst cause me to die…” Muhammad concludes, “Since this verse [5:117], in its affirmation of the end of Jesus among his people, comes without any conditioner, there is no justification for saying that Jesus is alive and did not die” (“Overlooked Fatwa,” 381).
  14. See summary of views in Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 245.
  15. “Here Jesus – speaking miraculously as an infant – implies that his death will be like that of any other human” (Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 239). Even with this verse, a minority of scholars hold that the death envisaged by Jesus has not happened in the past but refers to a future event.
  16. Mustafa Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 12 (2010), 193.
  17. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 238; Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 193.
  18. Anthony McRoy, “The Christ of Shia Islam,” ERT 30/4 (2006), 341; Oakes, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 121; Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 241-242. Reynolds elaborates, “Their [classical scholars] principal disagreement is only whether God cast the image of Jesus on a number of people, from whom the Jews chose one to crucify, or whether God cast the image of Jesus only on one specific person.” The identities of Tatanus and Sergius are unknown.
  19. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 443. “The common belief among Muslims that the crucifixion was an illusion, or that someone else was substituted for Jesus” (“Jesus, Son of Mary,” The New Encyclopedia of Islam [ed. Cyril Glassé; New York: AltaMira Press, 2002], 239); “the dominant opinion among Muslims is that another person was substituted in Jesus’ place” (Muhammad, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 378).
  20. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 238.
  21. “This is what the verses encapsulate … as well as that Jesus would complete his term without being killed or crucified, but instead expire through natural death” (Muhammad, “Overlooked Fatwa, 383).
  22. The Sunni view is encapsulated in the following Saudi fatwa: “The Second Advent of Jesus is so important to majoritarian Islamic creed that the Permanent Committee for Research and Fatwa, of Saudi Arabia … proclaimed: It has been established by proofs from the Scripture and the authentic traditions that Jesus, son of Mary, was not killed and did not die. … Whoever says that Jesus son of Mary died … is to be ruled as a disbeliever” (Muhammad, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 379). In other words, like the Trinity (which violates tawhid and results in shirk), so also does belief in the crucifixion of Jesus result in shirk. With regard to Shi’ism, “the Shi’ite Hadith [e.g., Abu ‘Abd Allah], unlike its Sunni equivalent, explicitly denies that Jesus was crucified” (McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 349).
  23. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 444. Space does not permit engaging in a summary of the Docetism heresy of early Christianity.
  24. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 252; McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 349.
  25. Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 192.
  26. “The Qur’an presents a Christology of the human Christ … The qur’anic Jesus is not only fully and only human but … also exemplarily human” (Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 438, 444.
  27. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 432.
  28. McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 340. “These miracles are reported in the Qur’an in a perfunctory way and are presented as simple demonstrations of God’s power” (Kate Zebri, “Contemporary Muslim Understanding of the Miracles of Jesus,” The Muslim World 90 [2000], 71).
  29. Zebri, “Miracles of Jesus,” 75.
  30. “The emphasis [in 4:157] is in looking at the passage not as relating historical fact but, rather, as asserting theological truth” (Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 444).
  31. Oakes, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 120; Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 445.
  32. “The Quran’s denial of Jesus’ death reflects instead Muhammad’s particular idea that Prophets are always vindicated” (Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 253).
  33. Fathi Osman, Zalman Schachter, Gerard S. Sloyan, and Dermot A. Lane, “Jesus in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” JES 14/3 (1977), 451: “The Qur’an refers clearly to a special place of Jesus in his relation to God, which is different from the place of any other prophet, even if the Qur’an rejects the notion that Jesus may be called ‘Son of God’.”
  34. Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 197.
  35. McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 340.
  36. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 443. Chedid provides an example of this view: “Since Islam rejects the whole concept of a fallen human nature and the principle of vicarious atonement for sin, it follows naturally that the denial of the meaning of the cross becomes a condition for their theology” (Bassam M. Chedid, Islam: What Every Christian Should Know [New York: EP Books, 2004], 199).
  37. “The crucifixion of Jesus does not play a role in the Islamic perspective any more than does his superhuman origin, for salvation in Islam results from the recognition of the Absoluteness of God and not from a sacrificial mystery. Since Islam believes that Jesus will return at the end of time, his death was no more than apparent and did not, as in Christian belief, involve a resurrection after the event” (New Encyclopedia of Islam, 239).
  38. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 252.
  39. Westerners often run into this problem when engaging with Islamic scholarship, which approaches the Qur’an in a “literalist fashion; that is, each sentence or passage is interpreted for what the words say, quite apart from their historical and literary context” (Fonner, “Jesus’ Crucifixion,” 435).
  40. Yusuf Ali translation; emphasis added.
  41. “[The Qur’an] presents a Jesus who has an ethically/geographically restricted ministry, since Islam holds that only Muhammad was chosen to be the Messenger to the whole world. [Imams teach that] ‘Allah sent Jesus especially to the children of Israel’” (McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 345).
  42. “Since [the reference to the Crucifixion] exists only in the context of responding to the Jewish claim, the discourse structure suggests it was denying the capability of the Jews to have done this depending on their own power” (Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 253). This “deception” need not be taken in an overly negative sense, given that Islam also affirms the truthfulness and uprightness of Allah. It is, perhaps, akin to the use of deception in military tactics.
  43. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 252.
  44. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 258.
  45. Mohammed, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 378.
  46. Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 440.
  47. Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 193.
  48. “We note that the Qur’an is not interested in reconstructing the historical Jesus. … Rather than attempting to reconstruct historical persons and events, the Qur’an recollects them in order to inspire piety. … For the Qur’a¨n, Jesus belongs within the framework of God’s sending of prophets and books (Fonner, “Jesus’ Death,” 436; emphasis added).
  49. “The problem with most of the suggestions about how to read and understand puzzling phrases in the Qur’an … is that the interpretive focus has often been too narrow, confining attention to the immediate context of the troubling words and phrases and imagining a solution, either grammatical, lexical or historical, without taking a wider Qur’anic context into account” (Mohammed, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 384).
  50. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 250.
  51. McRoy, “Christ of Shia,” 349. See note 21 above.
  52. Shah writes, “In Twelver Shi’a commentaries the denial of the crucifixion is upheld. … The substitute legend in Islamic exegesis probably had its origins in a Shi’a milieu as it fits in exactly with the doctrine of a Hidden Imam who resides in the unseen realm, although it is recognised that the idea of substitution was [also] adopted quite early by Sunni exegetes” (“Review of The Crucifixion,” 195).
  53. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus,” 251.
  54. Shah, “Review of The Crucifixion,” 191.
  55. Muhammad, “Overlooked Fatwa,” 387. Oakes also comments on the pervasive “influence that medieval tafsir still have on today’s average Muslim” (“Review of The Crucifixion,” 121).
  56. Reynolds, “Muslim Jesus, 252.
  57. Shah summarizes it well: “The hermeneutic culture out of which the doctrine of denial emerged was shaped by a complex array of dogmatic exigencies and … the distinction between scripture and its interpretation tends to be inappropriately overlooked by those who speak of the Qur’an denying the crucifixion” (“Review of The Crucifixion,” 191).