[This piece arose from a very frustrating conversation with a Muslim sort-of-evangelist at Manchester’s Christmas market; I’m sorry it’s well into tldr (“too long didn’t read”) territory, but one of the annoying things with this issue is that it tends to be dealt with superficially and ‘soundbitey’ and not in the depth it needs. And to be honest, the discussion here is still too short….]
The Islamic view of the crucifixion is based on the following text from the Quran
That they (the Jews) 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:-
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;-
And to be blunt, what on earth does this mean? Wikipedia tells me of many conflicting ways in which Islamic scholars interpret the text.
Before discussing this text further I’d like to say a bit about how I regard Muhammad. Now clearly, as I haven’t chosen to become a Muslim, I don’t believe him to be a prophet of God, nor do I believe the Quran to be the ‘Word of God’. However, very importantly, I don’t believe Muhammad to be a deliberate fraud.
In the case of the Mormon religion, I’m afraid I’m somewhere round about 99.99% certain that founder Joseph Smith did not find a collection of gold plates inscribed with the ‘Book of Mormon’, nor did he translate them, nor were they mysteriously taken away by God after Smith translated them. On the contrary, I believe Smith simply wrote the book himself and essentially – and very deliberately – created a fraudulent religion. I guess he didn’t imagine that this would end with his death by being effectively lynched (albeit shot rather than hanged); this left the Mormon movement being run by people who unlike Smith himself really did believe in it. I have often wondered whether, if Smith had lived to die a natural death he might eventually have owned up….
I don’t think Muhammad was like Joseph Smith – I think he genuinely believed in his revelation from God. But I also don’t think it is a revelation from God; I think it comes, albeit kind of subconsciously, from Muhammad himself, and from his thinking, and also with his limitations.
THE ISLAMIC POSITION
In a version of the Quran given me by a Muslim friend there is commentary and on this passage it says
It is not profitable to discuss the many doubts and conjectures among the early Christian sects and among Muslim theologians.
The Orthodox Christian Churches (and the commentator appears here to include Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as the various ‘Eastern Orthodox’ groups) make it a cardinal point of their doctrines that his (Jesus’) life was taken on the Cross, that he died and was buried, that on the third day he rose in the body with his wounds intact, and walked about and conversed, and ate with his disciples, and was afterwards taken up bodily to heaven. This is necessary for the theological doctrine of blood sacrifice and vicarious atonement for sins, which is rejected by Islam.
And that is, I fear, one of Muhammad’s limitations. He simply didn’t understand the doctrine of the Atonement. To be fair, his local Christians weren’t, it seems, the most orthodox in the world, and were not themselves giving a very coherent explanation, and arguably the local Jews didn’t give him the best understanding of their faith either. But the big problem, I suspect, was that Muhammad didn’t understand the ideas of the Trinity and of the Incarnation of God in Christ.
In reaction against the ‘multi-god’ paganism of his fellow Arabs, he vehemently believed in a God of absolute one-ness – and so couldn’t believe in a God who is complex, a God who is in human terms a relationship rather than just a single personality. And so for Muhammad, Jesus is separate from Muhammad’s ‘unitarian’ God. And basically, unitarians always have trouble with the concept of the Atonement.
If Jesus is just a man, how can he possibly bear all the sins of humanity? And worse, even if Jesus is thought of as more than just human – say an archangel as the Jehovah’s Witnesses apparently believe – why does God need someone else, a ‘third party’ to pay the price in order to forgive us? Why does He not either inflict on us what we justly deserve, or alternatively, just forgive us at his own expense? A God who would apparently happily inflict justice upon us but for the intervention of a third party doesn’t seem very loving; and a God who wants to ‘lovingly forgive’ but, in order to do so, needs to inflict punishment on an innocent third party – well that doesn’t even seem very just or moral. Trinitarianism doesn’t have this problem because in that view Jesus isn’t a ‘third party’ – he is quite exactly God forgiving at his own expense; but unitarian views can’t believe that and so can’t have a self-sacrificing atoning Jesus.
Muhammad, as I see it, was kind of subconsciously feeling towards a way to have a place for Jesus in his teaching, but without that kind of problem for his unitarian beliefs. And unfortunately he had very incomplete views of both Judaism and Christianity as he took them into his ideas – effectively hijacked them, indeed. Was he, for example, aware of the Old Testament idea of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah? Was he aware of the occasions when the gospels record Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection? Basically Muhammad couldn’t accept Jesus as any kind of ‘saviour’ – so he had to reinterpret him.
To Muhammad Jesus could only be a prophet like Muhammad himself (though presumably he saw him as lesser in many ways). And it seems that in Muhammad’s thinking, Jesus could not possibly die as the gospels portrayed, as the victim of a shameful form of execution; God couldn’t possibly let a true prophet suffer such a fate. Yet he couldn’t totally avoid the gospel witness that there was a crucifixion. And this passage of the Quran is an attempt to avoid the idea of Jesus being crucified while sort of explaining how and why there is a crucifixion in the Apostles’ accounts.
BUT – if Jesus was only what Muhammad says, and he wasn’t actually crucified anyway, why does the New Testament so emphatically say he was crucified, dead, buried, rose again, etc.? I mean in Muhammad’s view that can’t have come from Jesus. Yet each of the gospels gives a very large proportion of its space to Jesus’ last days and the crucifixion, with John being an eyewitness supporting Jesus’ mother Mary. And each gospel contains accounts of Jesus’ “Resurrection appearances” to the disciples in which Jesus rather makes a point of having been crucified and having risen from the dead.
And on the day of Pentecost Peter very publicly preaches in these terms, recorded in Acts 2; 23ff
Men of Israel, listen to these words; Jesus the Nazarene, a Man divinely accredited to you through mighty works and wonders and signs, which God wrought through him in your midst, as you personally know, who under the determined will and foreknowledge of God was betrayed by lawless hands and whom you killed by nailing Him to the cross – Him God raised up by unfastening the cords of death; for He could not be held in its grip….”
Peter could hardly more emphatically contradict Muhammad…. And soon after, addressing a crowd after a miracle of healing, he is speaking again in similar terms….
“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and disowned before Pilate, when he had decided to set Him free. But you disclaimed the Holy and Righteous One and requested a murderer for your reward. You killed the Prince of Life, whom God raised from the dead – of this we are witnesses.”
Even during Jesus’ life He repeatedly foretold His own death, that he would be crucified at the instigation of his Jewish opponents. Some of the passages could be seen as ambiguous in terms of the Quran’s words – but many of them are really clear. I want to pick for now on one particular case, involving Peter again and recorded in Mark 8; 27ff
Jesus and his disciples left for the villages around Caesarea Philippi, and on the way He asked his disciples, “Who do the people assert me to be?”
They told him “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets”.
He asked them, “But you, who do you say I am?”
Peter answered him, “Thou art the Christ”. And he charged them to tell this to no one about him.
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer much, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be executed, and after three days rise again. He told them this without reservation.
Then Peter, drawing him forward, began to remonstrate with him; but turning round and looking at his disciples he rebuked Peter, saying “Get behind me Satan, for you are not considering God’s ways, but those of men”.
Matthew gives us the content of Peter’s remonstration, though it’s pretty obvious from the context anyway. “Mercy on you, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Or in simple terms, it looks like Peter is thinking exactly the same kind of thing as Muhammad – except he, of course, is thinking it in advance, “This must never happen!” whereas Muhammad is coming centuries later and saying – for essentially the same reason – “This can’t have happened because it doesn’t fit my ideas of Jesus”.
One of the questions I’m inevitably asking here is who is better to trust – Peter and indeed the other apostles who knew Jesus, who were around at the time, who could say “ of this we are witnesses” … or Muhammad nearly six centuries later, and hundreds of miles away, contradicting those witnesses simply on a claim that “God told me….”??
And the other question is, what would Jesus say? And I honestly think that he would say the same to Muhammad as to Peter – “ you are not considering God’s ways, but those of men”. What Jesus considered “God’s ways” are threaded through the gospels – in the texts where he foretells his death, but also when he speaks of “giving his life a ransom for many”, or “No one has greater love than this; to lay down his life for his friends”. Or in the Last Supper when he talks of broken bread as his body, and how his blood is ‘poured out for many’. Over and over, Jesus shows a very different view to that of the Quran and Muhammad. And it’s both elaborate and coherent; while Muhammad’s/the Quran’s answer is frankly neither, just a glib ‘soundbite’ from centuries later and far away, answering a ‘problem’ which is basically in Muhammad’s own mind.
And there’s another problem. As it stands the Quran passage is ‘aimed’ at the Jews and pictures them triumphing at having killed Jesus when, according to the Quran, they haven’t, just “ but so it was made to appear to them”. And this is kind of understandable, as misleading Jesus’ enemies. But how about Jesus’ friends? Do they, after faithfully following Jesus in his life, get to learn the Quranic truth of Jesus not being crucified at all but raised up safely unto Allah?
No, they get to meet ‘someone’ who for forty days – six weeks – claims to be Jesus and far from letting them in on the Quran’s truth of Jesus’ non-crucifixion, goes out of his way to insist that he is the Jesus who died on the cross; he shows them his scars, shows the wound in his side, and so on, and only after forty days is taken up into heaven. Remember that commentary in my copy of the Quran – stating as the orthodox Christian view that “he died and was buried, that on the third day he rose in the body with his wounds intact, and walked about and conversed, and ate with his disciples, and was afterwards taken up bodily to heaven”, and saying this is necessary to the view of Jesus atoning for sin, but is not the Muslim view. The Jesus who appears to the disciples on the third day and for another forty days almost goes pretty much out of his way to behave in contradiction of this Muslim view!
I can see no reason to reject the gospel account of the resurrection appearances; yet it is precisely because of those appearances, and the explanations Jesus gave the disciples during that time about the why and wherefore of his death and resurrection, that the disciples went about preaching the doctrine of Jesus’ vicarious atonement for sins….
On the Muslim view, was this being who came to the disciples even Jesus? And if not, did God/Allah really allow Jesus’ followers, after the trauma of seeing him apparently killed, to be deceived by a false ‘risen Jesus’ teaching a false view of the whole affair? I struggle to believe in a God who would do that to faithful disciples, who would not protect them from such – according to the Quran – falsehood. Yet that’s what the Quran seems to be telling us….
And I’ve not even started on some of the other incoherences – according to the Quran, did anybody die on the cross or was the whole thing an illusion…? One of the problems is that the Quran simply doesn’t tell us, nor as I understand it does Muhammad elaborate further in the teachings known as the Hadith, but there are some strange ideas around like that Judas died in Jesus’ place. Really??? The Quran simply doesn’t give enough information to be useful….
And I’m having to ask why the need of an illusion that Jesus was crucified anyway? It doesn’t really make any theological sense to have Jesus only appear to be crucified – what real purpose does that serve? On at least one occasion when Jesus was threatened we see him just walking through his accusers and away – surely he could have done that kind of thing again, with no need for any elaborate charade of an unreal crucifixion. Indeed Jesus himself said that had he been unwilling to be crucified he could have had ‘twelve legions of angels’ to defend him (Matt 26; 53)
. I’m inclined to the view that the trouble for Muhammad was simply that there was too much evidence for the crucifixion – he couldn’t just ignore it. But he couldn’t accept the standard Christian interpretation which is ‘Trinitarian’ where Muhammad was very much ‘Unitarian’.
The point I’m kinda getting at here is that for whatever reason, Islam is claimed to be deeply connected with Christianity and Judaism – yet also claims clear differences as on this particular issue. And the issue is whether at this point Islam makes a credible case for how it connects with its predecessors, or whether in practice it shows such a disconnection as to discredit its claims. Does this really look like a revelation from God about Jesus? Can we really take this one paragraph of the Quran as adequate contradiction of the massive evidence of the Gospels and the rest of the NT? Can that work out?
It won’t surprise you that my answer is NO.