The Strange Islamic View That Jesus Was Not Crucified….

[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;-

— Qur’an, sura 4 (An-Nisaayat 157–158[7]

And to be blunt, what on earth does this mean? Wikipedia tells me of many conflicting ways in which Islamic scholars interpret the text.

A DIGRESSION….

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.

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“We’ve come to exterminate the Crusaders….”

That’s what was reported by an Algerian worker at the gas plant where terrorists had taken hostages; “Don’t worry”, they told him, “As an Algerian Muslim we haven’t come to harm you – we’ve come to exterminate the crusaders!” And that statement says much about the messy situation between Muslims and the West at present.  The extremists, and many other Muslims, interpret the western armies currently in their lands as a renewal of the old Crusades, with Christians again attempting to destroy Islam by war.

We westerners don’t see it that way; to us, the western armies, including the Brits, are not Christian Crusaders at all, but the armies of pluralist democracies defending ourselves against terrorists and if anything defending the freedoms of Muslims.  But it’s understandable that Muslims misinterpret the situation.  Take the UK; we have a national established church whose earthly ‘supreme governor’ – the Queen – is also the head of our state and the effective Commander-in-Chief of our armies.  It is all too easy for Muslims to see the Queen as the equivalent of a Muslim ‘Caliph’ – a religious head of a religious state – and therefore see her country’s armies as Christian armies pursuing Christian aims.  America may not have an established church, but is nevertheless a largely ‘Christian’ nation, very vocally so among the Republican Right/Moral Majority wing of their politics, so again it can appear in Arab eyes that they are ‘Crusaders’.

So long as this mutual misunderstanding prevails, it’s hard to see how the West can win the various wars; our opponents cannot surrender what they see as Allah’s cause, and we can’t, compatibly with our own principles, just exterminate them.  And anyway, killing them tends just to confirm their view of us, and convinces more and more Muslims to join the extremists.

There is another serious consequence of this.  Many Muslim lands have Christian minorities.  In theory, Muslims should be tolerant of Christians as fellow monotheists, but – quite logically – this doesn’t fully apply during war with Christian states.  With Christian armies ‘crusading’ in Muslim lands, those Christian minorities can be seen as allies of the ‘crusaders’; and therefore as fit targets for persecution of all kinds.  We occasionally hear of that persecution; including cases where Christians have been forcibly circumcised, and are then in a terrible position – they have not freely chosen Islam, yet if they return to practising Christianity, they will be treated as ‘apostates’ and may be subjected to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy[i].

Many of the Christians involved – those belonging to the various ‘Anabaptist’ groups, for example – would reject the whole idea of ‘crusading/holy war’, and even the idea of a ‘Christian country’; they haven’t the slightest intention of being ‘allies’ of the supposed crusading armies.  Yet sadly they will still be persecuted, because the Muslims don’t understand that – Islamic thinking makes it difficult to understand a separation of religion and state.  It is also the case that others of these persecuted Christians belong to churches which support the idea of Christian states, or even, as in the case of Anglicanism, are ‘established’ in some way in the western country where their denomination originated.  I’m not going to say that such Christians therefore ‘deserve’ persecution – but I will say that it is understandable that Muslims interpret such Christian-country-minded groups as being allied with the ‘Christendom’ with whose ideas they agree.

Ironically, the supposedly ‘crusading’ West is also having trouble understanding the situation.  We are so accustomed to our pluralism and democracy, with its freedom of religion, that we don’t easily grasp the idea of a religion and state being effectively one entity, so we can’t see the problem the Muslims have with us.

Disentangling the mess

In disentangling it’s a good start to admit that there is a tangle!  Sadly neither politicians nor church people in the west seem to want to make that admission.  Many don’t even appreciate the real nature of Islam; they don’t seem to realise that the idea of a unity of religion and state is built into Islam from square one, as is the idea of holy war.  In the lifetime of Muhammad he both ordered and personally led military expeditions; exiled from Mecca he returned with an army big enough to scare the Meccans into surrender, to set up a Muslim state with himself as effectively king.  It is significant that in Islam the big division is not over creeds and beliefs; Shi’as and Sunnis are divided over who, at a certain time, should have succeeded Muhammad as the ruler of the Muslim state.  I will agree that many of the modern extremist Muslims are probably doing things Muhammad would reject; but the key ideas are deeply embedded in Islam and aren’t going to change.  Muslims who try to go ‘back to basics’ will find that the totalitarian religious state, and war both to defend and expand that state, are among the fundamentals of their faith.  It is a myth of political correctness that there are ‘good Muslims’ who have western values in such matters; such people do exist, but arguably they are not fully faithful Muslims, but Muslims failing to follow the original Islamic teaching.  Because this is so, extremist Islam is not going to go away in a hurry.

Christianity is different; in Christianity, the totalitarianism and warfare are an alien graft, not going back to the original but only to over 300 years after Jesus.  I once saw Nick Griffin in a party political broadcast for the BNP portraying the idea that Christianity started as a violent and intolerant religion like Islam but we wonderful British had changed it into the more tolerant body we know today; he couldn’t be more wrong!  Christians who go ‘back to the Bible’ will not find instructions on setting up a Christian state, but teaching that ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (II Cor 10; 4), that Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18; 36) and instructions to ‘be subject to’ the governments of the various non-Christian states they live in (Rom 13; 1ff, I Pet 2; 13ff).  They will find teaching that people become Christians by a spiritual rebirth beyond human power and legislation (John 1; 12-13), not simply by their natural birth in a supposedly Christian state.  They will find the Church itself described as “God’s holy nation” – yet not ruling this world but living humbly in exile from their real home in heaven  (I Pet 2; 9, 1; 1), and commanded indeed not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi – managers of other people’s affairs’ (I Pet 4; 15).

Nobody can be sure how things might have worked out if Muhammad had faced a Christianity still operating in that spirit; unfortunately he saw in Arabia only a somewhat heretical group whose ideas on the Trinity seemed pagan to him, and beyond Arabia a mainstream church which had changed drastically from the original after some 300 years of being nationalised into the Roman Empire and operating as the imperial state religion.   So he rejected Christianity, while in the end copying the idea of a state faith using military means – well, maybe not exactly copying, just that he never seems to have seen any other model of Christianity to inspire him to act differently from pagan national religions.

Christians let Muhammad down at that time (and let themselves down if you think about it!)  They continued to set Islam a bad example as they fought tooth and nail to hinder the advance of the Islamic empire, in Spain for example, and then actually attacked the ‘Holy Land’ in the era of the Crusades, whose atrocities are effectively coming home to roost as Islamic terrorism in the West.  More recently the interference of ‘Christian’ states in the Middle East as colonial powers stirred up much resentment, and caused many Muslims to go ‘back to the Quran’ to seek Allah’s favour by being more fundamentalist.  In particular arrogant handling of Palestine stirred things up.  Essentially Britain promised the land of Palestine to both the Arabs (as led by Lawrence of Arabia) and the Jews in order to gain their support in the First World War (1914-18) and then muddled through till a rather disgraceful abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of World War II as immigration of displaced Jews to Israel grew and friction between Arab and Jew increased.  The subsequent tendency for the US and UK to favour Israel stoked things up further.  Then we became dependent on Arab oil and the balance changed, leading to a Muslim resurgence.

What now?

We – and I mean Christians, rather than the various states we live in – need to set straight the issue of the Crusades; indeed we need to firmly disavow the Crusades.  We must also recognise that such disavowal won’t mean much unless we also disavow the ‘Christendom’ set up by Constantine, and all the subsequent variants – from Anglicanism and Lutheranism to Ian Paisley and his fellow Unionists in Ulster – which seek to give Christianity a special place in the state and inevitably lead to the idea that it is proper to set up ‘Christian’ states by force, defend them by force, and even use force to spread the faith.  The Roman Catholic Church particularly needs to rethink.  It was that church which actually sponsored the Crusades, and I seriously think that supporting the Crusades casts doubt on the fundamental Roman doctrine of papal infallibility; I mean, what real use is ‘infallibility’ which couldn’t recognise the total wrongness of the Crusades and of that warfare in the name of  Jesus??  Where indeed supposedly infallible Popes personally promoted the Crusades?  The RC version of ‘Christian country/establishment in the state’ is not quite like the Anglican or Orthodox or various other Protestant variants, but all lead to the same kind of position on the use of state power to defend religion.    Only a Christianity separated from the state can be an adequate disavowal of the Crusades.  And only a disavowal of the Crusades will enable us to counter Islam with a truly Christian alternative message.  So actually we, even more than the Islamists, need to ‘exterminate the Crusaders’!

What?!!  Are we to get an army together and start a civil war among Christians, killing those we disagree with?  No, very much NOT!  Our warfare, remember, is not with physical weapons.  But we do need to clear that Crusading spirit, and its holy war ethos, from our churches.

Consider this; I don’t know what language was used by the terrorists themselves in Algeria, but that Algerian being interviewed on TV in French used the word ‘exterminer’, in English ‘exterminate’.  Ironically this word originated in Christendom.  It is derived from the Latin ‘ex terminis’ – literally ‘beyond the borders’.  Originally that was what was supposed to happen to heretics – you exiled them beyond the borders, removing them from your ‘Christian’ society.  The trouble was that the borders of Christendom were continent-wide, making exile difficult in practice, and gradually ‘extermination’ came to mean sending the heretics ‘ex terminis’ in a more absolute way, by burning at the stake or other forms of death penalty (drowning was particularly favoured to deal with Anabaptists).   This was yet another way that Christendom distorts the original teaching, in which the Church was meant to live peaceably among their pagan neighbours, and those who were unacceptable to the church were simply excluded from the fellowship (and even then, with a hope of ultimate restoration); of course those excluded from the church would carry on living in the surrounding society.

 

And that is the kind of ‘extermination of the Crusaders’ that we need; not to kill them, but to simply exclude them from the church, to clear up the confusion that has existed since Constantine about the place of the church in the state and the association of the church with warfare.  It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be done in a Christian way, by loving persuasion, that recognises the good intentions of those we disagree with.

 

I’ll leave it there for now; obviously there’s a major discussion to be had about ‘the next step’ … blog readers please contribute ….


[i] Yes, another practice which Islam seems to have shared with ‘Christendom’.  Jews or Muslims in Spain had often been coerced into accepting baptism, and then if they continued to practice their original faith, were treated as apostates to be burnt at the stake.  Or indeed, having been coerced, they were simply never trusted by the surrounding ‘Christians’.