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Did Muslim Exegetes Ever Accept Jesus’ Crucifixion? Debunking a Recent Myth

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This article was first published in “Academia Letters” in August 2021 and can be found here.

Over the centuries, scholars of all persuasions have accepted that the Qur’an denies the New Testament’s claim that Jesus was crucified. This is the Qur’an’s lone direct statement on this matter:

And saying (the Jews), “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah”. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear so to them. Those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of conjecture. They did not kill him with certainty. (4.157)

In recent years, there has been a growing tendency among a minority of scholars, including a few Muslims, to argue that the Qur’an does not reject the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus. Rather, it is suggested, it denies the Jews’ claim to the responsibility for it.[1] One popular theological interpretation is that 4.157 denies the ability of man, represented by the Jews, to defeat the will of God, represented by his agent Jesus, even though Jesus is said to have been killed.[2] The Qur’an implies that it was God who ultimately allowed the execution of Jesus to take place.

This is a creative and convoluted reading of the text that effectively claims that the supposed implicit intention of the author is the exact opposite of the explicit wording of the verse. If this interpretive approach is applied to other verses, there would hardly be a verse that cannot be forced to speak out any presumed intention of the author. This new interpretation also ignores other arguments from related verses,[3] but discussing these is outside the scope of this short piece. I will focus here on one insurmountable challenge to this alternative reading of the Qur’an: the consensus of Muslim scholars over the centuries that the Qur’an denies Jesus’ crucifixion.

Exegetes from various schools of thought, classical and late, always upheld the view that the Qur’an categorically denies that Jesus was crucified. These include Sunnis, such as Ṭabarī (310/922), Māwardī (450/1058), Qurṭubī (671/1273), Bayḍāwī (685/1292), and Sayyid Quṭb (1386/1966); Shias, such as Qummī (339/950), Ṭūsī (460/1068), Ṭabresī (548/1154), and Ṭabāṭabāʾī (1402/1981); Muʿtazilīs, such as ʿAbd al-Jabbār Ibn Aḥmad (415/1024) and Zamakhsharī (538/1143); and Sufis, such as Qushayrī (465/1072) and Najm al-Dīn Kubrā (736/1335).

Even the small minority of Muslim scholars who argue that Jesus died on earth, rather than in heaven after being raised, such as Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusī (456/1064),[4] confirm that he was not crucified. Prominent twentieth-century scholars who shared this increasingly popular view include Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1905), his student Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍa (1935), Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī (1945), Muḥammad Shaltūt (1963), Muḥammad Ibn ʿĀshūr (1973), Muḥammad Abū Zahra (1974), and Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1996).[5] Muslim exegetes have unanimously understood the Qur’an as rejecting the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The overconfident and wholesale dismissive suggestion that the standard reading of 4.157 is a misunderstanding that countless Muslims have consistently failed to correct for fourteen centuries because of their preconceptions[6] is too unconvincing to be taken seriously. The obvious answer to the challenge of the Muslim consensus would be to try to show that some early scholars read the Qur’an as meaning that Jesus was crucified. The main work that has championed this argument is a 2010 book by Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an, which is based on a two-part paper by the same author published three decades earlier. Lawson’s main thesis is that “tafsīr, not the Qur’an, denies the crucifixion”.[7] Works that advocate the alternative interpretation of 4.157 often call on Lawson’s book for support and evidence.[8] Lawson’s claim has become popular even among general Christians in their polemics with Muslims.

There are several major problems with the claim against the unanimity of Muslim exegetes. First, there are only a handful of scholars with works that accept Jesus’ crucifixion, and none of them is an authority on Qur’anic exegesis. Second, this tiny minority belonged to the Shia branch of Ismāʿīlism. As acknowledged by Lawson, these Ismāʿīlī authors used the crucifixion for doctrinal purposes, as “a way of propagating their own typologically iterative view of salvation and eschatology”.[9] In fact, the earliest Shia complete exegesis, which is Qummī’s, adopts the unanimous view that Jesus was not crucified.[10] Third, the earliest of these Ismāʿīlī works dates as late as around three centuries after the Prophet Muḥammad. Fourth, none of these works is exegetical or even claims to be so. They serve certain doctrinal functions. We will see these problems as we briefly review these works.

In the earliest such works, Aʿlām Al-Nubuwwa, Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī (322/933) referred to the claim of unnamed scholars that Jesus died in the body but was alive in the spirit, offering a docetic reconciliatory explanation.[11] This book is not exegetical and does not engage with the Qur’anic text in any depth. It is a polemical work in which the author refuted various atheistic claims by the famous philosopher and physician Abū Bakr Ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī, whom he met and debated many times. Abū Bakr rejected the veracity of religions because of their differences, including their disagreement on Jesus’ crucifixion. Abū Ḥātim’s focus on winning the argument against his rival led him to claim that the Qur’an can be read to accommodate the crucifixion of Jesus. Significantly, in another work, Kitāb Al-Iṣlāḥ, which, unlike the previous book, is an interpretation of Qur’anic verses, Abū Ḥātim denied the crucifixion of Jesus.[12]

Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī (331/942), a contemporary of Abū Ḥātim, also upheld the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion in a book that elaborates on his esoteric philosophy. His only concern was to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus and the symbol of the cross according to his Ismāʿīlī understanding of the roles of the Imams and the Qāʾim/Mahdī. Neither the Qur’an nor any other Islamic tradition is quoted, let alone discussed, when Sijistānī presents his theory.[13]

Half a century after Abū Ḥātim and Sijistānī, another Ismāʿīlī author advocated the Gospels’ claim that Jesus was crucified. Jaʿfar Ibn Mansūr al-Yaman’s (380/990) work consists of biographies of prophets. Jesus’ life is partly based on the Gospel accounts and partly on what looks like other Christian traditions. This book does not concern itself with what the Qur’an says on the crucifixion, so no verse is quoted or discussed.[14]

Another relatively early instance of this view comes from the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ). This group, which was formed in the fourth century AH (tenth century CE), combined Greek philosophy with Islamic thought and is believed to have had close links to Ismāʿīlism. The Brethren of Purity considered all religions authentic. One of their fifty-two epistles talks about Jesus and reveals their view that his human body was crucified. Again, they adopt a docetic understanding of Jesus and his crucifixion. Like the Ismāʿīlī works we have reviewed, the writings of the Brethren of Purity are not interpretations of the Qur’an. They simply give an account of Jesus’ life with no reference to any Islamic tradition, Qur’anic or otherwise.[15]

These are the early sources behind the increasingly popular claim that early Muslim scholars were not unanimous that the Qur’an denies the crucifixion of Jesus.

I should mention the great exegete and scholar Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (606/1209). It has been claimed that his criticism of the substitute theory moves him considerably towards affirming the Christian belief that Jesus was crucified.[16] His description of the view of a Christian group he calls “Nestorians” has also been said to imply his willingness to accommodate the Christian concept of the suffering Messiah.[17] Making such claims about Fakhr al-Dīn seems to be an attempt to claim support from this highly regarded exegete. Yet these claims are completely wrong. When discussing a verse in his voluminous exegesis, Fakhr al-Dīn usually mentions all known interpretations, often with arguments for and against them. Some modern scholars seem to misunderstand his presentation of a particular view as an endorsement. This is one quote, from Fakhr al-Dīn’s opening commentary on 4.159, that confirms his understanding that the Qur’an denies Jesus’ crucifixion:

The Almighty mentioned the scandals and bad deeds of the Jews, explained that they intended to kill Jesus peace be upon him, and clarified that they did not achieve that goal and that Jesus obtained the highest statuses and finest ranks.

A small number of modern Muslim scholars have accepted that Jesus was crucified. For instance, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Sayyid Ahmad Khan suggested that Jesus was crucified but did not die on the cross. He took the Qur’an’s denial that Jesus was crucified to mean that it did not lead to his death.[18]

Like scholars of other scriptures, Muslim exegetes are not particularly renowned for easily agreeing when interpreting their sacred text. This makes the unanimity of their interpretation of 4.157 even more significant. In fact, their consensus on the meaning of “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him” starts to disappear as early as the explanatory passage that immediately follows it, “but it was made to appear so to them”. The unanimity is completely broken down by the following and related verse, 4.158.

Muslim scholars have been unanimous in rejecting the crucifixion of Jesus despite their complete familiarity with the contradictory Christian view. They were well aware that written and oral Christian tradition uncompromisingly confirmed the crucifixion of Jesus. They also incorporated Christian, and for that matter Jewish, tradition into their exegeses. It is significant, therefore, that they never borrowed its most fundamental claim that Jesus was put to death on the cross.

Rejecting the claim that Jesus was not crucified is one thing; denying that the Qur’an denies Jesus’ crucifixion is completely another. The latter can only be done at the cost of discarding how the Arabic of 4.157 has always worked and been understood. If a motive is presumed to inspire a particular understanding of 4.157, as is often done, the natural and commonsensical interpretation of this verse that it denies Jesus’ crucifixion certainly is not one that hides a motive.

References

[1] Oddbjørn Leirvik, “Jesus in Modern Muslim Thought: From Anti-colonial Polemics to Post-colonial Dialogue?,” in Jesus beyond Nationalism: Constructing the Historical Jesus in a Period of Cultural Complexity, ed. Halvor Moxnes, Ward Blanton, and James G. Crossley (New York: Routledge, 2014), 141; Ian Mevorach, “Qur’an, Crucifixion, and Talmud: A New Reading of Q 4:157-58,” Journal of Religion & Society 19 (2017): 12.

[2] Mahmoud Ayoub, A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue by Mahmoud Ayoub, ed. Irfan A. Omar (New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 176; Suleiman A. Mourad, “Does the Qur’an Deny or Assert Jesus’s Crucifixion and Death?,” in New Perspectives on the Qur’an: The Qur’an in its Historical Context 2, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), 356; G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1995), 119; Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in History of Muslim Thought (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 41.

[3] Louay Fatoohi, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Faithful History or Historical Faith? (Birmingham: Safis Publishing, 2021), 222-28.

[4] ʿAlī Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusī Al-Muḥallā bi Al-ʾᾹthār, ed. ʿAbd al-Ghaffār al-Bandārī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2003), 43.

[5] Aḥmad Shalabī, Al-Masīḥīyya (Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahḍa al-Miṣriyya, 1988), 64-67.

[6] Suleiman A. Mourad, “The Death of Jesus in Islam: Reality, Assumptions, and Implications,” in Engaging the Passion: Perspectives on the Death of Jesus, ed. Oliver Larry Yarbrough (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 380.

[7] Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an, 19.

[8] E.g. Gabriel Said Reynolds, “The Muslim Jesus: Dead or alive?,” Bulletin of SOAS 72, no. 2 (2009): 252.

[9] Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an, 94-95.

[10] Qummī does not mention this in his commentary on 4.157 because he had already done that in his interpertation of 3.55.

[11] Abū Ḥātim Al-Rāzī, “Aʿlām Al-Nubuwwa,” ed. Salah Al-Sawy and Gholam-Reza Aavani (Iran: Muʾassasat Bazuhshi, 2002), 168-70.

[12] Abū Ḥātim Al-Rāzī, “Kitāb Al-Iṣlāḥ,” ed. Ḥasan Mīnūchahar and Mahdī Muḥaqqaq (Tehran: Muʾassasat Muṭālaʿāt, 2004), 243-46.

[13] Abū Yaʿqūb Al-Sijistānī, “Kitāb Al-Yanābīʿ,” ed. Muṣṭafā Ghālib (Beirut: Al-Maktab al-Tijārī li al-Ṭibāʿa wa al-Nashr wa al-Tawzīʿ, 1965), 146-49.

[14] Jaʿfar  Ibn Mansūr al-Yaman, “Asrār Al-Nuṭaqāʾ,” ed. Muṣṭāfā Ghālib (Beirut: Dār al-Andalus, 1984), 223-25.

[15] Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, “Rasāʾil Ikhwān Al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khillān Al-Wafāʾ,” ed. Buṭrus Al-Bustānī (Qom: Markaz Al-Nashr, 1985), 28-32.

[16] Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an, 107.

[17] Ayoub, A Muslim View of Christianity, 167.

[18] J. M. S. Baljon, The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (Lahore: Orientalia Publishers, 1958), 107-08.

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