“Qur’an and Crucifixion
Most intriguing is the one verse in the Qur’an which deals with the crucifixion of Jesus. The Jews are being condemned in Sura 4:157 because
they uttered against Mary a grave false charge (and) that they said “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. (Sura 4:157)
The “grave charge” directed against Mary is obviously the accusation that she had been unchaste and that her pregnancy was the result. The remainder of the verse is both intriguing and perplexing: intriguing because the actual meaning of the passage is not clear; and perplexing because there appears to be one certainty at least about Jesus, that he was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”45
The most obvious meaning is that given by the majority of Muslim scholars: Jesus was not crucified. This then gives rise to a further problem: then who was crucified? The Qur’an offers no answer to the question, simply asserting that it seemed to those responsible for the crucifixion that they had crucified Jesus. The sixteenth-century Gospel of Barnabas, written in Italian by Father Moreno, a Christian turned Muslim,46 provides a detailed explanation: it was Judas who was crucified, because God snatched Jesus away to the third heaven and made Judas resemble Jesus in appearance:
When the soldiers with Judas drew near to the place where Jesus was, Jesus heard the approach of many people, wherefore in fear he withdrew into the house. And the eleven were sleeping. Then God, seeing the danger of his servant commanded Gabriel, Michael, Rafael and Uriel, his ministers, to take Jesus out of the world.
The holy angels came and took Jesus out by the window that looketh toward the south. They bare him and placed him in the third heaven in the company of angels, blessing God for evermore.
Judas entered impetuously before all into the chamber whence Jesus had been taken up. And the disciples were sleeping. Whereupon the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus. And he, having awakened us, was seeking where the master was. Whereupon we marvelled, and answered: “Thou, Lord, art our master; hast thou now forgotten us?”
And he, smiling, said: “Now are ye foolish, that know not me to be Judas Iscariot!”
And as he was saying this the soldiery entered, and laid their hands upon Judas, because he was in every way like to Jesus.…
The soldiers took Judas and bound him, not without derision. For he truthfully denied that he was Jesus.47
Certainly many Muslims find it hard to believe that a prophet like Jesus could be crucified. Muhammad himself was well aware of the fact that prophets could be rejected and even killed, but crucifixion was a death cursed in the Old Testament.48 How could a prophet die an accursed death?
Muhammad’s rejection of the crucifixion of Jesus may possibly be traced back to the Christian philosopher Basilides,49 who seems to have taught that Jesus was not crucified but someone else took his place. Perhaps this happened in the scuffle and confusion of the arrest, or perhaps at the cross things became confused and Simon of Cyrene was crucified instead of Jesus.
Since it is widely accepted on the basis of the historical record that Jesus was in fact crucified, it has been suggested that the text could be understood as meaning “they,” the Jews, did not crucify him. E. E. Elder made this suggestion, and this certainly has the advantage of leaving the question of just who crucified Jesus open. However, the Arabic text does not emphasize the pronoun “they” as might have been expected if that was the intended meaning; this interpretation is just, but only just, barely possible.50
A third option is that taught by the Ahmadis. They came into existence around the beginning of the twentieth century, led by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1839–1908), who was born in the Punjab. He claimed to have received revelations from Allah when he was forty years old. He asserted that Jesus was crucified but did not die on the cross. According to the Ahmadis, Jesus was taken down from the cross alive and was resuscitated in the tomb through the efforts of Nicodemus, who in this account becomes a skilled doctor:
Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, an expert physician, now came and took charge of the body of Jesus, brought it down from the cross, wrapped him in a linen cloth, which was impregnated with spices, and laid him in a sepulchre.… There can be no doubt that Joseph and Nicodemus must have continued to minister unto Jesus in the strong hope of reviving him.51
Jesus is said to have completely recovered and subsequently to have gone eastward in search of the lost ten tribes, eventually dying and being buried in Kashmir.52
Seyyed Hossein Nasr recognizes the importance of the Qur’an’s denial of the crucifixion: “The Qur’an does not accept that Jesus was crucified, but states that he was taken directly to heaven. This is the one irreducible ‘fact’ separating Christianity from Islam, a fact which is in reality placed there providentially to prevent a mingling of the two religions.”53 Similarly, but polemically, the Ahmadi writer Muhammad Zafrullah Khan claims: “Once it is established that Jesus did not die on the cross, there was no accursed death, no bearing of the sins of mankind, no resurrection, no ascension and no atonement. The entire structure of church theology is thereby demolished.”54
In the twenty-first century the debates between Muslims and non-Muslims focus on the Jewish people and the State of Israel, on worldwide Christianity in its various manifestations, and on the economic and political system generally designated capitalism. In the thinking of many Muslims the latter two are in good measure conflated.
Nasr (rightly) sees the inescapable logic of the incompatibility of the two religions, Islam and Christianity. Meanwhile, Zafrullah Khan sees beyond that to the “demolishing” of the religious element of the principal alternative to Islam.”
45 As Geoffrey Parrinder comments, “No serious historian doubts that Jesus was a historical figure and that he was crucified, whatever he may think of the faith in the resurrection” (Jesus in the Qur’an [London: Sheldon, 1965], 116).
46 See David Sox, The Gospel of Barnabas (London: Allen and Unwin, 1984). This is a thorough examination of the many questions raised by the so-called Gospel of Barnabas and ought to have ended the claims by Muslims, and even by Muslim scholars, that this Gospel is the one and only first-century Gospel written by a disciple of Jesus; see Muhammad ur-Rahim, Jesus: A Prophet of Islam, 2d ed. (London: MWH Publishers, 1979), 39. See also the discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas in Moucarry, Faith to Faith, 247–51. For a spirited, if forlorn, defense of the authenticity of the Gospel of Barnabas, see Yusseff, Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Barnabas, and the New Testament.
47 Aisha Bawany Wakf, ed., The Gospel of Barnabas (Karachi: Ashram Publications, 1976). This is a new edition of the translation by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg (London: Oxford University Press, 1907); see also F. P. Cotterell, “The Gospel of Barnabas,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977): 43–17.
48 Deut. 21:23.
49 Gnosticism certainly flourished in neighboring Egypt: Hans Lietzmann, “Egypt,” chap. 13 in The Founding of the Church Universal, 3d ed. (London: Lutterworth, 1953). Basilides claimed the authority of the apostle Peter for his system.
50 See Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur’an, 120.
51 Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, Deliverance from the Cross (Southfields: London Mosque, 1978),33.
52 See Khan, Deliverance from the Cross; and Kenneth Cragg, Islamic Surveys 3: Counsels in Contemporary Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), chap. 10.
53 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Life and Thought (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981), 209.
54 Khan, Deliverance from the Cross, 89.
Riddell, P. G., & Cotterell, P. (2003). Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future (pp. 77–80). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.