It is commonly known,
that the question whether Jesus was crucified and what significance the
crucifixion has, belongs to the major points of discussion between Islam
and Christianity. Whereas for Christianity a rejection of the
crucifixion and salvation touches the centre of the Christian faith, in
the Qur'ân the event plays only a minor role. Muslim theology
nevertheless has made extensive comments on the crucifixion.
The Crucifixion in the Qur'ân
The Qur'ân deals with
the crucifixion of Jesus only in a single verse. Because of its
ambiguousness this verse is the starting-point of all discussion about
the crucifixion. Sura 4,157-158 reads:
"... and they (the Jews) have said, 'Verily
we have slain Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of God'. But
they slew him not, neither crucified him, but it seemed to them as if
(or: he seemed to them to be crucified).
They did not kill him with certainty.
No, God took him up
It is interesting to
note that the Qur'ân does not even mention or hint at the meaning
of the crucifixion of Jesus as the salvation of His people. It is very
likely that Muhammad, who came into contact with heretical monophysites
and other Christian sects of his time, had never heard a true, biblical
representation and explanation of the meaning of the crucifixion, which
is therefore not to be found in the Qur'ân.
From the Arabic terms used in this verse
('subbiha lahum'; 'mâ qatalûhu yaqînan'), it is obvious, that it is
quite difficult to prefer a certain translation, since translation means
at the same time interpretation. From the wording alone, one can either
think, that the Qur'ân defends the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ
or that it rejects both because of the Arabic expression 'subbiha lahum'
(which means, "it" or "he" seemed to them as if" or "he was made similar
for them"). Several different interpretations have been given by Muslim
1. Nobody was crucified:
Then Sure 4,157-158 means: it remains uncertain, what happened at the
time of the crucifixion. The Jews aimed at crucifying Jesus, but "it
seemed to them only as if" the crucifixion of Jesus had taken place. The
Jews thought that they had crucified Jesus, but because of the darkness
and the earthquake, which the Bible also reports, he escaped his
execution and was in time raised to heaven by God. Only a minority of
Muslim theologians advocate this opinion, that nobody was crucified.
2. Jesus was crucified, but
because of God's decree: With the expression 'subbiha
lahum' could also be emphasized, that Jesus was crucified, but not
because the Jews intended to do so, but because of God's own decree. The
emphasis then lies on the first word "they slew him not" (but
God caused his death and the Romans did the job). This opinion is
today more an outsider's position in Muslim theology.
3. Another person was crucified
instead of Jesus: A further interpretation of
the expression 'subbiha lahum' could be: It seemed to them as if Jesus
was crucified. Then the verse would mean that Jesus was not crucified
himself, but someone else; Jesus was either unintentionally mistaken for
another person (this is today the opinion of the well-known Muhammad
Taufîq Sidqî or of the great Si'îte theologian Muhammad Husain
Tabâtabâ'î) or God transformed intentionally another person into the
image of Jesus, so that he looked similar to Jesus and was crucified in
Jesus was risen to heaven alive, but everybody thought, that Jesus was
crucified himself (this opinion is for example defended in the classical
Qur'ân commentary of at-Tabarî). This interpretation of Sura 4,157-158
is today in the Muslim world the most frequent one. But there are also
many different opinions when it comes to the question, who was crucified
in Jesus' place?
The so-called Gospel of Barnabas, a
forgery from the late Middle Ages, claims to be the only true Gospel of
Jesus Christ, but contains many Muslim doctrines which attack the Bible.
This gospel has become very famous in the Muslim World especially since
its translation into Arabic in the 20th century. It argues that having
been made so similar to Jesus that the Messiah's own family and
disciples considered him to be Jesus, Judas was crucified against his
will in Jesus' place. Then Judas was led to the Mount of Calvary.
Was Jesus Himself Crucified or Another
If Jesus was not
crucified himself, then the question arises, who was taken in his place.
Muslim theologians have given many different answers to this question,
since the Qur'ân does not give any hint. Some classical Qur'ân
commentators, as Zamah>>arî or Baidâwî, hold the opinion that one of
Jesus' disciples, for example Peter, offered himself as 'substitute' for
his master, because Jesus had promised him paradise as reward. Others
think, that Judas was chosen in order to pay for his betrayal. Various
other ideas exist among Muslim theologians concerning this substitute:
it could have been an unknown person, a Jew or someone being there
accidentally, Simon from Cyrene, who carried the cross, Josua, the Jew
Titanus, one of Jesus' guardians, someone who was created by God in this
very moment, Satan (!), Jesus Barabbas, a Jewish Rabbi, one of the Roman
soldiers or a criminal, who was involved in the matter by God.
Although there are famous commentators
like Zamahsarî, who reject the 'substitution theory', in modern times
Muslim exegetes tend to prefer it. The substitution theory means, that
someone has been crucified in Jesus' place, but everybody thought him to
be Jesus, because God made this person to look similar to him, so that
the eye witnesses had no doubt that Jesus himself was crucified. Most of
the commentators hold the opinion, that one of Jesus' disciples (some
give a name, others not) was the victim, while Jesus was still alive and
taken to heaven, with his soul or with soul and body.
Consequently, Muslim Qur'ân commentators
only agree concerning Sura 4,157-158, that Jesus could bring no
salvation to mankind, if he was crucified at all.
What Happened to Jesus?
expression about Jesus' crucifixion is followed by the Arabic term 'mâ
qatalûhu yaqînan' ('they did not kill him with certainty'). Again we
find several ways of understanding this affirmation among Muslim
1. Jesus was crucified, but did
not die: The contents of the expression could
be, that the Jews did not really kill Jesus, who was crucified. Jesus
did not die on the cross and was taken down alive. Consequently, the
word 'crucify' in Sura 4,157-158 does not mean automatically 'to die on
the cross'. Then there are different possibilities about what had
happened to Jesus.
2. Jesus was not crucified and
therefore not killed: Then the first sentence
of the verse "they slew him not nor crucified him" means in the light of
the second part: "they did not kill him with certainty": they were
certain of not having killed him.
3. It was not clear, whether
Jesus was killed: "they did not kill him with
certainty" means in this case, that nobody could be sure whether Jesus
was killed or not. Then the question remains whether Jesus was crucified
or taken up to heaven.
Why Should God Allow Jesus Being
As we have seen, it is
not clear from the Qur'ân text itself, what it really wants to say
concerning the crucifixion. The only thing which is quite obvious, is,
that the Qur'ân does not explicitly teach or explain the crucifixion and
its consequences for mankind. Most of the Muslim theologians understood
Sura 4,157-158 as a clear rejection of the crucifixion. But why do they
fight the crucifixion so vigorously? Islamic dogmatists teach:
1. Crucifixion means defeat:
If Jesus had really died on the cross, it would have meant the failure
of his whole mission:
His disciples had forsaken him, Judas had betrayed him, Peter had
disowned him and Jesus was dying without the visible success of
thousands being converted or of the establishment of an empire like the
Islamic one, which came into being already in the 7th century at the end
of Muhammad's lifetime. Muhammad's political and religious success is
considered as a real proof for his prophethood by Muslim theologians.
2. Crucifixion means disgrace:
Such a disgrace as it would be to be nailed on the cross like a criminal
would have been a death unworthy of a honored prophet. God would be
unjust, if Jesus had suffered like a wicked transgressor, and God would
not have been on Jesus' side, since he did not rescue him in such a
desperate plight. Western Orientalists thought, that the Qur'ân perhaps
aimed at vindicating Jesus with the verse in Sura 4,
since the end of the verse reads as if Jesus was taken away from his
persecutors: "God took him up to himself". Hermann Stieglecker
"The idea of the Christians, that God could
have humiliated himself to such a degree, that his enemies, the
vulgarest mob, could mock, deride and illtreat him like an idiot or a
fool and that he eventually suffered the most shameful and painful death
like a criminal between two real criminals, that is an outrageous
3. Also the
Bible does not really support the crucifixion:
Muslim theologians took some of their arguments against the crucifixion
out of the Bible itself and pointed at the fact, that also the Old
Testament in Deut 21:23 teaches that the one who is hung on a tree is
under God's curse. Consequently, Jesus could not have died on the cross,
since he was a honored prophet, and not a cursed criminal. Also the
Gospels are used by Muslim theologians to show that Jesus' words on the
cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" prove, that Jesus was
crucified against his will (and not, like the Christians say,
voluntarily). Additional to that, Jesus' cried in pain, and was
therefore weaker than the two criminals who had not cried. How can he be
the Son of God?
Another argument for the Muslim opinion,
that Jesus was rescued before he could be crucified, is taken out of
Hebrews 5:7, a verse Christians believe to be dealing with resurrection:
"During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and
petitions, with loud cries and tears to the one who could have saved him
from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (God
did not deliver him from crucifixion). In addition, the narratives of
the gospels are so different and contradict each other so much that
nobody can guarantee for the truth of the reports. One of the spiritual
leaders of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood (al-ihwân al-muslimûn),
Sayyid Qutb, argues that none of the narratives of the gospel are
recorded by eye witnesses, and therefore they are not reliable.
4. The crucifixion and the
representative salvation is intellectual nonsense:
Again and again, Muslim apologists pointed out: the death of a mortal
man (since for Muslim theology Jesus is not God, but only a human being)
cannot bring salvation or anything else for another human being. The
fact that Jesus did not deserve his death, but suffered innocently, adds
to this intellectual nonsense. The idea that Jesus has carried and taken
away all sins of mankind makes it even more untrustworthy. It is not
compatible with human intelligence.
(This is of course beyond logic: Muslim theologians have argued that
Christian doctrines are not compatible with human intellect. But since
in their eyes, only the doctrines of Islam are reasonable themselves,
everything beside must be unreasonable and absurd).
5. The idea of crucifixion has
its origin in heathen religions: Famous Muslim
apologists like the well-known jurist Muhammad Muhammad Abû Zahra
(1898-1974) who was teaching world religions at the traditional Egyptian
centre of learning, the al-Azhar university in Cairo, or the historian
Ahmad Salabî, who has done his doctorate of history in Cambridge, have
"pointed out" that Christian dogmas like the trinity, sonship of Jesus
or the Christian idea of salvation were not originally part of
Christianity, but have been introduced by the apostle Paul, the one who
corrupted Christianity after the death of Jesus. Such ideas, they argue,
originated from the Roman-heathen environment of early Christianity and
were taken into it like certain elements from Neo-Platonism and Judaism.
Ahmad Salabî and the most influential reform theologian of the beginning
of the 20th century, Muhammad Rasîd Ridâ (1865-1935), hold that the idea
of salvation through bloodshed originated in the heathen religions of
Muhammad Asad, who was converted from Judaism to Islam after 1920,
thinks the doctrine of forgiveness through the death of Jesus on the
cross, may came from the Mithras cult. In any case, it was introduced
into Christianity after Jesus' death.
Higher Criticism Supports Muslim
It became already
evident that Muslim apologists make use of the Bible in order to seek
arguments against the crucifixion. Even more arguments are taken out of
the theological literature of higher criticism of Europe, mostly from
the 18th and 19th century. There is for example the theory that Paul
falsified the original Christian teaching. In Europe (and especially
Germany), many professors of theology at the universities collected
bulks of material in order to prove that the Bible of the Old and New
Testament is unreliable and especially historically untrustworthy.
Muslim apologists have translated many of these theological books and
used the arguments of (mostly) German professors, and so simply repeated
the opinions of 'specialists', i.e., Christian theologians. Muslim
theologians collected from the middle of the 19th century onwards whole
encyclopedias of "contradictions, errors and mistakes" of the Old and
New Testaments, and these works have been reprinted until today and used
for attacks against Christian missionaries. Christian missionaries, who
arrived in the Muslim world at the beginning of the 19th century, were
not attacked with these differentiated arguments, but after the middle
of the 19th century, Muslims made use of the arguments of Strauss,
Michaelis, Eichhorn and other theologians of that time against the
When dealing with Jesus' crucifixion,
Muslim theologians also go back to higher criticism of European
theologians, who pointed out, that the biblical narratives of the
crucifixion themselves report that a chaos and a great confusion emerged
because of the darkness and the earthquake, so that nobody knew, what
happened to Jesus. The narratives of the different gospels are
considered to contradict each other and are therefore untrustworthy. One
Muslim opinion, that Jesus survived his crucifixion, also gets its
support from the so-called rationalism, the last epoch of enlightenment
theology of the 18th and 19th century.
Christian Rationalistic Theologians Deny
One can see, that the
older Qur'ân commentators are relatively cautious in deciding what
happened to Jesus. Most theologians restrict themselves to emphasizing
one part of the crucifixion verse: "They slew him not neither crucified
him", but do not explain specifically what happened to Jesus. In modern
Qur'ân commentaries this attitude has changed: The commentators explain
more precisely what is meant by Sura 4,157-158. Most of them prefer the
'substitution theory' that another person has died in Jesus' place.
Especially after the Arabic translation of the Gospel of Barnabas 1908,
most Muslims accept from this so-called Gospel, that Judas has been
crucified in Jesus' place. Also the theory that Jesus was crucified but
survived crucifixion, did perhaps not emerge in Islam itself, but was
possibly imported from Europe; since rationalistic theologians speak of
a deathlike rigidity into which Jesus fell after crucifixion. He was
revived afterwards because of the thunderstorm and the earthquake, and
then invented the myth of his resurrection from the dead.
A few examples from rationalistic
theology: Karl Heinrich Georg Venturini (1768-1849), a forerunner of
rationalism, hints in his influential novel about the life of Jesus with
the title Natürliche Geschichte des großen Propheten von Nazareth
(Natural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth) at the possibility of
a suspended animation. Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741-1792) formulates
later in his work Ausführungen des Plans und Zweks (sic) Jesu
(Performance of the Plan and Purpose of Jesus):
"... this is my opinion about the last part
of the history of Jesus. Jesus had been put to death: he had suffered
all tortures of an evildoer, all pains of death, but he also survived
them - he came from death to life - and he came out of the grave ... on
the third day after his execution - as somebody wholly restored and has
shown himself to his disciples as somebody being revived ...".
These remarks of K. F.
Bahrdt have been expanded by Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus
(1761-1851) in his work Das Leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen
Geschichte des Urchristentums (The Life of Jesus as Basis of a Pure
History of Early Christianity):
Paulus does not speak of a swoon, but he calls the state of Jesus
'dwindling of consciousness', 'rigidity' and 'being dazed'. In this
state Jesus was taken down from the cross. Paulus held that there was
nothing unnatural concerning Jesus' life and death and was convinced
that Jesus only did not move when taken down from the cross, but was not
Many well-known German theologians like
Daniel Ernst Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) took over this idea
that Jesus being crucified does not necessarily mean that Jesus had died
on the cross. It is possible that Muslim theologians also took up this
theory out of the works of German theologians and included it in their
Did Jesus Survive Crucifixion?
The theory that Jesus
survived his crucifixion, which was held by German rationalistic
theologians, was especially defended by the so-called Islamic Ahmadîya
movement, which is today considered as heretic, since the founder of the
movement at the beginning of the 20th century claimed to be a further
prophet, while Muslim theology holds, that Muhammad had been the last
prophet in human history ("the seal of the prophets"). In numerous books
and articles, the Ahmadîya movement proclaims the theory that Jesus was
nailed to the cross, but only fainted, was taken from the cross while
still alive and was revived in the cool grave with the help of special
anointments. Then he wandered through Afghanistan to Kashmir in search
of the 'ten lost tribes of Israel'. He was married in Kashmir, died a
natural death at the age of 120 years and was buried in Srinagar,
Kashmir. At this place, people visit the grave of a certain Yuz Asaf as
Jesus' grave until today.
Today, the theory that Jesus had survived crucifixion again experiences
a renaissance on the German book market.
The Qur'ân treats in
Sura 4,157-158 the crucifixion of Jesus in a single verse. From the
wording itself, it does not become clear, whether the verse generally
denies the crucifixion of Jesus or wants to emphasize another aspect of
it. Muslim theology categorically denies the crucifixion, but even more
the Christian idea of salvation through crucifixion. Numerous arguments
against it are taken out of the theological works of higher criticism of
European theologians. There are different answers heard from Muslim
theologians to the question, what happened to Jesus after the
crucifixion? The theory of a substitute, perhaps Judas, who might have
died in Jesus' place, is today a very well accepted theory. The Ahmadîya
movement holds like German rationalistic theologians of the 18th and
19th century, that Jesus was crucified, but survived crucifixion,
migrated to India and eventually died a natural death.
 In Arabic: 'subbiha
 In Arabic: 'mâ qatalûhu yaqînan'
 In Arabic: 'bal rafa'ahû allâh ilaihî'
 My own translation.
 See the details in Jürgen Kuberski,
Mohammed und das Christentum, Bonn, 1987.
 Louis Massignon has argued that this
theory has a Si'îte origin: Louis Massignon, "Le Christ dans les
Evangiles selon Ghazali." In: Revue des Études Islamique 6/1932.
p. 523-536; p. 535.
 A detailed study of the history and
effectiveness of the gospel is part of my doctoral thesis: Christine
Schirrmacher. Mit den Waffen des Gegners. Christlich-Muslimische
Kontroversen im 19. Jahrhundert, dargestellt am Beispiel der
Auseinandersetzung um Karl Gottlieb Pfanders 'mîzân al-haqq' und
Rahmatullâh ibn Khalîl al-'Uthmânî al-Kairânawîs 'izhâr al-haqq' und der
Diskussion über das Barnabasevangelium. Berlin, 1992, p. 241ff.
 This is for example emphasized by the
Muslim author Ahmad Shafaat, The Gospel according to Islam, New
York, 1979. p. 90.
 So for example the opinion of James
Robson, "Muhammadan Teaching about Jesus." In: The Muslim World
29/1939, p. 37-54.
 Hermann Stieglecker, Die
Glaubenslehren des Islam, Paderborn, 2nd ed. 1983 (first ed. 1962),
 This is argued by the reform
theologian Muhammad Rasîd Ridâ in his Qur'ân commentary composed out of
material of Muhammad 'Abduh and himself: tafsîr al-qur'ân al-hakîm,
Cairo, 1911, Vol. 6. p. 26-27.
 Such arguments are to be found at
Muhammad Muhammad Abû Zahra, muhâdarât fî-nasrânîya, Cairo,
1966/3, p. 11.
 Ahmad Salabî, muqâranat al-adyân,
Vol. II. al-masîhîya, Cairo, 1965/2. p. 123.
 Rasîd Ridâ, tafsîr, op. cit.,
 Muhammad Asad (Ed.), The Message
of the Qur'ân, Gibraltar, 1980, p. 134.
 Karl Heinrich Georg Venturini,
Natürliche Geschichte des Großen Propheten von Nazareth, 4 Parts,
 Karl Friedrich Bahrdt,
Ausführungen des Plans und Zweks (sic) Jesu, Berlin,
 Ibid. Vol. 10/1786, p. 187.
 Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus,
Das Leben Jesu als Grundlage einer reinen Geschichte des Urchristentums,
Heidelberg, 1828, p. 242-244+256-257.
 This theory is for example defended
in the book by Mîrzâ Ghulâm Ahmad, Jesus in India, being an Account
of Jesus' escape from the cross and of his journey to India, Oxford,