The Crucifixion in Shi‘a Isma‘ili Islam
“They killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them.”
(Holy Qur’an 4:157)
As observed by millions of Christians around the world, Good Friday marks the day when Jesus Christ was crucified. For Christians, this event is the climax of sacred history: the death of Christ on the Cross is believed to have redeemed and cleansed the sin of humanity. Indeed, the efficacy of the entire Christian doctrine – adhered to by the largest number of people in the world – depends upon the event of the Crucifixion.
Interestingly, the faith of Islam, the second largest religion in the world after Christianity, seems to offer a completely different understanding of this event – it appears to deny the Crucifixion altogether. The only verse of the Holy Qur’an which speaks of the Crucifixion is 4:157 quoted above.
Over the history of Islam, most Muslim commentators have come to deny that Jesus was
ever crucified at all, with many holding that a substitute was crucified in his place. But
does this view accurately reflect the Qur’anic position? It is necessary to examine the full
context of the above verse – a verse which is too often referred to only in isolation. The
group of verses which immediately precede the verse in question discuss the misdeeds of
the People of the Book (ahl al-kitab):
In that they broke their covenant; that they rejected the signs of God. That they slew the Messengers in defiance of right; that they said, "Our hearts are the wrappings (which preserve God’s Word; We need no more)";- Nay, God hath set the seal on their hearts for their blasphemy, and little is it they believe;- That they rejected Faith; that they uttered against Mary a grave false charge; That they said (in boast), “We killed the Messiah, Jesus the Son of Mary, the Messenger of God.”;- 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 knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:- Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.
(Holy Quran 4:155-157)
The Qur’anic denial of the crucifixion must be understood in its proper context: the Qur’an is only denying that the People of the Book crucified Jesus – and this appears to be in response to their boasting to have done so. A neutral reader may easily conclude that the Qur’an intends to say that the death of Jesus was ultimately due to God’s will and not the desires of those who may have actually killed him. One then wonders: how did the view that Jesus was not crucified take root in the Islamic world?
Interestingly, the earliest textual evidence stating that Muslims deny the historical event of the crucifixion is not actually Muslim at all - it comes from the writings of the Christian Church Father, St. John of Damascus.
He made the statement to his Christian flock in the eight century, asserting that the Qur’an denied Christ’s crucifixion for his own polemical purposes of refuting the early success of Islam. While it is true that most Qur’anic commentators came to deny the crucifixion of Jesus, this view is not actually rooted in the Qur’anic verses but comes from tafsir which rely on other material from extra-biblical Judeo-Christian sources. But the denial of the historical crucifixion was only one view among others on the subject to emerge from the Islamic world. There have been alternate interpretations of the same Qur’anic verses which collectively offer a range of perspectives on the crucifixion – from total denial to actually asserting that the crucifixion did take place historically. Todd Lawson explains that:
John of Damascus’s interpretation of the Qur’anic account is, in fact, unjustifiable. The Qur’an
itself only asserts that the Jews did not crucify Jesus. This is obviously different from saying that Jesus was not crucified. The point is that both John of Damascus and many Qur’an exegetes (Arabic mufassirūn), though not the Qur’an, deny the crucifixion. The Qur’anic exegesis of verse 4:157 is by no means uniform; the interpretations range from an outright denial of the crucifixion of Jesus to a simple affirmation of the historicity of the event.
The false presumption that the Qur’an flatly denies the crucifixion of Christ has served as a great obstacle and roadblock in Christian-Muslim dialogue. If all Muslims and the Qur’an unanimously denied the crucifixion then this would indicate a point of great divergence between Christianity and Islam. For this reason, many Christians and Westerners easily dismiss the Qur’an as ‘fiction’ because they believe it denies a clear historical event. After all, how could a religious text be so misinformed about a fact of history? But, if the Qur’an does not actually deny the Crucifixion, then this changes the mode of interfaith dialogue completely.