The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in the Qur’an
In preparation for the discussion, we were provided with excerpts from the chapter ‘Crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ’ in Abdullah Saeed, Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-first-century, a contextualist approach, London and New York: Routledge. pp. 129-147.
The context of the Qur’an is important. It would seem undeniable that the Qur’an has some literary connection with the Letter of Barnabas and with the Proto-evangelium of St James. It is well known that Muhammad also learned from Christian hearsay. This should not be a problem. The same fact applies to Genesis where the sacred author borrows from the myths of Mesopotamia such as Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish. The divine revelation consists not in the use of these extra-canonical texts but in their transformation. What is the revelatory aspect in the adaptation?
The same can be said about the use of Arabic words from pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, of which we now have many examples, which give the meaning of the Arabic words in those days. They do to have the same meaning as today, just as koine Greek and modern Greek give different nuances to the same words. We need to contextualize the txt of the Qur’an.
It was noted that variant readings of the Qur’anic texts have been discovered recently in Yemen. This being said, these variations are with regard to the vowels, which are not marked in the earliest versions. There are seven acknowledged early Qur’anic texts. The textual differences in them, however, are with regard to vowels not consonants.
Thus there is the text of the Qur’an, and the context of Damascus.
The text of the Qur’an
There is only one text in the Qur’an that clearly refers to the crucifixion. It reads:
“And because they [the Children of Israel] disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary, and said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about it are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they did not kill him, certainly. No! God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.”
There is nothing on this topic in the Hadith.
We discussed the meaning of the word ‘it’, in the phrase ‘though it was made to appear like that to them’. The word ‘it’ in Arabic grammar can refer either to Jesus or to the crucifixion. Does the phrase mean ‘it seemed that Jesus was crucified’ or ‘it seemed that there was a crucifixion’? In other words, was there actually a crucifixion but someone else was crucified in Jesus’ place; or was Jesus involved but there was no actual crucifixion. The first gained currency in later Muslim thought; the second has a docetic ring about it.
Then to whom did it seem? Is the ‘whom’ the Jews or the Christians? The Jews held that Jesus’ death was a proof that he was neither messiah nor prophet whereas the Qur’an applies both terms to him. The phrase is likely referring to the Jews especially since text speaks of the ‘terrible slander against Mary’ whom the Christians hold in high veneration. Therefore, to counter the Jewish claim, the statement is made that ‘it only seemed ….’. As a result, the Qur’an teaches, the Jews do not have any real basis for rejecting Jesus’ status as a prophet.
Again, in the context of the debates in Damascus, as we shall see below, the phrase ‘it seemed’ may apply to the Christians who were arguing that the crucifixion of Jesus was the reason for Christianity’s superiority over Islam. Since he was not in fact crucified, they have no basis for their claim of superiority.
We noted that there is no difficulty in Islam in saying that a prophet such as Jesus can be been killed for his prophetic role. This has happened before.
The Qur’an reads:
“O Jesus, indeed I will take you and raise you to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve and make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return, and I will judge between you concerning that in which you used to differ.”
Do Muslims understand the resurrection of Jesus as resuscitation, like the reanimation of Lazarus in Jn 11? Our group raised the question about the eastern monks whom Muhammad met; did they in fact hold a ‘Muslim’ view.
The text reads ‘raise you to Myself’. This is not said of any other prophet. Note also the phrasing in the Book of Revelation. “And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.” (Rev 12:5). Is there some link?
The phrase translated as ‘raise you to Myself ‘ should really be translated as ‘exaltation up to himself’. The question was raised about the meaning of ‘exaltation up to himself’, since nothing corporeal can be in heaven.
It was noted that this ‘raising up’ is not like Muhammad’s ‘night journey’.
The group noted that even in Christianity the resurrection of Jesus is not so much proof of his divinity as of his messiahship. “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36 ) Texts regarding Jesus divinity can be found in all four gospels, though most explicitly in the letters of St Paul and in Fourth Gospel.
The allegorical sense
There is another form or argument against the crucifixion. The Qur’an refers to Jesus as the ‘word of God’; but God’s word cannot be abrogated, cannot die. Therefore Jesus cannot die.
This in turn raised the whole question about the meaning of the term ‘word ‘in Islam. Does it have the same sense as logos in St John? There is an immense difference: for Muslims the word of God is the Qur’an, but for the Christians it is the person of Jesus. What happens to Jesus, the incarnate Word, is therefore of utmost significance. Muhammad is an example of Islam, he is not Islam. The Christians hold a fundamentally different view.
The context of Damascus
The debate in Damascus, in the years following the Muslim conquest, saw Christians and Muslims locked in vigorous debate. The Christians interpreted the crucifixion and resurrection in such a way as to prove that Christianity was superior to Islam, and that Christians had the true religion. To oppose such teaching, the Muslims of Damascus interpreted the Qur’anic text as a denial of the crucifixion and resurrection, for they too were saying that they had the true religion. The conclusion the Muslim scholars drew from this debate have dominated Muslim thinking ever since.
There was another argument also. Jesus’ life involved many miracles, starting with his birth; there was the story of the clay birds. The crucifixion is out of keeping with these. The argument against the crucifixion was an argument from ‘fittingness’.
The modern context
Abdullah Saeed makes the following important statement:
“In the modem context, there is a much stronger emphasis on mutual understanding between people of different faiths or religious traditions. …, major theologians and other leaders of both Islam and Christianity are often engaged in friendly discussions and debates, which occur in seminars, conferences, and symposia privately and publicly. A spirit of inquiry at the scale we find today did not exist in the pre-modem period, at least in relation to interreligious understanding. … All of this has led a number of Muslim scholars to bring aspects of Qur’anic interpretation that seemed to have been fixed for centuries back into question. Thus the interpreter of the Qur’an can think and critically evaluate theological positions that have been taken for granted, despite the absence of a strong textual basis for them in the Qur’an.” (‘Crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ’, p. 145.)
We have come to a new context, not of polemic as in Damascus but of dialogue. This opens new paths. This modern interpretation will have significant influence on interreligious dialogue.
Discussion held at the Janssen Spirituality Centre, 22 Woodvale Rd, Boronia on 12 December 2015
The Mela Interfaith Association (MIA) seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony. Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Qur’an. Our procedure is to discuss the texts and provide written summaries, which will be available on the Mela Interfaith Association website (http://www.melainterfaith.org)
In attendance Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission; President, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Herman Roborgh (Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Mr Tom Thomas (Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Dr Jacob Kavunkal svd (Associate Professor, MCD University of Divinity / YTU); Dr Stewart Sharlow (Public officer and Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association).
Apologies: Rev. Dr Merrill Kitchen.