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Samuel Shahid: The crucifixion and death of Christ is a fundamental point of contention between Christianity and Islam. In Qur’an chapter 4:157–158, the whole concept of crucifixion is absolutely negated:
They (the Jews) slew him not, nor crucified him but it so appeared to them, and lo! Those who disagree concerning it, are in doubt thereof, they have no knowledge thereof, save pursuit of a conjecture, they slew him not for certain, but Allah took him up to Himself.
Interestingly, when we examine the interpretations of these verses against other verses in the Qur’an and various accounts in Islamic tradition, much contradiction is revealed. The Qur’an, for instance, alludes to the death of Christ in these verses (emphasis added):
Behold! Allah said: “Jesus I will cause you to die and I will raise you to me” (Surah 3:55).
And I was a witness over them while I remained among them; but when You did cause me to die, You were Thyself the watcher over me (5:117). Peace be upon me, the day I was born, the day I die and the day I am resurrected (19:15).
Preconceived ideas that Jesus was neither crucified nor put to death have caused Muslim interpreters to twist the meaning of these verses. The simplest and best interpretation of the word mutawaffika is “to cause you to die.” Nevertheless, Muslim scholars have insisted that the word mutawaffika in the verses above means “to take you.” Thus, they claim that Jesus was merely lifted up to heaven alive in body and soul because God had “ended His term” on earth.
This Islamic explanation does not conform to the general context of these verses. In fact many Muslim exegetes closer to the historical period of the Qur’anic language understood the Arabic term’mutawaffika to mean ‘to cause you to die.” In His commentary on the Qur’an, Al-Razi, the renowned Islamic scholar of the middleages, alludes to seven different meanings of the word mutawaffika. However, each meaning he sets forth is incongruent with the next. Consequently, researchers are left in total confusion. Besides, other earlier authorities such as Ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn Is-haq, intimated that Jesus died a natural death before He ascended to God.
As a result of these contradictory interpretations, there is no general agreement among Muslims on the death of Christ. What has emerged in Islam is the theory of the shabih or “likeness.” This theory asserts that a historical crucifixion took place, but the one who was crucified was not Jesus. Muslims who advocate this view believe that the shabih was one of Jesus’ enemies. There is disagreement on the identity of the shabih, and many imaginary stories are conjured up without any inquiry into their validity.
In reality the theory of the “likeness” is not the invention of Islam, but was in vogue among some heretical Christian groups before and during the time of Muhammed. For example, during the second century the theory of the shabih was spread by the gnostic Basilides who claimed that Simon of Cyrene consented to be crucified instead of Jesus, so “God cast on him the likeness of Jesus and he was crucified.” The docetists also alleged that Jesus was not crucified at all, but it so appeared to the Jews. The word docetic is derived from a Greek verb that means “to appear.”
The heresy of the shabih has never disappeared throughout the course of church history. In the year A.D. 185 “a heretic sect of the descendant of the priests of Thebes who embraced Christianity claimed that ‘God forbids that Christ should be crucified. He was safely lifted up to heaven.’ ” This is exactly what the Qur’anic verse teaches. There is evidence of another hermetic gnostic group in the fourth century who taught that Jesus was not crucified but it seemed so to the spectators who crucified Him.
These are but a few of the many other documents that denote that this heresy was in existence during the life of Muhammed. In A.D. 380 heresies were widespread in Arabia which caused the council of Constantinople to commision Bishop Gregory of Nyssa “to visit churches of Arabia and Jerusalem where disturbances had broken out and schism threatened.”
Al-Razi applied logic to the theory of the shabih. Attempting to refute this heresy without incriminating himself as a notable Muslim scholar, al-Razi came up with six ambiguities. It is worthwhile for Christians to refer to these six ambiguities and study the logic behind them. A good resource outlining al-Razi discussion can be found in Faris al-Qayrawani’s book Was Christ Really Crucified?
Why do Muslims reject the Christian affirmation of the crucifixion, given the fact that the Qur’an seems to be ambiguous with regard to the death of Jesus? Ideologically, there are at least three reasons.
First, Muslims find the Christian view of the person and work of Christ problematic. For example, if Jesus was God as the Bible affirms (but the Qur’an denies), then how could God be crucified? And when He was crucified, was the world without a God during His death? Moreover, Muslims ask, “Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God; how would God allow his son to die on the cross? Is God a cannibal who yearns for blood?” And whose blood was shed? His Son’s blood!
Second and in relation to the first reason, Muslims assert the absolute sovereignty of God. As an absolute sovereign, God has the power to forgive the sins of his slaves without any need for atonement. He can “will” whatever he wants. If He desires, God can send a righteous person to hell and a wicked person to heaven. No one can question His decrees. Thus there is no need for a redeemer like Jesus to die on the cross. Besides, Muslims ask, “How can a just God allow an innocent person to be punished for the sake of the guilty sinners?” According to Muslims, the laws of God declare that everyone is responsible for his or her own deeds.
The third objection has to do with the nature of man. Muslims in general reject the concept of the fallen nature of man which resulted from Adam’s rebellious attitude against God. Muslims believe that man is born innocent and he sins because of his weakness and not because his fallen nature.
In a number of Quranic references, Islamic commentaries, and traditions, however, there is support for the concept of the fallen nature of man. For instance, Abu Hurayra cites Muhammed who said, “Thus Adam disobeyed and his descendents disobeyed likewise. Adam forgot and ate from the tree; likewise his offspring also forgot. Adam sinned and his posterity sinned too!”
By rejecting the concept of the fallen nature of man, Muslims refuse to acknowledge their need for redemption, which is at the heart of the differences between the gospel and Islam. Muslims mistakenly believe that repentance and good deeds combined with the mercy of God are sufficient to pave the way for a Muslim to receive God’s forgiveness. However, they fail to realize that God’s holiness and justice must be satisfied. God, as the moral standard of the universe cannot overlook our sin; he cannot deny himself. That is why Paul affirms unambiguously that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Without God, in love, taking the initiative to provide a just and holy salvation for us in the death and resurrection of his Son, we have no concept of God who is truly the moral norm of the universe. Without God’s initiative in redemption, rooted and grounded in the cross of Christ, we have no good news to proclaim, forgiveness of sin, and hope of eternal life. It is this message that we need to proclaim to the Muslim. God, in love, has chosen to save rebellious creatures who are made in his image, and Jesus, the eternal Son of God, by his own choice has died on the cross for our sins, to pay our debt, and to satisfy God’s own righteous requirement thus allowing us, by grace through faith, to be forgiven of our sin and stand justified before him. It is in the cross, as Paul long ago reminded us, that we boast, and even though it is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power, wisdom, and glory of God.