The Crucifixion of Christ in Islam
(This article is from Bilal Muhammad’s book The Good Shepherd: Jesus Christ in Islam. You can purchase his book here)
They said: ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God’ – but they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them. Those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no [certain] knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for surely, they did not kill him. Rather, God raised him up to Himself; and God is the Powerful, the Wise. (Qurʾan 4:157-158)
Despite the documentation of the crucifixion in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, the Annals of Tacitus, and the Antiquities of Josephus, the Qurʾan offers this cryptic account. The Qurʾan does not deny the historicity of the crucifixion per se – as “it was made to appear” that such an event took place – but it may deny the reality of the event.
Muslims have differed in their interpretation of this verse. Dr. Ali Ataie illustrates three main theories upheld by Muslims historically: (1) Jesus was physically substituted with someone else, who was crucified in his place, (2) Jesus was nailed to the cross, but he swooned and did not physically die, and (3) Jesus did indeed die on the cross, but God is the ultimate giver of life and death; and Jesus’ spirit was not killed.
Among Muslims, the first model is most popular. Some, like Ibn Iṣḥāq, Mujāhid, Qutāda, and Ṭabarī, said that either an enemy of Jesus Christ was crucified as a punishment, or an apostle volunteered himself to be martyred in Jesus’ place. Whether the apostles knew that it was not really Jesus on the cross differs from authority to authority. Zamakhsharī and Rāzī argued that God did not deceive the people supernaturally, but that the alleged event was essentially a misunderstanding.
Surprisingly, there may be some precedent for this idea among early Christians. Basilides (c. 117-138 AD), who claimed to be a student of Matthias (the apostle that replaced Judas in the Book of Acts) and Glaucias (an alleged disciple of Simon Peter), said that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in the place of Jesus. Some Gnostics believed that the real Christ was not truly of flesh, but that he was a spirit. This is taught in the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter (early 2nd century AD), which has the real Christ sitting on a tree, laughing, as he watched the crucifixion of the body transpire. St. Ignatius of Antioch condemns this belief and the Docetists in his Epistle to the Trallians.
Whether these beliefs had precedents in the first century AD is anyone’s guess. Some have suggested that the Gospel of John’s omission of Simon of Cyrene, as well as its solitary inclusion of a spear thrusted into Jesus while he was on the cross, were designed to quell doubt that existed regarding Jesus’ death on the cross. Interestingly, John’s Gospel is the only one to assert explicitly that Mary the mother of Jesus witnessed the crucifixion; and he puts the witnesses at the foot of the cross, while the other Gospels have the witnesses watching at a distance. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul appears to be rebuking a community that was denying the death and/or resurrection of Jesus. Apparent contradictions between the Gospel accounts invite further doubt.
I have often thought about Judas Iscariot and Thomas the Apostle and their relationship to the crucifixion. Judas dies right after the crucifixion, but one account says that he fell headlong and burst asunder (Acts 1:18), and another says that he hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). Christians attempt to reconcile the two accounts by saying that Judas hanged himself, and then a faulty noose eventually led his body to a high fall. Whether this reconciliation between two distinct texts by different authors is satisfactory depends on one’s level of skepticism. Then, there is Thomas, whose name literally means “twin”, who conveniently goes off to India to proselytize. Is it possible that he was the one made in the likeness of Jesus Christ? God only knows.
The idea that Jesus was crucified but survived (the “swoon theory”) is a modern view held by the Ahmadiyya and some Sunni Muslim historians and apologists. The Qurʾanic verse says that they did not “crucify him” (mā ṣalabūhu), and “crucify” (ṣalaba) in Arabic means “to kill by crucifying.” Thus, one can technically say that Jesus was nailed to the cross – but did not die there – without contradicting the Qurʾan.
Some of the anecdotes from the Gospels that are used to reinforce this position include: (1) Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) Just as Jonah was alive in the whale, it could be expected that Jesus would also be alive in his sepulchre. (2) Pilate was amazed that Jesus was already dead (Mark 15:44), as crucifixions could last several days. (3) The women came to Jesus’ tomb with spices and oils days after he was buried. It was not a typical Jewish custom to open a coffin after burial; so perhaps the women came to treat a wounded Jesus. (4) The “resurrected” Jesus was in disguise, as Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener (John 20:14-16) – this may make better sense if Jesus had survived the crucifixion and was trying to escape the detection of Jewish and Roman authorities. (5) Jesus ate food with his disciples (Luke 24:41), even though resurrected bodies would have no need for nourishment.
The final position, which affirms Jesus’ crucifixion, argues that 4:157-158 of the Qurʾan is only a refutation of the claim that the Jews had killed and crucified Jesus. The preceding verses (4:153-156) address the Jews, and at this time, the Jews may have been boasting that they were the ones that killed Jesus. Since it was the Romans that allegedly crucified Jesus, to say that the Jews killed him would technically be incorrect.
The crucifixion of Jesus was probably accepted by Ghazālī and scholars that affirmed the authenticity of the four Gospels. It was also the official position of the Ismailis by the 10th century AD as per Abu Ḥātim al-Rāzī. The Fatimid court cleric Mu’ayyad al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī argued that martyrs do not really die but remain alive with God (Qurʾan 3:163). When he was being crucified for blasphemy, the famous Sufi mystic al-Ḥallāj reportedly recited the Qurʾanic verse “they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them” to emphasize his union with the Living God.
According to this understanding, Jesus being “raised up” is a reference to his soul being raised up after death, not his body. One reason why I am less sympathetic to this view is because all souls are raised up, yet Islamic literature tends to single out Jesus with this expression. When ʿAlī died, his son Ḥasan famously eulogized him by saying, “On this night, the Qurʾan was revealed, and on this night, Jesus the son of Mary was raised up, and on this night, Joshua the son of Nun was killed, and on this night, my father, the Commander of the Faithful ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib died.” Had Jesus been a martyr like Joshua and ʿAlī, perhaps this grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (s) would not have used a unique way to describe Jesus’ alleged death.
It is arguable that the Qurʾanic motif is one of triumph. The prophetic stories of the Qurʾan echo the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Just as Noah is rescued from the flood, and just as Abraham is rescued from the inferno, and just as Moses is rescued from Pharaoh, and just as Jesus is apparently rescued from the cross, the Qurʾan suggests that Muhammad (s) would be delivered from the pagans. There are no drawn-out martyrdom stories in the Qurʾan because that is not the pattern Muhammad (s) is modeled on. This may give subtle credence to the idea that Jesus, too, was saved by God and made triumphant over his enemies. A similar theme is iterated in the Old Testament: “Now I know that the LORD saveth his anointed (māšîaḥ); he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand” (Psalm 20:7) and “There shall be no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling, for he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone … Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:10-16)
Of course, an Islamic worldview has no problem with a martyred prophet and a miraculous resurrection. After all, John the Baptist was martyred, and in the parable of the hamlet in ruins, the Qurʾan mentions the resurrection of a man after a hundred years (Qurʾan 2:259). Affirming or denying the historical event of crucifixion has little bearing on Islam. The more substantive contention that Muslims have is with the idea of atonement. Muslims believe that they will bear the consequences of their own sins, unless forgiven by God. The sin of Adam is not inherited by those who did not commit it. Presumably, those between Adam and John the Baptist were simply expected to worship God and live an ethical life, and Muslims see no need for this to change with Jesus. The idea of a human sacrifice absolving the past and future sins of humanity is simply contrary to what the Qurʾan teaches. Putting an innocent man to death, rather than simply forgiving mankind out of divine grace, goes against the sensibilities of Muslims.
God says in Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” He says, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full from the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I take no delight in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” (Isaiah 1:11)
May we be granted the full grace of our Loving God.
 Ali Ataie, “The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: An Exegetical and Historical Inquiry Into Surah 4:157-158”, Zaytuna College, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09-JthSnyic&t=921s
 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 1, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book1.html
 James Brashler and Roger A. Bullard, The Apocalypse of Peter, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apopet.html
 Lightfoot and Harmer, Ignatius to the Trallians, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-trallians-lightfoot.html
 See Lisan al-Arab’s section on صلب
 FP Retief and L Cilliers, The history and pathology of crucifixion, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14750495/
 M. Albert, Homilies contre les juifs by Jacob of Serugh, 44, 1. 17.
 Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought, pp. 118
 Ibid, pp. 118-119.
 Ibid, pp. 119.
 Saduq, al-Amali, pp. 396.