Archive for April, 2009

Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, speaking from the floor of Trinity Church on the topic of “Naming Evil; How To Confront And Overcome Evil In Human Life”, articulates the following response to the Problem of Evil in an Islamic-Sufi theodicy.

What is evil? From a philosophical point of view, he says, God is All-Good or as Plato called the Supreme Good.

“There cannot be anything other than God that can be all goodness. Creation already implies the separation from the creator otherwise there would be no creation and to talk of creation is to talk of separation and to talk of separation is to talk of, what appears on human plane, as evil. So, to be in creation, one has to experience separation from Supreme Good, the separation which is evil in our lives. This is the metaphysical foundation for the presence of evil.”

Explaining the same from an ontological level, he states;

“…because the world is not God there has to be this separation and there has to be evil. In fact one could go so far as to say, metaphysically speaking, that God CANNOT create a world without privation or evil and remain God.”

He then acknowledges the gravity of this problem by stating that this problem alone has been responsible, especially in the west, to lead many an educated and intelligent people away from religion.

Using the metaphor “there are no shadows in the sun” he goes on to mention that certain sages like Jalalu-din-Rumi and some Christian mystics as well have denied the existence of evil. Nasr explains that these human being were really speaking from the point of view of the Divine and that

“it is possible to reach a stage of realization in which one does not see evil because one has transcended the world of evil; this world of separation from God.”

By using the Islamic art of “always seeing the good aspect of a thing and not to see the privation/evil but seeing everything in its metaphysical transparency”, but for most human beings in the world, evil is a consequence of our separation from God.

Two great problems of today’s world, according to Nasr are,

  1. Denial of Evil
  2. Politicizing Evil

Denial of the existence of such evil/privation results in people trying to turn world completely good as if to turn the world into God and that results in ideologies like Marxism and Communism.

Politicizing evil in one’s enemies, “absolutizing” our own beliefs and demonizing others, coupled with the unprecedented power in modern weaponry has the potential of total annihilation of human civilization.

In examining the essence of this evil, he goes on to its origins and comments as;

“The result of denying cosmic and beyond human reality to evil has also meant the denial of what appears to human plane as the Devil, i.e. the Devil in the Islamic theology and Christian theology, in the sense of personification of this cosmic tendency of the Fall, of the Fall away from the Divine Principle.” (21:30-21:55 minutes into his talk).

“All religions believe that we have Fallen in some way. That there is a perfect state to which we have belonged…“

Referring to Qur’an, Sura 95, he gives an exegesis of its 4th and 5th verse and state that God created Man in goodness and then lowered him of the lowest. In the light of this, he then reflects on the essence of Good and Evil. He connects that with Jesus Christ’s two commandments i.e. love God and love your neighbor and says that once you transgress against God and neighbor, you have committed evil. In Islam, he mentions, is the Devine Law (shariah), similar to Jewish Torah that explains what is Good and what is Evil, within society. This Law, Nasr states, has been different for different peoples at different times throughout human history and that,

“…the covenant of God with Jews is not broken by the coming of the Jesus Christ”.

As to the question of; why God created the world and separated us from him? Nasr only mentions that is passing and alludes to it as “because God wanted to be known and loved”.

At the end he states,

“…there is a wisdom that there is this multiplicity in the world, and never before as now have we been faced with the importance of accepting this multiplicity, of not forcing ourselves upon the world.”

Critical Analysis of this Islamic-Sufi Theodicy:

Nasr’s justification/explanation of the brute presence of evil in the world can be summarized in the following logical steps.

  1. The only Perfection that there is, is God (premise)
  2. Creation without separation from God is ontologically absurd (premise)
  3. Humans are a creation of God (premise)
  4. Humans are ontologically separate from Perfection of God (conclusion from 1, 2 & 3)
  5. Apart from God, perfection is not possible (conclusion from 1, 2)
  6. Separation from Perfection results in privation/Evil (final conclusion)

Although the above line of reasoning, to some extent, answers the Problem of Evil in theodicy, but at the same time, it also creates some irresolvable theological problems as stated below.

Existence of Evil Before the Fall:

Considering the state of affairs before the historic Fall that Nasr alludes to (Adam disobeying and eating the forbidden fruit), following points can be derived.

  1. Adam and Eve were a Creation of God (conclusion from 3 above)
  2. Adam and Eve were separate from God (conclusion from 2 above)
  3. Evil existed (in the heaven) before the Fall (conclusion from 5 & 6 above)

Thus, Evil could not have ORIGINATED at FALL because it already existed since Adam and Heaven were a creation, separated in privation. As one can easily see that this line of argument makes “the origin of Evil at Fall” or “Fall being somehow responsible for Evil” non-sequitur and makes the whole line of argument internally inconsistent.

Impossibility of Existence of a Heaven Free of Evil:

Considering the eschatological affairs, in at least Semitic religions, after The Final Judgment, good human beings are supposed to be in a place known as Heaven, which by definition has no Evil. Considering the explanation provided to us by Prof. Nasr, following point can be said about this Heaven-to-Be.

  1. Haven would be a creation of God (conclusion from 1 above)
  2. Heaven would be separate from God (conclusion from 2 above)
  3. Pious people living in Haven would be a creation of God (conclusion from 3 above)
  4. There will be Evil in Haven (conclusion from 4, 5 & 6 above)

Here again, Nasr’s explanation makes the possibility of the existence of Heaven illogical or at least totally at odds with Islamic belief of a Heaven free of evil.


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Muslims believe, on the authority of the Qur’ân, that Jesus was one of the mighty messengers of God. They believe in his miraculous birth without a father. They believe that he gave life to the dead by God’s permission and that he healed born blinds and lepers by God’s permission. Muslims also believe that he was the Christ (translated from Messiah, Lit. anointed, appointed) and that he was given revelation from God called Injeel (Gospel) for the guidance of his people. This is common ground between Islam and Christianity. On the other hand, Muslims also believe, on the authority of the Qur’ân, that Jesus was neither God nor Son-of-God and that he was not crucified. Qur’ân is categorical in these areas and Muslims understand it as such. But “Ascension” of Jesus is not one of those lucid areas and Muslim scholars are divided on the exact interpretation of the Qur’ânic texts. As Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes in his commentary of Qur’ân 4:158:


“There is difference of opinion as to the exact interpretation of this verse. The words are: The Jews did not kill Jesus, but Allah raised him up (rafa’ahu) to Himself. One school holds that Jesus did not die the usual human death but still lives in the body in heaven, which is generally accepted Muslim view. Another holds that he did die (5:117) but not when he was supposed to be crucified, and that his being “raised up” unto Allah means that instead of being disgraced as a malefactor, as the Jews intended, he was on the contrary honored by Allah as His messenger; (see 4:159). The same word rafa’a is used in association with honor in connection with al-Mustafa in 94:4.” [1]


In this paper we’ll revisit those Qur’ânic verses that relate to the ascension of Jesus and will see how the Arabic verbs in question are used elsewhere in the Qur’ân. We’ll visit some traditional exegeses related to this topic to see how they came to their conclusion and then we’ll lay some modern commentary in comparison. Towards the end, we’ll do a quick survey of the Christian scripture and will try to investigate the foundation of their belief regarding “Ascension” from the New Testament. We’ll conclude with some comments on what might have been the roots of this divergence of opinion in Muslim scholarship.


Tafsîr and Its Two Major Categories:

Before we start looking into the relevant texts of the Qur’ân in order to develop an understanding of this topic, it’s appropriate to touch upon the principles and methodology of Qur’ânic exegesis, so we can review the rest of this paper in light of these established principles.


Tafsîr (exegesis) of the Qur’ân is the most important science for Muslims. All matters concerning the Islamic way of life are connected to it in one sense or another since the right application of Islam is based on proper understanding of the direct guidance from Allah. Without tafsîr there would be no right understanding of various passages of the Qur’ân. Tafsîr may be divided into two basic groups:


  1. Tafsîr bi-l-riwâya (by transmission) also known as tafsîr bi-l-ma’thûr
  2. Tafsîr bi’l-ra’y (by sound opinion) also known as tafsîr bi-l-dirâya i.e. by knowledge


The Qur’ân Explained by the Qur’ân; Tafsîr ul Qur’ân bil-Qur’ân:

The interpretation of the Qur’ân by the Qur’ân is the highest source of tafsîr. Questions that may arise out of a certain passage of the Qur’ân have their explanation in other parts of the very same book, and often there is no need to turn to any other source. In other words, the best  tafsîr of the Qur’ân is by Qur’ân itself. To seek to explain an ayâ (verse) of the Qur’ân by referring to another ayâ from the Qur’ân is the first and foremost duty of the mufassir (exegete). Only if this does not suffice, one should look for other resources.


Relevant Qur’ânic Verses:

Jesus Christ is mentioned 25 times in the holy Qur’ân in different contexts. Following are the three verses in the Qur’ân that directly relate to the idea of his “Ascension”. Translation used below is of Abdullah Yusuf Ali (emphasis added).



إِذْ قَالَ اللّهُ يَا عِيسَى إِنِّي مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَيَّ وَمُطَهِّرُكَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ 

“Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme…” (Qur’ân 3:55) 



وَقَوْلِهِمْ إِنَّا قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولَ اللّهِ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ وَلَـكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُواْ فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلاَّ اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا بَل رَّفَعَهُ اللّهُ إِلَيْهِ وَكَانَ اللّهُ عَزِيزًا حَكِيمًا

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah.;- 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 (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not; Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise (Qur’ân 4:157-158) 



مَا قُلْتُ لَهُمْ إِلاَّ مَا أَمَرْتَنِي بِهِ أَنِ اعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ رَبِّي وَرَبَّكُمْ وَكُنتُ عَلَيْهِمْ شَهِيدًا مَّا دُمْتُ فِيهِمْ فَلَمَّا تَوَفَّيْتَنِي كُنتَ أَنتَ الرَّقِيبَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَأَنتَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ

“Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say, to wit, ‘worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord’; and I was a witness over them whilst I dwelt amongst them; when Thou didst take me up Thou wast the Watcher over them, and Thou art a witness to all things” (Qur’ân 5:117)



Lexical Analysis of the Relevant Vocabulary:

There are only two Arabic words that are in question in this whole issue. Below is their lexical analysis.


تَوَفَّي = tawaffa (Verb), wafat (Noun)

1.    To make someone die

2.    To receive in full

رَفَعَ = rafa’A (Verb)

1.    To raise someone in honor or rank

2.    To physically raise something


Other Qur’ânic references to these Words:

The verb تَوَفَّي  occurs 27 times in the Qur’ân, besides the 2 references already mentioned above (for a total of 29 occurrences) in its different forms and contexts. Out of these 27 occurrences, 23 happen to be in the first given meaning (i.e. to make someone die) and 4 occurrences turn out to be in the second meaning mentioned above (i.e. to receive in full). Please notice two important points here. First, all four of the occurrences where this word means ‘to receive in full’ relate to post death event i.e. Day-Of-Judgment. Second, Every time this word is mentioned in the Qur’ân for a living person (or persons), it only meant death. Below we review all 27 of these occurrences.




To Make Someone Die



وَالَّذِينَ يُتَوَفَّوْنَ مِنكُمْ وَيَذَرُونَ أَزْوَاجًا

If any of you die and leave widows behind



Same as No. 1 above 



وَتَوَفَّنَا مَعَ الأبْرَارِ

and take to Thyself our souls in the company of the righteous



حَتَّىَ يَتَوَفَّاهُنَّ الْمَوْتُ

until death do claim them



إِنَّ الَّذِينَ تَوَفَّاهُمُ الْمَلآئِكَةُ ظَالِمِي أَنْفُسِهِمْ

When angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls



وَهُوَ الَّذِي يَتَوَفَّاكُم بِاللَّيْلِ

It is He who doth take your souls by night



إِذَا جَاء أَحَدَكُمُ الْمَوْتُ تَوَفَّتْهُ رُسُلُنَا

when death approaches one of you, Our angels take his soul



إِذَا جَاءتْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا يَتَوَفَّوْنَهُمْ

when our messengers (of death) arrive and take their souls



وَتَوَفَّنَا مُسْلِمِينَ

and take our souls unto thee as Muslims



إِذْ يَتَوَفَّى الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ

when the angels take the souls of the Unbelievers (at death)



وَإِمَّا نُرِيَنَّكَ بَعْضَ الَّذِي نَعِدُهُمْ أَوْ نَتَوَفَّيَنَّكَ

Whether We show thee (realized in thy life-time) some part of what We promise them,- or We take thy soul (to Our Mercy) (Before that)



وَلَـكِنْ أَعْبُدُ اللّهَ الَّذِي يَتَوَفَّاكُمْ

But I worship Allah – Who will take your souls (at death)



تَوَفَّنِي مُسْلِمًا

Take Thou my soul (at death) as one submitting to Thy will (as a Muslim)



Same as No. 11 above



Same as No. 5 above



الَّذِينَ تَتَوَفَّاهُمُ الْمَلآئِكَةُ طَيِّبِينَ

those whose lives the angels take in a state of purity



وَاللّهُ خَلَقَكُمْ ثُمَّ يَتَوَفَّاكُمْ

It is Allah who creates you and takes your souls at death



وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّى

and some of you are called to die



قُلْ يَتَوَفَّاكُم مَّلَكُ الْمَوْتِ الَّذِي وُكِّلَ بِكُمْ

Say: “The Angel of Death, put in charge of you, will (duly) take your souls



اللَّهُ يَتَوَفَّى الْأَنفُسَ حِينَ مَوْتِهَا وَالَّتِي لَمْ تَمُتْ فِي مَنَامِهَا

It is Allah that takes the souls (of men) at death; and those that die not (He takes) during their sleep



وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّى مِن قَبْلُ

though of you there are some who die before



Same as No. 11 above



فَكَيْفَ إِذَا تَوَفَّتْهُمْ الْمَلَائِكَةُ يَضْرِبُونَ وُجُوهَهُمْ وَأَدْبَارَهُمْ

But how (will it be) when the angels take their souls at death, and smite their faces and their backs?




To Receive In Full



ثُمَّ تُوَفَّى كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا كَسَبَتْ

Then shall every soul be paid what it earned



Same as No. 1 above



وَإِنَّمَا تُوَفَّوْنَ أُجُورَكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ

On the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense



وَتُوَفَّى كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا عَمِلَتْ

and every soul will be recompensed (fully) for all its actions


The word  رَفَعَ occurs 28 times in the Qur’ân in its different forms and in different contexts. Some times it means “raising the level or degrees of honor” and sometimes it simply means “raising of physical things” like raising high of the sky. Here are some of these references for general understanding. Please notice that whenever this word is used for human beings, it signifies “raising in honor”; never denotes “physical raising”.




To Raise in Honor and Stature



تِلْكَ الرُّسُلُ فَضَّلْنَا بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ مِّنْهُم مَّن كَلَّمَ اللّهُ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَهُمْ دَرَجَاتٍ

Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others: To one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honor);



وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ

He hath raised you in ranks, some above others: that He may try you in the gifts He hath given you



وَلَوْ شِئْنَا لَرَفَعْنَاهُ بِهَا وَلَـكِنَّهُ أَخْلَدَ إِلَى الأَرْضِ وَاتَّبَعَ هَوَاهُ

If it had been Our will, We should have elevated him with Our signs; but he inclined to the earth, and followed his own vain desires



وَرَفَعَ أَبَوَيْهِ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ

And he raised his parents high on the throne (of dignity)



وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ إِدْرِيسَ إِنَّهُ كَانَ صِدِّيقًا نَّبِيًّاوَرَفَعْنَاهُ مَكَانًا عَلِيًّا

Also mention in the Book the case of Idris: He was a man of truth (and sincerity), (and) a prophet: And We raised him to a lofty station



نَحْنُ قَسَمْنَا بَيْنَهُم مَّعِيشَتَهُمْ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَرَفَعْنَا بَعْضَهُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ

It is We Who portion out between them their livelihood in the life of this world: and We raise some of them above others in ranks



وَرَفَعْنَا لَكَ ذِكْرَكَ

And raised high the esteem (in which) thou (art held)?




To Raise Physical Things



اللّهُ الَّذِي رَفَعَ السَّمَاوَاتِ بِغَيْرِ عَمَدٍ تَرَوْنَهَا

Allah is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that ye can see



وَالسَّمَاء رَفَعَهَا وَوَضَعَ الْمِيزَانَ

And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice),



رَفَعَ سَمْكَهَا فَسَوَّاهَا

On high hath He raised its canopy, and He hath given it order and perfection



Traditional Exegeses; Tafsîr bi-l-riwâya:

Tafsîr bi-l-riwâya (or Tafsîr al Ma’sur) is the exegesis based of hadith traditions or other accounts narrated by companions. Most traditional exegeses fall into this category. Since there are several hadith accounts of varying levels of authenticity narrating the idea of Jesus Christ’s ascension, it’s all-pervasive in traditional Qur’ânic exegeses. Below we review some of these accounts.


Isma’il bin ‘Amr bin Kathîr al-Dimashqî (d. 774/1372) translates verse 3:55 in his exegesis as “I will take you and raise you to Myself while you are asleep…[2] and quotes Al Hasan as recorded by Ibn Abi Hatim, from Fath al-Bari 11:143 to support his argument and conclude “This is what happened. When Allah raised Isa to haven, his followers divided into sects and groups.” [3] Ibn Khatir also reports on the authority of Wahb b, Munabbih that God caused Jesus to die for three days, after which He revived him and raised him up. Ibn Khatir asserts that most commentators interpret the word mutawaffik to mean “I will cause you to sleep”. “This”, he argues, “is in accordance with God’s saying, ‘He it is who receives you in the night’ (Qur’ân 6:60). God also said, ‘God it is He Who receives souls at the time of their death, and those that have not died in their sleep’ (Qur’ân 39:42).[4]


Abul A’lâ Mawdûdî (d.1400/1979) translates the same verse as “O Jesus, now I will recall you and raise you up to Myself…[5]. In his exegesis, he is very adamant on this point. He states “The word mutawaffi in the Arabic text is from tawaffa which literally means ‘to take and to receive’ and ‘to seize the soul’ is not it’s lexical but metaphoric meaning. Here it means ‘to recall from mission’. Allah recalled Jesus because the Israelites had rejected him in spite of the clear signs he had brought.”[6] Mawdûdî further argues against the idea of Jesus dying his natural death, and assert “If the Christian belief in “Ascension” had been wholly baseless, it would have been refuted by pointing out that the object of their worship, the so called “Son of God” expired long ago and had become one with dust and that they could see for their full satisfaction his grave at such and such place. But the Qur’ân does not declare that explicitly. On the other hand, it not only uses such words as give at least a vague suggestion of his “Ascension”, but also denies that Jesus was crucified at all”.[7]


Ibn Jarîr al-Tabarî (d. 310/922) reports that according to some early tafsîr masters, the phrase here means “I will cause you to sleep and will take you up in your sleep.” This view is related on the authority of al-Rabi b. Anas. al-Tabarî personally prefers the view “I will receive you from the earth and raise you up to me.” He argues: “This is because of the many well authenticated hadiths of the Messenger of God which assert that he said, ‘Jesus, son of Marry, will descend. He will kill al-Dajjal. He will then live on earth for a time. Then he will die, and Muslims will pray over him and burry him.’” (al-Tabarî, VI, page 455-61). [8]


Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1273) agrees with Hasn al-Basri and Ibn Zayd that God raised Jesus up to heaven without causing him to die or to fall asleep. Qurtubi reports an account on the authority of al-Dahhak according to which “Jesus came into a room one day where the disciples were gathered. He entered through a niche. In the mean time the devil Iblis informed the Jews of the whereabouts of Jesus and four thousand men hastened to the place and besieged the room. Jesus then asked the disciples, ‘Who among you would go out and be killed and thus be with me in paradise?’ One of the disciples agreed and Jesus gave him his woolen garment and turban and his staff. God cast the likeness upon the man who went out to meet the Jews. They mistook him for Jesus and killed him and crucified him. As for Jesus, God took him up to heaven, clothed him feathers and light. He also took away from him all desires for food and drink. Jesus thus lives in the company of the angels.” Qurtubi also reports a slight variant of the same account from Ibn Abbas and reports several prophetic hadiths which describe the utopian role of Jesus in Muslim eschatology and his place in Muslim law and history. Most of these hadiths go back to Abu Hurayrah. [9] 


Abu’l-Qâsim Mahmûd Ibn cUmar al-Zamakhsharî (d. 539/1144) in his exegesis of the verse states “I will complete the term of your life, that is, I will protect you from being slain at the hands of the rejecters of faith. I will give you instead respite to a specific term which I have decreed for you. Then will I cause you to die a natural death; you will not be slain by them. I shall raise you up to My heaven, the dwelling place of My angles.” (Zamakhshari I, page 366-67) [10]


Muhammad bin cAmr al-Husain al-Râzî (d. 606/1209) argues that taking Jesus up to heaven must be taken metaphorically, otherwise God would be limited to a specific locus. His argument in mainly directed against the mushabbihah (anthropomorphist) who attributed body and locus to God. Razi concludes: “By this verse is intended, ‘I will raise you up to me, that is, to the station of your meritorious rewards and good recompense’, and thus only indicates the high status and honor of Jesus, not at all attributing locus to God. Razi also questions the substitutionist view of the death of Jesus, which has remained largely unchallenged among traditionalists and Qur’ân commentators. (Razi VIII, page 71-73) [11]


Muhammad ash-Shawkani (d. 1834AD) accepts the traditional interpretations already mentioned, about the word mutawaffik and the ascension of Jesus to heaven. He reports on the authority of Wahb b. Munabbih that God caused Jesus to die for three days, after which He revived him and took him up to heaven. (Shawkani I, page 344-46) [12]


Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi (d. 1329 A.D.) in his mystic interpretation states “God said, ‘O Jesus, I will cause you to die’ to the psychic attributes and animal characteristics, ‘and raise you up to Me’ by means of the attractions (jadhabat) of providence. This is just as He transported His servant [Muhammad] to the ‘distance of two bows or even closer’ [ref Qur’ân 53:8-9]. Nisaburi III, page 210). [13]


Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (d. 1240 A.D.) in his non-mystic exegesis presents a mixed narrative of Qur’ânic and New Testament elements of the story of Jesus. “They [the Jews] plotted by sending to kill Jesus. But God made a physical image resembling true likeness of Jesus the spirit of God to appear to them. They mistook this image for Jesus and killed and crucified it. God raised Jesus up to the fourth heaven because his spirit is an effulgence of the spirituality of the sun. In their ignorance, the Jews did not know that it is impossible to kill the spirit of God.” (Ibn Arabi I, page 190). [14]


Tabatabai discuses in detail the term mutawaffik and its other forms in the Qur’ân. While he prefers the view that Jesus did not die, but is alive with God, he admits that this and other verses, such as 4:157-159 and 19:31, may suggest a different interpretation. He interprets the phrase, “and raise you up to me” metaphorically because God does not occupy place or body. (Tabatabai III, page 206-210). [15]


Contemporary Exegeses; Tafsîr bi’l-ra’y:

Tafsîr bi’l Ra’i is not based directly on transmission of knowledge by the predecessors, but on the use of reason and ijtihâd. Tafsîr bi’l-ra’y does not mean ‘interpretation by mere opinion’, but deriving an opinion through ijtihâd based on sound sources. While the former has been condemned in the hadith, the latter is recommendable, when used in its proper place as sound ijtihâd, and was also approved by the Prophet. Below, we’ll review some of the contemporary exegeses that fall in this category.


Muhammad Asad (d. 1992 A.D.) translates 3:55 as “Lo! God said: ‘O Jesus! Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me…‘ ” [16], and 4:158 as “nay, God exalted him unto Himself…”. Asad emphatically opposes the traditional interpretations of these two words and assert “The verb rafa ahu (lit., “he raised him” or “elevated him”) has always, whenever the act of raf’ (“elevating”) of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of “honoring” or “exalting”. Nowhere in the Qur’ân is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven. The expression “God exalted him unto Himself” in the above verse denotes the elevation of Jesus to the realm of God’s special grace – a blessing in which all prophets partake, as is evident from 19:57, where the verb rafa nahu (“We exalted him”) is used with regard to the Prophet Idris. (See also Muhammad ‘Abduh in Manar III, 316 f., and VI, 20f.) The “nay” (bal) at the beginning of the sentence is meant to stress the contrast between the belief of the Jews that they had put Jesus to a shameful death on the cross and the fact of God’s having ‘exalted him unto Himself’”[17]. Asad, commenting on the traditional substitutional theory contend, “There exist, among Muslims, many fanciful legends telling us that at the last moment God substituted for Jesus a person closely resembling him (according to some accounts, that person was Judas), who was subsequently crucified in his place. However, none of these legends finds the slightest support in the Qur’ân or in authentic Traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected. They represent no more than confused attempts at “harmonizing” the Qur’ânic statement that Jesus was not crucified with the graphic description, in the Gospels, of his crucifixion. “ [18]


Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali al Saqqa (1335-1416 / 1917-1996) commenting on 3:55, states, “Although a large number of scholars believe that Jesus was raised to heaven alive, I find myself more in agreement with those scholars who say that he died a natural normal death.” [19]


Majid Fakhry translates the same as “When Allah said: ‘O Jesus, I will cause you to die, will lift you up to Me…[20]


Sayyid Qutb (d.1386/1966) considers this verse from among the allegorical and multivalent verses (mutashabihat) of the Qur’ân, whose ultimate meaning no one except God alone knows. Nor does he consider there any benefit in discussing them. (Qutb I, page 595-96). [21]


Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut came to the following conclusion on this topic: “There is nothing in the Holy Qur’an, nor in the sacred traditions of the Prophet, which endorses the correctness of the belief to the contentment of heart that Jesus was taken up to heaven with his body and is alive there even now…” (Al-Risalah, Cairo, vol. 10 no. 462, p. 515). He further writes in the same article: The word tawafa is used in so many places in the sense of death that it has become its foremost meaning. Quoting several verses of the Qur’an, he concludes that word tawafa has no other meaning than taking away the soul either in sleep or death, particularly when God is the subject and a human being the object.


Ascension of Jesus Christ in the New Testament:

Although the idea of Jesus Christ’s Ascension is central to the Christian faith and Church dogma, below are the only two references to this terrific phenomenon in the four canonical Gospels.


  1. “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”  (Luke 24:51)
  2. “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19)

Most modern translations of the New Testament, going back to the “most ancient manuscripts” and thus improving both the sources and the translation, have dropped both the references mentioned above. The scholars and researchers of these ancient manuscripts have realized that these verses were actually footnotes and existed only in a few later scripts. Thus in the original Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSV), published in 1952 [22], the Gospel according to Saint Mark ends with chapter 16 verse 8, and Luke 24:51 does not exist. Some other translations, e.g. New International Version (NIV), choose to keep these ending verses but add a warning statement after verse 8, stating in bold print that The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20”.


Seeing both references expunged by the Christian scholars from the Gospels as later day interpolations, it’s easy to figure out the groundlessness of the idea of Ascension in the Christian scripture. Besides, one naturally wonders, why would the other two Gospel authors (one of them, supposedly an eye witness of all these events) miss out on such a fantastic performance? With all this information, one is forced to logically conclude that this idea of “Ascension” was a fantasy of some later day preacher or scribe.


Looking Elsewhere In the Qur’ân for Further Clues:

In Surah Ma’idah, God says;

مَّا الْمَسِيحُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ إِلاَّ رَسُولٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِ الرُّسُلُ وَأُمُّهُ صِدِّيقَةٌ كَانَا يَأْكُلاَنِ الطَّعَامَ

The Messiah, son of Mary, was none but a messenger, surely the messengers have passed away before him. And his mother was a truthful woman and they both ate food…” (Qur’ân 5:75).


The following two points can be derived from this verse with certainty:


  1. Jesus was nothing more than a messenger of God
  2. Messengers before him have passed away (i.e died)

Based on this, we understand that since all messengers before Jesus passed away, he too will pass away. The question is only ‘when’? It’s important to understand the meaning of the words ‘passed away’ ( خَلَتْ ). Since we know that all prophets before Jesus are dead, the use of words ‘passed away’ clearly means death.


Surah Al-e-Imran says;

وَمَا مُحَمَّدٌ إِلاَّ رَسُولٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِ الرُّسُلُ أَفَإِن مَّاتَ أَوْ قُتِلَ انقَلَبْتُمْ عَلَى أَعْقَابِكُمْ

Muhammad is no more than a messenger, surely the messengers before him have already passed away. If then he dies or be killed, will you turn upon your heels?…” (Qur’ân 3:144).


Again, the following two points can be derived from this verse:


  1. Muhammad was no more than a messenger of God
  2. Messengers before him have passed away (i.e. died)


From verse 5:75, we know that all messengers before Jesus died. Next, in verse 3:144, we are further told that all messengers before Muhammad passed away.  We’ve already concluded ‘passed away’ in the verse 5:75 meant ‘death’. In this verse, the meaning of ‘passed away’ is clearly given as, (a) he dies, (b) be killed.  Thus, by ‘passing away’ the meaning of ‘death’ can be extrapolated with reasonable certainty (notice the use of the exact same Arabic word in both verses). Consequently, in our opinion, the use of the same word in verse 3:144 cannot and does not imply anything other than ‘natural death’.




Isrâ’îlîyât is the word, meaning ‘of Jewish origin’ refers to explanations derived from non-Muslim sources and especially from ahl al-kitâb i.e. Jewish and Christian traditions. Such material was used by the sahâba (Companions), more by the tabiûn (Followers) and even more by later generations. Some aspects of the traditional exegesis of the Qur’ân can be explained by referring to such sources, especially when there is somewhat common ground between the Qur’ân and the other (Jewish and Christian) traditions. However, the Prophet cautioned Muslims against this source of knowledge [23].


Although, belief in “Ascension of Jesus” is not part of basic Muslim aqida (creed), over the years in Muslim history, it has become something as such. Based on the interpretations of some traditional scholars and a bunch of questionable[24] hadith narrations, many Muslims seem to consider it equivalent to blasphemy even to question its validity. In the recent history, this issue became even more taboo and Muslims grew even more suspicious with regards to it with the Ahmadiyya’s (aka Qadiani) [25] rejection of this traditional mainstream interpretation.


Looking at all the internal evidence in the Qur’ân and the views of different scholars, it seems probable that the idea of physical ascension of Jesus could have crept into classical Qur’ânic exegeses from the prevalent dogmas of the People-of-the-Book (ahl al-kitâb) of that time. Whether this is a historical fact or not, it’s hard to establish, but one thing is for sure that Muslim scholars have been, and probably will stay, divergent on this issue, for the times to come.





  1. Ibn Khatir, Tafsîr Ibn Khatir (abridged), Volume-2
  2. S. Abul A’lâ Mawdûdî, The Meaning of the Qur’ân, Volume-2, Islamic Publications (pvt) Ltd Lahore Pakistan
  3. Mahmoud M. Ayoub, The Qur’ân and Its Interpreters, Volume-2
  4. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’ân, Amana Publications
  5. Majid Fakhry, The Qur’ân; A Modern English Version, Garnet Publishing
  6. Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, A Thematic Commentary On the Qur’ân, Volume-1, IIIT
  7. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’ân, The Book Foundation



[1] Ali, page 236, note 664

[2] Ibn Khatir, page 169

[3] Ibn Khatir, page 171

[4] Ayoub, page 172

[5] Mawdûdî, page 31

[6] Mawdûdî, page-34

[7] Mawdûdî, page 35

[8] Ayoub, page 170

[9] Ayoub, page 174

[10] Ayoub, page 175

[11] Ayoub, page 176

[12] Ayoub, page 179

[13] Ayoub, page 179

[14] Ayoub, page 181

[15] Ayoub, page 182

[16] Asad, page 89

[17] Asad, page 154

[18] Asad, ibid

[19] al-Ghazali, page 48

[20] Fakhry, page 39

[21] Ayoub, page 183

[22] This is not the place to go into the sharp controversies that the RSV-1952 faced from the evangelical America. Sufficient to mention that in 1971, the RSV Bible was re-released with the Second Edition of the Translation of the New Testament. The most obvious changes were the restoring of Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53-8.11 to the text (in 1946, they were put in footnotes). Also restored was Luke 22:19-20, 24:3, 6, 12, 36, 40, 51, and 52 (these verses did not appear in the original Codex Bezae manuscript used by the translation committee). Finally, in 1989, the National Council of Churches released a full-scale “politically correct” revision to the RSV called the New Revised Standard Version.

[23] Narrated Abû Huraira: The people of the scripture (Jews) used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah’s apostle said: ‘Do not believe the people of the scripture or disbelieve them, but say: “We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us”‘ (2:136).


Ibn Mas’ûd, the well-known Companion, is reported to have said: ‘Do not ask the ahl al-kitab about anything (in tafsîr), for they cannot guide you and are themselves in error….’

[24] I consider them “questionable” because all these traditions disagree, amongst each other, on the details. Such internally inconsistent witnesses would be thrown out from any court of law.

[25] Followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. They comprise two sub-sects, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (aka Qadiani), after Qadian, India and the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement (Ahmadiyya Anjuman Ishaat-i-Islam). Ahmadi Muslims’ beliefs are considered heretical and outside of Islam by most mainstream Muslims, though an exception may be made by some in the case of the smaller Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement.

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