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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Islam’

Abstract

We begin by laying down our methodology and understanding of Pluralism as a respectful and engaging yet critical examination of each other’s religions. We then move on to present, in broad strokes, some of the most fundamental commonalities and differences between Islam and Christianity. We identify Original Sin, Incarnation and Atonement as Christian doctrines to which Islam takes exception. We then provide a brief review of Original Sin and Incarnation from Christian sources and record the reasons for Muslim objections. Finally, we move on to a detailed account of the doctrine of Atonement from some original Christian sources and highly influential Christian thinkers before contrasting it with the Qur’anic position and Muslim understanding. Our comparison shows that both religions are so well entrenched on this issue, and hold such fundamentally divergent views that the doctrine of Atonement will remain the irreconcilable dividing line.

Pluralism and the Religious Boundaries:

Millenniums ago, Socrates told us that, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, but in today’s global village, this aphorism is not mere intellectual babbling – it is sine qua non for a livable planet. A world so enriched as ours with religious diversity across traditional national boundaries simply cannot function peacefully with mere tacit tolerance of the “other” religion. Pluralism goes beyond the necessary public virtue of tolerance, and demands energetic engagement and seeking of understanding across religious lines. Nevertheless, as Eck explains, this does not mean Religious Relativism[1] – far from it. It is rather encounter of commitments. She states, “The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.” [2]

Pluralism is based on such open dialog with which we cannot only appreciate each other’s perspective, but can also acquire a deeper understanding of our own theological positions. In fact, it is a great God-given opportunity[3], for without having something with which to contrast, we would not be able to reflect and understand our own selves, nor had an occasion to compete for righteousness and truth[4]. Thus, on one hand, we should appreciate the commonalities of our two religions and on the other, understand, acknowledge and respect the boundaries that separate our unique understandings. It is better to accept and reflect on such boundaries than to try to obfuscate the reality by pulling and stretching the underlying texts and interpretations. Some well-intentioned scholars of comparative religion do a great disservice to the sincere truth seeker by going too far in harmonizing[5] the opposing views and thus muddling the clear boundaries. We say disservice, because “Man by nature desires to know” the true the good and the beautiful (said Aristotle); and “man is doomed to love the good” and pursue the true and the beautiful (said Plato)[6]. Understanding each other’s distinct theological position does not imply extending tacit acceptance, showing synthesis or even being intellectually noncritical of the opposing position. Because, as al-Faruqi said, “[T]he problem is not one of approving of or adopting that which agrees or can be made to agree with us but of what to do with that which contradicts us, that which stands on the other side of us.”[7]

The discussion that follows is based on such understanding of Pluralism, and is intended to highlight the two unique theological positions in Islam and Christianity.

Commonality and Conflict between Islam and Christianity:

One only needs to look at the non-Semitic religions and other non-religious worldviews to appreciate the vast common ground between Christianity and Islam. Starting from monotheism to the belief in angels and devil, heaven and hell, prophets and scriptures, afterlife and an active and personal God – the overlap goes on and on. Even around the figure and personality of Jesus Christ, there are more shared beliefs than differences. Muslims, for example, believe that Jesus was a genuine and faithful messenger of God who garners their utmost reverence, respect and following; that he was born miraculously without a father; that his mother, Mary, was a chaste and honorable woman; that he gave life to the dead and healed blinds and lepers by God’s permission. Muslims also believe that he was the Christ (Lit. anointed, appointed) and that he received revelation from God called Injeel (Lit. Gospel). All this, Muslims believe, on the unambiguous authority of the Qur’an.

The theological differences between Islam and Christianity, however, remain and are not trivial by any measure. To begin with, Christianity dose not acknowledge Muhammad as a true messenger of God, and by implication, rejects Qur’an as God’s message to humanity. On the part of Islam, the Church dogmas of Original Sin, Incarnation and Atonement remain problematic and inconsistent with Qur’anic worldview. Because these three notions are so closely intertwined in Christian theology, we shall look at the first two briefly before turning our attention to the doctrine of Atonement in detail.

Since there are thousands of different sects and denominations in Christianity, having more or less unique and subtle differences on these issues, it is not possible to review them all here in any comprehensive way. We, thus, intend to limit our discussion to the mainstream Christian perspective and to a handful of the most influential thinkers and theologians.

Doctrine of Original Sin:

Also known as the ‘Ancestral Sin’ by Eastern Orthodox Church, Original Sin refers to Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit in heaven, and the resultant “Fall of Man”. With this first act of disobedience and sin against God, according to Christian theology, human nature was corrupted irreparably, and since then, every human infant inherits that Sin. The proponents of this doctrine find scriptural bases in the teachings of Paul[8], and see it as implied in some Old Testament passages[9]. The doctrine was first developed by Irenaeus[10] (d. 202 CE) in his struggle against Gnosticism, and was further developed by St. Augustine (d. 430 CE) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 CE)[11].  St. Augustine and St. Anselm (d. 1109) both reached the logical conclusion that unbaptized infants go to hell as a consequence of this hereditary sin[12]. During the Reformation, the doctrine was propounded and popularized by Martin Luther (d. 1546)[13] and John Calvin (d. 1564) [14]; however, Huldrych Zwingli (d. 1531)[15] was very skeptical of it[16]. Although mainstream, not all Christian denominations and theologians accept the doctrine of Original Sin. Pelagian controversies[17] in ancient times, and Unity Church[18] and Matthew Fox[19] in modern times, are but a few examples that accentuate the ongoing internal tension within Christianity around this doctrine.

Both Judaism[20] and Islam emphatically reject the idea of Original Sin. Instead, both religions teach that man enters the world free of sin, with a pure, innocent and untainted soul.

Doctrine of Incarnation:

Incarnation (Lit. “make into flesh” or “become flesh”) is the Church doctrine that asserts and explains how God became man in the form of Jesus Christ. The most cited scripture purporting this doctrine is John 1:14[21]. In the first few centuries of Christian era, there was considerable disagreement amongst Christians regarding Incarnation. Ebionites, for example, were the Jews who came to believe in Jesus Christ’s message but were vehemently opposed to the idea of God becoming man. As history unfolded however, the precise definition of Incarnation started to get formulated by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. These councils declared that Jesus was both fully God: begotten from, but not created by the Father; and fully man: taking his flesh and human nature from the Virgin Mary. These two natures, human and divine, were in essence, united into the one personhood of Jesus Christ[22]. Since the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the expression “begotten, not made” has been part of almost all Christian creeds and catechisms.

Trinity is another related Church doctrine to which most Muslims are familiar because of its mention and unequivocal rejection in the Qur’an[23]. However, on closer examination, Incarnation seems a bigger logical problem, and Trinity merely a by-product; for if God did not become man, there would be no need for such a mystical and convoluted theological maneuvering like Trinity by the fourth century Church to explain that phenomenon in terms of triune nature of God. Not all Christian denominations, however, believe in Incarnation. Arianism[24] in early fourth century and Unitarian Christians, for example, do not believe Jesus was God, and thus feel no need to resort to Incarnation.

A Muslim’s Critique of the Doctrine of Incarnation:

To Islam, of course, the idea of Incarnation is most abominable and illogical. As al-Faruqi explained, in Islam, there is duality of Reality, “God and non-God; Creator and creature”[25], with no room for demigods or verbal acrobats. Even a casual reader cannot fail to notice that the Qur’an is absolutely adamant about tawhid; not only that there is no other God besides Allah[26], “there is nothing like unto him”[27].  Elaborating this point further al-Faruqi says[28], “The error most grievous to Semitic consciousness and hence least pardonable in the eye of God[29], Islam identified as that of misconceiving the transcendence of God.” Christianity fell “to the non-Semitic influence of the ‘mystery religions’” and gave the “de-transcendentalizing ontological connotation of unity of substance between God and Jesus”, and although it gained “success among non-Semitic peoples unfamiliar with the notion of God as ‘totally other’” at its formative stage, it lost its Semitic originality in the bargain.

Christian scholars, however, allege that Qur’an and Muslims criticize only “a perceived distortion of Tawhid” without understanding the subtly of Trinity. Murata and Chittick, for instance, quote the Qur’anic verse (5:73), “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One”, and then go on to assert that, “Even an elementary knowledge of any Christian catechism tells us that God is not ‘the third of three’. Rather God is one and three at the same time[30]. Muslims, on the other hand, object to the use of exactly this kind of obfuscating and meaningless language while talking about God. Number One and Number Three, Muslims point out, are two distinct mathematical categories which can never be the same. It is to say that God is circle and square at the same time; an assertion that is wrong by definition, and does not require any external knowledge to understand its error, that is to say, it is self-evidently erroneous. Muslims also point out that there, in fact, are some Christian denominations (e.g. LDS), even to this day, that do believe God to be “one of three” and probably were in seventh century as well. However, the more pragmatic question is, why say trinity? If God is One, why then not stop saying Trinity as Qur’an asks, and just call Him One? In light of the fact that Jesus never taught trinity, even according to the NT record, and that it was a later day understanding to which the Church arrived at during the third century, the question is worth musing.

Doctrine of Atonement:

What, for a common Christian, is embodied in the expression “Christ died for my sins”[32], is the doctrine of Atonement[31] that describes how humanity came to be reconciled with God after having its nature corrupted by Adam’s “Fall” as described above under Original Sin. In Christian theology, the doctrine of Atonement refers to God’s forgiving of human sin through the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, which made possible the reconciliation between God and man.

Among Christian thinkers, there are four popular theories explaining exactly how such Atonement could work, namely, the Sacrifice or Ransom Theory, the Victory theory, the Satisfaction or Forgiveness theory and the Moral Influence theory. As McGrath points out though, the views of most Christian authors writing on the subject do not fit neatly in any one category[33].

The underlying action in all four different renderings of this dogma, however, remains the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ – a point categorically denied[34] by the Qur’an as an historic event – thus making it forever irreconcilable between Islam and Christianity. Our objective in this paper, however, is to go beyond that and demonstrate that even the supposed achievement of Jesus Christ (i.e., atoning someone else’s sin) is incompatible with the Qur’anic principle of individual and personal responsibility. Nevertheless, let us first see how some of the original ancient and Reformation thinkers understood Atonement. This will provide us with the bigger picture of how, in their estimation, the above-mentioned three doctrines fit together in a coherent system of thought.

Atonement as Sacrifice or Ransom:

The sacrificial interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus is mostly based on the NT books of Hebrews and Romans, especially Paul’s use of the Greek term hilasterion in Romans 3:25[35]. In his highly influential work, City of God, Augustine elucidated the idea that humanity needed to be restored to God, and that Christ “was made a sacrifice for sin, offering himself as a whole brunt offering on the cross” to achieve that purpose. Writing on the meaning of this sacrifice, he goes on to say that, “he [Jesus] purged, abolished and extinguished whatever guilt there was by which the principalities and powers lawfully detained us to pay the penalty”[36].

Writing on Jesus Christ’s role as Mediator, Calvin notes the following, (emphasis added):

“We have in him [Jesus] a Priest and Mediator free from all blemish, who by his own holiness can conciliate God to us. But since we are debarred from access to God by his righteous curse, an atoning sacrifice is requisite to turn away his anger; it was therefore necessary that Christ, as our Mediator, should offer such a sacrifice… by the sacrifice of his death he has blotted out our guilt and made satisfaction for our sins.”[37]

Explaining further our debarred status, Calvin says:

“neither we nor our prayers can have access to God unless our Priest [Jesus] purges away our defilements, sanctifies us, and obtains for us that favour of which we are deprived by the impurity of our crimes and vices.”[38]

In the next chapter of the same work, under the tile “The redeeming work of Christ”, Calvin goes on to say:

“But let a man be told as the scripture tells him, that he had been alienated from God by sin, was an heir of wrath, under the curse of eternal death, shut out of all hope of salvation, the slave of Satan, a captive under the yoke of sin, doomed to terrible destruction, and already involved in it: that then Christ stepped in as an intercessor, took upon himself and endured the penalty justly due to sinners, atoned with his own blood for the evil which had rendered man hatful in the sight of God, and thus laid the foundation for peace between God and man.”[39]

Tying his scriptural understanding back to the idea of Original Sin, he goes on to state:

“We all have within ourselves that which merits God’s hatred. Therefore, by our corrupted nature and the evil life that flows from it, we are all guilty before God and fitted from our very birth for the damnation to hell.[40]

Supporting this elaborate theological understanding of “Christ died for our sins”, Calvin provides Paul[41] and Augustine as his authorities, besides providing one verse where Jesus Christ says, “The Son of man came to give his life a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28). A neutral and rational observer, however, reading this chapter, cannot help but notice Jesus Christ’s categorical denial of Divinity just five verses before the quoted verse. In verse 23, he replies to the mother of the Zebedee’s sons, when she requested an honorable place for her sons, that he [Jesus] does not hold the authority to grant her wish.[42]

Atonement as Victory:

Victory theory can be seen as a logical evolution of Ransom theory. It was perhaps Origen[43] who first raised the question: if Christ’s death was a ransom, to whom was it paid? Origen argued that it could not have been paid to God, as God was not holding the sinners to ransom. He, thus, logically concluded that it must be paid to the Devil. Further building on this idea, Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE)[44] came up with highly speculative theology as described below by McGrath.

“The devil had acquired rights over fallen humanity, which God was obliged to respect. The only means by which the humanity could be released from this satanic domination and oppression was through the devil exceeding the limits of his authority and thus being obliged to forfeit his rights. So how could this be achieved? Gregory suggests that it could come about if a sinless person were to enter the world, yet in the form of a normal sinful person. The devil will not notice until it was too late: in claiming authority over this sinless person, the devil would have overstepped the limits of his authority, and thus be obliged to abandon his rights… [in] the image of a baited hook: Christ’s humanity is the bait, and his divinity the hook. The devil, like a sea-monster, snaps at the bait – and then discovers, too late, the hook…Other writers explored other images for the same idea – that for trapping the devil. Christ’s death was like a net for catching birds, or a trap for catching mice.”[45]

Among the Enlightenment thinkers, the Christus Victor approach fell out of favor and was dismissed as a pre-modern superstition, until 1930 when Gustaf Aulen (d. 1977)[46] reintroduced it with his short but highly influential book with the same title. Aulen described his as “classic approach to Christus Victor[47] and described it as the following:

“Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs against the evil powers of the world, the ‘Tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him [Jesus] God reconciles the world to Himself.”[48]

The social context of the horrors of WW-I combined with the Freudian insights into human subconscious – especially, the supposed proclivity of infants and children towards sin – helped re-popularize this approach.

Atonement as Satisfaction or Forgiveness:

Satisfaction theory focuses on Jesus Christ providing a valid basis by which God is enabled to forgive sin. Associated to Anselm, as its developer in his work ‘Cur Deus homo’ (Lit. Why God became Man), this approach presents sin as man’s predicament from which humanity is unable to break free. “However, the situation can be remedied if a satisfaction is made for sin. In other words, something has to be done, by which the offense by human sin can be purged”[49]. Since humanity could not provide such a necessary satisfaction for God’s offended honor and dignity, a “God-man” with the ability (divinity) and obligation (humanity) would be needed to do the job. The motivation for Anselm for devising with this approach was his deep-seated dissatisfaction with the Christus Victor approach, which to him seemed laden with highly questionable assumptions about the “rights of the devil” and God’s trickery into trapping the Devil.

This notion of satisfaction against the offense of “sin against God” was further developed by Thomas Aquinas, by attributing “infinite worth” to the flesh of Christ, as he reasoned, it was the “flesh of God”. Aquinas pointed out that, “Christ’s significance in this matter does not rest on his humanity, but on his divinity”.[50]

Later, during Reformation, this idea of Substitution gained central position in both Luther’s and Calvin’s theology. McGrath explains it is as below:

“Christ is here understood to be a substitute, the one who goes to the cross in our place. Sinners ought to have been crucified, on account of their sins. Christ is crucified in their place. God allows Christ to stand is our place, taking our guilt upon himself, so that his righteousness – won by obedience upon the cross – might become ours.”[51]

In 1948, in his thirteen-volume, highly influential, magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth (d. 1968)[52] used the term Sundermensch (Lit. person of sin) emphasizing the inseparability  of sin from human nature. The cross of Christ, in his opinion, represented the point where the righteous judge gave his judgment on sinful humanity, and at the same time, took the judgment upon himself. Under the section “The Judge Judged in Our Place”, Barth says,

“He Judged, and it was the judge who was judged, who allowed himself to be judged …Why did God become a human being? So that God as a human being might do and accomplish and achieve and complete all this of us wrongdoers, in order that in this way there might be brought about by him our reconciliation with him, and our conversion to him.”[53]

On the same note, in 1974, James I. Packer (b. 1926)[54] further elaborated,

“Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’… by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’ and so saved us.”[55]

Atonement as Moral Influence or Example:

The model of a martyr, instead of a savior, became extremely influential in rationalist circles during nineteenth century Europe. In this picture, Jesus was seen as embodying certain qualities, which were potentially present in all human beings with only the difference in magnitude – Jesus embodying such qualities to the superior extent. Thus, “the person who died upon the cross was a human being, and the impact of that death is upon human beings. That impact takes the form of inspiration and encouragement to model ourselves upon the moral example set us in Jesus himself.”[56]

On the same theme, Schleiermatcher (d. 1834)[57] argued that,

“redemption consist in the stimulation and elevation of the natural human God-consciousness through the ‘entrance of the living influence of Christ.’ He attributes to Christ ‘an absolutely powerful God-consciousness.’ This, he argues, possesses an assimilative power of such intensity that it is able to bring about the redemption of humanity.”[58]

Criticism of Atonement by Christian Enlightenment Thinkers:

After a long intellectual slumber through a millennium of dark-ages, the West finally woke up to a new life historically known as Enlightenment. This period of intense intellectual activity produced many thinkers and scientists who changed the life of common man for good. A case has been made[59] by several authors that the torch of the Enlightenment and Reformation was passed on to the West by the Islamic civilization in Spain and in the Fertile Crescent. That point, however, is not our chief concern here. One point in comparison is worth pointing out though. From the very beginning, the scripture of Islam (i.e., the Qur’an), had been in the hands of the common person, in a language he well understood, and had been open for reflection and interpretation by the masses. Christianity, although predating Islam by some six hundred years, did not have this advantage up until this period of Enlightenment. The scriptures in Christianity (i.e., the Old and the New Testaments), had been locked away from the masses by the Church, with very limited access available in vernacular[60]. Reformation and Enlightenment opened that floodgate, and enabled Western thinkers to reflect and discuss the age-old church dogmas in the fresh light of translated scriptures. Unavoidably, that brought the freethinking minds closer to what the Qur’an had been saying on these issues for a millennium, as can be clearly seen below.

Overall, the doctrine of Atonement did not fit very well with the Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke, for example, in his Reasonableness of Christianity, published in 1695, completely ignored the idea of “sacrifice for sin” and asserted that the only necessary article of faith for Christians was “Christ’s Messiahship”.  Similarly, Thomas Chubb, in his True Gospel of Jesus Christ Vindicated, published in 1739, argued that the notion of Christ’s crucifixion as a sacrifice only arises from the apologetic concerns of the early Christian writers. He went on to say that, “God’s disposition to show mercy…arises wholly from his own innate goodness or mercifulness, and not from anything external to him, whether it be the suffering and death of Jesus Christ or otherwise”.[61]

Furthermore, neither the Satisfaction approach nor the Chritus Victor approach, to atonement, matched well with the Enlightenment theme. Here is how McGrath summed up[62] the Enlightenment critique in two points:

  1. It [atonement] appeared to rest upon a notion of original guilt, which Enlightenment writers found unacceptable. Each human being was responsible for his or her own moral guilt; the very notion of an inherited guilt, as it was expressed in the traditional doctrine of original sin, was to be rejected.
  2. The Enlightenment insisted upon the rationality, and perhaps above all the morality, of every aspect of Christian doctrine. This theory of the atonement appeared to be morally suspect, especially in its notions of transferred guilt or merit. The central idea of “vicarious satisfaction” was also regarded with acute suspicion: In what sense was it moral for one human being to bear the penalties due for another?

Qur’anic Perspective on the Doctrine of Atonement:

As mentioned earlier, the Qur’anic criticism of Atonement is twofold, first, the unequivocal denial of Crucifixion as an historic event, and second, in conformity with the Enlightenment idea, the moral groundlessness of “vicarious satisfaction”.

The first Qur’anic exception, of course, does not leave much room for discussion – if the man never died on the cross (and Qur’an is as categorical on this issue as one can be), that puts the whole issue at rest. This issue remained, and will remain, the most irreconcilable dividing line between Christianity and Islam, as Paul states in 1 Cor 15, that if Christ did not die and was not risen, “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”.

That, however, leaves room for discussion on what happened instead – the interpretations of exactly how “it appeared to them so”. Many Muslim and Christian authors have written about it, and many diverging theories have been proposed throughout the fourteen hundred years since the Qur’an first made that claim.

The second Qur’anic exception is more interesting to our focus here, and affords much more space to open discussion. To begin with, it is worthwhile to explain that Qur’an does not see itself as establishing a new religion, but rather restoring the same old true religion of God that was sent to humanity over and over again in the history, while humanity kept falling into forgetfulness, corrupting the original message. Thus, it is no surprise that the Qur’anic principles find glimpses in the Old Testament, passages like that of the 6th century BC book of Ezekiel. The rational Enlightenment idea of the moral groundlessness of transferred guilt or merit is beautifully and succinctly captured here:

“The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.” Ezekiel 18: 20 NIV

Qur’an repeatedly confirms the same idea and presents it as a core principle of its moral foundation, as the following examples illustrate:

“Or has he never yet been told of what was [said] in the revelations of Moses, and that of Abraham, who to his trust was true: that no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden; and that nothing shall be accounted unto man but what he strived for; and that in time all his striving will be shown [to him]” (Qur’an 53:36-40)

“Say: Shall I seek for (my) Cherisher other than God when He is the Cherisher of all things (that exist)? Every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another. Your goal in the end is towards God. He will tell you the truth of the things wherein ye disputed.” (Qur’an 6:164)

“Who receiveth guidance, receiveth it for his own benefit: who goeth astray doth so to his own loss: No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (Qur’an 17:15)

“Nor can a bearer of burdens bear another’s burdens if one heavily laden should call another to (bear) his load. Not the least portion of it can be carried (by the other). Even though he be nearly related. Thou canst but admonish such as fear their Lord unseen and establish regular Prayer. And whoever purifies himself does so for the benefit of his own soul; and the destination (of all) is to God.” (Qur’an 35:18)

If ye reject (God), Truly God hath no need of you; but He liketh not ingratitude from His servants: if ye are grateful, He is pleased with you. No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another. In the end, to your Lord is your return, when He will tell you the truth of all that ye did (in this life), for He knoweth well all that is in (men’s) hearts. (Qur’an 39:7)

Qur’anic perspective on the issue of “vicarious satisfaction” is thus as clear as daylight: no one can die or pay for someone else’s wrongdoings nor take credit for someone else’s good actions. Each person is individually and personally responsible for one’s deeds (and only one’s deeds), and will have to stand one day in front of one’s creator to give an account.

A Muslim’s Critique of the Doctrine of Atonement:

Even at a cursory glance, a Muslim thinker cannot help but notice that the authoritative scriptures proffered by the Christian theologians propping the doctrine of atonement almost exclusively come from the writings of Paul, and almost never from Jesus Christ. Given the primacy of the concept of God in religious thought, and especially the centrality of monotheism in Semitic thought, one would expect that some clearer message would be found from the lips of the master. Something that does not require an educated theologian’s imagination, but could be comprehended by first century uneducated fishermen as well, perhaps something comparable to the clarity of Hebrew Shema[63] or Qur’anic Ikhlas[64].

A Muslim thinker also notices that the doctrine of Atonement presupposes that death is an evil that needs to be conquered. Qur’an, however, teaches that the earthly journey of man is only a transitory stage in his moral and intellectual development. Just as a caterpillar does not consider the cocoon to be an evil, but rather preparation for passage into an exciting new stage, so, the Qur’an teaches, is the life and death of this world, and that God is with us every step of the way through this journey.

Finally, there also exists, a presupposition implicit in this doctrine that humanity needs to be atoned for, or saved from. If such a condition exists, the question becomes, what is that condition? Ignorance? Sin? Death? Meaninglessness? Forgetfulness? Many similar ideas have been discussed in human intellectual history, but the Qur’an tells us that if man is in any imminent danger, it is only from within himself,that is, from his own ego. As the idea of the origination of the sin in the Qur’an illustrates[65], it is the ‘I’, when it becomes too big, that stuns the human moral development.

Conclusion:

We started this paper by disassociating Pluralism from Relativism because we believe that men of religion, in their religious claims, do not “assert a tentative hypothesis, nor a truth among other truths, or a version of truth among other possible versions, but the truth. This is so much part of the religious experience … that to deny it is to caricature the religion as a whole. Neither Islam nor Christianity can or will ever give it up. Certainly this is exclusivism; but the truth is exclusive.”[66] This is only a starting point; the discussions will continue. There is no reason why Christians and Muslims cannot be close friends and yet hold intellectual differences. This way, both sides will be saved the agony of over stretching their fabrics to cover what cannot be covered reasonably, and it will also leave room for self-reflection, and if convinced, to embrace the other side.

On the issue of the doctrine of Atonement, we have tried to show how Islamic and Christian perspectives are unique and divergent, and that the underlying reasons for these differences are foundational to the two belief systems. It, thus, seems reasonable to conclude that on the issue of Atonement, no synthesis is possible between the two religions, and that the only option left open to us as individuals is to exercise our intellect and freewill and choose a side.

Bibliography

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[1] Relativism is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths but only individual perspectives. In other words, truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a Religion or Culture. It reduces Values to Tastes, and is often understood in terms of Plato vs. Protagoras dialogs, as two intellectual opponents. Plato believed in Objective Truth, but Protagoras famously said, “Man is the measure of all things“.

[2] Eck, 2010

[3] “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an 49:13)

[4] “If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God. it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute” (Qur’an 5:48)

[5] Prof. Mahmoud Ayoub, in the book A Muslim View of Christianity, desperately tries to prove that the Qur’an does not deny Crucifixion. Despite the unequivocal message of the Qur’an on this issue, Ayoub goes on to present the translation of the verse (Q 4:157) that emphatically states, “for of a surety they killed him [Jesus] not”, as “they did not slay knowledge with certainty” (p. 166). For Ayoub, it would be “divine deception” (p. 176-177) if Jesus was in fact not crucified and God left humanity in the dark for six hundred years until Qur’an came to clarify. Our perspective on that issue is simple; it is not God but people that deceive each other (as was in this case), and although God is not in the business of running an up to date www.whatreallyhappened.com, He does support the truth, when and where He sees fit.

[6] al Faruqi (1998). p. 261

[7] al Faruqi (1998). p. 271

[8] “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned…For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:12-21); “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

[9] “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5); “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3)

[10] Catholic Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, then a part of the Roman Empire (now Lyons, France)

[11] Cross & Livingstone, 2005. article Original Sin

[12] International Theological Commission, 2010

[13] Martin Luther was a German priest and professor of theology who initiated the Protestant Reformation with publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. Luther taught that salvation does not come from good works, but a free gift of God, received only by grace through faith in Jesus as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge.

[14] John Calvin was the most influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, and is known for his so-called ‘double predestination’: that God chose some humans for salvation through Christ and others for damnation. Nothing they could ever do to change that predestination.

[15] Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli was an influential leader of the Reformation in Switzerland. Influenced by the writings of Erasmus and his own humanist education, Zwingli placed the authority of the scripture above other sources such as the ecumenical councils or the Church Fathers.

[16] McGrath, 1997. p. 517

[17] Pelagius (d. 420/440 CE), one of the most influential early Church Fathers, denied Original Sin

[18] unity.org, 2010. What are Unity’s basic teachings? #2

[19] Matthew Fox (b. 1940) is an American Episcopal priest and theologian. His books have sold millions of copies and by the mid 1990s had a “huge and diverse following”. Due to controversy surrounding his denial of original sin, he was forbidden to teach theology by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

[20] Jewish Virtual Library, 2010

[21] McGrath, 1997. p. 199. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” KJV

[22] Schaff, 1900

[23] “Say not “Trinity” : desist: it will be better for you: for God is one God…” Qur’an 4:171

[24] Arius (250 – 336 CE) was a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt. His teachings about the nature of the Godhead, which emphasized the Father’s Divinity over the Son, and his opposition to the Athanasian or Trinitarian Christology, made him a controversial figure in the First Council of Nicea, convened by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE.

[25] al-Farqui (1982). p. 10

[26] The Arabic word Allah is a composite of two words, Al – meaning ‘The’, and Illah – meaning ‘Deity’. Thus the expression Allah literally only means ‘The Deity’ or ‘The True Deity’.

[27] “and there is nothing that could be compared with Him” (Quran 112:4)

[28] al-Farqui (1982). p. 20-22

[29] “God forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with God is to devise a sin Most heinous indeed.” (Qur’an 4:48)

[30] Murata & Chittick (1994). p. 170

[31] The original Christian theological term is Atonement but McGrath considers it “cumbersome and unhelpful” and uses instead the term Salvation. p. 391. We stick with the original term here for the sake of simplicity and continuity, as the original sources we refer all use the term Atonement.

[32] Says Paul in 1 Cor 15:3

[33] McGrath, 1997. p. 391

[34] “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.” (Qur’an 4:157)

[35] “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom 3:25) NIV

[36] McGrath, 1997. p. 391-392

[37] Wiles, (1966). p. 135

[38] Wiles, (1966). p. 135

[39] Wiles, (1966). p. 136

[40] Wiles, (1966). p. 137

[41] He mentions Eph 1:4, Rom 5:19, Gal 4:4, 1 Cor 15:3

[42] “but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father” (Mat 20:23)

[43] Origen Adamantius, (c.185–254 CE) was an early Christian scholar, Commentator and theologian, and one of the most distinguished writers of the early Christian Church who taught in Alexandria Egypt.

[44] Gregory the Great, was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background. He was pope from 590 – 604 CE and is well-known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope. Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the six Latin Fathers. He is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes, that Gregory was the last good pope.

[45] McGrath, 1997. p. 395-396

[46] Gustaf Emanuel Hildebrand Aulén (1879 – 1977) was the Bishop of Strängnäs in the Church of Sweden, a theologian, and the author of Christus Victor, a work which still exerts considerable influence on contemporary theological thinking on Atonement.

[47] Aulén identified three main theories of the Atonement: the ‘scholastic’ view, epitomised by Anselm of Canterbury (known as Satisfaction theory); the ‘idealistic’ view, epitomised by Peter Abelard (known as Moral Exemplar theory); and what he referred to as the ‘classic’ view.

[48] McGrath, 1997. p. 398

[49] McGrath, 1997. p. 400

[50] McGrath, 1997. p. 402

[51] McGrath, 1997. p. 403

[52] Karl Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian considered among the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century; Pope Pius XII described him as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Other critics referred to him as the father of neo-orthodoxy.

[53] McGrath, 1997. p. 406

[54] James Innell Packer is a British-born Canadian Christian Calvinist theologian who is a Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is considered one of the most influential evangelicals in North America.

[55] McGrath, 1997. p. 407

[56] McGrath, 1997. p. 409

[57] Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834) known as the “Father of Modern Protestant Theology” was a German theologian and philosopher known for his attempt to reconcile the criticisms of the Enlightenment with traditional Protestant orthodoxy.

[58] McGrath, 1997. p. 409

[59] For example, How Islam Created the Modern World by Mark Graham (2006). Also, the article published in The Independent, How Islamic inventors changed the world by Paul Vallely (03/11/2006) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/how-islamic-inventors-changed-the-world-469452.html

[60] Church has a long and well documented history of persecuting the translators of the Bible and burning the books but is out of scope for our current discussion. Here we only want to point out the fact that the Bible was not translated into English language until the middle of the 16th century. King James Authorized Version was the first popular version printed in 1611. Before this time, Christian scripture was practically not available to a common Christian for understanding and reflection.

[61] McGrath, 1997. p. 393

[62] McGrath, 1997. p. 403

[63] “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one”

[64] “Say! God is One” (Qur’an 112:1)

[65] According to the Qur’an, the psychological motivation behind Devil’s disobedience and rebellion was clearly his puffed up ego, epitomized in his reply, “I’m better than him”. (e.g. Qur’an 7:12, 38:76, 2:34)

[66] al Faruqi (1998). p. 246

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Introduction:

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).

 

1).

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) 

 

2).

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) 

 

3).

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.

 

 

Ref.

To Make Someone Die

1

2:234 

وَالَّذِينَ يُتَوَفَّوْنَ مِنكُمْ وَيَذَرُونَ أَزْوَاجًا

If any of you die and leave widows behind

2

2:240

Same as No. 1 above 

3

3:193

وَتَوَفَّنَا مَعَ الأبْرَارِ

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

4

4:15

حَتَّىَ يَتَوَفَّاهُنَّ الْمَوْتُ

until death do claim them

5

4:97

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ تَوَفَّاهُمُ الْمَلآئِكَةُ ظَالِمِي أَنْفُسِهِمْ

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

6

6:60

وَهُوَ الَّذِي يَتَوَفَّاكُم بِاللَّيْلِ

It is He who doth take your souls by night

7

6:61

إِذَا جَاء أَحَدَكُمُ الْمَوْتُ تَوَفَّتْهُ رُسُلُنَا

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

8

7:37

إِذَا جَاءتْهُمْ رُسُلُنَا يَتَوَفَّوْنَهُمْ

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

9

7:126

وَتَوَفَّنَا مُسْلِمِينَ

and take our souls unto thee as Muslims

10

8:50

إِذْ يَتَوَفَّى الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ

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

11

10:46

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)

12

10:104

وَلَـكِنْ أَعْبُدُ اللّهَ الَّذِي يَتَوَفَّاكُمْ

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

13

12:101

تَوَفَّنِي مُسْلِمًا

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

14

13:40

Same as No. 11 above

15

16:28

Same as No. 5 above

16

16:32

الَّذِينَ تَتَوَفَّاهُمُ الْمَلآئِكَةُ طَيِّبِينَ

those whose lives the angels take in a state of purity

17

16:70

وَاللّهُ خَلَقَكُمْ ثُمَّ يَتَوَفَّاكُمْ

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

18

22:5

وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّى

and some of you are called to die

19

32:11

قُلْ يَتَوَفَّاكُم مَّلَكُ الْمَوْتِ الَّذِي وُكِّلَ بِكُمْ

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

20

39:42

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

21

40:67

وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّى مِن قَبْلُ

though of you there are some who die before

22

40:77

Same as No. 11 above

23

47:27

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?

 

 

Ref.

To Receive In Full

1

2:281

ثُمَّ تُوَفَّى كُلُّ نَفْسٍ مَّا كَسَبَتْ

Then shall every soul be paid what it earned

2

3:161

Same as No. 1 above

3

3:185

وَإِنَّمَا تُوَفَّوْنَ أُجُورَكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ

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

4

16:111

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”.

 

 

Ref.

To Raise in Honor and Stature

1

2:253

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);

2

6:165

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

3

7:176

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

4

12:100

وَرَفَعَ أَبَوَيْهِ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ

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

5

19:56

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

6

43:32

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

7

94:4

وَرَفَعْنَا لَكَ ذِكْرَكَ

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

 

 

Ref.

To Raise Physical Things

1

13:2

اللّهُ الَّذِي رَفَعَ السَّمَاوَاتِ بِغَيْرِ عَمَدٍ تَرَوْنَهَا

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

2

55:7

وَالسَّمَاء رَفَعَهَا وَوَضَعَ الْمِيزَانَ

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

3

79:28

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’.

 

 

Conclusion:

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.

 

 

Bibliography

 

  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

 

Footnotes

[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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