The Qur’an is not a work of literary narrative, as is the Bible. As a scripture that provides guidance (huda) and a reminder (tadhkira) to humankind, it gives more emphasis to spiritual edifications than to providing a full account of facts. So, the Quran’s main concern with the Jesus story, too, is not to give a full account of the Jesus story, but rather to put it in the right theological perspective. That is probably why, although it contains detailed narratives about the birth and mission of Jesus, it tells us almost nothing about his passing. For it does not consider the passing of Jesus—just like that of Abraham, Moses, or Muhammad himself—as an event with major theological significance.
In contrast, the passing of Jesus—or, more precisely, his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension—is crucial for Christianity. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, “then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) No wonder what ultimately became the very symbol of Christianity was the sign of the cross, which stands for the crucifixion—and not the sign of the fish, as it was among the earliest Christians.
In fact, the Qur’an does mention the cross, but only in passing, and only in an unaffirmative way. This mention, which led to disputes between Muslims and Christians for centuries, occurs in a Qur’anic passage that condemns a group of Jews that was apparently present in Medina. They are cursed, because “they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary.” Furthermore:
And [they] said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear like that to them. Those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition. They certainly did not kill him. God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise. Quran 4:157-158
The key statement here, “it was made to appear like that to them,” or shubbiha la-hum, has led to endless speculations. Most Muslim exegetes, both in the classic era and the modern age, inferred from this phrase a theory of “substitution.” Accordingly, Jesus was not crucified, but somebody was “substituted” in his place— perhaps one of his disciples, or Judas Iscariot who betrayed him, or Simon of Cyrene who helped him carry the cross.
Yet this “substitution” theory, which is still almost the standard view among Muslims today, raises lots of questions. Fakhraddin al-Razi, the medieval scholar, addressed some of them frankly in his major exegesis of the Qur’an. “God was no doubt capable of delivering Jesus from the hands of his enemies by simply taking him up to heaven,” he first reminded. “What then,” he asked, “is the purpose of casting his likeness on another man, except to condemn an innocent man to death to no purpose?” He also made the following observation, which is in fact a good reminder for all religious believers that their arguments against the rival tradition can turn back on themselves:
All Christians in the world, with all their great love for Jesus and their extremist beliefs concerning him, have reported that they witnessed him being crucified and killed. If we were to deny this, we would cast doubt on the principle of tawatur [universally accepted transmission]. Casting doubt on this principle would also necessitate casting doubt on the prophethood of Muhammad and Jesus, and even on their very existence, as well as the existence of all other prophets, and that would be untenable.
Other Muslim commentators took a second and less radically rejectionist interpretation of “appearance,” arguing that Jesus was indeed crucified but he did not die on the cross. He rather secretly survived his execution, they suggested, despite his “appearance” of death. Ahmadiyya Muslims, an unorthodox sect of Islam, take this line. They even believe that after surviving the cross, Jesus moved to Kashmir, an area in the northern Indian subcontinent, to live there and ultimately to die a natural death. Hence in the Kashmirian city of Srinagar, there is still a highly revered “tomb of Jesus.”
Yet there is a third and radically different interpretation of the Qur’an’s verdict on the cross—a road much less taken. It begins by noting the context of the statement “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him.” The context is a polemic against certain Jews— not Christians—who, apparently, both slandered Mary and also took pride in claiming “We killed the Messiah.” (No wonder in Talmudic literature there is a narrative which “proudly proclaims Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ execution.”66) To these people the Qur’an says, no, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear like that to them.”
In other words, the Qur’an is only telling us that Jews did not crucify and kill Jesus. It does not say nobody did that. It does not say, for example, that Romans did not crucify and kill Jesus, which was, of course, what really happened according to the canonical gospels.
Some scholars think that this third interpretation of the Qur’an’s interpretation of the cross may be compatible with the Christian version of the story. One was the late William Montgomery Watt, one of the most eminent Western scholars of Islam. He argued that a Christian could in fact accept the Qur’an’s statement on the crucifixion, “since the crucifixion was the work of Roman soldiers… [and] since the crucifixion was not a victory for the Jews in view of [Jesus’] resurrection.”
However, while this third interpretation makes it possible to reconcile the Qur’an with the story of the cross related in the canonical gospels, it probably cannot be reconciled with the theology of the cross related in Paul’s letters. Accordingly, the crucifixion was a cosmic event in which Jesus suffered as an atonement for the sins of all humankind. This theology not only has no trace in the whole Qur’an, it also goes against some of its core doctrines—such as that sin is strictly personal, and “no burden-bearer can bear another’s burden.” (Qur’an 35:18 53:38) It also is theologically unnecessary, for the Qur’an does not share the theology of the Fall as well, which according to Christianity made every human being inherently sinful and thus in need of a savior.
Excerpted from the book “The Islamic Jesus” by Mustafa Akyol.