Most Muslims do not believe that Jesus died by crucifixion (1). The Koran teaches that Jesus was not crucified (4:157) as Michael Fonner, writing for Journal of Ecumenical Studies, explains, “This view is held not only within popular Islam but among mainstream Islamic scholars” (2). Likewise, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a scholar who authored a number of books on Islam and who also translated the Koran into English, stated that “The Qur’anic teaching is that Christ was not crucified nor killed by the Jews” (3).
Historically, and evidentially, this interpretation is problematic since universal consensus, including the most skeptical scholars, within the academy holds that Jesus died by crucifixion (4) (5). Historian James Dunn explains that the crucifixion is one of “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” and that it “rank[s] so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (6). In other words, most Muslims have to deny a strong body of historical evidence to hold to their interpretation. For a full analysis of this evidence see my article.
One of the views popular within Islamic circles is that Jesus, as a prophet and messenger, did not actually die but instead “was raised body and soul to heaven” (7) where he met Muhammad during his Night Ascent. Another view is that like Muhammad and the other prophets simply died by natural means. The Koran fully considered, Jesus’ death is dealt with, directly and indirectly, in four suras (3:55; 3:144; 5:117; 19:33). In these it is clear that prophets can also “pass away” (die) (3:144), that the prophets prior to Muhammad, which includes Jesus, have died (3:144), and that even Allah says Jesus’ time on Earth is limited and that it will thus come to an end (3:55). Moreover, Jesus also allegedly refers to his death in suras 19:33 and 5:117. When it comes to sura 3:55, for example, there is disagreement of the text’s reference to Allah’s removal of Jesus to heaven (8). This difficulty stems from the verb tawaffa of which can be interpreted in four ways (9). One of the popular interpretations, however, is that the Koran implies that Jesus can die a normal biological death just like any other Messenger (9).
But if Jesus could die then we would certainly want to know the cause. Pertinent to answering this on the Islamic worldview is sura 4:157 which is the only reference to the crucifixion of Jesus in the Koran. The verse certainly denies that Jesus died by crucifixion, “they [the Jews] 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.”
Among Islamic scholars the substitution theory is the most popular (10). This theory says that it was not Jesus who was crucified but someone who “appeared” like him to the Jews and was killed in his place. Michael Fonner explains that “The common belief among Muslims that the crucifixion was an illusion, or that someone else was substituted for Jesus” (11). This view does not deny a historical crucifixion although it does deny that it was Jesus who was crucified. A number of imaginative and speculative substitutes have been proposed in Jesus’ place including a Roman soldier, a passing Jew, Simon of Cyrene, Judas Iscariot, Peter or some other unknown apostle of the likes of Tatanus, and Sergius, “Their [scholars] principal disagreement is only whether God cast the image of Jesus on a number of people, from whom the Jews chose one to crucify, or whether God cast the image of Jesus only on one specific person” (12).
1. Melton, J. & Baumann, M. 2010. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, 2nd Edition [6 volumes]: p. 55.
2. Fonner, M. 1992. “Jesus’ Death by Crucifixion in the Qur’an: An Issue of Interpretation and Muslim-Christian Relations” in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies 29, p. 442.
3. Yusuf Ali, A. 1999. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, 10th Edition. p. 236.
4. Ehrman, B. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
5. Johnson, T. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 125.
6. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 339.
7. Reynolds, G. 2009. “The Muslim Jesus: Dead or Alive” in the School of Oriental and African Studies, 72, p. 245
8. Muhammad, K. 2011. “The Case of the Overlooked Fatwa” in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. p. 381
9. Reynolds, G. 2009. Ibid. p. 245.
10. Reynolds, G. 2009. Ibid. p.243-244.
11. Fonner, M. 1992. Ibid. p. 443.
12. Reynolds, G. 2009. Ibid. p. 241-242