By Abu Amina Elias for FaithinAllah.org
The Quran says, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him” (4:157). Does Islam deny the historical crucifixion of Jesus?
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
There are several interpretations of this verse regarding what happened to Jesus, upon him be peace, the moment his enemies came to crucify him. In our opinion, the most plausible explanation of the verse, supported by strong evidence, is that the body of Jesus was crucified while his soul was raised to heaven. Thus, his soul was not killed but rather he was protected by Allah from the crucifixion while the people on earth saw his body being crucified.
وَقَوْلِهِمْ إِنَّا قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ وَلَٰكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ ۚ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ ۚ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلَّا اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ ۚ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا
And their saying: Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them. Verily, those who differ over it are in doubt about it, for they have no knowledge of it except following assumptions. They did not kill him for certain.
Surah An-Nisa 4:157
The difference of interpretation is over the phrase, “it was made to appear to them.” Many commentators relied upon exegetical reports claiming that another person was made to resemble Jesus, perhaps a disciple or Judas. However, these reports contradict each other and are not authentic traditions attributed to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
Muhammad Asad explains:
There exist among Muslims many fanciful legends telling us that at the last moment Allah 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 Quran or in authentic traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected.
Source: Message of the Quran 4:157
It seems very unlikely that the intention of the verse is to radically change the accepted historical narrative. Rather, the Quran was revealed to confirm the Gospel.
نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنجِيلَ
He has sent down upon you the book in truth, confirming what was before it. And He revealed the Torah and the Gospel.
Surah Ali Imran 3:3
Based upon the Quran’s confirmation of the Gospel, the most credible exegetical report is found in the commentary of Ibn Jareer At-Tabari.
Wahb reported: When Allah informed Jesus the son of Mary that he would soon be departing this world, he was disheartened by death and sorely grieved. So he called the disciples for a meal which he had prepared for them. Jesus said:
احْضُرُونِي اللَّيْلَةَ فَإِنَّ لِي إِلَيْكُمْ حَاجَةً
Come to me tonight, for I have a favor to ask of you.
When they had come together at night, Jesus served them himself. When they had finished eating, Jesus washed their hands and helped them perform their ablutions with his own hands, and he wiped their hands and garments. The disciples regarded this as beneath the master’s dignity and they disapproved, but Jesus said:
أَلَا مَنْ رَدَّ عَلَيَّ شَيْئًا اللَّيْلَةَ مِمَّا أَصْنَعُ فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي وَلَا أَنَا مِنْهُ
Anyone who opposes me in what I do tonight is not from me and I am not from him.
So they agreed and Jesus said:
مَّا مَا صَنَعَتُ بِكُمُ اللَّيْلَةَ مِمَّا خَدَمْتُكُمْ عَلَى الطَّعَامِ وَغَسَلْتُ أَيْدِيَكُمْ بِيَدِي فَلْيُكَنْ لَكُمْ بِي أُسْوَةٌ فَإِنَّكُمْ تَرَوْنَ أَنِّي خَيْرُكُمْ ، فَلَا يَتَعَظَّمُ بَعْضُكُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَلْيَبْذُلْ بَعْضُكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ نَفْسَهَ كَمَا بَذَلْتُ نَفْسِي لَكُمْ وَأَمَّا حَاجَتِي الَّتِي اسْتَعَنْتُكُمْ عَلَيْهَا فَتَدْعُونَ لِيَ اللَّهَ وَتَجْتَهِدُونَ فِي الدُّعَاءِ أَنْ يُؤَخِّرَ أَجْلِي
As for what I have done for you this night, serving you at a table and washing your hands with my own hands; let that be an example to you. You regard me as the best of you, so let not one among you regard himself as better than the others. Let each one of you offer his life for the others just as I have laid down my life for you. The favor for which I have called you is that you pray fervently that Allah will extend my term.
When they stood up for prayer, wishing to prolong their earnest supplications, they were overcome by sleep and they were unable to pray. Jesus said:
سُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ مَا تَصْبِرُونَ لِي لَيْلَةً وَاحِدَةً تُعِينُونِي فِيهَا
Glory be to Allah! Can you not be patient with me one night and support me?
They said, “We do not know what overcame us. We would stay up in the night for long prayers but tonight we cannot help but sleep. Whatever supplication we wish to make, we are prevented from saying it.” Then Jesus said:
يُذْهَبُ بِالرَّاعِي وَتَتَفَرَّقُ الْغَنَمُ
The shepherd will be taken away and the sheep will be scattered.
And Jesus continued to lament his end. He said:
الْحَقُّ لَيَكْفُرَنَّ بِي أَحَدُكُمْ قَبْلَ أَنْ يَصِيحَ الدِّيكُ ثَلَاثَ مَرَّاتٍ وَلَيَبِيعَنِي أَحَدُكُمْ بِدَرَاهِمَ يَسِيرَةٍ وَلَيَأْكُلَنَّ ثَمْنِي
In truth, I say to you, one of you will deny me three times before the rooster crows, and another will sell me for a few pieces of silver and consume my price.
After this, they went out, each his own way, and they left him. The Jews then came seeking him and they seized Simon, saying, “He is one of his companions!” but he denied it, saying, “I am not his companion!” Others also seized him and he again denied. Then he heard the crowing of a rooster, and he wept bitterly.
The next morning one of the disciples went to the Jews and he said, “What will you give me if I lead you to the Christ?” They gave him thirty pieces, which he took and led them to Jesus. Before that, however, it became unclear to them. Thus, they took him after ascertaining that it was him and they tied him with a rope and they dragged him, saying, “You raised the dead and cast out Satan and healed those who were possessed! Can you not save yourself from this rope?” They spat on him and placed thorns upon his head. Thus they brought him to the piece of wood upon which they wished to crucify him, but Allah raised him up to Himself and they crucified what was made to appear for them.
Jesus remained for seven hours and his mother and the woman whom Jesus cured from madness came to weep in the place of the crucifixion. Jesus came to them and said, “For whom do you weep?” They said, “For you!” He said:
إِنِّي قَدْ رَفَعَنِي اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ وَلَمْ يُصِبْنِي إِلَّا خَيْرٌ وَإِنَّ هَذَا شَيْءٌ شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ فَأْمُرَا الْحَوَارِيِّينَ أَنْ يَلْقَوْنِي إِلَى مَكَانِ كَذَا وَكَذَا
Verily, Allah has raised me unto Himself and nothing befell me except goodness, for this is something which was made to appear to them. Go now and tell the disciples to meet me at such-and-such place.
There were eleven who met him and the disciple who sold him and led the Jews to him was missing. Jesus asked his companions about him and they said, “He regretted what he did, so he hanged himself.” Jesus said:
لَوْ تَابَ لَتَابَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ
Had he repented, Allah would surely have turned toward him.
Source: Tafseer At-Tabari 4:157
In this narration, Jesus is informed by Allah that his death is near, so he prepares himself for martyrdom, saying, “Let each one of you offer his life for the others just as I have laid down my life for you.” The wisdom behind this is that if Jesus were to sacrifice his life that would save the lives of his disciples, for if they had killed the leader of the movement they would no longer pursue its followers. A similar action was undertaken by Uthman ibn Affan, may Allah be pleased with him, when he refused to defend himself from his enemies.
Abu Huraira reported: I entered upon Uthman on the day he was under siege in his house and I said, “O leader of the believers, I have come to give you my support.” Uthman said to me:
يَا أَبَا هُرَيْرَةَ أَيَسُرُّكَ أَنْ تَقْتُلَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا وَإِيَّايَ مَعَهُمْ
O Abu Huraira, does it please you to ‘kill the people altogether’ (5:32) including me?
I said, “No.” Uthman said:
وَاللَّهِ لَئِنْ قَتَلْتَ رَجُلا وَاحِدًا لَكَأَنَّمَا قَتَلْتَ النَّاسَ جَمِيعًا
By Allah, if you have killed one man then it is as if you have killed all the people.
Source: Sunan Sa’id ibn Mansur, Grade: Sahih
So Abu Huraira returned and he did not fight. This shows the incredible wisdom and sacrifice of Uthman. If he commanded Abu Huraira to fight on his behalf, they would have likely killed Abu Huraira as well and the Muslims would have been deprived of so many prophetic traditions narrated on his authority. Likewise, Jesus refused to defend himself out of his concern for the safety of his companions.
As recorded in the book of John:
ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός· ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Source: John 10:11
μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ
Greater love has none other than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
Source: John 15:13
In fact, such a comparison was made between Uthman and Jesus by some of the early Muslims.
Awf reported: I heard Al-Hajjaj giving a sermon and he was saying:
إِنَّ مَثَلَ عُثْمَانَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ كَمَثَلِ عِيسَى ابْنِ مَرْيَمَ
Verily, the likeness of Uthman with Allah is the likeness of Jesus the son of Mary.
Then he recited these verses and he explained them:
يَا عِيسَى إِنِّي مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَيَّ وَمُطَهِّرُكَ مِنْ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا
O Jesus, verily, I will cause you to die and will raise you to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve. (3:55)
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4641, Grade: Hasan
This is an important moral lesson taught by the story of Jesus’ martyrdom. The same lesson, of refusing to fight back when wisdom dictates, was also taught by Prophet Muhammad.
Sa’d ibn Abu Waqqas reported: I said, “O Messenger of Allah, what do you think if someone enters my house and stretches out his hand to kill me?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
كُنْ كَابْنَيْ آدَمَ
Be like the son of Adam.
Then, Yazid ibn Khalid recited the verse:
لَئِن بَسَطتَ إِلَيَّ يَدَكَ لِتَقْتُلَنِي مَا أَنَا بِبَاسِطٍ يَدِيَ إِلَيْكَ لِأَقْتُلَكَ إِنِّي أَخَافُ اللَّهَ رَبَّ الْعَالَمِينَ
If you should raise your hand against me to kill me, then I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Verily, I fear Allah the Lord of the worlds. (5:28)
Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4257, Grade: Hasan
Moreover, Jesus showed tremendous patience, forbearance, and mercy during the whole event, as he prayed for Allah to forgive his oppressors.
As recorded in the book of Luke:
ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔλεγεν Πάτερ, ἄφες αὐτοῖς· οὐ γὰρ οἴδασιν τί ποιοῦσιν. διαμεριζόμενοι δὲ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἔβαλον κλήρους
Jesus said: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. And they cast lots to divide his garments.
Source: Luke 23:34
This exact incident was mentioned by Prophet Muhammad.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: I saw the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, tell the story of a prophet who was beaten by his people and he wiped the blood from his face, saying:
رَبِّ اغْفِرْ لِقَوْمِي فَإِنَّهُمْ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ
My Lord, forgive my people for they do not know.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 6530, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
So Jesus was handed over to the authorities and he refused to defend himself in order to protect the lives of his companions. They abused him, spat on him, placed a crown of thorns on his head, and yet he still asked Allah to forgive them. When the moment came to take him to the cross upon which to crucify him, Allah raised his soul to heaven and He spared His Messenger from this pain and humiliation. At-Tabari reported:
حَتَّى أَتَوْا بِهِ الْخَشَبَةَ الَّتِي أَرَادُوا أَنْ يَصْلُبُوهُ عَلَيْهَا ، فَرَفَعَهُ اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ وَصَلَبُوا مَا شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ
Thus they brought him to the piece of wood upon which they wished to crucify him, but Allah raised him up to Himself and they crucified what was made to appear for them.
What was made to appear to them was the crucifixion of his body while his soul was protected in heaven. This is the meaning of Allah’s words, “I will take you and raise you to Myself.” (3:55)
Ibn Kathir reported: Ibn Abbas explained the verse, saying:
إِنِّي مُتَوَفِّيكَ أَيْ مُمِيتُكَ
“I will take you,” means I will cause you to die.
Source: Tafseer Ibn Kathir 3:55
And Wahb explained the verse, saying:
أَمَاتَهُ اللَّهُ ثَلَاثَةَ أَيَّامٍ ثُمَّ بَعَثَهُ ثُمَّ رَفَعَهُ
Allah made him die for three days, then He resurrected him, then He ascended him.
The resurrection of Jesus after his bodily death and his ascension to heaven is the signature miracle of his prophetic career, just as Moses’ miracle was the parting of the sea and Muhammad’s miracle is the revelation of the Quran. The miracle of the resurrection definitively proved the truth of the Day of Resurrection, which some Jews had denied, and also that Allah’s will can never be frustrated. Although the body of Jesus was killed, they could never kill his soul and prevent his message from being delivered.
وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا
For certain, they did not kill him.
Surah An-Nisa 4:157
This is because those who are martyred for the sake of Allah can never die.
وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَمْوَاتًا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ
Never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allah as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision.
Surah Ali Imran 3:169
And this is why Jesus said:
إِنِّي قَدْ رَفَعَنِي اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ وَلَمْ يُصِبْنِي إِلَّا خَيْرٌ وَإِنَّ هَذَا شَيْءٌ شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ
Verily, Allah has raised me unto Himself and nothing befell me except goodness, for this is something which was made to appear to them.
And the book of Luke reads:
λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν τοῖς φίλοις μου, Μὴ φοβηθῆτε ἀπὸ τῶν ἀποκτεινόντων τὸ σῶμα, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα μὴ ἐχόντων περισσότερόν τι ποιῆσαι
I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.
Source: Luke 12:4
Therefore, we can conclude that the enemies of Jesus never crucified or killed his soul, but rather what was “made to appear to them” was only the crucifixion of his body. In our opinion, this is the best interpretation because it reconciles the Quran with the Gospel narrative and historical accounts, and it preserves the wise lesson of peaceful martyrdom and forgiveness also taught by Prophet Muhammad.
Furthermore, it should be mentioned that some of the most ardent supporters of the “substitution theory” are themselves Christians who attempt to use the story as proof that Islam is a heretical sect of Christianity. By affirming the historical crucifixion and reconciling it with the Quran, these Christians will no longer be able to use such stories against Islam.
Finally, it must be said that biographical details of Jesus’ life are not as important as his message and practical teachings. There are numerous interpretations of the verse, “it was made to appear to them,” and we have only presented what we believe is the strongest opinion. It is not necessary for Muslims to accept this interpretation if they believe in another explanation reported in the books of exegesis. What a Muslim is required to believe about Jesus was mentioned specifically by the Prophet, namely that Jesus is the servant of Allah, His Messenger, His word bestowed upon Mary, and His spirit from Him.
Ubaida ibn As-Samit reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ قَالَ أَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَحْدَهُ لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ وَأَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا عَبْدُهُ وَرَسُولُهُ وَأَنَّ عِيسَى عَبْدُ اللَّهِ وَابْنُ أَمَتِهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَى مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِنْهُ وَأَنَّ الْجَنَّةَ حَقٌّ وَأَنَّ النَّارَ حَقٌّ أَدْخَلَهُ اللَّهُ مِنْ أَيِّ أَبْوَابِ الْجَنَّةِ الثَّمَانِيَةِ شَاءَ
Whoever testifies that there is no God but Allah alone without any partners and that Muhammad is His servant and His Messenger, and that Jesus is the servant of Allah, His word which He bestowed upon Mary and His spirit from Him, and that Paradise is true and Hellfire is true, then he will enter through any of the eight gates of Paradise he wishes.
Source: Sahih Muslim 28, Grade: Sahih
In conclusion, the meaning of Allah’s words, “They did not kill him nor crucify him, but rather it was made to appear to them,” refers to the crucifixion of the body of Jesus while his soul was raised to heaven. This interpretation is based upon exegetical reports and supporting evidence from the Quran and Sunnah. It is not necessary for Muslims to adopt this opinion, but we believe this is the strongest interpretation because it reconciles the Quran with the historical narrative, it preserves the moral lessons taught by Jesus’ martyrdom, and it prevents Christians from using substitution interpretations against Islam.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.