The lives of God's chosen Messengers contain many messages and lessons for all people, especially when we study their encounters, their troubles, and their great struggles. The Qur'an cites Jesus as an example for people to follow, because of how he conducted his life and his struggle, and because of his great virtue.
Jesus' birth, life, and ascension to God's presence are all miracles that the Qur'an reveals in some detail. Although God reveals the narratives of many Prophets, Jesus, whom God supported with superior wisdom, is set apart from the others in several aspects, among them that he spoke even in the cradle, and that he was the vehicle for countless miracles while he was in this world. That his status is different also can be deduced from the fact that he was raised to God's presence and that the Qur'an indicates strongly his second coming.
The Qur'an reveals that the unbelievers devised a plot to take Jesus' life. According to some sources, a group of bigoted Jewish scribes and priests bribed Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, to betray him, after which they would arrest Jesus and hand him over to the Romans. According to the same sources, the priests did not have the power to sentence someone to death and so had to make another plan to agitate the Roman regime. Thus, they portrayed Jesus as being hostile to the Roman leadership, for the Romans were highly sensitive and ruthless when confronted with dissidents. But these priests failed, for the Qur'an relates:
They [unbelievers] planned and God planned. But God is the best of planners. (Surah Al 'Imran, 3:54)
As the verses reveal, they plotted and moved to kill Jesus. However, their plot failed and they ended up killing a look-alike. During this event, God raised Jesus up to His presence:
And [on account of] their saying: "We killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Messenger of God." They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, but it was made to seem so to them. Those who argue about him are in doubt about it. They have no real knowledge of it, just conjecture. But they certainly did not kill him. God raised him to Himself. God is Almighty, All-Wise. (Surat An-Nisa', 4:157-158)
Many people believe in the widespread assumption that the Romans crucified Jesus. The Roman soldiers and Jewish priests who arrested Jesus are said to have killed him on the cross. Although some historical Christian sects such as Docetism have denied this, today, the world of Christianity completely believes it, as well as that he was resurrected three days later and, after several brief meetings with his disciples and others, ascended into the heavens.
The Qur'an, however, says otherwise. The reality revealed in the verses is clear. The Romans, abetted by some Jews' agitation, attempted to kill Jesus but did not succeed. The expression "but it was made to seem so to them" reveals this fact. God showed them a look-alike and raised Jesus up to His presence. Our Lord also reveals that those who made that claim had no knowledge of the truth.
In the early years of Christianity, several views on Jesus' fate emerged. In the subsequent centuries and until the articles of faith were fully formulated at the Council of Nicea (325), these ideological differences continued to persist, and movements that claimed that Jesus had not been crucified were accused of heresy and its members were persecuted.
The Qur'anic Account of Jesus' Ascent to God's Presence
Examining the words used in the narratives relating how the Prophets died and the verses dealing with Jesus' ascent to God's presence reveals an important fact: Jesus did not die like the other prophets did, nor was he murdered by the unbelievers. Rather, our Lord took him up to His presence. In this chapter, we will examine the Arabic words used to express how the Prophets died and how Jesus was raised up to God's presence, and investigate how the Qur'an uses them.
As we will see in greater detail later on, the Qur'an uses qataloohu (to kill), maata (to die), halaka (to perish), salaboohu (they crucified him), or some other special expressions to describe the death or murder of the Prophets. In the case of Jesus, the Qur'an clearly states that he was not killed in any of those ways, for: "They did not kill him [wa ma qataloohu] and did not crucify him [wa ma salaboohu]." God reveals that people were shown a look-alike and that Jesus was raised up to His presence, as follows:
When God said: "Jesus, I will take you back [mutawaffeeka] and raise you up [wa raafi'uka] to Me and purify you of those who are unbelievers. And I will place the people who follow you above those who are unbelievers until the Day of Rising..." (Surah Al 'Imran, 3: 55)
The following are the ways in which the words referring to death in the Qur'an and the word tawaffa in Surah Al 'Imran are used:
Tawaffa: To Cause To Die, To Take in One's Sleep,
or To Take Back
The word tawaffa used in Surah Al 'Imran 3 and translated as "taking back" here and "causing to die" in some Qur'an translations, has various connotations. Examining the Arabic verses clearly reveals that these connotations of the word should be considered while applying it to Jesus' situation. The Qur'an describes his being taken back to God in the words that Jesus will say on the Day of Judgment:
[Jesus said], "I said to them nothing but what You ordered me to say: 'Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.' I was a witness against them as long as I remained among them, but when You took me back to You [tawaffa], You were the One watching over them. You are the Witness of all things." (Surat al-Ma'ida, 5:117)
In Arabic the word that is translated in some translations of this verse as "You have caused me to die" is tawaffa and comes from the root wafa - to fulfil. Tawaffa does not actually mean "death" but the act of "taking the self back" either in sleep, in death or as in the case of Jesus being taken back into the presence of God. From the Qur'an again, we understand that "taking the self back" does not necessarily mean death. For instance, it can mean "taking back the self while one is asleep," as indicated in the following verse:
It is He Who takes you back to Himself [yatawaffaakum] at night, while knowing the things you perpetrate by day, and then wakes you up again, so that a specified term may be fulfilled. (Surat al-An'am, 6:60)
The word used for "take back" in this verse is the same as the one used in Surah Al 'Imran 55. In other words, in the verse above, the word tawaffa is used and it is obvious that one does not die in one's sleep. Therefore, what is meant here is, again, "taking the self back." In the following verse, the same word is used like this:
God takes back people's selves [yatawaffaa] when their death [mawtihaa] arrives and those who have not yet died, while they are asleep [lam tamut]. He keeps hold of those whose death [mawt] has been decreed and sends the others back for a specified term. (Surat Az-Zumar, 39:42)
As this verse clarifies, God takes back the self of the one who is asleep, yet He sends back the selves of those whose deaths have yet not been decreed. In this context, in one's sleep one does not die, in the sense in which we perceive death. Only for a temporary period, the self leaves the body and remains in another dimension. When we wake up, the self returns to the body.1
Imam al-Qurtubi makes clear that there are three meanings to the term wafat which is from the same root as tawaffa:the wafat of death, the wafat of sleep, and last, the wafat of being raised up to God, as in the case of Jesus.
Qatala: To Kill
The Qur'an uses qatala to mean "to kill," as in the following verse:
Pharaoh said: "Let me kill [aqtulu] Moses and let him call upon his Lord! I am afraid that he may change your religion and bring about corruption in the land." (Surah Ghafir, 40:26)
In Arabic, "let me kill Moses" is aqtulu Musa, a phrase that is derived from the verb qatala. In another verse, the same word is used in the following way:
... [That was because they] killed [yaqtuloona] the Prophets without any right to do so. (Surat al-Baqara, 2:61)
The expression yaqtuloona (they killed) is also derived from qatala. The translation is clearly "to kill."
The verses below speak of the deaths of the Prophets, and the usage of the verb qatala is marked. All words in brackets are derivatives of this verb.
We will write down what they said and their killing [wa qatlahum] of the Prophets without any right to do so. (Surah Al 'Imran, 3:181)
Say: "Why, then, if you are believers, did you previously kill [taqtuloona] the Prophets of God?" (Surat al-Baqara, 2:91)
As for those who reject God's Signs, and kill [yaqtuloona] the Prophets without any right to do so, and kill [yaqtuloona] those who command justice... (Surah Al 'Imran, 3:21)
"Kill [uqtuloo] Joseph or expel him to some land." (Surah Yusuf, 12:9)
..."Moses, the Council is conspiring to kill you [li yaqtulooka]." (Surat al-Qasas, 28:20)
The only answer of his [Abraham's] people was to say: "Kill [uqtuloohu] him or burn him!" (Surat al-'Ankabut, 29:24)
Halaka: To Perish
Another word used to denote the act of killing is halaka. It also is used to mean "to perish, to be destroyed, or to die," as in the verse given below:
... when he [Joseph] died [halaka], you said: "God will never send another Messenger after him."(Surah Ghafir, 40:34)
The phrase idha halaka is translated as "when he died." meaning "to die."
Another word used to relate a Prophet's death is mawt, a noun derived from the verb maata (to die), as follows:
Then when We decreed that he [Prophet Solomon] should die [mawt], nothing divulged his death [mawtihi] to them except the worm that ate his staff. (Surah Saba', 34:14)
In the following verse, another form of the verb is used:
Peace be upon him [Prophet John] the day he was born, the day he dies [yamootu], and the day he is raised up again alive. (Surah Maryam, 19:15)
The word yamootu is translated here as "they day he dies," and the same word is used (in the form of a noun) to relate Jacob's death:
Or were you present when death [mawt] came to Jacob? (Surat al-Baqara, 2:133)
In another verse, the verbs qatala (in the passive form qutila) and maata are used together:
Mohammed is only a Messenger, and he has been preceded by other Messengers. If he were to die [maata] or be killed [qutila], would you turn on your heels? (Surah Al 'Imran, 3:144)
Other forms of the verb are used in other verses to denote the death of Prophets:
She exclaimed: "Oh if only I had died [mittu] before this time and was something discarded and forgotten!" (Surah Maryam, 19:23)
We did not give any human being before you immortality [khuld]. And if you die [mitta], will they then be immortal? (Surat al-Anbiya', 21: 34)
"He Who will cause my death [yumeetunee], then give me life." (Surat ash-Shu'ara', 26: 81)
The word khalid means immortality, permanence, and continued existence, as in the following verse:
We did not give them bodies that did not eat food, nor were they immortal [khalideena]. (Surat al-Anbiya', 21:8)
Salaba: To Crucify
Another word used in the Qur'an to relate death is salaba (to crucify). This verb has various meanings (e.g., to hang, to crucify, to execute) and is used in the following ways:
They did not kill him and they did not crucify him [wa maa salaboohu]. (Surat An-Nisa', 4:157)
[Joseph said:] "One of you will serve his lord with wine, the other of you will be crucified [yuslabu]." (Surah Yusuf, 12:41)
They should be killed or crucified [yusallaboo]. (Surat al-Ma'ida, 5:33)
[Pharaoh said:] "I will cut off your alternate hands and feet, and then I will crucify [la usallibannakum] every one of you." (Surat al-A'raf, 7:124)
As the verses show, the words used to express Jesus' situation are altogether different to those used to describe the deaths of the other Prophets. God states that Jesus was neither killed nor crucified, that a look-alike was killed in his place, and that he was taken back (in other words that his soul was taken) and raised up to His presence. When talking of Jesus', the Qur'an uses tawaffa (to take the soul) whereas when talking of the other Prophets, it uses qataloohu or maata (and its derivatives) to mean "death" in the conventional sense. This information shows us yet again that Jesus' situation was extraordinary.
1. Yuce Kuran'in Cagdas Tefsiri (The Contemporary Tafsir of the Holy Qur'an) by Professor Suleyman Ates, Head of Department of Basic Islamic Sciences at Istanbul University's Faculty of Divinity, Vol. 2, 49-50.