Q. I have the following questions:
a) The Lahori Ahmadis prove in their writings that the birth, death, and ascension of Jesus is as normal as all other human beings, and they are labeled kafirs for their views. Should imams, shaykhs, mullas, and scholars be calling other Muslims "kafirs" regardless of their understanding of the Qur'an? Did the Prophet Muhammad and Qur'an condemn this type of hate?
b) Did the Prophet ascend to heaven physically or spiritually? Does the Qur'an support the physical ascension view? Is the ahadith in accordance with the Prophet being physically taken up? Did this event happen in a flash or days? What was the purpose of the miraj? What was the status of the Prophet when he saw Jesus in the heavens?
The Status of Jesus
A. We do share the same frustration regarding many of the views given regarding Jesus, and do believe that some of the finest Christological research has indeed been done by the Lahori Ahmadis. However, the usage of the word "prove" is problematic when stating that the Lahoris have proven their views in their writings on the birth, death, and ascension of Jesus. In the first place, the Qur'an contains a great deal of lacunae on the issue of Jesus, especially after the attempt at crucifixion, and therefore nothing can be said to have been proven except what is obvious in the Qur'an, which we shall deal with shortly.
As far as Jesus' birth is concerned, certainly the Lahori position, as explained by the Maulana of revered memory, Muhammad Ali, in his translation of the Qur'an (note 422) is a strong one. Please note too that Maulana Muhammad Ali was not the only Muslim to attribute Jesus' birth to totally normal procedures, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan also did that. But despite the Maulana's brilliant exegesis of verse 3:43 and note 422 in his translation of the Qur'an, we take issue on certain minor points. It is true that Mary's mother did pray for her and her children. But according to Sura 19, the angel's visitation occurred when she was still a nazir -- i.e. still dedicated to the service of the temple, therefore she could not have been married at the time. We cannot assume that being a nazir was a permanent thing, for Samson (according to the Bible) was one too, and we see him later indulging in sexual activity. Note that verse 19:20 does not allow us to assume any elliptical projection and surmise that the conception may have occurred long after the angel's visit. Note too the angel's answer to Mary in 19:21 is the Lord saying that "It is easy to Me." Would it not have set her heart at ease to hear from the angel that the boy would come after her marriage? Also her reaction in 19:23, "Would that I had died before this, and had been a thing quite forgotten!" Why would she be so perturbed if the child were from Joseph? And why, if she were married, would the people react as shown in 19:27?
In verse 19:29 and Muhammad Ali's footnote 1543, he mentions that it was absurd for Jesus to speak in the cradle, and that the older Jewish folk were inclined to disparagingly refer to young men as "in the cradle." I contacted Ira Robinson, Chief of the Jewish Historical Society of Canada, a Harvard Graduate and Professor of Jewish Studies at Concordia University, and he euphemistically states that he does not recall any such Jewish expression. In light that this comes from one of the world's foremost experts of medieval Jewish thought, and since Muhammad Ali provides no reference, we have to assume that his "evidence" was wrong, and that the ayah must be taken at face value. Regarding Muhammad Ali's argument about Jesus not being commissioned to pray while still in the cradle (verse 19:31, note 1545), this is obvious, and the meaning is that as soon as he is able to do so. Therefore, it does not present any alleged absurdity at taking the ayah at its literal value. This is quite in accordance with the rule regarding speech, which states that "Speech is taken at its apparent meaning unless some compelling factor precludes this." There is no compelling factor, and to accept Muhammad Ali's exegesis would make the ayah in question senseless. How could Mary, when questioned by her people about the child, point to him, and then his answer was only much later at the age of maturity? Surely we do not -- we cannot assume that the All-Wise Lord will ask us to believe this, or otherwise construct the speech so unclear as to mislead us?
If Jesus were of natural birth, why would Allah have to state what He did in v3:59 -- "That the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam, whom Allah created from clay." Certainly here Allah is dealing with the issue of birth, i.e. the creation of life, without the normal agency of a mother and a father, otherwise the reference would be meaningless. And the meaning is evident: as much as Adam's creation, without parents, was simple for Allah, so too was that of Jesus -- indeed simpler, for at least in Jesus' case, one parent was already there. For Allah to not mention at this time that Jesus had a human father would be a mistake on the part of the Divine One, a deliberate mistake that would entail misguiding the entire Muslim umma for several centuries until certain minds came about, minds which could not defend themselves with any measure of success. And it goes without saying that such thoughts about Allah are absurd.
In verse 19:32, Jesus clearly mentions Allah's direction to be good to his mother, and makes no mention of a father. Certainly this is strange, unless the matter is as believed by the Christians and overwhelming majority of Muslims, i.e. the virgin birth? Note too the angel's answer in 3:46, "When He decrees a matter, He only says to it 'Be' and it is." For this reason, Jesus was called "Kalimat Allah -- the Word of Allah." For it was by a single word that he came into being. This debate about God's speech took a similar shape, with different results, in Christian and Islamic theology. Since the Christians also call Christ "the Word of God," they were faced with an issue. The word is obviously speech, and to assume that it came about in time would mean that at some point in time, God was without speech, an incomprehensible thing. So they took the position that the Logos (word) was in the beginning with God, and since this Logos is Christ, then he too was in the beginning, and the word, part of the faculty of the Divine Being, became a human, i.e. incarnation.
The Muslims in debating about the Qur'an being the speech of God and thinking the same way, decided that the Qur'an was uncreated. So for the Christians, Christ was in the beginning, and for the Muslims, the Qur'an was in the beginning, i.e., the word became the Qur'an. The Muslim position is known by some as "inlibration." Both positions are obviously the result of limited analysis. Allah does instruct by miracles, and the Bani Israil were specifically targeted for miracles. It would seem that the Lahori position on this matter is based on certain suppositions, which while applicable to the Prophet's period, are not applicable to that which was before. Miracles were not a trademark of the Prophet's time, as evidenced by the Qur'anic verses on the issue. But they were, as already stated, a part of the aid to the message of the Jews and Christians at the time of their Prophets. It may also be on the supposition that the nature of Jesus' birth makes him superior to the Prophet Muhammad. In answer to this, please note that as Muslims, we do not differentiate between the Prophets in terms of elevation, and this is by Qur'anic order. We accept them all, and to say one is better than the other in terms of completeness is outside of our jurisdiction.
All of the foregoing evidence -- and we have by no means dealt with all -- indicate that Jesus' birth was a miracle. It is illogical that any Muslim can adopt a natural father theory on Jesus, since the Qur'an is quite explicit in its methodology. Note that it came with the presupposition about the Jesus story being known to a certain extent, and that all it fights against is the divinity ascribed to Jesus and his mother. Were the virgin birth theory a fallacy, certainly the Qur'an would have railed against it. To the best of our knowledge, no debate ever occurred between the Muslims and the Christians on the issue, and had this happened, certainly it would have been reported in the history books and the hadith collections, which proves that this theory was a much later development. The human father theory was started by Sir Sayyid Ahmad, a natural thing since he was against miracles. Now a Muslim cannot go against miracles, since it was a trademark of the Prophets before Muhammad. The Qur'an confirms this in the answer that the Prophet Muhammad is commanded to give: "…that Prophets came with miracles before and yet that did not suffice." Also the Qur'an lets Jesus say that he cures the blind and the leprous, brings the dead back to life, etc. all by Allah's will. Now if a man can do this, why can God not bring him into being without the agency of a man? And as Muslims, when we examine the virgin birth agency, we see the most wonderful rhetoric of feminist ideology coming forth, meaning it shows that men are not inherently superior. Here Allah shows that man is but a servant, and can be disposed of in what he terms an essential role.
As already stated, Sir Sayyid Ahmad came with the "normal procedures" theory, and it is possible that there were others before him who came with similar ideas, although I ascribe the theory to him. This is because the other mufassirs, experts at Arabic, could not deny certain Qur'anic indicators, so they came up with the theory that Mary was a hermaphrodite, a senseless one in view of the fact that she asks: "How can I have a child when no man has touched me." The whole problem seems to stem from the exegetes' need to explain away three areas which seem problematic to them:
1) That Allah should take a Jewish woman to be the "best woman" of all time.
2) That she should have a miracle of this sort wrought upon her.
3) That it would seem as if Jesus were better than Muhammad if the virgin birth were admitted. As I have stated before, apart from certain apparently logical deductions, the Qur'an does not make any claim for Muhammad being better. In fact, if one were to use internal evidence, one could make an argument (albeit a specious one) for the preferred status of Jesus.
One may say that Muhammad, being the final Prophet with a message to all humankind, was entrusted with a more responsible task. Again, this is a deduction based on our own perception and not the text of the Qur'an. This being said, let us hasten to draw attention to our position that the finer details about Jesus' birth are overwhelmed by the Qur'anic focus on what he did. The minutiae about his birth are for the Christians to debate about, and it is not within the Qur'anic mandate to do this as he was a Prophet of Israel, and they ought to focus on their Prophets more. It would seem that the Qur'anic position is that of the Christian one. The only reason why certain details are repeated is because by the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the name of Mary had been maligned and slandered, and the Bani Israil who rejected Jesus had accused her of whoredom with a Roman centurion. The Qur'an therefore clears her of this charge, and takes the Christians to task for ascribing divinity to her and her son. There is also a theory that if Jesus did not have a human father, then Mary would have been stoned to death for zina (adultery) according to Mosaic / Jewish law. Our response is that there is no evidence that Mary was married. The Mosaic law is also that a person shall not be put to death on the testimony of one (to the best of our knowledge), and there was no eyewitness to any act of sexual impropriety. Besides, the Qur'an provides the answer why: Jesus addressed his people when his mother appeared with him as a newborn, so the people must have been convinced with his miraculous explanation.
As far as the death of Jesus goes, we feel that the Lahori position about a natural death is the correct one, even though it may not be the accepted position of the so-called "orthodoxy." As far as Jesus' journey to Kashmir, we do not believe that there is evidence from the Qur'an to rule categorically that he did or did not. Remember that in the Qur'an (3:48), Jesus is designated as a Messenger to the children of Israel. One of the necessary qualifications for a Prophet is that he be fluent in the language of his people, for in delivering a divine message, there must be no room for error due to language. Therefore, we do not see a reason as to why Jesus would have traveled to Kashmir. To this position of ours, one may however raise some questions, such as stating that Jesus may have taken his followers there. Again, people are wont to accept their own, not a foreigner teaching them about God. So the best position we may take about the Lahori view is what is known as "tawaqquf" -- we do not issue a categorical verdict. This is because our position is based on deductions, which, while to our judgment seem indubitable, are nonetheless based on deduction, and we have already referred to the Qur'anic lacunae on the post-attempted crucifixion phase of Jesus' life. There are some other arguments that can be adduced from the Qur'an, and for these we suggest reading the wonderful article at this web site about Jesus being with Allah by clicking here.
The Isra and Miraj
As for the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad, our position is that it was non-physical. The Qur'an does not in anyway support the bodily ascent for several reasons. The Qur'an does not speak of the miraj as such, even though we do not doubt it. But this is the precise reason why it was not physical. When the Prophet was transported to the site of Solomon's temple, it was to bring him into the highest stratum of prophethood as understood by the Semitic religions. It was what is known in Jewish tradition as "maaseh merkavah" -- the chariot ascent. Elijah did it, and even Paul claimed it in the Bible. For this reason, the People of the Book were skeptical of the Prophet's miraj, since they thought it was not for gentiles. And thus, it was Allah's answer to them, and the Prophet Muhammad's sign of prophethood with Allah and entry into the brotherhood. It proved that prophecy was not a "Jewish" monopoly, and further underlined the Qur'anic view of Prophets being sent to all nations.
Sura 17 speaks of the taking from Makkah to Al-Masjid al-Aqsa. There was no Masjid al-Aqsa as such at the time, and if we believe the traditions, then the temple of Solomon to which the Prophet was transported was in a vision. If we take the ayah literally, it simply means the site of the temple. In verse 60, it speaks of "ru'yaa," which is not in the sense of optical reality, but can only mean vision. Now some commentators in referring to the second verse of Sura 17 wherein Allah says "asraa bi abdihi" -- carried His servant -- interpret that "abdihi" meant physical, since "abd" is an expression meaning the physical body. Our response to this is that by using "abd" in this sentence, Allah is conferring the greatest of honors on Muhammad, acknowledging him not as a mere astral voyager, but indicating that Muhammad's merkavah ascent was the pinnacle of his "ubudiya." I am referring to the verse which says: "And I have not created the jinn and humankind except to worship me (li ya'budoon)."
When the Prophet was exalted to the position where Allah could give him the favor of a maaseh merkavah, Allah used the term "abdihi" to show Muhammad's perfection as a servant of the Highest. The term then has nothing to do with connotations of physicality. This distinguishes between a dream and a vision. A dream may or may not be a figment of the dreamer's imagination. A vision, in the Qur'anic context here -- is something given to the Prophet by Allah. Now the umma is in consensus that isra occurred in a single night, which, if it was to a physical heaven, leaves us with certain improbabilities. Considering that galaxies are light years away, and a trip to one of those taken at the speed of light would take thousands of years or more to complete, one needs ask then: "Is heaven closer than these galaxies that the Prophet could have completed the journey this fast." The common answer is that it was a miracle and Allah can do what He pleases. But that presents a problem, for even though we agree, as all Muslims must, with the latter part of the foregoing statement, Muhammad never claimed any miracles for himself, and would this not have been a miracle to let people see and marvel?
Additionally, one of the greatest proofs against the isra (and the miraj) being physical is part of ayah 93 of sura 17, which in continuing the discourse of the previous ayat, speaks of the people saying to Muhammad that they will not believe in him until he ascends to heaven, and that they would not believe in that ascension until he brought a book. Now certainly here was a clear challenge placed by the people to the Prophet of Allah, and the response is that he was but a mortal. Now if the ascension was physical, the verse again becomes meaningless. For if it were before the isra, then certainly the Prophet would have called them to witness, and not left any room for doubt. An ascent in this case, if claimed by him to be physical, would have been met with a totally logical retort: "O Muhammad, why did you not call us to witness this miracle?" So that rules out a physical ascent if we assume the verse was before the great happening.
If the verse were after, again the scenario becomes illogical, for why are they asking Muhammad to do something that has already been done, and why is he giving this strange answer, i.e. that his mortality disallows it? This leads us to several issues, many of them far beyond the apparent words of the question addressed to us. Firstly, it answers the claims of the orientalists that Muhammad's knowledge was gained from the Jews and Christians with whom he came into contact. We have no evidence of a strong Jewish or Christian presence in Makkah, and we know without a doubt that the verse was revealed in Makkah, with the event supposedly occurring in the month of Rajab. This means that the Prophet experienced something quite advanced -- the maaseh merkavah -- which is something very few Christians, if any, focused on, and which the Arab Jews, if they were as uninformed about their own religion as claimed by the orientalists, would not have enough knowledge to teach the Prophet about. And such teaching would have occurred in their stronghold, Madina, not in Makkah, since according to the (orientalist) theories, Muhammad's knowledge of Judaic concepts, while he was in Makkah, was almost nothing.
So, how can the Prophet experience this highest of elevations? As we have already stated, it shows that he was in the brotherhood of those who are indeed close to Allah, indeed in the vanguard. It also shows that Allah, as if realizing the debates and lies that would arise afterward is creating evidence for us to refute those who harbor hate and animosity towards our glorious religion. If on the other hand, there are those who say that the remainder of the ayah denotes some familiarity with the concept of (spiritual) ascent, the words of the ayah also indicate that the people are not willing that he should make a visionary ascent as did the other Prophets. For now they tell him that they would not believe in this until he brings a book (from that ascent). Now why would they challenge him and then throw in this rider, as if to say: "And if you say that you made that ascent, we will still not believe you." Note they are not challenging him to do it physically so that they may witness it. They are asking for evidence after it is done. Why would they not make the challenge of ocular witness -- because they knew that ascents of the Prophets were always via vision, or as some say, in spirit, not in body. And so, when they put this business about a book in there, they were, to their own minds, creating an impossible task. For if the Prophet did indeed bring a book to them, it would have indicated that he was a liar. And so the answer, honest, simple, and divinely inspired came: "He was but a man, and no such thing would happen, for by Muhammad's time, the stage of miracles to support messengership had passed.
As far as the prayer, etc. being legislated on that night, we think that all of these ahadith are against the evidence of the Qur'an and indeed insult Allah and His Prophets. They are representative in some cases of typical Rabbinic imagery, wherein the Rabbis can and do argue with the Almighty Lord, winning Him sometimes in debate. And so Allah, in not-so-divine wisdom, orders Muhammad to have Muslims perform 50 prayers per day. But then, a mortal is wiser than Allah and counsels Muhammad to go back several times and ask for a reduction! In all truth, no one of sound mind can deny that in the foregoing scenario -- that of the general ahadith presentation -- Moses is wiser and more compassionate than Allah. How can a Muslim accept this? Did Muhammad in his vision see the Prophets, including Jesus? We do not have any indubitable evidence to accept or not accept this. The grades that were given to the Prophets certainly do not go against the Qur'an, which tells us that Allah has given higher grades to some Prophets than others. But the very Qur'an tells us to declare that we do not differentiate between them.
We feel that the whole discussion in the classical works about the ascension is taken in a vacuum far removed from the environment familiar with the concept of "maaseh merkavah." The ahadith all seem to serve a tendentious function, which seems beyond the humility of the Prophet. Our feeling is that many of the later ahadith were embellished with details to make the ascension acceptable to the People of the Book. And there were yet later additions when the Muslims began to lose sight of the time-space factor of the verses, and placed the Qur'anic terminology in the quagmire of literalness. It is our advice that Muslims who wish to understand the ascension concept further read books written by some Jewish scholars on the issue. These books should be available at any university library under the various headings of "heavenly ascent," "chariot ascent," "maaseh merkavah," "merkabah," "merkavah," and so on.
As far as the imprecations that are so notoriously present among our so-called scholars, we do not feel that one should call another "kafir" except when one clearly and indubitably rejects Allah. This means that the person says it in clear language. Now if someone interprets the Qur'an a certain way, no matter how farfetched it may seem to the catholic segment of Islam, we do not feel that it warrants the term of kufr. At the same time, however, we feel that some of our scholars use the term to indicate the greatest disapproval. Remember the word is Arabic and originally means "thankless, ungrateful," and only in later ayat came to mean "rejectionist." It is possible that one could still use it in its pristine linguistic sense, although the usage would be arcane. In Pakistan, the term has only one meaning, which is why in that country the word is more severe. That being said, let us point out that the word "kafir" even if it is used, should not prevent the one to whom it is addressed from observing Islamic adab. S/he should simply say that s/he believes in Islam, and differs with the imprecators on certain issues.
On the matter of debate about certain issues, the Qur'an asks that we produce "burhaan" to prove our point. In the case of Jesus, as we have mentioned, in many cases the lacunae prevent the providing of such burhaan (decisive proof), and as such we feel that Muslims should avoid certain topics of debate regarding him. What is interesting is that against the Jews and the Christians, the Qur'an adopts a rather conciliatory tone, condemning them not to hell, but asking us to work together for a better world (2:62; 3:64). They have to a certain extent committed shirk, an unforgivable sin. Yet, because the shirk is not extremely clear, since they claim the three in one concept, and the Jewish Uzair controversy in unclear to us at this point in time, Allah still keeps the gates of Paradise open to them.
Now, a Muslim certainly should show more to his/her fellow Muslim in terms of brotherhood and sisterhood, for whatever the differences, we are still within the fold of Islam. Matters of dogma, unless clearly specified in the Qur'an, are not enough to take one out of the fold of Islam, therefore the charge of kufr cannot be launched on such matters. To the best of our knowledge, the Lahori ostracism from mainstream Islam is based on certain minor doctrinal issues. If the question was in reference to those who call Maulana Muhammad Ali a kafir, it is our feeling that they would come closer to the One True Allah if they contemplated the Maulana's teachings. The learned Maulana was but a man, and if he made mistakes in some things, then he did so in the genuine search for truth, and were he not to make mistakes, he would not have been human. If the Prophet Muhammad were alive today, it is quite possible that his interpretation of the Qur'an would not have been good enough for many Muslims, and in all likelihood, the epithet of "kafir" would have been leveled against him in some circles. May we become better Muslims and establish the broad unity of "al ukhuwa al-Islamiyya." And Allah knows best.
Posted November 9, 1999