Did Jesus Ascend? A Quran’ic View
by M. A. Malek
The entire super-structure of the Christian faith is built on a dogma: the death of Jesus (a.s) on the cross, his resurrection, and his bodily ascension to heaven. Islam categorically rejects this dogma: "They slew him not nor crucified him." (Holy Qur'an 4:157) Some Muslim scholars have attempted in vain to paint this episode in the colors borrowed from the Christians. But do the Qur'anic injunctions warrant this interpretation? The Holy Qur'an says: "And because of their saying we slew the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, Allah's Messenger - They slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them. Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain." (Q4:157)
It is accepted that Jesus (a.s) was apparently placed on the cross, and they were determined to kill him, but they failed in their attempt and Jesus (a.s) escaped death on the cross. Allah created circumstances to save Jesus (a.s) dying an accursed death. (Deut. 21:23) There is nothing in the Holy Qur'an to suggest that "Jesus was taken up," so much so that even Maulana Maudoodi in his popular commentary Tafhimul-Qur'an had to admit that:
"The Qur'an is silent about the nature and the details of the matter, and does neither say explicitly whether Allah raised him bodily from the earth to some place in heaven, nor does it say that he died like other mortals and only his soul was raised to heaven. It has been couched in such a language that nothing can be said definitely about the incident except that it was uncommon and extraordinary." (Note 195 to verse 4:157)
That is not the whole truth. It is wrong to say that "nothing can be said definitely." If we interpret this verse with the application of the rules of interpretation, we arrive at only one conclusion: "That Jesus (a.s) had died - that he is not living." The same rules of interpretation have led Muhammad Asad to the following conclusion:
"The Qur'an categorically denies the story of the crucifixion of Jesus." (Note 171 on verse 4:157 in his commentary The Message of the Qur'an). He further goes on to explain: "There exist, among Muslims, many fanciful legends telling us that at the last moment, God 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 find the slightest support in the Qur'an or in authentic Traditions, and the stories produced in this connection by the classical commentators must be summarily rejected. They represent no more than confused attempts at "harmonizing" the Qur'anic statement that Jesus was not crucified with the graphic description, in the Gospels, of his crucifixion. The story of the crucifixion as such has been succinctly explained in the Qur'anic phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, which I render as "but it only appeared to them as if it had been so" - implyng that in the course of time, long after the time of Jesus, a legend had somehow grown (probably under the then-powerful influence of Mithraistic beliefs) to the effect that he had died on the cross in order to atone for the "original sin" with which mankind is allegedly burdened; and this legend became so firmly established among the latter-day followers of Jesus that even his enemies, the Jews, began to believe it - albeit in a derogatory sense (for crucifixion was, in those times, a heinous form of death-penalty reserved for the lowest of criminals). This, to my mind, is the only satisfactory explanation of the phrase wa-lakin shubbiha lahum, the more so as the expression shubbiha li is idiomatically synonymous with khuyyila li, "[a thing] became a fancied image to me", i.e. "in my mind" - in other words: "[it] seemed to me" (see Qamus, art. khayala, as well as Lane II, 833 and IV, 1500)."
He rejects the theory of the bodily ascension of Jesus (a.s) and explains that the verb rafa'ahu (Lit. "he raised him" or "elevated him"), as in verses 4:158 and 3:55, "has always, whenever the act of raf ("elevating") a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of "honoring" or "exalting". Nowhere in the Holy Qur'an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has "taken up" Jesus (a.s) bodily, in his life time, into Heaven. The expression "God exalted him unto Himself" in the above verse (4:158) denotes the elevation of Jesus (a.s) to the realm of God's Special Grace - a blessing in which all Prophets partake - as is evident from 19:57 where the verb rafa'nahu ("we exalted him") is used with regard to the Prophet Idris (a.s) (see also Muhammad Abdullah in Manar III, 316f and VI 20f)." That was Muhammad Asad commenting on the Qur'anic verses 4:157 and 4:158 in his "The Message of the Qur'an".
Using the application of the same rules of interpretation, Shaykh Muhammad Shaltut came to the following conclusion: "There is nothing in the Holy Qur'an, nor in the sacred traditions of the Prophet (s.a.a.w), which endorses the correctness of the belief to the contentment of heart that Jesus (a.s) was taken up to heaven with his body and is alive there even now . . ." (Al-Risalah, Cairo, vol. 10 no. 462, p. 515).
He further writes in the same article: The word tawafa is used in so many places in the sense of death that it has become its foremost meaning: "Say the angel of death, who is given charge of you, shall cause you to die" (Q32:11). "(As for) those whom the angels caused to die while they are unjust to themselves" (Q4:97). "And if you could see when the angels will cause to die those who disbelieve" (Q8:50). "Our Messengers caused him to die" (Q22:5). "Make me die in submission and join me with the righteous" (Q12:101). It is absolutely clear from the Qur'anic verses quoted by Shaykh Shaltut that tawafa has no other meaning than taking away the soul either in sleep or death, particularly when God is the subject and a human being the object. The interpretation is also supported by Ibn Abbas. According to him, as narrated in Bukhari, Muttawaffika means Mumituka. (i.e. I will cause thee to die).
Jesus (a.s) was a Messenger (Q5:75), a mortal (Q21:7) subjected to the laws of Allah. Allah created human beings (and Jesus was a human being) and ordained that Death shall be their common lot. Life without death has not been granted to anyone. All human beings are mortals, and accordingly must die on earth. There are numerous verses that clearly indicate that every soul must taste death: "Every soul shall taste death" (Q3:185). "Every soul must taste death" (Q21:35). "He said (to man) therein (on earth) you shall live and therein you shall die" (Q7:25). "We appointed immortality for no mortal before thee" (Q21:34). "And He it is who gave you life, then He will cause you to die" (Q22:66). "Everyone in it (earth) must pass away" (Q55:26). "We have ordained death for you" (Q56:60). "Then He causes him to die and assigns him to a grave" (Q80:21). "Verily We created man from a product of wet earth, then placed him as a drop of seed in a safe lodging, then We make the life-germ a clot, then We make the clot a lump of flesh bones, then We clothe the bones with flesh, then We cause it to grow into another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of Creators! Then after that you will certainly die" (Q23:11-15).
In contrast with the life of man, which must come to an end in accordance with the fundamental law laid down by the above verses, the Qur'an says that: "Allah alone is Everlasting and does not die" (Q25:25). The Qur'an lays down the principle that: "A man must die" (Q21:35), and that: "Only Allah lives forever" (Q25:58). It does not contemplate any change or exception, and it is categorically stated: "And you shall not find a change in Our course" (Q27:77). "And you shall not find any change in the course of Allah" (Q33:62). "Thou wilt not find for the law of Allah aught of power to change" (Q48:23). "Thou wilt not find for Allah's way of treatment any substitute, nor wilt thou find for Allah's way of treatment aught of power to change" (Q35:43).
The fundamental principles, wherein there can be no change (Q27:77) are: (i) a mortal must die (Q3:185) and (ii) a mortal cannot live forever as only Allah lives forever (Q25:58). The application of these principles forces us to believe that Jesus (a.s) must have died a natural as he was a mortal, a human being subject to all divine laws (Q21:7-8; 25:20; 5:75). How could Jesus (a.s) escape death (Q3:103; 20:55; 2:28) when Allah says: "Wherever you are, death will overtake you, though you are in towers raised high" (Q4:78).
Conclusive proof that Jesus (a.s) died a natural death is furnished by the verse Q5:117. Allah is said to remonstrate with Jesus (a.s) and enquires if he taught his followers: "Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah" (Q5:116)? Jesus (a.s) is made to say: "I said nothing to them except that which Thou didst command me: serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord. And I was a witness over them as long as I remained among them, but when Thou didst cause me to die (i.e. after my death) Thou hast been the Watcher over them and Thou art witness over all things" (Q5:117). The following facts are revealed by this verse: (i) As long as Jesus (a.s) was alive, he kept a careful watch on those who followed him; (ii) but he did not know how they behaved after his death; (iii) the followers of Jesus (a.s) have gone astray.
Accordingly, as long as Jesus (a.s) lived, his teachings were uncorrupted. The doctrine of his Divinity was introduced after his death or he could not plead ignorance. This verse (Q5:117) conclusively proves that Jesus (a.s) will not return, for if he returns to this earth, this verse is rendered void. He should have said that he had corrected his people on a second coming. He does not say so. A report in Sahih Bukhari supplements the proof provided by the verse Q5:117. It is narrated that on the Day of Resurrection, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) would be shown some men from among his ummah being dragged towards hell. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said that he will plead: "I was a witness over them as long as I remained among them, but when Thou didst cause me to die (i.e. after my death), Thou hast been the Watcher over them and Thou art witness over all thing." (Al-Bukhari Kitab-ul Tafseer). Note the words: they are identical to those of verse Q5:117. Since the words are the same, the same meaning must also be assigned to them. Double standards cannot be accepted.
No Muslim during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet believed in the so called ascension of Jesus (a.s). The deniers of his (i.e. the Holy Prophet's) mission challenged him to prove his prophethood by ascending to heaven (Q17:93). Did Allah empower the Holy Prophet to show this miracle? No, instead the Prophet had to say: "I am but a mortal sent as a messenger" (Q17:93). The question arises: was not Jesus (a.s) a mortal? How could he ascend when the Holy Prophet could not? The only conclusion is that Jesus (a.s) must have died a natural death on this earth. If Jesus (a.s) had ascended, why did no one refer to his ascension to refute the Prophet's argument that he was only a mortal and a messenger?
The fact that Jesus (a.s) has died is further apparent from verse 144 of Surah Al-Imran: "And Muhammad is only an apostle, all of the (other) apostles have passed away before him: if, then, he dies or is slain, will you turn about on your heels" (Q3:144 Asad's translation)? It is clearly indicated in this verse that: (i) the Holy Prophet Muhammad was mortal; (ii) all the Prophets before him (including Jesus) were mortals and (iii) all the Prophets before the Holy Prophet had died. Hadrat Abu-Bakr (r.a) argued on the basis of this verse about the death of the Holy Prophet when some of his companions thought that the Prophet was not dead and could not die. The Muslims accepted his arguments. If the people had believed that Jesus (a.s) or some other Prophets were alive, Hadrat Abu-Bakr's arguments could not have satisfied the doubters in the Prophet's death. No one referred to any living Prophet. None of them mentioned anything about the ascension of Jesus (a.s). The only logical conclusion is that they did not believe that Jesus (a.s) had ascended to heaven or was alive.
The Qur'anic verse 75 of Surah Al-Maida negates the allegation that Jesus (a.s) is alive: "The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a Messenger; Messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a family woman. They both used to eat food" (Q5:75). The verse contradicts the claim of the divinity in respect of Jesus (a.s). It shows that he stood in need of food when he was alive. As he does not partake food now, he cannot be alive. Jesus (a.s) was mortal (Q5:75; 21:7). How could he live without food?
Prayers and giving of alms have been obligtory on Jesus (a.s). "He has enjoined on me prayer and poor-rate so long as I live." If, let us suppose, Jesus (a.s) has all the facilities of prayer and absolution in heaven, to whom is he offering poor-rate (zakaat), which was made essential for him as long as he lived?
Allah is above limitations: "Vision comprehends Him not, and He comprehends (all) vision" (Q6:104). "Nothing is like Him" (Q42:11). "He is nearer to us than our life-vein" (Q50:16). "He is present everywhere, in all directions" (Q2:115). He is not sitting in any particular office giving orders. His presence can be felt. "He Is All-Knowing" (Q2:225; 58:7). If Jesus (a.s) has "gone up" and is "with Allah," does it mean that he is also present everywhere? If so, then he cannot be a human being, for human beings cannot be present everywhere. Logic dictates that Jesus (a.s) has not gone up alive but must have died in this world. However, there cannot be any doubt that he has gone up spiritually like all other Prophets and other mortals.
Man is essentially a social animal. He lives in the company of his mates. He will go mad if put in solitary confinement. How could it be possible for Jesus (a.s) to remain above for such a long time and still remain sane? Another question: even if we accept the proposition that Jesus (a.s) went up into heaven, who was the one who was put on the cross and crucified? Why did Allah substitute? Is not this substitution unethical? Is not this deception unbecoming of Allah? (God forbid)! This is cruelty and injustice by the canons of any "civilized law." Allah could not substitute, for He embraces all mercy (Q40:7; 6:148; 7:156). He is Truthful and Just. There is no evidence either in the Holy Qur'an or the hadith literature showing that someone else was put on the cross.
In conclusion, we can only say that the Holy Qur'an clearly repudiates the concept of the ascension of Jesus (a.s).
(Interestingly, in the first edition of his translation of the Qur'an, Allama Yusuf Ali translated "inni muttawaffi-ka" (Q3:55) as "I will cause thee to die." A similar translation is given by many others, including George Sale, J.M. Rodwell, N. J. Dawood, Muhammad Asad, Maulana Muhammad Ali, Shaykh Muhammad Shaltut, Allama Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, and so on.
Muhammad Pickthall translates it as "I am gathering thee." It should be noted that the language of his translation is "scriptural" and "I am gathering thee" is the Biblical idiom for "I am causing thee to die."
In his second and subsequent editions, Allama Yusuf Ali changed his translation to "I will take thee," but he did not give any reasons for the change. However, in footnote 2485, he comments on "(Jesus said) So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)" (Q19:33) as follows: "Those who believe that he never died should ponder over this verse."
According to a hadith, referred to in Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Vol. 11 page 246), the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) is reported to have said that he was told by the Archangel Gabriel that the Prophet Jesus (a.s) lived on earth to the age of 120 years before he died. - A. A. Karim, member of the Editorial Board).
Posted November 7, 1998. This article was printed in two parts in the April-June 1998 and July-September 1998 issues of "The Message," a United Islamic Association (UIA) publication, London, England.