The substitutionary hypothesis is not an obligatory article of faith in Sunni Islam

Sunni Muslims are not obliged to believe that Jesus’ alleged crucifixion was vicariously experienced by another through some odd divine ruse
by Ibn Anwar BHsc (Hons), MCollT
Traditionally, many exegetes of the Qur’an have maintained the substitutionary hypothesis, i.e., Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and death was experienced by another person that bore Jesus’ semblance. It is unfortunate that this idea has persisted and remain strongly entrenched among Muslims, even to this day. It is unfortunate because many of these Muslims simply accept the gist of the story and are cut off from the sources as they themselves lack the skills or ability to assess the evidence and come to a reasonable conclusion as to whether the position is worth preserving or not.
In this brief exposition on the subject, we shall reveal to our readers that the matter is not as black and white as some might make it out to be. The issue is rather complex and one shall find that it is not a must to believe in the hypothesis to remain within the good graces of the faith. The substitution hypothesis is of course an attempt to understand the Qur’anic denial of Jesus’ crucifixion, which occurs uniquely in Surah al-Nisa’, verse 157, “and their boast, “Behold, we have slain the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, [who claimed to be] an apostle of God!” However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so;” This so happens to be one of the verses in the Qur’an that the noble Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. left unexplained. In light of this, any person who so desire to venture forth to try an provide a “tafsir” (explanation) for the verse should not do so lightly. One should not be so presumptuous as to be so certain as to the real meaning of the verse above without guidance from the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. who is of course, the ultimate expounder of the Qur’an.
And we need not fret if this verse happens to fall under the category of “unsolved mysteries” as it has absolutely no bearing on the fundamentals of our faith. Whether Jesus Christ actually died on the cross or wherever else is within God’s purview and since we know all life shall have a taste of death (3:185), if he did indeed die (in whatever fashion) then he has fulfilled God’s covenant with humanity’s mortality. The promise of the Qur’an is proven true: those that differ and argue concerning the crucifixion of Jesus, even amongst the Christians, are full of doubt and conjecture without certain knowledge of the matter: “and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him:” (4:158)
As stated above, no tradition about the crucifixion can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Much research has been poured into this point by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike and the results have proved disappointing for those that subscribe to the traditions in question. This point is noted by the scholar Todd Lawson in his detailed treatise on the crucifixion in the Qur’an:
“…no hadith about the crucifixion has been found to go all the way back to Muhammad.” [1] 

The earliest accounts regarding the substitutionary hypothesis go back to the companion of the Prophet s.a.w., Abdullah ibn Abbas r.a. (68 AH). No doubt that he was one of the chosen exegetes by the Prophet s.a.w., but that does not mean that he was infallible in every single interpretation that he gave of every single word and verse of the Qur’an. If his tafsir were infallible, then we would not have ever needed any of the other thousands of exegetes interpreting the Qur’an for us as ibn Abbas would have been sufficient. This logical point is not debatable and we should be open-minded enough in our thinking to see that. This is not to diminish the great scholarship of Abdullah ibn Abbas to which we can only dream to attain, but it is a reasonable estimation that puts things in their proper places. Not everything that comes from Abdullah ibn Abbas r.a. was derived from the primary source, the Prophet s.a.w. Many of the stories that he related of previous nations were received from Isra’iliyyat (Biblical, Judaic or Christian) sources that were in circulation at the time. For example, Ibn Abbas’ version of the substitution story has a certain antagonist named Natyanus who was made to resemble Jesus and he was killed on the cross instead of Jesus. But this story contradicts other versions of the event that suggest it was one of Jesus’ own disciples that chose to die on behalf of Jesus, in order to save him. And numerous other discrepancies and contradictions can be seen when one carefully analyses the different versions and accounts of the substitutionary hypothesis found throughout our ‘tafsir’ books. Commenting on this point, Muhammad Asad in his groundbreaking translation and commentary, which is well grounded in the Sunni tradition, writes:
“This, the Qur’an categorically denies the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. There exists, 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 finds 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” – implying that in the course of time, long after the time of Jesus, a legend had somehow grown up [possibly 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 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, “[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]. [2]
In Asad’s well-informed assessment of the evidence, he concludes that the traditions that have reached us concerning the substitution theory contain numerous irreconcilable contradictions and discrepancies and because of that they should not be taken too seriously and should, in fact, be regarded as “fanciful legends” that ought to be summarily rejected. Asad’s lamentations against these legends of substitution are echoed by Dr. Kamel Hussein:
“the idea of a substitute for Christ is a very crude way of explaining the Qur’anic text. They had to explain a lot to the masses. No cultured Muslim believes in this nowadays. The text is taken to mean that the Jews thought they killed Christ but God raised him unto him in a way we can leave unexplained among several mysteries which we have taken for granted on faith alone.” [3]
Some traditionalists that simply cannot let go of the substitution hypothesis, for some inexplicable reason, may argue that Asad and Hussein’s views are symptomatic of those that have been bewitched by modernist thinking that divorces them from the religious heritage that they claim and their interpretation as such should be disregarded. Such a comment does not befit a respectful seeker of knowledge. Whether a person hails from ancient and archaic times or that he is raised in a modern metropolis, what he says should be judged on the merits of the content and not on when he was born. Rest assured that their sentiments are not the mere musings of senile men in the modern world, but they give vitality to interpretations of the giants of old:
“He offers a list of varying traditions (without asanid), which call for the literal (i.e. dramatic) interpretation of Jesus being physically lifted to heaven. Al-Razi then adds that these are conflicting theories (wujuh) and that God knows best what happened.” [4]
The above relates the thoughts of Fakh al-Din al-Razi (606 AH), the great exegete of Sunni Islam, the pride of our faith. In his view, the theories that pervade the works of ‘tafsir’ conflict with one another and the best recourse is to leave the matter to God. In fact, al-Razi is so disturbed by the strange idea of God changing someone’s features into Jesus’ so that he may suffer in Jesus’ place that he rejects this idea as unacceptable:
“The idea that someone was killed in Jesus’ stead after having assumed his likeness, voluntarily or otherwise, is found widely throughout the commentary tradition. A notable exception to this is al-Razi, who finds the idea that God would perpetrate such a deception in the physical realm, particularly as it relates to individual identity, unacceptable. If we cannot rely on our senses to identify individuals, then the proper application of Islamic Law, which is dependent upon physical witnessing and upon the certainty of people’s identities in matters of marriage and so forth, would be called into doubt.” [5]
Even our great Imam of faith (aqeedah), Abu Mansur al-Maturidi was not satisfied with the substitutionary account and admits to the possibility that it may be a lie afterall.
“Al-Maturidi objects to this story because it has not been attested by a sufficient number of traditions or witnesses — it is khabar wahid, a single report as distinct from khabar mutawatir,a widely attested report transmitted by a variety of different chains of transmission. He further suggests that just because the report is considered mutawatir, one cannot discount that it might be a lie. He says that the confusion (tashbih) in wa-lakin shubbiha refers to the reports about the event rather than to the event itself. That is to say, the Jews did not want to admit that they could not find Jesus, and thus falsely claimed to have killed him” [6]
Imam al-Maturidi dismisses the stories as they are all reported through solitary chains and in his view, even if there are some who might regard the story as widely transmitted (tawatur), that does not necessarily make the reports true. He sees that there is great confusion in the differing stories of the event and that in reality the Jews failed to apprehend Jesus and did not have him in their custody. To save face, they simply invented and promulgated the lie that they had actually killed him. The details surrounding the event are not given and should rightly be left to God as al-Razi says above.
Abu Muhammad Abdullah Bin Muslim Bin Qutayba al-Dinawari offers a rather interesting commentary of 4:157, which conspicuously leaves out any mention of the substitution hypothesis.
“THEY DID NOT KILL HIM/IT CERTAINLY (ma qatauhu yaqinan) that is: the nowledge (‘ilm) that they ‘killed the knowledge’ of him (lit.) [This means that they did not have absolute, certain knowledge, certain in the way that death is certain. ‘Death’ in Arabic poetry is known by the euphemism al-yaqin (‘the [only thing which is] Certain’).] The saying [taqawwul], ‘I killed him certainly (yaqinan) and I killed him in knowledge (‘ilman)’ is a similar metaphor (isti’ara) used in connection [with discussions] of opinion (ra’y), hadith, and kalam. Thus God says: THEY DID NOT KILL HIM/IT CERTAINLY, that is, they were neither sure nor certain about it. The reason for that is that the killing of a thing is by way of vanquishing (qahr), and superiority (isti’la), and total victory (ghalaba). Thus God is saying: ‘They did not know about the killing of the Messiah with true knowledge, thoroughly comprehending the matter; rather it was CONJECTURE.” [7]
In a nutshell, Ibn Qutayba’s understanding of the situation is that the death of a person requires that his enemies overpower, conquer and vanquish him thoroughly and such a thing did not happen with Jesus. In Jesus’ case, God saved him from the humiliation of being harmed by his opponents and his enemies were struck dumb by their own doing and they did not have certain knowledge, devoid of proof and evidence that they had successfully put an end to Jesus’ life on earth. Their belief that he had been killed was founded on nothing but conjecture.
In sum, from the foregoing discussion, one can be rest assured that one is not obliged to cling to the conjectures of the past and the evidently contradictory and legendary stories that have cropped up, from God knows where, that speaks of the oddity of a common man that was made to appear as a prophet, who was then made to suffer and die in that prophet’s stead, in order that the prophet himself might be safe. We affirm that God has the ability to do as He pleases, which is the standard Ash’arite position regarding God’s Power, Supremacy and Sovereignty, but we also affirm that God does things that are Godly and that befit His majesty. Whether or not changing someone’s face to that of Jesus falls within the purview of God’s majesty is not something that we should concern ourselves with. What matters, as we have seen, is that the alleged vicarious crucifixion of Jesus is not something that we have inherited from the Prophet s.a.w. and the traditions that do suggest such a thing are not inviolable and beyond reproach and upon closer examination, they are not just suspect, but should in fact be “summarily rejected” as Asad resoundingly proclaims. The best and safest route that a believer may take is the one proposed by Imam Baydawi:
“…or it may be that [in actual fact] nobody was killed although it was falsely claimed and spread about that [Jesus] had been.” [8]
Baydawi’s summary above encapsulates all of the views that we have cited above. What may well have happened is that no one was actually killed in Jesus’ stead, but “it was made to appear so,” that is, lies and falsehod, as Ibn Qutayba and al-Maturidi propose, were concocted by Christ’s enemies about his death and this unverified news was then disseminated far and wide, in every church and in every synagogue. Through the passage of time, later generations that were ill-informed of history and had little connection to Jesus’ life and times fell prey to the deception and believed in the fiction. However, it is the nature of lies that they reek of conjecture and doubt and so the stories about Jesus’ death forever exhibit great and insurmountable discrepancies that have confounded the cleverest theologians and philosophers — a continuous affirmation of the Qur’anic promise that we have already cited above, “and, verily, those who hold conflicting views thereon are indeed confused, having no [real] knowledge thereof, and following mere conjecture. For, of a certainty, they did not slay him:” (4:158) And once Allah knows best.
Sayyid Qutb* in his massive ‘Fi Zilal al-Qur’an’ discusses the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion with particular interest given to certain Christian traditions regarding it that were in circulation. In particular, he mentions the version of the substitution hypothesis found in the Gospel of Barnabas, which according to Todd Lawson “was written before the fourth gospel and received official sanction…” [9] In the Gospel of Barnabas’ version of the substitution, Judas was made to appear like Jesus and he was then dragged to be crucified. Sayyid Qutb denounces this story like all other similar stories and versions of the substitution hypothesis as without any historical foundation.
إن قضية قتل عيسى عليه السلام وصلبه، قضية يخبط فيها اليهود – كما يخبط فيهـا النصـارى
بالظنون – فاليهود يقولون: إم قتلوه ويسخرون من قوله: إنه رسول االله، فيقررون له هذه الصفة على
سبيل السخرية! والنصارى يقولون: إنه صلب ودفن، ولكنه قام بعد ثلاثة أيام. و ” التاريخ ” يسـكت
عن مولد المسيح وايته كأن لم تكن له في حساب!
وما من أحد من هؤلاء أو هؤلاء يقول ما يقول عن يقين .. فلقد تتابعت الأحـداث سـراعا؛
وتضاربت الروايات وتداخلت في تلك الفترة بحيث يصعب الاهتداء فيها إلى يقين .. إلا ما يقصـه رب
العالمين ..
والأناجيل الأربعة التي تروي قصة القبض على المسيح وصلبه وموته ودفنه وقيامتـه .. كلـها
كتبت بعد فترة من عهد المسيح؛ كانت كلها اضطهادا لديانته ولتلاميذه يتعذر معه تحقيق الأحداث في
جو السرية والخوف والتشريد .. وقد كتبت معها أناجيل كثيرة. ولكن هذه الأناجيل الأربعة اخـتيرت
قرب اية القرن الثاني للميلاد؛ واعتبرت رسمية، واعترف ا؛ لأسباب ليست كلـها فـوق مسـتوى
ومن بين الأناجيل التي كتبت في فترة كتابة الأناجيل الكثيرة: إنجيل برنابا. وهو يخالف الأناجيل
الأربعة المعتمدة، في قصة القتل والصلب، فيقول:
” ولما دنت الجنود مع يهوذا، من المحل الذي كان فيه يسوع، سمع يسوع دنو جم غفير. فلذلك
انسحب إلى البيت خائفا. وكان الأحد عشر نياما. فلما رأى الخطر على عبده، أمر جبريل وميخائيـل
ورفائيل وأوريل، سفراءه .. أن يأخذوا يسوع من العالم. فجاء الملائكة الأطهار، وأخذوا يسوع مـن
النافذة المشرفة على الجنوب، فحملوه، ووضعوه في السماء الثالثة، في صحبة الملائكة التي تسبح إلى الأبد
.. ودخل يهوذا بعنف إلى الغرفة التي أصعد منها يسوع. وكان التلاميذ كلهم نياما. فأتى االله العجيـب
بأمر عجيب فتغير يهوذا في النطق وفي الوجه فصار شبيها بيسوع. حتى أننا اعتقدنا أنه يسوع. أما هـو
فبعد أن أيقظنا أخذ يفتش لينظر أين كان المعلم. لذلك تعجبنا وأجبنا: أنت يا سيدي معلمنا. أنسـيتنا
(1) الآن؟ .. إلخ “
وهكذا لا يستطيع الباحث أن يجد خبرا يقينا عن تلك الواقعة – التي حدثت في ظلام الليل قبل
الفجر – ولا يجد المختلفون فيها سندا يرجح رواية على رواية. ” وإن الذين اختلفوا فيه لفي شك منه. ما لهم به من علم إلا اتباع الظن ” .
أما القرآن فيقرر قراره الفصل:
” وما قتلوه وما صلبوه ولكن شبه لهم ” .
” وما قتلوه يقينا بل رفعه االله إليه وكان االله عزيزا حكيما ” ..
ولا يدلي القرآن بتفصيل في هذا الرفع أكان بالجسد والروح في حالة الحياة؟ أم كان بالروح بعد
الوفاة؟ ومتى كانت هذه الوفاة وأين. وهم ما قتلوه وما صلبوه وإنما وقع القتل والصلب على من شـبه
لهم سواه.
لا يدلي القرأن بتفصيل آخر وراء تلك الحقيقة؛ إلا ما ورد في السورة الأخرى من قوله تعـالى “
يا عيسى إني متوفيك ورافعك إلي ” .. وهذه كتلك لا تعطي تفصيلا عن الوفاة ولا عن طبيعة هـذا التوفي وموعده .. ونحن – على طريقتنا في ظلال القرآن – لا نريد أن نخرج عن تلك الظـلال؛ ولا أن
نضرب في أقاويل وأساطير؛ ليس لدينا من دليل عليها، وليس لنا إليها سبيل ..
“As regards whether Jesus was killed or crucified, the Jews and the Christians make false claims which have no basis other than their own suspicions. The Jews claim to have killed him, ridiculing his assertion that he was God’s Messenger. The Christians, on the other hand, claim that he was crucified and buried. But they also claim that he was raised three days later. As for history, it states nothing about Christ’s birth or his end, almost as if nothing happened. When they make their statements, neither the Jews nor the Christians are certain of their truthfulness. Events moved fast, and conflicting reports were made and muddled up. The real truth could not be discovered, except through Divine guidance.
The four Gospels which relate the story of the arrest, crucifixion, death, burial, and rise of Jesus Christ were all written after a lengthy lapse of time which also witnessed the persecution of Christianity and the Christians. In such an atmosphere of secrecy, fear and persecution, it is exceedingly difficult to be certain of the truthfulness of the reports that circulated. Many other Gospels were written during this period, but these four were chosen towards the end of the second century and were given official status for reasons that are not entirely above suspicion.
One of the many Gospels written in this period was that of Barnabas which gives an account of the story and crucifixion of Jesus that is at variance with the four recognised Gospels. It states: “When the soldiers and Judas with them drew near to the place where Jesus was, he heard a large number of people coming close. In fear, he retreated to the home where all eleven disciples were asleep. When the Lord saw His servant in danger, He ordered Gabriel, Michael, Rafael and Oriels, His messengers, to take Jesus away from this world. The pure angels came down and carried Jesus through the window facing south and placed him in the third heaven in the company of angels who glorified the Lord forever. Judas entered violently the room from which Jesus was raised. All the disciples were still asleep. At that moment, God the Almighty accomplished a miraculous thing. Judas’s face and voice changed so that he looked like Jesus. We all thought that he was Jesus indeed. As for him, after he awakened us, he began to search for the teacher. We were surprised and said: You are our master and teacher. Have you forgotten us?”
A scholar sifting his material carefully cannot find any confirmed account of this remarkable event that took place in the depths of the night, before the break of dawn. Hence, no report can be given more credence than another. “Those who hold conflicting views about him are indeed confused, having no real knowledge about it, and following mere conjecture.” (Verse 157) The Qur’an, on the other hand, gives its clear account: “They did not kill him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.” (Verse 157)… “For, of a certainty, they did not kill him. No! God raised him up to Himself. God is indeed Almighty, Wise.” (Verses 157-158) The Qur’an does not give any details concerning how Jesus was raised or whether it took place in body and soul together in this state of life, or in soul after death. Nor does it tell us when and where his death took place, if at all. What we know for certain is that they neither killed nor crucified him. Instead, another victim was made to appear similar to him.
This is the only statement of fact the Qur’an makes, apart from what it mentions elsewhere quoting God’s address to Jesus: “Jesus, I shall gather you and cause you to ascend to Me.” (3: 55) In neither statement do we have any details about how Jesus was gathered or the nature of this gathering. For our part, we do not like to change the method we have followed so far when considering statements and legends which we have no way of proving or disproving.”** [10]
In Sayyid Qutb’s unwavering view, there is no verifiable historical data that can be ascertained or adduced to corroborate the legendary accounts and stories about Jesus’ alleged crucifixion. For Sayyid Qutb, even though the Qur’an is emphatic in its denial of the crucifixion it seems disinterested in relaying specific details concerning the “how” of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion and those that persist in arguing concerning the matter or subscribe to the irreconcilable and inconsistent substitutionary stories remain a steadfast prisoner of the Qur’anic dictum: “Those who hold conflicting views about him are indeed confused, having no real knowledge about it, and following mere conjecture.” To Sayyid Qutb, the variant testimonies found in the four canonical gospels and other gospels apart from these make it “exceedingly difficult to be certain of the truthfulness of the reports that circulated.” Due to the great uncertainties surrounding the event, it is better not to vouch for the “statements and legends which we have no way of proving or disproving.” In the end, Sayyid Qutb’s view falls squarely with Baydawi’s: God did not deem it necessary to reveal the intricate details of the crucifixion event and so we leave the matter to Him.
*** Additional explanatory notes on the variant traditions of the substitution hypothesis and a discussion on the wording and grammatical features of 4:157 are given below.
[1] Lawson, T. (2009). The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 62; Lawson also writes elsewhere that “Research has been unable to produce any ahadith on the crucifixion of Jesus that go back to the Prophet (hadith nabawi), or of that category termed hadith qudsi, i.e., hadith that transmit the direct speech of God. The oldest authority for any tradition on the subject is Ibn ‘Abbas. (Lawson, T. Ibid. pp. 47-48)
[2] Asad, M. (2008). The Message of the Qur’an. The Book Foundation. pp. 199-200
[3] Kamel Hussein (1994). City of Wrong: A Friday in Jerusalem (Kenneth Cragg, trans.). Oneworld. p. 222
[4] Lawson, T. Ibid. p. 106
[5] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, et al. (2015). The Study of the Qur’an: A New Translation and Commentary. USA: HarperOne.
[6] Lawson, T. Ibid. p. 74
[7] Lawson, T. Ibid. pp. 65-66
[8] Robinson, N. (1991). Christ in Islam and Christianity: The Representation of Jesus in the Qur’an and the Classical Muslim Commentaries. London: Macmillan Press Ltd. p. 139
[9] Lawson, T. p. 130
* Even though Sayyid Qutb was embroiled in certain controversies in his time and drew sharp criticism from fellow scholars within the Ahl Sunnah wal Jama’ah, he never departed from the fold of mainstream Islam. Though some of his views in Islamic jurisprudence in matters of ijtihad and others may be disagreeable, to our knowledge his massive tafsir work ‘Fi Zilal al-Qur’an’ that we have referenced above has never been censured by the scholars of Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah. His unjust execution at the hands of the Egyptian government was decried by many Muslim individuals, organisations and scholars and this in itself attests to the prolific scholarly value that many attached to his person: Qutb’s execution, however, evoked sympathy and global condemnation of the Egyptian leadership. A number of Muslims individuals and Islamic organizations decried the Egyptian government’s decision to waste the life of these frontline Islamic scholars. In newspapers and magazines, at various Islamic forums and even through telephone calls and other communication media, people lamented his death, describing it as a great calamity to the ummah in particular and humanity in general. From Pakistan came a total condemnation of the Egyptian government by a prominent Muslim figure, Khalil Hamidi, while Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Zaydan from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia berated the unjust verdict on Sayyid Qutb. From Paris, Mahmud al-Rikabi described him as a martyr who would remain alive in the minds of conscious Muslims. The Muslim Students Association of Britain and Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood were also unanimous in extolling the cause for which Sayyid Qutb sacrificed his life, while a Jordanian Muslim activist, Juma’ah Hammad, saw his hanging as a declaration of war against Islam and sincere Muslims.” (Badmas ‘Lanre Yusuf (2009). Syyid Qutb: A Study of his Tafsir. Kuala Lumpur: Book Trust. pp. 70-71) At this juncture, the author would like to make it resoundingly clear that he disassociates himself from any of Sayyid Qutb’s views on political matters and on issues of Jihad that may depart from the mainstream view of the Ahl Sunnah Wal Jama’ah and as such, the author frees himself from being labelled with the aspersion “Qutubi” that has become a popular term for those who fanatically adhere to Sayyid Qutub’s political philosophy. And this does not contradict the high regard and accolades that we have furnished here as a person’s view may be taken or rejected based on its own merit and to reject a view from someone simply because he or she may be deemed detestable by certain quarters is akin to rejecting a Mathematician’s equation of 2 + 2 = 4 just because he believes in Biblical creationism. And yes, we do recognise Sayyid Qutb’s great intellect and scholarship as Sheikh ‘Allal al-Fasi testifies, “We know in Sayyid Qutb strong religion, encyclopaedic knowledge, relentless struggle, not because of any gain in this world nor is it because of search for fame. Nor, yet, is it to revenge from an enemy. It is rather for the success of (the message of) the Glorious Qur’an and progress of humanity.” (Ibid. p. 71) Let not our disdain for the selected views of a person result in the thorough dismissal of the individual and everything that flows from his thoughts. The point here that we are trying to bring home is that Sayyid Qutb’s ‘Fi Zilal al-Qur’an’ (In the Shade of the Qur’an) is regarded as one of his non-political works and the “the tafsir is accepted as a valid contribution to Qur’anic science.” (Smith, J. I. (1975). An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term ‘Islam’ a Seen in a Sequence of Qur’an Commentaries. Missoula, Montana: Missoula Scholars Press. p. 35)
** According to Todd Lawson when Sayyid Qutb ends his comments on 4:157 with the words                                                                                                                 لا نريد أن نخرج عن تلك الظـلال؛ ولا أن
نضرب في أقاويل وأساطير؛ ليس لدينا من دليل عليها، وليس لنا إليها سبيل
“For our part, we do not like to change the method we have followed so far when considering statements and legends which we have no way of proving or disproving.”, he means that he does not put much stock in such unfounded and uncertain fables and Lawson believes that here he is also referring to the disconnected traditions that we have inherited from Ibn ‘Abbas et al. (Lawson, T. Ibid. p. 131)
[10] Sayyid Qutb (2009). In the Shade of the Qur’an, Vol. 3 (M. Adil Salahi, trans.). The Islamic Foundation. pp. 317-318
*** As we have already discussed and agreed, none of the narrations (the oldest being Ibn Abbas’ and Wahb’s being one of the other popular ones) can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. One can only supposed that Ibn Abbas and others received their conflicting information from various Isra’iliyyat sources, even though this is not particularly mentioned in the asanid. Ibn Ishaq, in relating similar stories does actually identify his sources as Christian. All in all, there is no verifiable evidence from our Islamic sources to back the idea that the crucifixion involved the transfiguration of a poor victim from his old self to Jesus. Here are some of the divergent traditions that have cropped up throughout the passage of time on the identity of the unfortunate transfigured individual:

  1. It was one of the companions of Jesus named Tatianus (Ibn Abbas: ألقي شبه عيسى على تطيانوس فقتلوه بدل عيسى [Isa’s semblance was put on Tatianus and so he was killed instead of Isa).
  2. All of Isa’s disciples were changed to look like Jesus in a house and one of them volunteered to die in his place (Wahb ibn Munabbih; He also offers another version that contradicts the first one, i.e., the traitor was made to look like Jesus as he was betraying him [wa kana shubbiha ‘alaihim qabla dhalika]. An interesting point to be noted here is that according to Christian sources this traitor was Judas, but in Wahb’s version Judas mysteriously disappeared and Jesus’ 11 disciples later informed him that he had repented and hanged himself and so apparently, the traitor in Wahb’s story was not Judas but some other disciple and yet the reason for Judas’ suicide is left unexplained if he was not the one responsible for the treachery).
  3. It was the guard named Yahudha that the Jews placed on Jesus that was made to look like Jesus (Muqatil bin Sulayman al-Balkhi).
  4. One of the 13 disciples of Jesus named Serjes was the one that was made to look like Jesus (Ibn Ishaq).
  5. Yudas (Judas?) was the one that was crucified (Ibn Ishaq, here Ibn Ishaq adds this little contradictory piece of information in the same narration of Serjes but with the qualifier that it was the belief of some of the Christians that cursed him for his treachery.

Other variants can be found but perhaps the above are generally the most popular versions that were circulated. Any child can see that they utterly contradict each other and in several cases, one scholar narrates conflicting stories with content that is confusing and misleading. And so we must heartily agree with Asad’s conclusion with regards to these stories: “There exists, 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 finds 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.” And this is of course, as we have shown in the article, not the mere meanderings of a modernist, but it is safely secured in our own traditional Islamic approach to the matter. The great pride of our faith, the Imam of his time, Al-Razi in his ‘Tafsir al-Kabeer’ takes into account four popular versions of the substitution hypothesis offered for the clause “shubbiha lahum’. After narrating these stories, Al-Razi unambiguously concludes:وهذه الوجوه متعارضة متدافعة والله أعلم بحقائق الأمور. which means “these are conflicting/contradictory stories and Allah knows best the realities of things”. (Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1981). Al-Tafsir al Kabir wa Mafatih al-Ghayb. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr. p. 102) In other words, it is not possible to subscribe to the conflicting versions of the alleged transfiguration as they contradict each other.

Even though Zamakhshari in his comments on 3:54 seems to affirm the traditional view that someone was made to appear as Jesus and he was the one killed, he does appear to find the conjectural stories on the substitution disagreeable or unsatisfactory as he relates one of them in his ‘al-Kashshaf’:

“Some said that Jesus was killed and crucified, or if that is our companion, where is Jesus?” Some said he was raised to heaven and some said that the face is the face of Jesus, but the body is the body of our companion.” (Mahmud Bin ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari (1966), al-Kashshaf ‘an haqa’iq ghawamid al-Tanzil, Vol. 1. Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi. p. 396)

In the foregoing discussion, we have seen that none of the traditions that relate about the substitution hypothesis has any credible merit and should be “summarily rejected” as per Asad’s conclusion. Since we no longer have any traditions to rely on, the only possible recourse insofar the desire to retain the substitutionary hypothesis is still intended, are the wording and grammatical features of the text of 4:157 itself. In discussing the substitution question, the key expression that one needs to look at in the verse is ‘shubbiha’. It is suffice to mention here that in assessing the grammatical feature of the expression, Zamakhshari came to three divergent possible ways of understanding it:

1. The subject is the Christ.

2. The subject is the person that they killed.

3. The verb is impersonal.

(Abdul Qasim Mahmud Bin 'Umar al-Zamakhshari (1856). Kashshaf 'an haqa'iq al-Tanzil. In W. Nassau Lees & Mawlawis Khadim Hosain & 'Abd al-Hay (Eds.), The Qoran with the Commentary of Imam Aboo al-Qasim Mahmood Bin 'Omar al-Zamakhshari. Calcutta: W. Nassau Lees. p. 334)

(Abdul Qasim Mahmud Bin ‘Umar al-Zamakhshari (1856). Kashshaf ‘an haqa’iq al-Tanzil. In W. Nassau Lees & Mawlawis Khadim Hosain & ‘Abd al-Hay (Eds.), The Qoran with the Commentary of Imam Aboo al-Qasim Mahmood Bin ‘Omar al-Zamakhshari. Calcutta: W. Nassau Lees. p. 334)

It is suffice that we discern from Zamakhshari’s astute observations that the key verb upon which the substitutionary hypothesis is built is rather ambiguous. Commenting on the ambiguity of the event surrounding the alleged death of Jesus Sayyid Qutb recommends the following: “as for the manner of his death and assumption, these are matters belonging to the unseen, and they fall in the category of mutashabihaat (unclear, ambiguous or obscure) verses, whose ta’wil (interpretation) is known to God alone.” [parenthetical explanation added] (Sayyid Qutb (1967). Fi Zilal al-Qur’an, Vol. 4. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi. pp. 595-596).

With regards to the wording of the verse, much can be said. From the phraseology of the verse, it seems that the Qur’an is more interested in denying the slaying or killing of Jesus than it is on his alleged crucifixion. Notice that the verb ‘qatal’ (kill or slay; qatalna [fi’l madhi wa “na” dhameer muttasil fi mahal rafa’ fa’il], qataluhu [fi’l madhi wa al-waw dhameer muttasil fi mahal rafa’ fa’il wah ha’ dhameer muttasil fi mahal nasab maf’ul bih] and qataluhu [fi’l madhi wa al-waw dhameer muttasil fi mahal rafa’ fa’il wah ha’ dhameer muttasil fi mahal nasab maf’ul bih] ) is repeated three times while the verb ‘salab’ (salabuhu [with the same grammatical features as ‘qataluhu’]) occurs only once. This leaves little doubt in one who closely and carefully examines the verse that the primary concern of 4:157 is to negate the killing of the person Jesus. The fact that the expression ‘ma qataluhu’ that negates Jesus’ death strengthens this view as the repetition of the negation in the precise same grammatical format is clearly an emphasis (tashdeed wa muwassifah) on the point. ‘Qatalna’ is used to negate the perverted claimants in their conviction that they had killed the Christ and ‘qataluhu’ is a strong negation on his death in any shape or form, i.e., he was not killed in any possible manner: he was not strangled, he was not drowned, he was not choked, he was not speared, he was not stabbed, he was not arrowed, he was not hanged and he was certainly not stoned. As ‘salab’ [crucified] (ma salabuhu) occurs only once, the interest in it is only secondary and this lends to the fact that details surrounding the alleged incident are nowhere to be found in the cotext or the context of 4:157. Even though it is clear that the crucifixion is provincial to the message of 4:157 in particular and that of Islam in general, the only reason that it is mentioned once (as opposed to the three times that ‘qatal’ is used) is because stories of Jesus’ crucifixion had become pervasive among Christian communities. The community that is condemned in the verse seems to the Jews (and possibly the pagan Romans) as it is understood that a follower of Jesus and his believers (Christians) would not claim responsibility for Jesus’ death, which is what 4:157a is about (those that claim to have killed the Christ). With the above in mind, one may better appreciate the reason behind the Qur’an’s stark disinterest in the crucifixion, providing no details about it. The singular mention of ‘salab’ in the verse is to redress the belief that Jesus was crucified and historically, crucifixion typically means to cause someone’s death on the slab of wood. This final comment should give us pause to consider the following possibility: Since the Qur’an is most interested in negating Jesus’ slaying in any possible form, what the Qur’an means by ‘ma salabuhu’ may well be that “Jesus was not caused to die on the cross’ and this then could mean that he may well have been taken up on the cross but just as Josephus’ companions survived the whole ordeal and were taken down alive (two of them succumbed to their injuries and died but more importantly, one did survive to a ripe old age; Josephus as cited in Vermes, G. (2008). The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday. P. 145).

In short, without any basis in historically verifiable documentary evidence or textual proof, the substitutionary hypothesis may safely be shelved under “Myths and Legends”.

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