Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Ascension of Christ in Islam

By Gordon Nickel

In Islamic teaching, Jesus ascended to heaven – but not after his death and resurrection as is reported in the Gospel. Rather, most Muslims believe that Jesus ascended without dying.

The Quranic prompt for this teaching is S 4:157–58: “ … they did not slay him, neither crucified him … Rather, God raised him up (rafa'ahu) to him … ” Muslim exegetes have traditionally explained these verses to mean that God raised Jesus alive and projected Jesus’ “likeness” onto another person, whom the Jews then crucified.

For exegetes, the first Quranic opportunity to discuss Jesus’ ascension comes at S 3:55: “When Allah said, ‘Jesus, I will cause you to die (mutawaffıika ) and will raise you (rafa'a) to me … ’” Another opportunity comes at S 19:33, where the infant Jesus says, “Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive” (S 19:33). These verses appear to indicate the Gospel sequence, but Muslim commentators have usually interpreted them in the light of S 4:157–58.

At S 3:55, the early exegete Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767) reverses the order of the verbs in a hysteron proteron: “[God] says, ‘I will raise you (rafa'a) to me from the earth and cause you to die (mutawaffıka) when you descend from heaven at the time of the dajjal.” The major exegete al-Tabarı (d. 923) first explains that in common usage mutawaffıka means “to cause to die” (mumıtuka). However, he concludes that its meaning here must be “I am taking (qabada) you from the earth” because of the traditions attributed to the prophet of Islam that Jesus will die only at the end of time.

At S 4:157, al-Tabarı transmits the story that when the Jews come to seize Jesus, Jesus is in a house with seven disciples. When the Jews enter the house, God changes all the disciples to look like Jesus, who then asks his disciples which of them would like to “purchase for himself paradise today.” One volunteers, claims that he is Jesus, and is taken and crucified. Both the Jews and the Christians think that Jesus has been killed, but rather, according to al-Tabarı, God raises Jesus on that day. Many variations of this substitution/ascension story are found in the classical commentaries. Al-Qurtubı (d. 1273), for example, writes that when God takes Jesus up to heaven, he clothes him with feathers and light, and takes away his desire for food and drink. “Jesus thus lives in the company of the angels.”

Al-Tabarı also writes that a week after his ascension, Jesus returns to his sorrowing mother and explains that God has raised him up. He asks her to arrange a meeting with the eleven apostles, and he talks with them.

The Muslim teaching of the ascension of Jesus without death on the cross effectively denies the Christian teaching of redemption based on his death and resurrection. However, in the Muslim faith it looks forward to the return of Jesus in which he would finally die after performing his role in end time events.

From Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, p. 923-924.