An untimely death? Q 3:55, Q 5:116-117 and the crucifixion of Jesus

Did Jesus’ die on the cross according to the Qur’an? Or did God raise him to heaven alive, as is the majority Muslim interpretation of Q 4:157? Though this blog post will not attempt to deal with this issue exhaustively, I want to highlight a couple of verses which I believe are of particular significance. Up until recently I was fairly agnostic on whether the Qur’an taught Jesus died or was rescued from the cross. I was aware of the different ways that Q 4:157, the interpretative crux (excuse the pun), could be understood.

This verse is understood by most Muslims, and perhaps non-Muslims too, to deny Jesus’ death and crucifixion outright. Yet by some scholars it is understood to deny that the Jews killed Jesus outside of God’s sovereign plan. They would point out that the broader context is about the wrongdoing of the Jews, not the doctrinal errors of Christians. The Qur’an makes the point that it is God who has the power to take Jesus’ life (cf. Q 5:17. Parrinder, 2013, 107). Gabriel Said Reynold’s (2009, esp. pp. 251-258), Geoffrey Parrinder (2013, new ed., pp. 119-121) and E. E. Elder (1923) belong in this latter group. Todd Lawson (2014, Conclusion, Kindle Location 3532) argues ‘that the Qur’an itself is neutral on the subject of the historicity of the crucifixion and may indeed be read to affirm it.’

The point is sometimes made that were it not for Q 4:157, other passages in the Qur’an would naturally seem to teach that Jesus did in fact die. For example, in Q 19:33 Jesus says ‘Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die [amūtu] and the day I am raised to life again.’ Neal Robinson, despite his 1991 Christ in Islam and Christianity (115) strongly disagreeing with our take on Q 4:157, states in his later Encyclopedia of the Qur’an entry (‘Jesus’, 3:17b):

‘There is not the slightest hint, however, that [Jesus’] death also lies in the future. On the contrary, given only this sūrā, the assumption would be that
it already lay in the past like John’s’ (I am indebted to Reynolds, 2009, 239, 254 for this point)

It is only in light of Q 4:157 and Muslim interpretation that the death referred to is postponed to the eschaton. However, I used to reason that if Q 4:157 does indeed teach what Muslims think it does, then this may be a necessary and legitimate interpretative move, even if somewhat clunky.

But recently as I was reading Mark Robert Anderson’s (2016, p. 247) excellent The Qurʾan in context: a Christian exploration I was struck by the significance of Q 5:116-117:

116 When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say— if I had said such a thing You would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know what is within You, You alone have full knowledge of things unseen— 117 I told them only what You commanded me to: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” I was a witness over them during my time among them. Ever since You took my soul [tawaffaytanī], You alone have been the watcher over them: You are witness to all things (Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added)

What is most significant is the order of events, as pointed out by Anderson; Jesus’ soul was taken/he died (more on this below) before the ensuing history of Christianity, during which time God was watcher over the idolatrous Christians. This means that we are not talking about Jesus returning to the earth, living another life and dying at the end of times. Whatever tawaffā means, it applies to Jesus in the 30s AD. Mark Robert Anderson (246-247) makes much the same case with Q 3:55 where the participle form mutawaffīka occurs:

55 God said, ‘Jesus, I will take you back [mutawaffīka] and raise you up to Me: I will purify you of the disbelievers. To the Day of Resurrection I will make those who followed you superior to those who disbelieved. Then you will all return to Me and I will judge between you regarding your differences.

Notice again that whatever mutawaffī here means, it takes place in the 30s AD before the rest of Christian history.

mutawaffīka in Q 3:55 is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it only occurs once in the Qur’an. The phrase translated ‘You took my soul’ (tawaffaytanī) in Q 5:117 almost always refers to death in the Qur’an (Q 2:234, 240; 3:193; 4:15, 4:97; 6:61; 7:37, 126; 8:50; 10:46, 104; 12:101; 13:40; 16:28, 32, 70; 22:5; 32:11; 39:42; 40:67, 77; 47:27), as revealed by a helpful wordsearch at Qur’an Gateway. The verb appears in Q 6:60 to speak of God taking the soul at night during sleep, and then raising up humans again when they wake. If metaphorical, the metaphor is employing the language of death and resurrection, thus establishing that the meaning of tawaffā is ‘to die’, or more literally ‘to take [in death]’. Q 39:42 favours a literal interpretation; the soul is taken away at both death and sleep, except for those who merely sleep it is returned to them.

Given the universal connection between tawaffa and death, we would do well to translate it in Q 5:117 as ‘You caused me to die’ and the participle form in Q 3:55 as ‘Causing you to die’. It is only a theological and hermeneutical objection based on Q 4:157 that might cause one to think otherwise, to cause one to think that the verb refers to Jesus being physically lifted to heaven, a meaning the verb has nowhere else. Even Neal Robinson, who in his 1991 Christ in Islam and Christianity strongly disputes our understanding of Q 4:157 (p. 115), nonetheless concedes in his later Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an article ‘Jesus’ (3:18b) that ‘There is a prima facie case for construing God’s words to Jesus to mean that he was going to cause him to die and raise him into his presence.’ (I am indebted to Reynolds, 2009, 254-255 for this observation).

Anderson (247) points out that given that Q 3:55 comes chronologically prior to Q 4:157-8, ‘Muhammad’s hearers had no way of knowing then what the later sura would say. They would thus have understood Q 3:54-55 in terms of their culture’s universal belief in Jesus’ death.’

On the basis of the above, Q 3:55 and Q 5:116-117 appear to be saying that Jesus did die in the 30s AD. Dear Muslim friends, how do you understand the verb tawaffa? Do you think Q 3:55 and Q 5:116-117 contradict Q 4:157? Or, like myself and some scholars, do you think they agree in teaching that Jesus did die in the 30s AD? Please do comment below.

Edit: 10/03/2021

In a recent conversation with an Ahmadi friend, he pointed out that in Q 19:33 Jesus says ‘Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ How can peace be upon Jesus on the day he died if he died the cruel death of crucifixion? Note that this does not nullify the argument above about the time-frame; the argument above can still fit with the Ahmadi perspective that Jesus survived the cross, but died some years later in the first century.

Here was my response to my Ahmadi friend:

That’s an excellent point about ‘peace be upon me…the day I die’ in Q 19:33, I hadn’t thought about that before (nor can I find it addressed in the standard works on the topic which I have access to). Would you also say that John the Baptist (Q 19:15) was not killed, contra the New Testament (and Josephus – I suppose either I would have to agree with you that this rules out a violent death, or it’s just a way of speaking about God’s inner peace and blessing being upon Jesus and John the Baptist.  

Works cited

Anderson, Mark Robert (2016) The Qurʾan in context: a Christian exploration. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, IL.

Elder, E. E. (1923) ‘The crucifixion in the Koran’ The Muslim World, 13:242-258.

Lawson, Todd (2014 e-book) The crucifixion and the Qur’an. Oneworld.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. 2013 (new edition) Jesus in the Qur’an (Oneworld: London)

Reynolds, Gabriel Said (2009) ‘The Muslim Jesus: dead or alive?’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 72:2, 237-258.

Robinson, Neal (1991) Christ in Islam and Christianity: representation of Jesus in the Quran and the classical Muslim commentaries. State University of New York Press. (I do not have access to this work; I cite it via Reynolds, 2009)

Robinson, Neal, “Jesus”, in: Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. (I do not have access to this work; I cite it via Reynolds, 2009)