Friday, January 8, 2016

'To Distinguish or Not To Distinguish?' That is the Question: A Problem With the Distinction of the Prophets in the Qur'an and Jesus

When it comes to the subject of the prophets in Islam, Muslims will claim that they respect all the prophets equally, and that they make no distinction among them. This is based on the following passages from the Qur'an below. Bold lettering is mine.

"Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered" (Qur'an 2:136; Pickthall)

"The messenger believeth in that which hath been revealed unto him from his Lord and (so do) believers. Each one believeth in Allah and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers - We make no distinction between any of His messengers - and they say: We hear, and we obey. (Grant us) Thy forgiveness, our Lord. Unto Thee is the journeying" (Qur'an 2:285; Pickthall).

"Say (O Muhammad): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was vouchsafed unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered" (Qur'an 3:84; Pickthall).

But is this claim true? You will notice that Jesus is also listed among the prophets, and that he is presented as a prophet of whom no distinction should be made with the other prophets. This is most strange indeed, since Jesus (who is mentioned 25 times in the Qur'an) is spoken of in lofty language as "faultless" (Qur'an 19:19; Pickthall), "a Word from Him [Allah]" (Qur'an 3:45 cf. 4:171; Yusuf Ali), and a "spirit from Him [Allah]" (Qur'an 4:171; Pickthall). None of these appellations are given to other prophets.

The main problem however arises in terms of the death of the prophets. Muslims will agree that all prophets, including Muhammad, died. The one exception they will argue is Jesus. The Qur'an states that the enemies of Jesus attempted to kill him by crucifixion, but they did not succeed in crucifying him or killing him. This is expounded in the Qur'an 4:157-158 (Pickthall):

"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; and lo! 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.But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise",

How did the other prophets in the Qur'an die? The Qur'an is replete with references to prophets not only dying, but being killed! The Jews are usually charged with being the slayers of the prophets (Qur'an 5:70).

"That was because they [the Jews] disbelieved in Allah's revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression" (2:61; Pickthall).

"Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Why then slew ye the prophets of Allah aforetime, if ye are (indeed) believers?" (Qur'an 2:91; Pickthall)

"Lo! those who disbelieve the revelations of Allah, and slay the prophets wrongfully, and slay those of mankind who enjoin equity: promise them a painful doom" (3:21).

"They have incurred anger from their Lord, and wretchedness is laid upon them. That is because they used to disbelieve the revelations of Allah, and slew the prophets wrongfully. That is because they were rebellious and used to transgress"(3:112).

"We shall record their saying with their slaying of the prophets wrongfully and We shall say: Taste ye the punishment of burning!" (3:181).

"Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Messengers came unto you before me with miracles, and with that (very miracle) which ye describe. Why then did ye slay them? (Answer that) if ye are truthful!" (Qur'an 3:183; Pickthall).

"Then because of their breaking of their covenant, and their disbelieving in the revelations of Allah, and their slaying of the prophets wrongfully"(4:155).

"We made a covenant of old with the Children of Israel and We sent unto them messengers. As often as a messenger came unto them with that which their souls desired not (they became rebellious). Some (of them) they denied and some they slew" (Qur'an 5:70; Pickthall).

Note: All bold lettering in the passages of the Qur'an above are mine.

These passages should suffice to show that the Jews in particular are accused of slaying the messengers and / or prophets of Allah. Note that in each of the passages above, the messenger and prophet is in the plural. All of these prophets mentioned above were killed, although Qur'an 5:70 indicates that some were denied, and some were slain. Nevertheless, the fact remains that prophets of Allah were slain. If the prophets in Islam are equally respected, and no distinction is made between them, then the question arises: if Jesus was a prophet on par with all the other prophets, many of whom as we saw, were slain or killed, how is it that Jesus escaped being slain or killed? In fact, the Qur'an says that Allah intervened and "took him up unto Himself" (Qur'an 4:158). If no distinctions are to be made between the prophets, how did Jesus manage to get out of being killed or slain according to the Qur'an? Is not the Qur'an at least in the case of Jesus making an exception, is it making a distinction with the prophet Jesus against all the other prophets? It would seem so. 

Why did Allah not save all the other prophets from being humiliated and slain? What makes Jesus so special? Why are the two most reliable Hadith collections, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim silent on the subject of the crucifixion of Jesus? How could this most important event and passage in the Qur'an (4:157-158) be ignored by the chief Hadith collections? Is it possible that Bukhari and Muslim did believe in the crucifixion of Jesus? It would appear logical to assume that if no distinctions are to made between the prophets, then the crucifixion of Jesus would not be a problem since other prophets were killed by unbelievers. Even the Qur'an itself presents a tension here as we see in Qur'an 3:55 (Pickthall), "(And remember) when Allah said: O Jesus! Lo! I am gathering thee [mutawaffeeka; Arabic] and causing thee to ascend unto Me". Other translations however, render the Arabic phrase mutawaffeeka as 'I will cause you to die,' as seen in the following translations of Qur'an 3:55,

" I am terminating your life, raising you to Me" (Rashad Khalifa).

" I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend to Me" (Shakir).

"I will cause thee to die a natural death and raise thee to Myself" (Sher Ali).

"Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shalt exult thee unto Me" (Muhammad Asad).

"I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence"(M. Muhammad Ali).

These translations show that mutawaffeeka can mean, to cause the death of someone, in this case, Jesus. In surah 19 (Surah Maryam) we encounter two birth accounts, that of John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus. In the New Testament, the birth accounts of John the Baptist and Jesus are also given back to back in Luke 1-2. It is interesting to note that both John and Jesus are placed in parallel with each other, especially in terms of what is said about their birth, their death, and their resurrection,

John: "Peace on him the day he was born, and the day he dieth and the day he shall be raised alive!" (Qur;an 19:15; Pickthall).

Jesus: "Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" (Qur'an 19:33; Pickthall).

The parallels are obvious. Both John and Jesus were born, both are said to die, and be raised up. This passage seems to suggest that both these prophets would experience these events in their earthly existence. Even the translator Yusuf Ali in his English version of the Qur'an has to admit about John,

 "This is spoken as in the lifetime of Yahya [John the Baptist]. Peace of Allah’s blessings were on him when he was born; they continue when he is about to die an unjust death at the hands of the tyrant; and they will be especially manifest at the Day of Judgement" (Footnote 2469). 

It is clear that there is a perceived tension within the Qur'an in relation to the death of Jesus. Is it possible that the text of Qur'an 4:157-158, the only passage that denies the crucifixion and death of Jesus, was the production of a different hand, added at a later time? If it was original to the Qur'an, why does Bukhari and Muslim not mention it at all in their Hadith? Why do some passages in the Qur'an suggest Jesus did in fact die? Why are Muslim scholars today divided on this with some arguing for the 'swoon theory,' that Jesus was crucified, but did not die on the cross? If the text of 4:157-158 is clear, why are there differing opinions among Muslim scholars? The ones who seem to differ and be filled with doubts on this issue, appear to be not the Christians, but rather Muslims themselves, The Qur'an states about the crucifixion, "those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not (Qur'an 4:157; Yusuf Ali). Christians have never been in doubt about this central theme of Scripture and history (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

This however brings us back to the problem of the prophets, and the issue of not making distinctions among them. If Jesus was a prophet on par with all the other prophets, and the other prophets were said to have been killed by the unbelievers, then why should Jesus be exempt? To exempt him is to make a distinction between him and the other prophets.

 The argument can be set as follows:

1) The prophets of Allah were slain.
2) Jesus was a prophet of Allah.
3) Therefore, Jesus was slain.

The situation becomes even more troubling when we consider that Muhammad, who is believed to be the Seal of the Prophets (Qur'an 33:40), eventually died because of poisoning by the hand of a Jewish woman named  Zaynab Bint al-Harith (see Sahih Bukhari 4428; Sunan Abu Dawud 4498). There is no indication at all that Allah intervened to save Muhammad from not only being poisoned, but also from dying. Yet, in the case of Jesus according to the Qur'an, Allah not only saves him from the humiliating torture of his enemies, but also saves him from dying. This is a significant distinction.

There is something certainly amiss here. Belief in the prophets is one of the 5 articles of faith in Islam. According to the Qur'an, no distinctions are to made between the prophets. Many of the prophets if not the majority, are slain principally by the Jews according to the Qur'an. The Hadith collectors Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim are strangely silent on the crucifixion of Jesus. But, the Qur'an does make a distinction, as do our Muslim friends, with Jesus, in excusing and exempting him from death. Jesus in Islam is the only prophet who never dies. His death is projected into the future which necessitates a belief in a second coming of Jesus. Either way the argument is presented, the Muslim is forced to admit that he / she does in fact, in opposition to the Qur'an, make distinction with the prophets in denying that Jesus died on the cross. In so doing, they are admitting that Jesus is different, he is special, and he is like no other prophet. At the end of the day, Muslims do indeed make distinction among the prophets when it comes to Jesus.

1 comment:

Dacritic said...

The Quran appears to distinguish Jesus from the rest, but we also know Muslims in practice put Muhammad above all others. The Syahada itself proves it. And then you have Muslims celebrating Muhammad's birthday which is a bank holiday in Islamic countries but no other prophet is afforded this honour.