A good friend of mine texted me, inquiring why is it that the Quran appears to contradict itself in Surah an Nisa verses 158 and 159.
Verse 158 says that Allah raised Jesus (upon him be peace) to Himself, while the following verse (An Nisa 159) indicates that the People of the Scripture will surely believe in Jesus before his death.
These are among difficult passages in the Quran.
As we know, Quranic verses are of two types. The first type is where the meaning is clear and straightforward, which constitutes the majority of the verses. The second type is where the meaning is ambiguous, which is in the minority. An Nisa 158-159 may be said to belong to the second category.
Of the second category, it is further divided into two types: those that can still be interpreted, and those whose meanings are known only to Allah. An Nisa 158-159 belong to those verses that can still be interpreted.
The verses impossible to be interpreted are very few. One good example is the first verse of al Baqarah. It reads: “Alif,” “Lam,” “Mim.”
As we can see, this is not even a verse, but rather three Arabic letters, equivalent to English “A,” “L,” “M.” While these three letters still constitute part of the Quran, for all intents and purposes, they are not meant to be understood. Only Allah knows why they are there in the Quran.
Years ago, someone told me that these letters, respectively, refer to Allah, Malaikah (Angel), and Muhammad. Thus, he said, it means that the Quran is from Allah, through Malaikah (Angel Gabriel), to Muhammad.
It sounded logical enough, except that he has to extrapolate a great deal to make his point (for instance, malaikah begins with “M,” not “L”) and in the end, it remains a conjecture. It is best to leave the matter to Allah and not try to make something that we have no way of knowing.
Surah an Nisa verses 158-159, however, do not belong to this type. They can be interpreted, and they have been interpreted by Quranic commentators.
The first thing to know is that Quranic verse should not be interpreted in isolation. It has to be understood within the context. Although the Quran “was there” in the Preserved Tablet (Lawh Mahfuz) before Muhammad was even born, it was revealed to the Prophet only gradually, piece by piece, to address the situation the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) was in.
This is the beauty of Quranic revelation. Had all of it was revealed at one go, it would have been more like an intellectual treaty rather than a practical guide to the Prophet and his companions. The Prophet would have found it very difficult to sift through pages (or memories) looking for suitable passages to address the concern of the moment. But such was not the case. The Quran was revealed little by little to address the situation the Prophet was in.
Precisely for this reason, when we attempt to understand Quranic passages, we should look at the context. As a rule of thumb, we should go through a few verses before, and a few verses after. This would give us context.
Earlier in verse 157, Quran talks about the Jews who had boastfully claimed that they had killed Jesus, but Allah says that Jesus was neither killed, nor crucified, but was only made to appear so. In verse 158, Allah says Jesus was raised up high to Himself. Yet, the following verse 159, Quran says that the there is none from the People of the Scripture but that he will surely believe in Jesus before his death.
This is what baffles my friend. God says that Jesus was neither killed, nor crucified, but was ascended to Him, yet within same breath He says that every people of the Book would believe in him before his death.
It would baffle everyone, unless if we go to the commentary, or look for the context.
A few passages before, more precisely in verse 153, the Quran says that the People of the Scripture (in this case, the Jews) had asked the Prophet to bring them a “book” from Heaven. In the same verse, Quran says that they have likewise asked Moses to show them God Himself.
The story goes like this. The Jews had come to the Prophet, saying that they would not believe in the Prophethood of Muhammad unless Muhammad would bring a “book from Heaven” saying that he is a Prophet. This is of course nonsense. They had no intention to believe in him. They only made fun of him with such impossible request. Even if suddenly a Tablet fell from the sky saying that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah, they would still not believe in him. They would have said that someone had thrown it to them. After all, Quran is already a “book from Heaven,” and it clearly stated that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
As a means to expose what the Jews are like, and perhaps to console the Prophet as well, Allah says that the Jews had made a far impossible request to their leader, Prophet Moses (upon him be peace). They had asked Moses to show Allah Himself to them. Subsequent verses narrate their behaviors which receive Allah’s curses, including their slander against Mary, the mother of Jesus (verse 156).
Looking at those verses, the context we are currently discussing (157-159) becomes clear. These verses were directed to the Jews who not only refused to believe in the Prophethood of Muhammad, but also made fun of him by making impossible request, showing their arrogance in the process. This, in spite of the fact that their scripture had told them of the Prophet’s forthcoming, and that they had been waiting for him.
Let’s reproduce verses 157-159 in full.
And [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah ." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain (157). Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise (158). And there is none from the People of the Scripture but that he will surely believe in Jesus before his death. And on the Day of Resurrection he will be against them a witness (159).
Verse 157 makes the matter clear enough. Jesus was not killed, neither was he crucified, but someone else was made to resemble him. It was this person that they crucified, leading to his death. Verse 158 clearly states that Jesus was raised to God Himself. Putting the two verses together, we are given the impression that Jesus did not die. Subsequent verse (159), however, suddenly makes a roundabout statement, that every people of the Book would believe in Jesus before his death.
If Jesus was not killed, nor crucified, then whose death is the Quran talking about? Could it be that Jesus had died a natural death, and before this death, people believed in him? After all, the Quran makes no mention that Jesus did not die. It only says that he was not killed, nor crucified, but does not say that he did not die. It says that he was raised up high, but this could be in spirit rather than in bodily form.
The lack of explicit or unequivocal statement about his “death” has led to many speculations among the Muslims. One version says that Jesus was made to “sleep” and raised to Heaven. Someone else was made to look like him and it was this person who was crucified. Another version says that Jesus had escaped, went on to live for sometime somewhere, and died a natural death. Yet another version says that he was crucified, but did not die. He only fainted. He got healed, went to live for sometime and died a natural death. This version is known as Swoon Theory.
We shall reserve the above speculations, especially the Swoon Theory, in the subsequent installment. Suffice to say for the moment that the orthodox view considers Jesus to be raised bodily and that he did not die a natural death. This is the position of the early scholars, including Ibnu Abbas.
If such is the case, then whose death is the Quran talking about in verse 159?
There are two views about this. The first says that it was referred to Jesus’ own death. This is the view of some Companions, such as Ibnu Abbas. But Ibnu Abbas also said that Jesus was made to sleep and bodily raised to Heaven (Tafsir Ibnu Kathir).
Was Ibnu Abbas contradicting himself? The answer is no. Jesus’ death here is referred to his Second Coming. The matter of Jesus’ Second Coming is clearly stated by the Prophet in the hadith considered authentic. Based on Ibnu Abbas interpretation, therefore, it gives the impression that every People of the Book would believe in Jesus before his eventual death when he comes to the World for the second time.
The second interpretation says that the phrase “his death” is not referred to Jesus, but rather to every People of the Book. According to this interpretation, every People of the Book would be shown real truth about Jesus before his own death, although by then the realization would be too late to be of any use.
Both interpretations are considered valid, although the real meaning is known only to Allah.
An inquisitive mind would perhaps wonder whether such are the cases. Could it be that in his Second Coming, all People of the Book would believe in Jesus before he finally died? Alternatively, could it be that all People of the Book, meaning all Christians and Jews, would be shown the truth about Jesus before they die?
As Muslims, we do not need to wonder that far. Certain things are best to leave to Allah. Enough proofs are available in the Quran, in the collections of Traditions, and in the lives of Muhammad and his Companions to satisfy our curiosity as to the Truth of Islam.
We should not be like the Jews as addressed by those verses, lest we fall into falsehood and receive Allah’s wrath.