IMMATURE RESURRECTION OF GNOSTICISM IN ISLAM
Muhammad: The modern Marcion of Arabia1
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)2
And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. (Surah 4:157)3
The denial of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an (Surah 4:157) cannot be considered an originally and inherently Islamic doctrine targeting one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. History testifies to the fact that certain heretical groups that came into existence in the early apostolic period and gained fame in the second century refused to believe in the reality of the crucifixion. Despite showing minor variations, adherents of such groups were known by the collective term “Gnostics” and contended that the crucified Messiah was but an optical illusion.
Some try to make the argument that the existence of certain believers denying Jesus’ crucifixion in the early era of Christianity is detrimental to the Christian faith, for some producers or followers of conspiracy theories may tend to regard the teachings of the heterodox Christian groups in the early days of the Church as remnants of the major Islamic teachings supposedly delivered by Prophet Jesus. Actually, the false teachings of the Gnostic groups that deny the reality of Jesus’ passion and death are one of the few heresies that Muslims delight in using to back up the charges of biblical corruption and of the so-called apostasy from the Islamic doctrines after Jesus’ ascension. To put it another way, some Muslims may refer to the rejection of the crucifixion in the early period of the Church to validate and historicize their allegations concerning Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an. This is why it becomes crucial to analyze both the Gnostic and Islamic doctrines about Jesus’ death and in order to evaluate the claim that Gnosticism inherited the denial of Christ’s crucifixion from Islam.
WHO WERE THE GNOSTICS? WHAT DID THEY BELIEVE?
It will not be wrong to state that Gnosticism was second to none among the heresies of the early period of the Church, being more systematically developed than all the others. The word “Gnostic” was derived from the Greek word “Gnosis” meaning “knowledge”. The followers of Gnosticism4 repudiated the major Christian doctrine of salvation through Christ’s atoning death when they marked the acquisition of secret “knowledge” as the true source of redemption. The idea that believers could acquire salvation only by hearing certain secret doctrines from Jesus did not only officially separate Gnostics from the members of the universal Church, but also made Gnosticism an elitist philosophy sanctifying knowledge more than Jesus’ sacrifice.
As a major heresy, Gnosticism without doubt included several other heretic doctrines and elements. One of the indispensable components of Gnosticism was Docetism, which vehemently targeted the reality of the Savior’s crucifixion by referring to His death as an illusive incident. Docetism posed a serious threat to the teachings of the apostles because it existed in the apostolic era and tried to replace the physical reality with the concept of “appearance”. The result of this replacement was the heretic tenet that Jesus only appeared to have suffered and died instead of experiencing physical pain and death5.
Docetism was perfectly compatible with the fundamentals of Gnosticism, for the refusal of the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion was a natural result of the Gnostic aversion to human flesh6. This enmity to human body eventually stipulated that the basic Christian doctrine of the Incarnation be despised and spurned along with that of the Savior’s death:
Perhaps the greatest issue diving Gnosticism from mainstream Christianity, in addition to the “secret doctrines,” was Docetism, which is to say, the belief that Jesus did not actually die. Gnostics claimed that Jesus had never actually come in true physical form — for if he had, he'd have been corrupted by the inherent evil of the physical — but that his bodily existence had been merely an illusion. When he was crucified, his spirit fled, so that he never actually died7.
The strength of the ties between Gnosticism and Docetism was apparent in the formulation of the peculiar Gnostic cosmology. The core of Gnosticism was actually the dualism between good and evil, which manifested itself in various forms. The dualist mode of thinking eventually turned the world of the Gnostics into an arena where different pairs were believed to constantly conflict. Of these pairs, material was taught to be evil in contrast to abstractions. This teaching drove the Gnostics to endorse the doctrine that human body was also inherently impure and evil because it belonged to the realm of the material. Consequently, Gnostics began to view Jesus as a supreme Spirit that saved His followers from the imprisonment of their bodies through the revelation of certain secrets:
The unknowable God was far too pure and perfect to have anything to do with the material universe which was considered evil. Therefore, God generated lesser divinities, or emanations. One of these emanations, Wisdom desired to know the unknowable God. Out of this erring desire the demiurge an evil god was formed and it was this evil god that created the universe. He along with archons kept the mortals in bondage in material matter and tried to prevent the pure spirit souls from ascending back to god after the death of the physical bodies. Since, according to the Gnostics, matter is evil, deliverance from material form was attainable only through special knowledge revealed by special Gnostic teachers. Christ was the divine redeemer who descended from the spiritual realm to reveal the knowledge necessary for this redemption. In conclusion, Gnosticism is dualistic. That is, it teaches there is a good and evil, spirit and matter, light and dark, etc. dualism in the universe8.
It is obvious that none of the Gnostic teachings had any affiliation with Islam or its allegations regarding Jesus’ crucifixion. The argument that Gnosticism illustrated the influence of the particular Islamic teaching regarding the denial of Jesus’ crucifixion has no historical or theological evidence. More to the point, Gnostics did not consider Jesus an ordinary prophet that was miraculously saved from death in the hands of His adversaries, but theologically bound their refusal of the Christian doctrine of crucifixion to the vilification of human body. This naturally resulted in the denial of Jesus’ humanity and in Jesus’ portrayal as a ghost-like divine Savior. In short, Gnosticism tended to endorse Jesus’ divinity, whose human body was only an illusion, in sharp contrast to Islam, which tried to portray Jesus as one of the only-human prophets of the past.
The primary reason for the quick spread and persistent historical presence of Gnosticism in the world was most likely the superficial similarities between major Christian tenets and Gnostic teachings. The distortion of the apostolic teachings and their easy adaptation to certain Gnostic heresies quickened the development and embracement of Gnosticism by some Christians. In most cases Gnostic heresies became products of the ingenious modification of apostolic teachings having strong theological implications. For instance, Gnostics most likely perverted Paul’s statements about Christ’s pre-determined crucifixion in order to justify their false teaching that Jesus redeemed His disciples by revealing to them great secrets and mysteries:
Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:6-10)
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul had associated the concept of mystery and its revelation with salvation in Christ, but Gnostics twisted Paul’s theological implications to reach the conclusion that salvation in Christ was only through the revelation of some secret teachings. What Paul actually meant was that the only means of salvation was Christ’s crucifixion, which had been kept a secret from mankind until the fulfillment of God’s plans of redemption in accordance with God’s wisdom. Paul’s remarks neither denied the crucifixion nor changed the mystery of salvation into the means of salvation.
In other cases the adherents of Gnosticism tried to distort the apostolic teachings about Christ by misinterpreting particular doctrines through extremism. For example, the Gnostic heresy that human body was evil and Christ could not have had a true human body was a deviated and extreme form of the Christian tenet that Christ was the only sinless human as the divine Savior of mankind. Since Gnosticism established a link between evil and human body through its dualist philosophy, Jesus’ incarnation was automatically denied as taking human nature was considered equal to being sinful and impure.
These similarities and differences between Christianity and Gnosticism illustrate how Gnostic heresies owed their existence to the systematic and meticulous distortion of basic Christian doctrines. Nothing in the Gnostic faith and mentality pointed at the supposed influence of Islamic teachings, the motive driving the Gnostics to refuse the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion being incompatible with the fundamental Islamic denial of Jesus’ divinity. This big gap between Gnosticism and Islam and the fact that the Gnostic theological consistency between the rejection of Jesus’ incarnation and that of His crucifixion is missing from the Qur’an lead us to the conclusion that Islam adopted from Gnosticism.
WHY DID ISLAM ADOPT THE GNOSTIC HERESY?
Why did the Qur’an endorse the illusion theory of the Gnostics although it emphasized Jesus’ humanity at the expense of His divinity? This is a rational and challenging question that exposes the hidden ties between Gnostic heresies and the Islamic denial of the crucifixion. At first it is not easy to understand why Muhammad decided to pursue the Gnostic repudiators of Jesus’ passion. While commenting on the Christian sources of the Qur’an, Rev. Clair Tisdall remarks that Muhammad’s adoption of the Gnostic heresy concerning Jesus’ crucifixion was rather haphazard, being a product of his emotional reaction to the Jews:
Muhammad's denial of the death of Christ on the Cross cannot be traced even to such untrustworthy authority as his favourite apocryphal Gospels. It is needless to say that he contradicts both the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Apostles, though doubtless merely through ignorance. It seemed to him to be derogatory to the dignity of Christ to have been crucified and put to death by His enemies; and Muhammad was all the more convinced of this when he found his own enemies, the Jews, exulting at having slain Jesus. Hence he gladly adopted the assertion of certain heresiarchs, with whose views in other respects he had little in common9.
Even though Gnostic heresies had both theological and philosophical reasons to remove Jesus from the cross, the same thing cannot be said about Islam. For Gnosticism, which fundamentally separated the matter (and the flesh) from the soul as a result of its dualist mode of thinking, the endorsement of the crucifixion would have meant a major contradiction to the point of self-denial. In the Qur’an, however, it is impossible to find a single theological or philosophical motive that necessitates the repudiation of Jesus’ passion and His rescue from the cross in the same way since Islam does not promote the Gnostic view that the human flesh is evil.
To be honest, Islam overtly contradicts Gnosticism when it lays emphasis on Jesus’ human nature while objecting to the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity. In order to reject the tenet of a divine Jesus, the Qur’an once claims that Jesus the Messiah is nothing more than a prophet and focuses on Jesus’ human nature by disregarding the Christian doctrine of incarnation. According to the writers of the Qur’an, Jesus’ act of eating sufficed to prove that He was but a man as a result of His carnal weaknesses:
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food. (Surah 5:75)
Further, the Qur’an contains two narratives of Jesus’ birth & infancy, both of which were plagiarized from the apocryphal Gospels of infancy. The account about Mary and Jesus in the 19th chapter of the Qur’an is a distorted and reworked version of the stories recorded in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Gospel of Infancy whilst the source of the account in the 3rd chapter of the Islamic scripture is the Infancy Gospel of James10. The incorporation of the non-canonical stories of Jesus’ nativity into the Qur’an is rather odd since these stories represent Muhammad’s betrayal to the fundamental Gnostic doctrines. If a follower of Gnosticism existed and read what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus’ crucifixion, he would definitely label Muhammad a traitor stripping Gnosticism of its essence and distorting it for his personal interests.
In sharp contrast to Gnostic sects, Muhammad did not deny the reality of Jesus’ human nature when he endorsed the Christian doctrine of a miraculous conception. Even though Muhammad misinterpreted Jesus’ miraculous nativity as a result of his failure to understand the Christian identification of Jesus as the Son of God, he confirmed the physical reality of Jesus’ birth from a virgin named Mary. Most Gnostics, on the other hand, considered Jesus’ humanity an illusion as they were at a constant war with tangible things, including the human body. This is why the Gnostic heresies mostly skipped Jesus’ nativity and infancy and presented Jesus as a phantom-like being suddenly appearing in the midst of the Jews in the first century. In an apocryphal writing named “The Acts of John11”, Jesus’ body was asserted to be a vision:
"Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all. And if at any time he were bidden by some one of the Pharisees and went to the bidding, we went with him, and there was set before each one of us a loaf by them that had bidden us, and with us he also received one; and his own he would bless and part it among us: and of that little every one was filled, and our own loaves were saved whole, so that they which bade him were amazed. And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it."
As it is clear, in the Gnostic teachings Jesus’ physical death was rather naturally impossible and unthinkable because He was believed not to have a real body. In other words, the rejection of the crucifixion in Gnosticism was a natural outcome of the basic allegation that Jesus was not truly human. If we compare this with the rejection of Jesus’ passion in the Qur’an, we see that Muhammad acted arbitrarily and chose to confine the denial only to the reality of Jesus’ death on the cross. Thus, Muhammad’s strategy of promoting the Gnostic theory of illusion was discriminate, which is evidence for the adaptation of particular Gnostic teachings into Muhammad’s fabricated religion. Gnosticism was the fruit of the distortion of Christian creed whilst the Islamic repudiation of Jesus’ death became the fruit of the perversion of those Gnostic teachings.
At this point, Muhammad’s perversion of the Gnostic heresy becomes clear and the assertion that Gnosticism adopted the denial of Jesus’ death from the so-called pure Islamic message given by Prophet Jesus is evidently rebutted. It was actually Muhammad that embraced particular Gnostic teachings and refused some others, discarding the consistency and systematic of the Gnostic faith. Consequently, Muhammad’s refusal of Jesus’ passion had no strong theological basis as it had lost its connection to the genuine Gnostic teaching that cursed the body and necessitated the interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as an illusion.
While seeking an answer to the question why Muhammad chose to deny Jesus’ death on the cross although this denial caused much trouble for him, we notice that the Islamic refusal in view came rather slowly and surprisingly as the Qur’an verses pursuing the Gnostic theory of illusion were written at a late time in the period after Muhammad’s migration to Medina. Interestingly, the Qur’an verses that belonged to the early period of Islam did not refer to Jesus’ crucifixion or His supposed rescue from the cross although they pointed at the Jewish disbelief in Jesus and the relevant religious partition in Israel:
And when Isa came with clear arguments he said: I have come to you indeed with wisdom, and that I may make clear to you part of what you differ in; so be careful of (your duty to) Allah and obey me: Surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path: But parties from among them differed, so woe to those who were unjust because of the chastisement of a painful day. (Surah 43:63-65)
Such is Isa, son of Marium; (this is) the saying of truth about which they dispute. It beseems not Allah that He should take to Himself a ! son, glory to be Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it "Be," and it is. And surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path. But parties from among them disagreed with each other. (Surah 19:34-37)
It is highly likely that Muhammad was at first reluctant to deny Jesus’ crucifixion since he did not consider it a major threat to his new ideology praising Jesus as a messenger and the Messiah. The idea of rejecting the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion came gradually as a result of Muhammad’s severed relation with the Jews of his era. The more resistance Muhammad received from the Jews, the more he needed to turn his back on them. From this unexpected resistance arose Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments that appeared in various forms. For instance, right after the migration to Medina Muhammad officially initiated his anti-Jewish campaign with the help of a few verses that blamed the Jews for distorting the sacred scriptures on purpose. This was related to Muhammad’s new aim to present the Jews as unreliable and treacherous people that did not respect their own scripture and faith. Forgetting that his god had asked him in Mecca to consult the “Jews” as the readers of “the Book” (Surah 10:94), Muhammad claimed that the Jews were dishonest people because they concealed the truth in their scripture and perverted their book:
Have ye any hope that they will be true to you when a party of them used to listen to the word of Allah, then used to change it, after they had understood it, knowingly? (Surah 2:75)
Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby. (Surah 2:78)
And lo! there is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that ye may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture. And they say: It is from Allah, when it is not from Allah; and they speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. (Surah 3:78)
Muhammad later speeded up his accusations by recurrently labeling the Jews as a disbelieving community that persecuted and murdered God’s chosen servants (messengers and prophets alike). Although Muhammad failed to identify one single Israelite messenger that had been murdered by the Jews12, he delighted in portraying the Jews as infidels thirsting for the blood of the messengers:
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. (Surah 5:70)
Verily Allah heard the saying of those who said, (when asked for contributions to the war): "Allah, forsooth, is poor, and we are rich!" We shall record their saying with their slaying of the prophets wrongfully and We shall say: Taste ye the punishment of burning! (Surah 3:181)
Is it ever so, that, when there cometh unto you a messenger (from Allah) with that which ye yourselves desire not, ye grow arrogant, and some ye disbelieve and some ye slay? (Surah 2:87)
Strikingly, this campaign of accusation gets us closer to the solution of the Islamic puzzle about the rejection of Jesus’ crucifixion and reveals the mysterious ties between Gnostic heresies and Islam. After making use of the martyrdom of the Israelite prophets in the hands of the disbelieving Jews to validate and support his anti-Jewish sentiments, Muhammad argued that the Jews had been cursed by David and Jesus:
Those who disbelieved from among the children of Israel were cursed by the tongue of Dawood and Isa, son of Marium; this was because they disobeyed and used to exceed the limit. (Surah 5:78)
Muhammad’s anti-Jewish campaign would finally culminate in the slandering teaching that the Jews called Ezra the Son of Allah and worshipped their rabbis, which served Muhammad’s objective to make Jews equal to the other polytheist communities:
And the Jews say: Uzair is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away! They have taken their doctors of law and their monks for lords besides Allah, and (also) the Messiah son of Marium and they were enjoined that they should serve one God only, there is no god but He; far from His glory be what they set up (with Him). (Surah 9:30-31)
Making repeated references to the martyrdom of God’s messengers by the Jews did not prevent Muhammad from taking a different course with the Jewish community when Jesus’ death was in question. The only statement that overtly denies Jesus’ crucifixion and endorses the theory of illusion in the Qur’an seems to have been uttered during a heated debate between Muhammad and some Jews who bragged about Jesus’ death in the hands of their ancestors:
And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah … (Surah 4:157)
Obviously, this verbal dueling bothered Muhammad a lot since the Jews he invited to Islam presented the crucifixion as a sign of Jesus’ failure and the invalidity of the doctrines concerning His miraculous birth and His identification as the Messiah. This resistance led Muhammad to the conclusion that the acceptance of Jesus’ humiliating death on the cross would be equal to conceding defeat to the Jews. In other words, Muhammad was easily convinced that Jesus’ crucifixion indicated weakness as it came to represent for him a stumbling block to the strength of his ideology. Naturally, Muhammad joined the side of the people teaching that Jesus’ cross was foolishness and a shame that had to be covered. Paul the apostle had predicted this kind of an approach to the message of the cross and rebuked the people who were ashamed of the cross:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
As a mainly political leader of this age, Muhammad failed to understand that the cross meant God’s wisdom and might. Ironically, he made himself similar to the Jews in that he agreed with them that Jesus’ crucifixion was a shame and disgrace for his faith.
While struggling with the Jewish disbelief and their exploitation of the cross as a strong political weapon against his ideology, Muhammad became aware of the Gnostic theories and embraced them as they saved him from the supposed shame of the cross. The influence of the Gnostic heresies on Muhammad’s refusal of the crucifixion is evident in that Muhammad did not only deny Jesus’ death, but also affiliated his denial with Jesus’ returning to the Heavens (God’s presence). This is why he deemed it necessary to repeat that Jesus’ alleged redemption from death on the cross was bound to His ascension to Heaven:
They killed him not for sure. Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Surah 4:157-158)
More, it is by no means a coincidence that in the same verse rejecting the crucifixion, Muhammad established a thematic connection between his denial of the Jewish allegations and the supposed Jewish ignorance of what had actually happened to Jesus. The way Muhammad accused the Jews of ignorance and following a conjecture implied that Muhammad’s god was then revealing a secret about Jesus, which reminds one of the Gnostic secrets:
And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. (Surah 4:157)
Muhammad was definitely grateful to the Gnostic heresies and reserved a place for them in his Qur’an although he distorted them by being unfaithful to the basic Gnostic tenet fed by the duality between the matter and the spirit. Interestingly, this new version of the Gnostic Docetism in the Qur’an replaced the constant struggle and enmity between the flesh and the soul with that between the Jews and Muslims. Actually, what persuaded Muhammad to adopt the Gnostic denial of the crucifixion was that he and the Gnostics had the common enemy: the Jews.
The fundamental dualist mode of thinking in Gnosticism that was related to the constant clash between contrastive pairs (flesh versus soul, darkness versus light, death versus life, etc.) inevitably marked the Jews as the evil community that was affiliated with the Law and the body. The projection of these contrastive pairs unto the sphere of racial affinities and politics resulted in the contention that the Jews corresponded to the evil and deadly flesh because they followed the Mosaic Law at the expense of the supposed redemption through the acquisition of the secret knowledge from Jesus. This dangerous tendency to associate the Jews with this “sinful and mortal world” that adored the flesh and hated the soul formed new Gnostic heresies that abhorred not only the Jews, but also their religion and their God.
It was true that Christians, as the followers of Jesus the Messiah, were rather naturally separated from the Jews, but this estrangement started to target the faith of the Jews even to the point of denying the God of Israel along with His nation when Gnosticism tried to replace mainstream Christianity. In the second century after Christ a certain man named Marcion posed a serious threat to the Christian teachings when he attempted to distinguish Jesus as the good God from the so-called evil God of the Old Testament. Marcionism13 was the name given to this new and challenging heresy that the Church faced in her early days. Marcion’s objective to remove the Torah from the Christian scriptures and the reason underlying his zealous opposition to the God of the Jews illustrated how the dualist structure in Gnosticism equated the Jews with the supposedly evil material and corrupted human flesh. This inclination to stigmatize the Jews as a vicious and sinful community became an indispensable element of Gnostic teachings. Accordingly, Gnosticism came to reflect anti-Semitic ideas and teachings14.
Undoubtedly, Muhammad was not concerned with the theological system of Gnosticism. However, he allowed the Gnostic theory of illusion that served to deny Jesus’ crucifixion make its way into his Qur’an primarily because he saw that the anti-Jewish implications of the Gnostic heresies was perfectly fitting for his new ideology named Islam. In Muhammad’s eyes the Jews were politically evil and treacherous. This is why he once forced the Jews into the same category as the cruel pagans whilst he praised the Christians for their good relations with Muslims:
Certainly you will find the most violent of people in enmity for those who believe (to be) the Jews and those who are polytheists, and you will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians; this is because there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly. (Surah 5:82)
Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sensations in the Medina period of the Qur’an sometimes went further than political rivalry and enmity and reflected the effects of some Gnostic doctrines on the peculiar way Muhammad viewed the Jews. For instance, he added a verse into the Qur’an to stress the distinction between the Jews and Christians with regard to the notion of mercy, implying that those who followed Jesus (Christians) were merciful and mild in sharp contrast to those who did not believe in Jesus (Jews). This depiction may be linked to the Gnostic heresies (Marcionism, for example) that marked the Jews as cruel people:
Then We made Our apostles to follow in their footsteps, and We sent Isa son of Marium afterwards, and We gave him the Injeel, and We put in the hearts of those who followed him kindness and mercy. (Surah 57:27)
The parallelism between Muhammad’s anti-Semitic propaganda and certain Gnostic teachings that targeted the Jews would become apparent in the narration of Jesus’ life story in the Medina period of the Qur’an. As we stated before, Muhammad’s choice of the denial of Jesus’ death authorized and backed up Gnostic Docetism since Gnosticism had declared the Jews as the cursed enemy long before Muhammad came to this world and made himself a prophet. In accordance with his pursuit of the Gnostic heresies about Jesus’ death, Muhammad for the first time took the Jewish disbelief in Jesus’ story one step further than simple resistance and taught that the Jews had actually attempted to slay Jesus. He argued that this attempt failed because Allah retaliated with a far better plot and rescued Jesus from His adversaries:
And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners. (Surah 3:54)
Although Muhammad clearly denied that Jesus had been slain by the Jews in Surah 3, he did not explain the historical reality of Jesus’ passion through an illusion until he got the 4th Surah devised. Still, the verse rejecting the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion in the 3rd Surah displays the influence of the Gnostic teachings in a couple of ways. First, the assertion that Jesus was not slain by the Jews is directly associated with Jesus’ ascension. Second, the sentences supposedly uttered by God in a speech to Jesus perfectly reveal the anti-Jewish teachings propagated by Gnosticism:
And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve … (Surah 3:55)
Muhammad’s god confesses in this verse that his motive for taking Jesus up to himself was Jesus’ “purification” from those who did not believe Him. If one understands that “those who do not believe” pertain to the Jews, the question why specifically the verb “purify” is used in this verse can find an explanation. Jesus’ ascension in the Islamic scripture corresponds to His purification from the Jews because Muhammad’s god thought that the Jews were dirty people that contaminated Jesus in this world. This is exactly compatible with what some Gnostic heresies – for instance, Marcionism – taught about the Jews.
More, the Islamic supposition of Jesus’ purification from the Jews through His ascension is also related to the Gnostic depiction of humans’ creation as the imprisonment of the soul in the evil body. Accordingly, death in Gnostic theology is the equivalent of a soul’s freedom from the prison of the mortal body and the world of the materials. Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments and policies modified this theology and resulted in the portrayal of the Jews as the morbid community of disbelievers that wanted to humiliate and kill Jesus. While refusing Jesus’ crucifixion in the 3rd Surah, Muhammad once more preferred Christians to Jews by marking those who did not believe in Jesus as inferior people. This contrast and the idea that Christians are preferred to Jews until the Day of Judgment illustrate Muhammad’s intimacy with the Gnostic doctrines:
And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve and make those who follow you above those who disbelieve to the day of resurrection. (Surah 3:55)
Another interesting detail in the verse above concerns Jesus’ death prior to His ascension. The meaning of the verb occurring in the original text has been subject to dispute among Muslim scholars for many centuries. Since some scholars believe that Jesus will taste death after His second coming, they avoid interpreting the verb in this verse literally. No matter how Muslim scholars interpret the particular word referring to Jesus’ death (or sleep), the association between the termination of Jesus’ life and His ascension can still be construed in favor of the Gnostic influence on Muhammad’s approach to the cross and Jesus’ death. Although it is true that Gnosticism denied the reality of Jesus’ physical death, it is also true that Gnosticism regarded Jesus’ supposedly prevented crucifixion as the termination of His mission in Israel. According to the Gnostics, the Jews attempted to kill Jesus and indirectly contributed to His ascension from this malignant world of the corrupted material. In the Gospel of Judas, which is a recently-discovered apocryphal writing promoting Gnosticism, Jesus praises Judas Iscariot for his betrayal because Judas leads Jesus to death, which is equal to Jesus’ salvation from this world15.
The Qur’an verses in Surah 3 similarly present the end of Jesus’ life as the cause of His ascension and glorification after binding it to the Jewish scheme of murder:
And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners. And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve. (Surah 3:54-55)
Thus, it is possible to construe the reference to Jesus’ death (termination of His life) in Surah 3:55 metaphorically and assert that the cause and meaning of Jesus’ death in the verses above were also influenced by the Gnostic teachings. Muhammad believed that the Jewish plots to kill Jesus motivated His separation from this world in the unique form of ascension. To consolidate this doctrine, Muhammad did not refer to Jesus’ physical death in the 4th Surah when he vainly attempted to refute the historical reality of Jesus’ crucifixion with the help of the Gnostic theory of illusion. His adherence to the presumption that Jesus only appeared to have been crucified and murdered by the Jews was naturally related to his anti-Jewish propaganda and aims to stigmatize the Jews as deceived people.
It is likely that Muhammad could never be acquainted with the Christian theology concerning Jesus’ passion or with the significance of the cross for the basic Christian doctrine of salvation. The fact that the Qur’an lacks a reference to the Christian veneration of the cross as well as a critique of the Christian faith in a crucified Messiah supports the allegation that Muhammad or his scribes knew almost nothing about the way Christians viewed Jesus’ crucifixion. Nevertheless, the following verses of the Qur’an may be presented by some Muslim scholars to support the theory that Islam openly objects to the idea of salvation through one’s atoning death:
Say: What! shall I seek a Lord other than Allah? And He is the Lord of all things; and no soul earns (evil) but against itself, and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another; then to your Lord is your return, so He will inform you of that in which you differed. (Surah 6:164)
Whoever goes aright, for his own soul does he go aright; and whoever goes astray, to its detriment only does he go astray: nor can the bearer of a burden bear the burden of another, nor do We chastise until We raise an apostle. (Surah 17:15)
And a burdened soul cannot bear the burden of another and if one weighed down by>burden should cry for (another to carry) its>burden, not aught of it shall be carried, even though he be near of kin. You warn only those who fear their Lord in secret and keep up prayer; and whoever purifies himself, he purifies himself only for (the good of) his own soul; and to Allah is the eventual coming. (Surah 35:18)
It should be noted that the recurring rule accentuating an individual’s responsibility only for one’s personal sins in the verses above are violated by other Qur’an verses under specific circumstances. In contrast to the dogmatic teaching that no sinner can be held responsible for someone else’s sins, the following verses in the Islamic scripture teach that some sinners will be regarded guilty for misleading others and eventually carry the sins of the people they lead astray:
And most certainly they shall carry their own burdens, and other burdens with their own burdens, and most certainly they shall be questioned on the resurrection day as to what they forged. (Surah 29:13)
That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear. (Surah 16:25)
It must be stressed that the Islamic doctrine repudiating the transfer of sins between sinners, even with exceptions to this rule, have nothing to do with the Christian concept of atonement through Jesus’ death. The repeated statements in the Qur’an can by no means be associated with Jesus’ redemptive act defined in the New Testament, for these statements overtly talk of the relation between sinners and imply that no sinner can save or help another sinner. This particular Islamic teaching does not essentially contradict the Christian doctrine that Jesus became our Savior by carrying our sins and dying on the cross for us since in Christian theology Jesus is the only sinless human. Thus, the assertion that the verses quoted above refuse the possibility of redemption through Jesus’ death has no validity as in Christian theology Jesus is considered neither a sinner nor an ordinary man or prophet.
While analyzing the context of the Islamic denial of the crucifixion, one should also take into consideration the prospect that Muhammad heard and at least partly knew what Christians believed about Jesus’ death in the hands of the Jews, but was not concerned with the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice since this tenet would by no means serve him anything good in his war against the Jewish allegations in the political arena. It is also worthy of note that Muhammad gave implicit reasons for his adoption of the Gnostic theory of illusion in the 4th Surah of the Qur’an when he strove to affiliate the supposed illusion with the sins and misdeeds of the Jews. To follow it from the Qur’an:
The followers of the Book ask you to bring down to them a book from heaven; so indeed they demanded of Musa a greater thing than that, for they said: Show us Allah manifestly; so the lightning overtook them on account of their injustice. Then they took the calf (for a god), after clear signs had come to them, but We pardoned this; and We gave to Musa clear authority. And We lifted the mountain (Sainai) over them at (the taking of the covenant) and We said to them: Enter the door making obeisance; and We said to them: Do not exceed the limits of the Sabbath, and We made with them a firm covenant. Therefore, for their breaking their covenant and their disbelief in the communications of Allah and their killing the prophets wrongfully and their saying: Our hearts are covered; nay! Allah set a seal upon them owing to their unbelief, so they shall not believe except a few. And for their unbelief and for their having uttered against Marium a grievous calumny. And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. (Surah 4:153-157)
Obviously, Muhammad targeted the Jews in the verses prior to the promotion of the Gnostic theory of illusion as he tried to give almost a chronological list of the sins the Israelites had committed until Jesus’ death. Although the phrase “the followers of the Book” may refer to both Jews and Christians in the Qur’an, the accusations in the verses are apparently directed at Jews as Christians did not worship a calf in Moses’ period or libeled Jesus’ mother Mary as an unchaste woman. Interestingly, the accusations against the Jews in the Qur’an are directly affiliated with the schemes of Jesus’ crucifixion. This thematic parallelism and the relevant presentation of the supposed illusion as the punishment of all the Jewish misdeeds are a product of the false combination of some Christian doctrines with the anti-Jewish sentiments of Gnosticism.
Although in Christian theology Jesus’ crucifixion is in line with the martyrdom of the prophets and messengers in Israel, Jesus’ death is unique in that it is turned by God’s wisdom into an act of universal redemption from sin. In other words, Jesus suffers and dies in the hands of His own folk like many other prophets, but only His death brings grace and forgiveness as He is the Savior and the Son of God unlike the other prophets. The Qur’an similarly draws a parallelism between the martyrdom of the former prophets in the hands of the Jews (“their killing the prophets wrongfully” in verse 155) and their attempt to crucify Jesus. More, the Qur’an seemingly agrees with the Bible when it implies that Jesus was singled out by God from the group of the former prophets.
However, the same Qur’an overtly contradicts the Bible when it comes to the point of explaining how Jesus’ case was made unique as it contends that Jesus was the only Israeli prophet whose murder by the Jews was prevented through divine intervention and an illusion. This drastic modification in the interpretation of the peculiarities of Jesus’ death shows that Muhammad wanted to make use of Jesus in his political hostility toward the Jews and chose to strip Jesus’ death of any theological implications concerning the salvation of mankind. Since Muhammad’s priority was the punishment of the Jews because of and through Jesus, the denial of the crucifixion with the help of a deceptive strategy would perfectly serve the Islamic ideal of identifying the Jews as a foolish community that was castigated thanks to their desire to crucify Jesus.
The outcome of this priority was a fundamental shift from the essential faith of universal salvation in Christianity to the degradation of Jews in Islam. Since Muhammad delighted in abusing Jesus of Nazareth as an amazingly powerful political weapon and a handy tool of anti-Jewish sentiments, he tried to dissociate Jesus from the cross and the basic Christian doctrine of salvation. Consequently, in Muhammad’s scripture Jesus’ crucifixion ceased to represent divine love and grace extended by the merciful Father, but began to stand for the foremost instrument of divine hatred against the Jewish community. This is why in the Qur’an Jesus is not the Lamb of God offered for the eternal covenant between God the Father and his children, but is a sacrifice offered so that Muhammad’s desire to take revenge from Jews, the murderers of all the former messengers, can be satisfied.
Muhammad’s pursuit of the Gnostic theory of illusion at any cost was definitely related to his enmity to the Jews. The assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion was but an optical illusion provided by Allah’s might and wisdom is actually the ultimate Islamic achievement of a long-term political campaign that endeavored to designate “the Jewish” as “the foolish”. Such a struggle is apparent in the Islamic supposition that Allah, despite his primary attribute of honesty, managed to fool the Jews by making them kill someone else in Jesus’ stead. The alleged deception of the Jews in the Qur’an takes the form of an eternal curse that condemns the Jewish race to ignorance and foolishness. In short, Muhammad’s god sacrificed his honesty so that he could punish and mock the Jews through Muhammad whilst Muhammad became the modern Marcion of Arabia.
The comparative analysis of the Gnostic heresies with the Islamic teaching denying the crucifixion confirms the theory that Islam borrowed the denial and its means from the Gnostic Docetism. No matter how reluctant Muslim scholars are to admit it, the sudden occurrence of the denial of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an and the absolute political nature of this denial indicate that Muhammad adopted from Gnostic heresies only after distorting the Gnostic creed by straining it through a political filter. Consequently, what we read today about Jesus’ death in the Qur’an is the distorted version of Gnosticism, which is fathered by Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments and ideology.