Al-Tabari On the Birth, Life, Death and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ

Sam Shamoun

It is common to hear modern Muslims claim that Jesus did not die nor was he crucified. It is also common to hear them claim that Jesus' likeness was transferred onto Judas Iscariot, citing S. 4:157 as proof. Accordingly, it is believed that once Judas was made to look like Jesus the people mistakenly crucified him in the place of Christ. This all took place with the masses thinking that they were actually crucifying Christ.

Sadly, most people are unaware that such views find little support from the earliest Muslim sources. In fact, early Muslim scholarship was greatly confused and divided over the exact nature of Jesus' final days. Early Muslim scholarly opinion did not hold to a uniform view regarding Jesus' final moments, with some scholars believing that Christ actually did die and some others claiming that God took him straight into heaven without dying.

An example of an early Muslim scholar holding to a different view from that commonly promoted by Muslims today is Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (839-923). Al-Tabari, as he is commonly called, wrote an exhaustive history beginning with the creation of the universe titled, The History of Prophets and Kings (Ta'rikh al-Rusul wa'l-Muluk). We will be citing al-Tabari here regarding Jesus' birth, life, death and ascension. We will be using the translation done by Moshe Perlmann titled, The History of Al-Tabari, Volume IV, The Ancient Kingdoms, State University of New York Press, Albany 1987.

"According to al-Muthanna- Ishaq b. al-Hajjaj- Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Karim - 'Abd al-Samad b. Ma'qil- Wahb: When Jesus son of Mary was told by God that he was about to leave this world, he became afraid of death and grieved. He summoned the apostles and prepared food for them saying, 'Come to me tonight. I have something to discuss with you.' When they assembled at night, he served them with supper. When they finished the meal, he began to wash their hands, cleansing them with his hands, and wiping their hands with his garment. But they considered it a grievous act and were displeased, whereupon Jesus said, 'Indeed, he who rejects anything I do tonight, is not of mine, and I am not of his.' Then he said, 'What I have done with you tonight in serving you the meal, washing your hands with mine-this is to make you and me equal. You consider me the best of you, so do not be arrogant towards one another. Sacrifice yourselves for one another, just as I sacrifice myself for you. My request of you is that you call out to God; call fervently to postpone my end.' When they turned to pray and sought to be fervent, they fell asleep and could not pray. He began to wake them, saying, 'Praise be God, could you not watch one night to help me?' They said, 'By God, we do not know what happened to us, we were keeping vigil but were unable to keep awake tonight, and as soon as we attempted to pray, we were prevented from doing so.' He said, 'The shepherd is taken away, the flock disperses.'

He began to use such language announcing his death. Then he said, 'The truth is that one of you shall deny me thrice before the cock-crow, and one of you shall sell me for a few coins, and he shall eat my price.' They walked out and dispersed. The Jews were looking for him. They seized Simeon, one of the apostles, and said, 'This one is a companion of his.' But he denied it, and said, 'I am not his companion.' So they left him. Then another caught him, but he denied it again. Then he heard the cock crow, and wept. When morning came, one of the apostles came to the Jews, and said, 'What will you give me if I lead you to Christ?' And they set for him thirty pieces of silver. He took those, and led them to him. Before that they were not sure of Christ. But now they seized him, chained him, tied him with cord, and began to lead him away, saying, 'You revived the dead, chased away the devil, and cured the possessed, will you not set yourself free from this cord?' They spat upon him and threw thorns upon him, until they brought the wooden board upon which they wanted to crucify him. But God raised him up to Himself and they crucified 'only a likeness of that shown them.' A week passed. Then his mother and the woman whom Jesus healed and cured from derangement came weeping at the place of crucifixion. But Jesus came to them and said, 'Why are you weeping?' They said, 'Because of you;' whereupon he replied, 'God raised me up to Himself, and nothing but good has happened to me. Only a likeness was shown to them. Instruct the apostles to meet me at place such and such. They met him at that place, eleven of them, as the one who had betrayed him and led the Jews to him was missing. Jesus asked the apostles about him. They said, 'He rued what he had done, AND STRANGLED HIMSELF TO DEATH.' Jesus said, 'Had he repented, God would have forgiven him.' He asked them about John, a youth who was following them, and said, 'He is with you. Go! Each of you will speak the language of a people to warn and summon them.'

According to Ibn Humayd- Ibn Ishaq- an impeccable authority- Wahb b. Munabbih al-Yamani: GOD ALLOWED JESUS, THE SON OF MARY, TO DIE AT THREE O'CLOCK IN THE DAY; then He took him unto himself.

According to Ibn Humayd- Salamah- Ibn Ishaq: The Christians assert that God granted him death for seven hours of the day, and then resurrected him saying, 'Descend upon Mary Magdalene on her mountain, for nobody wept for thee as she did, nor did anybody grieve for thee as she did. Let her assemble for thee the apostles, and send them forth as preachers for God, for you have not done that.' God let him descend to her; the mountain was aglow with light as he descended, and she gathered the apostles. Jesus sent them out and commanded to tell men IN HIS NAME of the divine injunction. Then God raised Jesus unto Himself, gave him wings of an angel and dressed him in radiance. No longer did Jesus relish food or drink; he was flying along with the angels, around the throne.

He was (both) human and angelic, celestial and terrestrial. The apostles then dispersed, as commanded. The night on which he was sent down is celebrated by the Christians with frankincense." (Al-Tabari, pp. 120-123; bold and capital emphasis ours)

To summarize al- Tabari's position regarding Jesus final moments, we discover that:

A. Jesus was informed that he was about to depart this world.

B. Upon receiving this message, Jesus became fearful of dying. This implies that Christ was going to die. Otherwise why would Jesus have been afraid of dying had it not been God's intention that Christ would die?

C. Jesus informed his disciples that he was going to be abandoned and betrayed by his followers.

D. Jesus asked his followers to pray that he would be spared from death. This again indicates that Christ was going to actually die. Otherwise it makes absolutely no sense for Christ to have his followers pray that he be spared from death. This strongly shows that God wasn't planning to raise Jesus up to heaven without having Christ die first.

E. As Jesus was being led to his crucifixion he was beaten, spat upon, and had thorns thrown upon him.

F. God then raises Jesus up and only a likeness of Christ was crucified.

Lest a person mistakenly thinks that this means that al-Tabari doesn't believe that Jesus actually died on the cross before ascending alive into heaven, note what he says elsewhere:

"According to Ibn Humayd- Salamah- Ibn Ishaq- 'Umar b. 'Abdullah b. Urwah b. al-Zubayr- Ibn Sulaym al-Ansari al-Zuraqi: One of our women was under a vow to appear on al-Jamma', a mountain in 'Aqiq near Madinah, and I went with her. We stood on the mountain and, lo and behold, there was a huge grave with two huge stone slabs over it- one at the head, one at the feet. On them was an inscription in the ancient script (musnad) which I could not decipher. I carried the slabs with me halfway down the mountain, they proved too heavy, however, so I threw one (down) and descended with the other. I showed it to readers of Syriac (to determine) whether they knew its script; but they did not. I showed it to psalm (zabur) copyists from the Yaman and those versed in reading the musnad script; but they did not recognize it, either.

As I found nobody who recognized it, I threw it under a coffer we had, and there it lay for years. Then people from Mah in Persia came to us looking for pearls, and I said to them, ' Do you have a script?' 'Yes,' they said. I brought out the stone for them and lo and behold, they read it. It was in their script, 'This is the tomb of Jesus, son of Mary, God's messenger to the people of this land.' They were its people at that time. Among them HE DIED, SO THEY BURIED HIM ON THE MOUNTAINTOP.

According to Ibn Humyad- Salamah- Ibn Ishaq: The rest of the apostles were assaulted, viciously exposed to the sun, tortured, and dishonorably paraded. The Roman king, who ruled over them and who was an idol-worshiper, heard this. He was told that a man among the Israelites, subject to his rule, WAS ASSAULTED AND SLAIN. The man had announced to them that he was God's messenger. He performed miracles, revived the dead and healed the sick. He created a bird of clay, breathed into it, and it flew, by God's permission. He told them of hidden things. The king exclaimed, 'But why did you not mention this to me, about him and them? By God, had I known, I would not have let them have a free hand against him!' Then he sent for the apostles and snatched them from the hands of the Israelites. He asked the apostles about the faith of Jesus and about his fate. They told him, whereupon he embraced their faith. The king released Sergius, and concealed him. He took THE WOODEN CROSS WHICH JESUS HAD BEEN CRUCIFIED, AND HE HONORED AND PRESERVED IT BECAUSE JESUS HAD TOUCHED IT. The king thus became an enemy of the Israelites, and killed many of them. From this arose Christianity in Rome." (Tabari, pp. 123-124; bold and capital emphasis ours)

These citations affirm that al-Tabari actually believed that Jesus did die on the cross. This is further proven by the fact that Tabari cites a tradition from Wahb b. Munabbih asserting that Jesus died at three o'clock in the afternoon and then God raised him unto himself.

Seemingly, the confusion caused by S. 4:157 presumably prevented al-Tabari from explicitly stating his belief in Jesus' death on the cross, lest somehow he be accused of denying the message of the Quran.

G. Judas hangs himself from the guilt he felt for betraying Jesus. That it was Judas can be gleaned from what al-Tabari says elsewhere:

"Among the apostles, and the followers who came after them were the apostle Peter and Paul who was a follower and not an apostle; they went to Rome. Andrew and Matthew were sent to the country whose people are man-eaters, a land of blacks, we think; Thomas was sent to Babylonia in the east, Philip to Qayrawan (and) Carthage, that is, North Africa. John went to Ephesus, the city of the youths of the cave, and James to Jerusalem, that is, Aelia. Bartholomew was sent to Arabia, namely, the Hijaz; Simeon to the land of the Berbers in Africa. Judas was not then an apostle, so his place was taken by Ariobus. He filled in for Judas Iscariot AFTER THE LATTER HAD PERPETRATED HIS DEED." (Ibid., p. 123; bold and capital emphasis ours)

This indicates that the modern Muslim claim regarding Judas being made to look like Jesus in order to be crucified in Christ's place is something that both al-Tabari and his sources were either unaware of or simply rejected.

Continuing further, we find Al-Tabari actually quoting from both Christians and material found in the four Gospels regarding Jesus' birth and genealogy, as well as material found in the New Testament Apocryphal fables:

"The Persians assert that sixty-five years after Alexander seized Babylonia, and fifty-one years after Arsacid rule began, Mary the daughter of 'Imran gave birth to Jesus. But the Christians assert that Jesus was born to her 303 years after Alexander conquered Babylonia, and that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. They report that Mary was pregnant with Jesus when she was thirteen years old. They also report that Jesus lived thirty-two years and a few days before his ascension, and that Mary lived six more years after his ascension, altogether over fifty years. They assert that John and Jesus met in the Jordan River when Jesus was thirty years of age, and that John was slain before the ascension of Jesus. Zechariah b. Berechiah, the father of Yahya b. Zechariah, and 'Imran b. Matthan, the father of Mary, were married to two sisters. One was married to Zechariah- she was the mother of John, the other was with 'Imran b. Matthan, and she was the mother of Mary. 'Imran b. Matthan died when the mother of Mary was pregnant with her. When Mary was born, Zechariah provided for her after her mother's death, because her aunt, the sister of her mother, was with him. The name of Mary's mother was Hanna bt. Faqud b. Qabil, the name of the sister of Mary's mother, that is the name of John's mother was Elizabeth bt. Faqud. Zechariah provided for Mary, and she was engaged to Joseph b. Jacob b. Matthan b. Eleazar b. Eliud b. Achim b. Zadok b. Azor b. Eliakim b. Abiud b. Zerrubabbel, b. Shealtiel b. Jechonia b. Josiah b. Amon b. Manasseh, b. Hezekiah b. Ahaziah b. Jotham b. Uzziah b. Joram b. Jehosaphat b. Asa b. Abijah b. Rehoboam b. Solomon b. David.

According to Ibn Humayd- Salamah- Ibn Ishaq: As far as I could learn her lineage, Mary was a daughter of 'Imran b. Josiah b. Amaziah b. Joash b. Ahaziah b. Joram b. Jehosaphat b. Asa b. Abijah b. Rehoboam b. Solomon.

To Zechariah was born John, the son of the (great) aunt of Jesus, the son of Mary. In his youth John became a prophet and traveled. He came to Palestine, calling upon the people. John the Baptist and Jesus met, and then parted after John baptized Jesus. It is said that Jesus sent John the Baptist with twelve apostles to teach the people. Among their prohibitions was marriage to a niece." (Tabari, pp. 102-103; bold emphasis ours)

Joseph's genealogy as given by al-Tabari is actually identical to that given in Matthew's Gospel:

"A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." Matthew 1:1-16

More from al-Tabari:

Some historians mentioned that Jesus was born forty-two years after Augustus had become emperor. Augustus continued to live on, and his reign lasted fifty-five years, some add a few days. The Jews assaulted Christ. The sovereign in Jerusalem at the time was Caesar, and it was on his behalf that Herod the Great reigned in Jerusalem. Messengers of the king of Persia came to him. Sent to Christ, they came to Herod by mistake. They informed Herod that the king of Persia had sent them to offer Christ the gifts they carried, gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They told him that they had observed that Christ's star had risen- they had learned through computation. They offered him gifts at Bethlehem in Palestine. When Herod learned about them, he plotted against Christ, and looked for him in order to slay him. God commanded an angel to tell Joseph, who was with Mary at the sanctuary, that Herod intended to slay the child, and to instruct him to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother.

When Herod died the angel told Joseph, who was in Egypt, that Herod was dead and that his son Archelaus reigned instead- the man who sought to slay the child was no longer alive. Joseph took the child to Nazareth in Palestine, to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet, 'I called you out of Egypt.' Archelaus died, and the younger Herod became king, in whose reign the likeness of Christ was crucified'" (Al-Tabari, pp. 124-125; bold emphasis ours)

The footnote states:

"The reference ascribed here to Isaiah is in Hosea 11:1." (Ibid, f. # 322, p. 125)

Al-Tabari is clearly dependent on Matthew 2 here, clearly citing it as accurate history.


The Meaning of Tawaffa In the Quran

According to the Quran Jesus actually died before ascending into heaven:

"Lo ! God said: 'O Jesus! Verily I shall cause thee to die (mutawaffeeka), and shall exalt thee unto me, and cleanse thee of those who are bent on denying the truth; and I shall place those who follow thee above those who are bent on denying the truth, unto the day of resurrection. In the end unto Me you all must return, and I shall judge between you with regard to all on which you were wont to differ." S. 3:55 Muhammed Asad

"I did not say to them aught save what Thou didst enjoin me with: That serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord, and I was a witness of them so long as I was among them, but when Thou didst cause me to die (tawafaytani), Thou wert the watcher over them, and Thou art witness of all things." S. 5:117 M.H.Shakir

The words mutawaffeeka and tawafaytani stem from the verb tawaffa. This verb always means death when God or angels are the subjects. This therefore implies that the Quran clearly teaches that Christ did die before being raised to God. Lest one think that this is simply a Christian assertion, we present here the following comments from two Muslims sources regarding the precise meaning of the verb. The first is taken from Learner's Moiz Amjad's response to the claim made by Muslim Apologist Jamal Badawi that the verb tawaffa means to complete ones term or debt:

The implication of the word under consideration, as explained by Dr. Jamal Badawi and the other referred Muslim scholars is supported neither by the Qur"an, nor by any authentic source of the Arabic language.

The word "mutawaffik" is the active participle (ism al-faa'il) for the noun "tawaffa". Aqrab al-Mawaarid, one of the most authentic Arabic dictionaries has explained "tawaffa" to imply:

"To complete", "to fulfill" "to discharge completely", "to realize completely", "to finish" etc., when the object of the verb are words like "promise", "right", "obligation", "liability", "loan", "debt" "number" or "time period" etc. Thus:

"tawaffait al-muddah" (the object of the verb being "the time period"), it means, "I completed the term"; or

"tawaffa haqqahu" (the object of the verb being "right"), it means, "he realized his right completely"; or

"tawaffa 'adad al-qaum" (the object of the verb being "number") it means that "he counted the number of people completely".

"To cause death", "to take away the soul" etc., when the agent of the verb is God [or any other agent or cause of death, or death itself] and the object is a living thing (like man). Thus:

"tawaffa Allaho Zayedan" (the active agent of the verb being "Allah" and the object being a person) means, "God caused Zayed to die"[1].

"tawaffahu al-Ta'oon" (the active agent being "plague" — i.e. an agent or cause of death — and the object being a person) means, "The plague killed him".

"tawaffathu al-maut" (the active agent being "death" and the object being a person) means, "death overtook him"[2].

"tawaffathu al-Malaaikah" (the active agent being "angels" — i.e. an agent of death — and the object being a person) means "The angels gave him death"[3].

"To die", when the verb occurs in its passive form, with the passive participle being a living being (like man). Thus, "tuwuffia Zayedun" means "Zayed died"[4].

It should be quite clear from the above explanation that the meaning of the word "mutawaffik" as described by Dr. Jamal Badawi and other Muslim scholars, who ascribe to the same opinion, is not very accurate. (Source)

The following comments are taken from Muslim Kashif Ahmed Shehzada's article: "The expression in arabic <MUTE VA FEEKA> comes from the root word <VAFFA> which carries the meaning of 'Completing something or some task to such an extent that nothing else is left out'. In the same manner <Vafaat> means 'Death', as in Death the life term of a person is fully completed. Following are some references from Standard Arabic dictionaries which tell us about the meaning of the word <VAFFAT>.

'VAFFAT' =  "Death", "Decease" (An advanced Learners Arabic-English Dictionary by H.Anthony Salmone pp1222)

'VAFFAT' = "Death", "Demise", "Decease" (Al Mawrid Arabic-English Dictionary pp 1240)

'TUVAFA' = "To take the life of anyone" (A Dictionary & Glossary of the Koran by J.Penrice pp 161)

'TUUFFA' = "To die", "Expire", "Pass away", "Give up the ghost", "Breath ones last", "Part ones life" (Al Mawrid Arabic-English Dictionary pp 391)

In English to Arabic dictionaries ie reverse the meaning of 'vaffat' is again confirmed;

"DEATH"  = 'vaffat'  (Al Manar English-Arabic Dictionary pp 157)

"DEATH"  = 'vaffat'(Al Asri English-Arabic Dictionary pp 193)

"DEMISE" = 'vaffat' (Al Asri English-Arabic Dictionary pp 199)

"DEMISE" = 'vaffat' (Al Mawrid English-Arabic Dictionary pp 259)

"DEATH" = 'vaffat'  (Al Mawrid Eng Arabic Dictionary pp 251)

And much more.

However apart from General Arabic works of Reference, this word has also been used in the sense which conveys the meaning of death or demise or completion of one's life term in the Qur'an itself. The following verses are very clear in ascertaining the meaning of  "Vaffa", "Mutavafa" etc in the Qur'an itself. Please check all of these and above in Arabic to confirm them yourself. They are from M.H.Shakir's translation where otherwise stated.


"Our Lord! surely we have heard a preacher calling to the faith, saying: Believe in your Lord, so we did believe; Our Lord! forgive us therefore our faults, and cover our evil deeds and MAKE US DIE <TUWAFFANA> with the righteous." (3:193)

"And you do not take revenge on us except because we have believed in the communications of our Lord when they came to us! Our Lord: Pour out upon us patience and CAUSE US TO DIE <TUWAFFANA> in submission." (7:126)

"My Lord! Thou hast given me of the kingdom and taught me of the interpretation of sayings: Originator of the heavens and the earth! Thou art my guardian in this world and the hereafter; MAKE ME DIE A MUSLIM <TUWAFFANI MUSLIM AN> and join me with the good." (12:101)

"But how will it be when the angels CAUSE THEM TO DIE <TAWAFAT'HUM> smiting their backs." (47:27)

"And (as for) those of you WHO DIE <YUTAWAFFAUNA> and leave wives behind,"(2:234)

"And as for those who are guilty of an indecency from among your women, call to witnesses against them four (witnesses) from among you; then if they bear witness confine them to the houses until DEATH TAKES THEM AWAY <YATAWAFFAHUNNE> or Allah opens some way for them." (4:15)

"And Allah has created you, then He CAUSES YOU TO DIE <YATAWAFFA'KUM> , and of you is he who is brought back to the worst part of life, so that after having knowledge he does not know anything; surely Allah is Knowing, Powerful." (16:70)

"O people! if you are in doubt about the raising, then surely We created you from dust, then from a small seed, then from a clot, then from a lump of flesh, complete in make and incomplete, that We may make clear to you; and We cause what We please to stay in the wombs till an appointed time, then We bring you forth as babies, then that you may attain your maturity; and of you is he who is CAUSED TO DIE <YUTAWAFFA> , and of you is he who is brought back to the worst part of life.." (22:5)

"Say: The angel of death who is given charge of you shall CAUSE YOU TO DIE <YATAWAFAAKUM>, then to your Lord you shall be brought back." (32:11)

The above verses are very distinct and clear in informing us the meaning of 'Yutavafa''" (source; bold emphasis ours).

In light of the preceding factors, the claim that Jesus did not die but ascended into heaven only to return again and then die is purely a Muslim myth. For a Christian analysis regarding the Islamic view of Jesus' crucifixion and death please read the following article.

Further articles by Sam Shamoun
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