One of the greatest obstacles that separates Muslims and Christians is the doctrine of the Crucifixion. Specifically, did Jesus Christ die on the cross, as Christians claim, or was it someone else? If Jesus did not die on the cross, the whole Christian understanding of salvation loses its meaning. If Jesus did die on the cross, then the Islamic understanding of prophecy becomes unglued.
So how do you begin to unpack this doctrinal divide? You can begin by pulling out the Quran. Here is the only verse in the Quran which talks about the crucifixion:
They did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather it only appeared so to them (4.157).
Historically, early Muslim exegetes used non-Quranic sources for interpretation of the verse—for example, Docetic Christian and Jewish sources that denied Jesus’ death on the cross. Docetism is a Gnostic heresy that states that Christ’s body was not human and therefore he only seemed to suffer. One example of a Docetic work is the apocryphal Acts of John in which Jesus is made to say, “John, for the people below in Jerusalem I am being crucified and pierced with lances and reeds and given vinegar and gall to drink. But to you I am speaking, and listen to what I speak” (97).
These early Muslim exegetes propose one or more variations of two principal substitution theories. One is the Volunteer Substitution Theory, according to which Jesus, seeking to avoid crucifixion, had a volunteer to take his place. The image of Jesus was then placed over the disciple who sacrificed himself while fooling everyone else into thinking Jesus was crucified. The second is the Punishment Substitution Theory, which holds that the betrayer of Jesus was crucified in his place; the image of Jesus was cast over him and it fooled the Jews and Romans into believing it was actually Jesus.
Muslim commentators in the Middle Ages criticized these early Muslim commentaries because the evidence they used was considered unreliable. For a period, they sought to absolve Christians of spreading false doctrines and some, such as the Ismaili Shii, actually affirmed the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus. Beginning in the fourteenth century, after the Ismaili were decimated by the Mongols, Sunni and Twelver Shii exegetes focused instead on substitution theories.
Some modern Muslim exegetes continue to deny the early sources; others have used the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas to deny the crucifixion; still others have simply stuck with Quran 4:157-8, insisting it is strong enough on its own to deny the doctrine of Christian salvation by the cross.
In both of the substitution theories favored by Muslim exegetes, Jesus was taken body and soul into heaven where he remains until his return at the end of time—in what scholar Todd Lawson calls “an Islamic version of the Second Coming.” But even within these two substitution theories there is much disagreement: over how and when the image of Jesus was cast upon his disciples, over the number of disciples, over which disciple, etc. Gabriel Reynolds of Notre Dame concludes that these theories do not mark a solid tradition handed down, but rather exegetical speculation.
Reynolds explains that there are several reasons why Muslim commentators would deny the death of Jesus. First, to do so was detrimental to Christianity, a religion with which Islam was in competition. Second, it could be used against the Shii, who believe that their twelfth imam has gone into hiding until the end times. (For Sunni, there is no need for the twelfth imam, Jesus takes his place.) Lawson adds a third reason: Muslim prophets such as Muhammad and Jesus are victorious, and cannot be understood as being killed in a humiliating way by the lowly Jews.
But Jesus’ death is entirely compatible within the Quran. In 5.116-8, in a dialogue between Jesus and God, Jesus says, “I was a witness to them as long as I remained among them. You became the watcher of them when you made me die.” Here and in other places (19.33, 5.75, and 5:17), Jesus’ death is referred to like any other human’s or prophet’s. And the murder of a prophet at the hands of the people who oppose them is entirely in line with 2.61, 2.87, 2.91, 3.21, 3.183, and 4.155.
A key verse is 3.55a, which states, “God said, ‘O Jesus, I will make you die, raise you up to me, purify you from those who disbelieved, and lift those who have followed you above the disbelievers until the day of resurrection, then you will all return to me.” Here, a sequence is clearly laid out—God causes Jesus to die and then raises him to heaven.
Taking this knowledge and applying it back to our original verse (4.157-8)—“they did not kill him and they did not crucify him, rather it only appeared so to them”—we can see here the sequence is the same as 3.55a. It was not the Jews but rather God who caused Jesus to die, and then made him ascend to heaven. This is roughly compatible with Christian theology, which maintains that the Father permitted Jesus to die at the hands of the Romans, and then raised him in glory.
Reinforcing this interpretation is an understanding of the context of the verse, which is anti-Jewish polemic, pointing to the Crucifixion as one of six alleged examples of Jewish faithlessness. Reynolds suggests that this verse is intended to defend Jesus from the claims of the Jews, not to make a claim about whether or not Jesus died.
In summary, if you ever find yourself in a conversation with Muslims about Jesus, you can point out that the Quran does not necessarily contradict the historicity of the crucifixion. The key prooftext on this question may not be concerned with the historicity of the crucifixion at all, but rather with establishing that the Jews did not kill their revered prophet Jesus. And the history of Muslim commentators on the subject is mixed. With this knowledge, perhaps you can establish some common ground and help bring them just a little closer to an encounter with the gospel.