For Christians, the cross and the crucifix are familiar symbols that point to one of the great truths of our faith. The sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross is cherished as an act of God’s great love for humanity. His death makes possible the salvation of all who are saved, both Christian and non-Christian. Yet for Christians the death of Jesus is not an isolated event; it is connected with the Good News of the Resurrection, that, though Jesus was crucified, the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive! Good Friday leads to the joy of Easter.
What does Islam believe about Jesus and his death? Islam, far from denying Jesus’ existence, references him in its teachings. The Quran mentions the “prophet” Jesus dozens of times, providing accounts of his birth, miracles, and death. The revelation about Jesus contained in the Quran, however, does not always match the Christian Bible. Jesus is presented only as a prophet, for the Quran asks, “How could He [Allah] have a son?” (6:101). Instead the relationship of Jesus to God is portrayed not as a son but as a messenger. Jesus’ death, too, is described in a different way: God heard the prayer of Jesus and prevented him from being put to death.
The Quran relates the words of God to Jesus:
“O Jesus, indeed I will take you and raise you to Myself and purify you from those who disbelieve and make those who follow you [in submission to Allah alone] superior to those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection” (Quran 3:55).
Muslims believe that Jesus died a natural death in accordance with the will of God. The cross was thought to be a curse and therefore not fitting for a prophet such as Jesus.
The Quran asserts elsewhere that Jesus only appeared to die, resulting in some claims that another (perhaps even Judas Iscariot) took his place on the cross. It is written:
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. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself (Quran 4:157–158).
Muslims believe that when Jesus died — not on Calvary, but naturally at some later time — he was taken into God’s presence as was fitting for a holy man.
Islam, in its teachings on Jesus, affirms some points of Christian revelation but not others. These early connections between Islam and Christianity and Islam’s assertion of Jesus’ prophetic role are not surprising. Before Christianity was prominent in most of Europe, it could be found in North Africa and the Middle East. The beginnings of Islam in the seventh century coincide with the influence of Christian belief and practice. The world Islam entered had been impacted by the key Christian belief that Jesus’ death on the cross brought about mankind’s salvation.
Islam’s teaching on Jesus and his death is consistent with its belief in the oneness of God. The Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus and God as a trinity of persons matches neither what Islam believes about Jesus nor what it believes about God. For Islam, belief in Jesus as other than a prophet takes away from the greatness of Allah. Jesus is not consubstantial with God; he was a man created in time.
Despite the differences, the Muslim understanding of Jesus provides a point of common ground: that Jesus had a special relationship with God and a privileged role. Though Jesus’ divinity is a core belief that Islam cannot accept and Christians cannot relinquish, Islam provides a powerful reminder to Christians of the majesty and oneness of God.
We should not be surprised that the death of Jesus has been difficult to believe. In Jesus’ own day, even for some of his believers, the cross was a scandal, a repudiation of who Jesus said he was. And for non-Christians, Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). But for those who believe, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the crux of faith, to be acknowledged and celebrated. Because Jesus died and was raised, we too can hope for eternal life.