The death of Hadhrat Jesusas in Islamic Christology is a complex and controversial subject. In some Islamic circles, the crucifixion of Hadhrat Jesusas was denied altogether. Instead, according to some Muslim scholars, Allah miraculously transformed a disciple of Hadhrat Jesusas into the physical image of Hadhrat Jesusas, and the Jews crucified the disciple, thinking him to be Hadhrat Jesusas. This concept may be called the "Substitution theory." Hadhrat Jesusas, having been saved from such suffering and death, ascended to God in Heaven.
As mentioned in the previous articles, the substitution theory and eventual physical ascension of Hadhrat Jesusas is not substantiated by the Quran and Hadith. Rather, the Quran and Hadith is clear that Hadhrat Jesusas died a natural death. However, the theory of substitution has figured prominently in Islamic tafsir literature. The purpose of this final part is to explain how the substitution theory was introduced into Islam. I will show that the belief of Hadhrat Jesusas not being nailed to the cross and a Jesus-look-alike replacing him was introduced into Islam from the teachings of certain Gnostic Christian sects. These teachings were brought into Islam through conversion of the "People of the Book."
1. Different Versions of Substitution Story in Islamic Literature.The belief that someone substituted for Hadhrat Jesusas on the cross has been mentioned by various Muslim commentators of the Quran over the past centuries. Most of the traditions relating the details of the story of Hadhrat Jesusas are told on the authority of Jewish or un-named Christian converts (reference: "Towards an Islamic Christology: The Death of Jesus, Reality or Delusion" in The Muslim World vol 70, No. 2, page 96). The commentary of Tabari (d. 923 A.D) relates on the authority of Wahb (a Jewish convert) that when the Jews were seeking Hadhrat Jesusas to crucify him, God cast the likeness of Hadhrat Jesusas on seventeen disciples. The Jews threatened to kill them all, but instead took just one in the group and killed him, believing him to be Hadhrat Jesusas.
In the next stage of development of the substitution theory, one of the disciples of Hadhrat Jesusas voluntarily accepts to die on the cross for the purpose of saving his master. Such a story may have originated to avoid a major problem associated with the idea of substitution: WHY WOULD GOD FORCE AN INNOCENT PERSON TO SUFFER AND DIE TO SAVE ANOTHER? Tabari relates on the authority of Qatada: "It has been related to us that Jesus, son of Mary, the prophet of God, said to his companions, Who among you would consent to have my likeness cast upon him, and be killed? One of them answered, I would, O Prophet of God. Thus that man was killed and God protected His Prophet and took him up to Himself." A similar account is mentioned in the traditions of Ibn Ishaq. His source was an unnamed Christian convert. In this story, the person who offered to bear the likeness of Hadhrat Jesusas was not one of the twelve disciples, but a man named Sergus.
In other versions, the miracle of transforming a person into the likeness of Hadhrat Jesusas was a form of Divine punishment for that persons' persecution and betrayal of Hadhrat Jesusas. For instance, it is said that the enemies of Hadhrat Jesusas sent a man named Tityanus to kill him. However, God foiled the plan by raising Hadhrat Jesusas to Himself and miraculously causing Tityanus to resemble Hadhrat Jesusas. Tityanus was subsequently put to death on the cross by the Jews. BUT, God cast the likeness of Hadhrat Jesusas only on the man's face and not the body. Thus the people were confused as to the identity of the man killed. This is added to explain the Quranic verse 4:158 which states that those who differed concerning him followed only their conjecture. (reference, The Muslim World same issue as quoted above).
2. Origin of Substitution Theory in Islamic Thought.The substitution of Hadhrat Jesusas on the cross for someone else has no basis in the Quran or Hadith, as mentioned earlier. This concept likely originated from the influence of Gnostic Christianity on Islam. Several Gnostic Christian sects were known to flourish from the third to the ninth centuries A.D. They were regarded as heretical by the Roman Church. These sects eventually disappeared, both as a result of persecution and gradual conversion of their followers to the fastest growing faith at the time, namely, Islam. Most of the persecution was at the hands of the Roman Church. In the 1940s, documents and writings of these sects were discovered in Egypt, and they became known as the Nag Hammadi documents. These documents are valuable in understanding Gnostic Christian theology.
It is not my purpose here to go into details of Gnosticism. Only the philosophy of docetism will be discussed here. Docetism was a prominent feature of Gnosticism, which held that matter and spirit are antagonistic; matter was considered evil, and spirit considered good and holy. Docetism proposed that Christ only "appeared" to have a real human body, and that Christ only "appeared" to suffer and die on the cross: it was either an illusion or someone else was substituted for him. This tendency to deny or at least diminish the reality of the humanity and suffering of Hadhrat Jesusas was central to the docetic view. It is believed that docetism had its roots in the difficulties some felt in the notion of the Incarnation of God in the person of Christ - it was difficult to associate a Divine-incarnate Son (spirit) with a human being (matter) subject to suffering and death (reference: "Gnosis" by Geddes MacGregor).
A reference from the Nag Hammadi documents demonstrates the docetic view of Hadhrat Jesusas. The book "Apocalypse of Peter" relates a vision of the disciple Peter. He sees Hadhrat Jesusas apparently nailed to the cross and another Jesus floating above the cross. Hadhrat Jesusas explains to Peter: "He whom you see above the tree (cross), glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But the one whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute...one made in his likeness." (Reference: "The Laughing Savior", by John Dart, Page 107).
In summary, the death of Hadhrat Jesusas in Islamic thought has been that of controversy and debate. It is clear that belief in the ascension of Hadhrat Jesusas and death of a Jesus-look-alike did not exist in the original teachings of Islam. The existence of such speculations in the Quranic exegesis appear to have resulted from the influence of certain Gnostic Christian philosophies such as docetism.