Examination of the stories in the Qur'an that mention how prophets died, and the verses that describe the ascension of the Prophet Jesus (as), reveal an important fact. In this section we shall examine the meaning of the Arabic words used in the story of the Prophet Jesus (as) as well as those used to describe the deaths of other prophets, and will see how they are used in the verses.
As we shall be seeing in greater detail later, a number of words are used in the Qur'an to describe the deaths of prophets, such as qataloohu (to kill), maata (to die), halaka (to perish) and salaboohu (they crucified him). However, it is clearly stated in the Qur'an that, "They did not kill him (wa ma qataloohu) and did not crucify him (wa ma salaboohu)", meaning the Prophet Jesus (as) was not killed in any way. It is emphasized that, in fact, someone who resembled the Prophet Jesus (as) was put forward for the unbelievers to see and that the Prophet Jesus (as) was raised to the Presence of Allah. In Surah Al 'Imran, we are informed that Allah took the Prophet Jesus (as) back and He raised him up to Himself.
When Allah said, "Jesus, I will take you back (mutawaffeeka) and raise you up (wa rafi'uka) to Me and purify you of those who are disbelievers. And I will place the people who follow you above those who are disbelievers until the Day of Resurrection..." (Surah Al 'Imran, 55)
The following are the ways in which the words referring to “death” in the Qur'an have been used:
1) TAWAFFA: TO CAUSE TO DIE, TO TAKE IN SLEEP OR TO TAKE BACK
The word tawaffa as used in this verse has other meanings than simply 'death' in English. A study of the Arabic equivalents of the words in the verses reveals that the Prophet Jesus (as) did not die in the accepted sense. This is how his being taken back to Allah is described in Surat al-Ma'ida:
I said to them nothing but what You ordered me to say: "Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord." I was a witness against them as long as I remained among them, but when You took me back to You (tawaffa), You were the One watching over them. You are Witness of all things. (Surat al-Ma'ida, 117)
Surah Al 'Imran states:
When Allah said, "Jesus, I will take you back (mutawaffeeka) and raise you up (wa rafi'uka) to Me and purify you of those who are unbelievers. And I will place the people who follow you above those who are unbelievers until the Day of Resurrection..." (Surah Al 'Imran, 55)
This verse informs the believers that Allah will "take back" the Prophet Jesus (as), protect him from the unbelievers, and raise him to His Presence. Many great Islamic scholars and commentators have interpreted this verse to mean that the Prophet Jesus (as) did not die.
In Arabic the word that is translated in some translations of these verses as "You have caused me to die" is tawaffa and comes from the root wafa – to fulfil. In fact, in Arabic commentaries it is not used in the sense of death. The commentary of Imam al-Qurtubi is one example of this; he used the expression "the taking away of the selves" for the word in question. From the Qur'an again, we understand that "taking the self back" does not necessarily mean death. For instance in a verse in which the word tawaffa is used, it is not the death of a human being that is meant but "taking back his self in his sleep":
It is He Who takes you back to Himself (yatawaffakum) at night, while knowing the things you perpetrate by day, and then wakes you up again, so that a specified term may be fulfilled... (Surat al-An'am, 60)
The word used for "take back" in this verse is the same as the one used in Surah Al 'Imran 55. In other words, in the verse above, the word tawaffa is used and it is obvious that one does not die in one's sleep. Therefore, what is meant here is, again, "taking the self back."
The same word is used again in the verse below:
Allah takes back people's selves (yatawaffa) when their death (mawtiha) arrives and those who have not yet died, while they are asleep (lam tamut). He keeps hold of those whose death (mawt) has been decreed and sends the others back for a specified term... (Surat az-Zumar: 42)
As these verses suggest, Allah takes back the self of the one who is asleep, yet He sends back the selves of those whose deaths have not yet been decreed. In this context, in one's sleep one does not die, in the sense in which we perceive death. Only for a temporary period, the self leaves the body and remains in another dimension. Upon waking up, the self returns to the body.
Another instance in which sleep is regarded as a kind of death, but which does not refer to biological death, is the following supplication, which the Prophet Muhammad (saas) often used to recite when he woke up: "All praise is for Allah, Who has made us alive after He made us die [sleep]. (Al-hamdu li Allah illadhi ahyana ba'da maa amatana; wa ilayhi al-nushoo)" (Narrated by Abu Hudhayfa; Sahih Bukhari). (Narrated by Abu Hudhayfa; Sahih Bukhari; Being the Tradition of Saying and Doings of the Prophet Muhammad as Narrated by His Companions, New Delhi, Islamic Book Service, 2002, hadith no. 6324, 239; Tafsir Ibn Kathir, abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib ar-Rafa'i, London, Al-Firdous Ltd., 1999, 176) No doubt, he used these wise words not to refer to biological death when one is asleep, but rather to a sleeping person's soul being "taken." Ibn Kathir, the famous Islamic scholar and commentator, used this hadith, along with many other proofs in his commentary on Surah Al 'Imran, to explain that tawaffa refers to sleep. In addition, he indicated the word's meaning in other verses where it appears. He then gave his opinion using a hadith handed down by Ibn Abi Hatim:
Ibn Abi Hatim says that: "My father told us … from Hassan that the meaning of the verse 'I will take you back...' is this: Here it means that 'I shall kill you with the death of sleep; in other words, I shall cause you to sleep.' So Allah raised the Prophet Jesus (as) to the heavens while he was asleep … As an incontrovertible truth, Allah caused the Prophet Jesus (as) to die the death of sleep and then raised him to the sky, rescuing him from the Jews, who were inflicting suffering upon him at the time." (Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'Azim, 1:573-576, Cairo, 1996)
Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, another Islamic scholar who examined the meaning of tawaffa, stated that it did not mean death, and drew attention to the use of mawt in one verse of the Qur'an:
Had the Prophet Jesus (as) died [which is not the case], then the word mawt revealed in the verse: "Allah takes the souls [of people] at death" (39:42), would not have been revealed… This is because if, as has been claimed, Allah had referred to normal death [in the biological sense], then this would have been clearly stated. Since Allah refers to the fact that the Jews did not kill the Prophet Jesus (as), but that he was taken and raised to the sky, then one must think of a meaning beyond that of ordinary death. (Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, Nazra 'Abira fi Maza'im Man Yankur Nuzul 'Isa 'alyhi al-Salam aabla al-Akhira (A Cursory Look at the Claims of Those Who Deny Jesus' Descent before the Next Life), Egypt, 1980, pp. 34-37)
Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi, regarded as one of the first Qur'anic commentators, also stated that the verse does not refer to the Prophet Jesus (as) dying in the familiar biological sense:
The thing being referred to in the verse is not passing on in the sense of death, but in the sense of the body being taken from this world. (Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi, Kitab Tawilat al-Qur'an, Beirut, p. 67)
The famous commentator and scholar, al-Tabari, stated that the verb is used in the sense of "removing from earth" and interpreted the verse in the following terms:
In my opinion, the soundest thing is to take this word in the sense of "to take into one's possession," "draw [away] from earth." In that case, the meaning of the verse is: "I shall take you from earth and into the heavens." The rest of the verse emphasises the [believers'] victory over unbelievers in the End Times, which confirms the above idea." (Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Tabari, 3:290-291, Beirut, 1997)
In his commentary, Hamdi Yazir of Elmali stated that the verse in question means:
In my view, a summary of this interpretation and belief is as follows: The soul of the Prophet Jesus (as), described as a "word from Allah" and reinforced with the "Purest Spirit", has not yet been taken. His soul has not come to the hour of death. "The Word" has not yet returned to Allah. He still has work to do in this world. (Hamdi Yazir of Elmali, Hak Din Kuran Dili (The True Religion, the Language of the Qur'an), 2:1112-1113, Eser Publishing, Istanbul, 1971)
We can conclude from these extensive reference sources that the Prophet Jesus (as) was placed in a condition similar to sleep and then raised to Allah's Presence. The Prophet Jesus (as) did not die, but was merely removed from this dimension by His will and Allah knows the truth.
2) QATALA: TO KILL
The word generally used for "to kill" when speaking of death in the Qur'an is the Arabic word qatala. For example in Surah Ghafir:
Pharaoh said, "Let me kill Moses and let him call upon his Lord! I am afraid that he may change your religion and bring about corruption in the land." (Surah Ghafir, 26)
The expression "let me kill Moses" in the verse appears in the Arabic form aqtulu Musa. That word comes from the verb qatala. In another verse, the same word is used in this way:
... (That was because they) killed (yaqtuloona) the Prophets without any right to do so. (Surat al-Baqara, 61)
The words "they killed" in the verse appear as yaqtuloona in the original Arabic, which again derives from the verb qatala. And as the translation makes quite clear, it means "to kill".
It is clear how the verb qatala is used in the following verses that describe the death of prophets. All the words whose meaning appears in brackets derive from the verb qatala.
... We will write down what they said and their killing (wa qatlahum) of the Prophets without any right to do so... (Surah Al 'Imran, 181)
... Did you grow arrogant, and deny some of them and murder (taqtuloona) others? (Surat al-Baqara, 87)
... Say, "Why then, if you are believers, did you previously kill (taqtuloona) the Prophets of Allah?" (Surat al-Baqara, 91)
As for those who reject Allah's Signs, and kill (yaqtuloona) the Prophets without any right to do so, and kill (yaqtuloona) those who command justice... (Surah Al 'Imran, 21)
... So why did you kill them (qataltumoohum) if you are telling the truth? (Surah Al 'Imran, 183)
... The one said, "I shall kill you (la aqtulannaka)." ... (Surat al-Ma'ida: 27)
Even if you do raise your hand against me to kill me (li taqtulanee), I am not going to raise my hand against you to kill you (li aqtulaka) ... (Surat al-Ma'ida, 28)
"Kill (uqtuloo) Joseph or expel him to some land ..." (Surah Yusuf, 9)
The wife of Pharaoh said, "A source of delight for me and for you; do not kill him (la taqtuloohu)..." (Surat al-Qasas, 9)
... "Moses, the Council are conspiring to kill you (li yaqtulooka) ..." (Surat al-Qasas, 20)
The only answer of his (Abraham's) people was to say: "Kill (uqtuloohu) him or burn him!" (Surat al-'Ankabut, 24)
3) HALAKA: TO PERISH
The verb halaka is used in the Qur'an meaning "to perish". This verb is used in verses in the sense of "to perish, be destroyed, die". An example of its occurrence can be found in Surah Ghafir:
... when he (Joseph) died (halaka), you said, "Allah will never send another Messenger after him."... (Surah Ghafir, 34)
In the verse, the expression translated in English as "when he died" is idha halaka in Arabic, used in the sense of "to die".
4) MAATA: DEATH
Another word used in the Qur'an in the context of prophets' deaths is maata. The word maata – he died – and other words from the same root are used in several verses. One of these concerns the death of the Prophet Solomon (as) in Surah Saba':
Then when We decreed that he should die (mawt), nothing divulged his death (mawtihi) to them except the worm which ate his staff ... (Surah Saba', 14)
Another word from the same root is used in reference to the Prophet John (as):
Peace be upon him the day he was born, and the day he dies (yamootu), and the day he is raised up again alive. (Surah Maryam, 15)
The word translated here as "when he dies" is the Arabic word yamootu. The same word appears in verses in the context of the death of the Prophet Jacob (as). It appears in Surat al-Baqara, for instance:
Or were you present when death (mawt) came to Jacob? ... (Surat al-Baqara, 133)
The word mawt in the verse comes from the same root and means death. In a verse about the Prophet Muhammad (saas) the verbs qutila and maata are used at one and the same time:
Muhammad is only a Messenger and he has been preceded by other Messengers. If he were to die (mata) or be killed (qutila), would you turn on your heels? ... (Surah Al 'Imran: 144)
The word mawt which comes from the same root as mata (to die) appears in other verses to do with the deaths of prophets:
... She said, "Oh if only I had died (mittu) before this time and was something discarded and forgotten!" (Surah Maryam, 23)
We did not give any human being before you immortality (khuld). And if you die (mitta), will they then be immortal? (Surat al-Anbiya', 34)
"He Who will cause my death (yumeetunee), then give me life." (Surat ash-Shu'ara', 81)
5) KHALID: IMMORTAL
Another word that appears in some verses without directly meaning "to die" or "to kill" but which means "immortality" is khalid. The meaning of the word khalid suggests something along the lines of being permanent, for example, in Surat al-Anbiya’:
We did not give them bodies which did not eat food, nor were they immortal (khalideena). (Surat al-Anbiya', 8)
6) SALABA: TO CRUCIFY
One of the words used in the Qur'an when speaking of the death of prophets and others is the verb salaba (to crucify). The verb carries meanings such as "to crucify, hang, and execute". The verb is used in the following verses:
... They did not kill him (Jesus) and they did not crucify him (wa ma salaboohu)... (Surat an-Nisa', 157)
... (Joseph said,) One of you will serve his lord with wine, the other of you will be crucified (yuslabu)... (Surah Yusuf, 41)
... they should be killed or crucified (yusallaboo)... (Surat al-Ma'ida: 33)
(Pharaoh said,) "I will cut off your alternate hands and feet and then I will crucify (la usallibannakum) every one of you." (Surat al-A'raf: 124)
... (Pharaoh said,) "I will cut off your hands and feet alternately and have you crucified (wa la usallibannakum) ..." (Surah Ta Ha: 71)
... (Pharaoh said,) "I will cut off your alternate hands and feet and I will crucify (wa la usallibannakum) every one of you." (Surat ash-Shu'ara': 49)
As can be seen from these extensive examples, very different words are used in verses dealing with the death of other prophets. Allah has revealed in the Qur'an that the Prophet Jesus (as) was not killed, that someone who resembled him was shown in his place, and that he was taken back (in other words that his soul was taken). While the word tawaffa meaning "to take the soul" is used in the context of the Prophet Jesus (as), expressions such as, qataloohu and mata, expressions of normal death, are used to refer to other prophets. These facts demonstrate once again that the situation of the Prophet Jesus (as) is an extraordinary one.
Allah Raised the Prophet Jesus (as) to His Presence in Body and Soul
The most undeniable proof that the Prophet Jesus (as) neither died nor was killed is the fact that Allah has revealed that He raised the Prophet Jesus (as) to His Presence:
"… [I will] raise you up (rafi'uka) to Me and purify you of those who are disbelievers. And I will place the people who follow you above those who are unbelievers until the Day of Resurrection..." (Surah Al 'Imran, 55)
On the contrary [bal] Allah raised him up to Himself. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. (Surat an-Nisa', 158)
Allah protected and rescued the Prophet Jesus (as) by raising him to His Presence. The words rafiu'ka and rafa'ahu that appear in the verses come from the Arabic root rafa'a, which means "to rise".
There is a consensus among Islamic scholars, based on these verses, that the Prophet Jesus (as) did not die but was raised to Allah's Presence, and that this ascension took place in both body and soul.
The Islamic scholar, Abu Musa al-Ash'ari, interpreted Surah Al 'Imran 55 together with Surat an-Nisa' 158, and wrote that: "There is a consensus among the community of the faithful [ijma' ummat] that the Prophet Jesus (as) was raised alive to the heavens." (Al-Ash'ari, Al-Ash'ari's al-Ibana 'an Usul al-Diyana, Cairo, 1986, 2:115) (Ijma' ummat refers to the agreement on this issue of those Islamic scholars who expounded upon Islamic law and lived during the same century). In his commentary, Hasan Basri Cantay interpreted rafiu'ka as meaning "raising and lifting up to Himself," and wrote that "Allah raised and lifted up the Prophet Jesus (as) in both body and soul." (Hasan Basri Cantay, Kuran-i Hakim ve Meal-i Kerim (Tafsir of the Qur'an), Risale Publishing, Istanbul, 1980, 1:92)
Imam Ibn Taymiyya opined: The verse "He raised him to His Presence" … explains that the Prophet Jesus (as) was raised in both body and soul. (Imam Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu' Fatawa, trans. by Abdurrahman ibn Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Asimi an-Najdi, 4:323)
Zahid al-Kawthari stated that the ascension is so clear and certain that there is no room for any objections. Al-Kawthari cited Surah Al 'Imran 55 and Surat an-Nisa' 157-158 as evidence and said that this event is beyond doubt. He uses the word nass, which means certainty or indisputability stemming from a Qur'anic verse or a hadith. He went on to say:
That is because the basic meaning of the word (rafa'a in the verses) is transportation from below to above. There is no element here that could be used to interpret the verses metaphorically. Therefore, there is no evidence for seeking to produce a meaning in the sense of ascension in honor and station. (Al-Kawthari, Nazra 'Abira fi Maza'im, p. 93)
As clearly seen from the verses and the Islamic scholars' comments, the Prophet Jesus (as) was raised alive, with his body, to Allah's Presence. This is a miracle of Allah, and a wonder that will inspire great enthusiasm and excitement among all believers. Claims that only his soul was raised to His Presence, or that his ascension was only spiritual (in station), do not reflect the facts. The invalidity of such claims has been proven by many Islamic scholars as shown above.
Another important proof of this event is the Arabic word bal, which appears in Qur'an, 4:158, and has the literal translation of "on the contrary". The features of its meaning and use in Arabic linguistics indicate a very important fact: according to the rules of Arabic linguistics, the sentence that comes after it must have a meaning that is completely opposite to the preceding statement. That being the case, it is likely that the verses referring to the Prophet Jesus (as) "… They did not kill him," (Surat an-Nisa': 157) "on the contrary [bal] Allah raised him up to Himself…" ((Surat an-Nisa': 158) refer to the state of being alive, rather than the state of being dead. Sheikh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri offered the following interpretation:
If the term bal, which appears in Surat an-Nisa' 158 and which I have translated as "on the contrary," comes after a sentence expressing a negativity, then, according to the rules of Arabic linguistics, the sentence following it must mean the exact opposite of the one preceding it. The opposite of death is life. This is a requirement of the rules of linguistics. If we say that "the ascension here is a spiritual one" and "the Prophet Jesus (as) died in the normal sense," then we are violating that rule. In that case, the ascension following the expression "on the contrary" would not represent the opposite to the verbs of "killing" and "crucifying" in the negative sentence preceding it. That is because it may be possible for a person to be killed and for his or her soul to rise to the skies. Otherwise, this term would be meaningless, and there are no meaningless terms in the Qur'an … According to those who support the thesis that the ascension is only one of the soul, the meaning of the verse is this: "They did not kill him and did not crucify him … on the contrary, Allah raised his station." There is no particular oratory here, let alone succinctness … No rational person could take the words "The elevator in my building raises me to the fourth floor every day," to mean that I am only raised to the fourth floor in spirit. Therefore, neither was the Prophet Jesus (as) raised only in spirit. (Sheikh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri, Mawqif al-'Aql (Position of Reason), Beirut, 1992, p. 233)
Said Ramadan al-Buti interpreted the subject in the same way:
The mutual compatibility between the verse's previous and later sections necessarily reveals a fact. For example, if an Arab says: "I am not hungry; on the contrary, I am lying on my side," this is not a correct sentence. In the same way, there is a discrepancy between the components in the sentence: "Khalid did not die; on the contrary, he is a good man." What would be correct is to say: "Khalid did not die; on the contrary, he is alive." To say: "The chairman was not killed; he is a man with a superior station in Allah's Presence" also leads to a break in meaning in the sentence, for his having a high station in Allah's Sight is no obstacle to his being killed. The term bal expresses a contradiction between the preceding and the following words. In other words, bal cancels out a previous statement. (Said Ramadan al-Buti, Islam Akaidi (Islamic Catechism), Istanbul, Mavde Publishings, 1996, p. 338)
Clearly, Almighty Allah confounded the unbelievers by raising the Prophet Jesus (as) alive to His Presence. All of this evidence shows that the Prophet Jesus (as) is still alive and will return to Earth when Allah wills and Allah knows the truth.