The Qur'an tells us that the universe will end. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam agree that there will be a Day of Reckoning. The Qur'an describes this day as Yawm al-Qiyamah (Doomsday), al-Sa'ah (The Hour), al-Naba' al-'Azim (The Great News), and Yawm al-Din (The Day of Judgment.(1) Some Qur'anic verses and hadith (traditions) give us an idea of when this event will occur. The hadith literature discusses this topic under the title of "Doomsday Manifestations."
According to Islam, the eschatological descent of Jesus is one such manifestation. Jesus, along with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, John, and Muhammad, is considered one of the elite Prophets. Muslims believe that Jesus received a Divinely revealed book (the Injil [Gospel]), was born of a virgin, had no human father, and was sinless. He is given titles of honor, and pictured as a wandering preacher who performed miracles and spoke beautiful words. Many Sufis use his words in their prayers. The Qur'an states that Jesus' people did not crucify him, for someone took His place on the cross. He then ascended to the heavens, after promising to send a comforter (Muhammad).
Muslims have surrounded Jesus with many pious legends. Some believe he will return and marry in the distant future. A grave site has been reserved for him. Others say he will judge the world at the end of time, help Muhammad rule, be Muhammad's last Companion, or that he will appear at the eastern white minaret of the Damascus mosque or in Jerusalem. He will pursue the Antichrist (Dajjal) and, overtaking him at the gate of Lydda (a town near Jerusalem), will slay him.
Islamic scholars interpret some Qur'anic verses and hadith pointing to the second coming as a significant pre-Day of Judgment event.(2) The earliest Muslim scholars believed this so strongly that they attached it to the eminence of the Day of Judgment. At times, .expectations ran so high that commoners prepared a white horse and brought it to the white minaret in Damascus where they believed Jesus would reappear. Reputable texts give no credence to such details, although they have been dramatized by interpreters of lesser reputation. Jesus appears in the horizon at dawn and leads the people against the Antichrist who, helpless before such power, dissolves into nothingness.
Will this eschatological event occur? Is there any truth to this belief? How has the subject been treated in kalam (Islamic theology) literature? The starting point in seeking answers is the Qur'an.
Much of what the Qur'an teaches about Jesus is acceptable to Christians: the virgin birth, his sinlessness and ascension, and his miracles. The Qur'anic evidence for Jesus' descent is somewhat obscure and ambigious, but later Muslim traditions took up the idea eagerly. According to them, Jesus is still alive in the heavens and will return to signal the Last Days.(3) The Qur'an, which considers Jesus a great Prophet, mentions him as 'Isa (25 places),(4) al-Masih (Annointed One, Messiah), al-Nabi (Prophet), al-Rasul (Messenger), Min al-Muqarrabin (of those close to God), Mubarak (Sacred One), Qawl al-Haq (True Word), 'Abd Allah (Servant of God), and in 33 places as Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary).
Before delving into this subject further, we will examine the events leading up to it. For example, his second coming necessarily implies his ascension to the heavens alive. This begs the question: Did Jesus die on the cross?
This very contentious question has engendered several schools of thought. Some claim that Roman soldiers charged into a cottage where Jesus was believed to be with twelve of his disciples. During the attack, one person disappeared. Soldiers took one of the twelve remaining men and crucified him. Others believe that when the soldiers entered the cottage, they could not identify him, as everyone had taken on his physical attributes, and so picked and crucified someone at random.(5)
While the Qur'an offers no details on this point, it clearly states that Jesus was neither killed nor crucified. Moreover, his 'killers' were never sure if they had killed him or not (4:157-58). We know that someone-but not who-was crucified. Jewish and Christian sources say it was Jesus, an assertion rejected outright by the Qur'an.
And remember when Allah said: "0 Jesus. I will take you and raise you to Myself and clear you of those who disbelieve" (3:55). In other words, Jesus was not executed. A perusal of the classical and more modern literature on this verse will clarify matters.
According to Ragheb al-Isphahani (d. 1696), mutawaffika (I will take you) here does not mean death in the sense we understand it, even though he mentions that the noted Companion Ibn 'Abbas understood this literal meaning.(6) Al-Tabari (d. 922), a well-known Qur'anic scholar, states that mutawaffika means "to take and raise him to the heavens." After offering several interpretations, he expresses his own preference: "In my opinion, a healthier view on the meaning of mutawaffika is 'to take from earth and raise to the heavens.'"(7) Moreover, the verse as a whole points to Jesus' eschatological descent and a war against the nonbelievers that ends in a great victory for the believers.
The noted Islamic theologian al-Maturidi (d. 944) mentions several views, one of which is that even though the verse first mentions Jesus' death and then his ascension, his death is postponed until after the second coming. God says: "I will take you and raise you to myself ... to the day of resurrection: Then shall you all return unto me..." However, the probable meaning of literal death cannot be dismissed.(8) Al-Maturidi does not state his own view. If, however, mentioning one view before another amounts to a personal preference, one can argue that he believes Jesus was not killed before his ascension. This uncertainty, however, does not apply to his second coming, as al-Maturidi cites several relevant hadiths and the subsequent slaying of the Antichrist.(9)
Al-Zamakhshari (d. 1143), a Mu'tazilite scholar and Arabic linguist, argues that Jesus "will die a natural death after his victory over the Antichrist, not at the hands of the nonbelievers."(10) The famous Qur'anic interpreter Ibn 'Atiyya (d. 1152) writes that Jesus "will die a second time after descending to the Earth and slaying the Antichrist."(11) Based on this, he seems to accept that Jesus ascended after his death, whereas he claims that Jesus is still alive.
Abu al-Faraj al-Jawzi (d. 1200), who defines mutawaffika as "to take something completely," writes that Jesus was raised to the heavens by God. And he does not rule out a normal death: "Jesus' real death shall occur after his second coming."(12) The noted Muslim theologian al-Razi (d. 1209) gives what he calls a "sensible" interpretation: "I will complete your life and then take your soul. I shall not leave you in their hands to kill you. I will raise you to My heavens and place you next to my angels. They will not have the chance to kill you, for I will protect you.(13)
Ibn Kathir (d. 1372), a prominent Qur'anic interpreter offering the same explanation, interprets mutawaffika as "sleep" and provides several supporting verses.(14) A similar explanation, that Jesus ascended and will return before the Day of Judgment, is held by many people, among them Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who uses the pertinent hadith literature to verify the meaning mutawaffa as "sleep."(15)
Other respected Qur'anic scholars interpret tawaffa as "death as applied to Jesus." However, as this death will occur after the second coming and the Antichrist's subsequent defeat, Jesus is currently alive. Upon his second coming, Jesus will effect various social reforms and refute some established Christian beliefs.(16)
The Ottoman mystic scholar Bursevi accepts the traditional explanation and gives additional details: "When Jesus witnessed the virtuosity of the Prophet Muhammad's community in the Preserved Tablet (al-Lawh al-Mahfuz), he asked God to count him as one of Ummah of Muhammad. God accepted this sincere supplication...."(17) The Qur'anic scholar al-Alusi (d. 1854) offers a different hypothesis: Jesus ascended alive and awake, stripped of all human needs and attributes.(18) In fact, he now lives in a world unknown to us.
Some contemporary Turkish and Egyptian scholars hold different views. Omer Riza Dogrul asserts that as Jesus could not have been killed, he must have died naturally.(19) According to the Egyptian Islamic scholar al-Qasimi, both literal and metaphorical interpretations are possible, although he appears to favor an idiomatic meaning for tawaffa.(20) The Pakistani scholar Abul Ala Maududi writes: "Mutawaffika in the Arabic text is from tawaffa, which literally means 'to take and to receive,' and 'to seize the soul' is not its lexical but rather its metaphorical meaning. Here it means 'to recall from mission.'"(21) He castigates those who adopt the literal meaning (death) for tawaffa, accusing them of saying God cannot express Himself clearly.
Kawthari, who lived during the last phase of the Ottoman Empire, also emphasizes a metaphorical meaning based on historical analysis of the word's meaning and more Qur'anic examples. During the Qur'an's revelation, its audience would not necessarily have understood this word to mean "death," for then the Qur'anic usage of mawt elsewhere would lose its significance as "death." The Qur'an contains several words whose true meanings would be distorted if their contemporary meanings were ascribed to them. For example, today risalah means "letter," while its original Qur'anic meaning is "Prophethood."(22)
The Egyptian reformers Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashid Rida accept the lexical meaning of "death." Rida says Jesus literally died and his soul ascended. In conversation, it is not unusual to signify "soul" when a person's name is mentioned, for the soul is the individual's essence. Therefore when the Qur'an talks about Jesus in this verse, it means his soul.(23)
Mahmood Shaltut, a more contemporary Egyptian scholar, is certain of Jesus' literal death. He cites two verses that mention Jesus' forthcoming death and report his death (4:157 and 3:5, respectively). Several contemporary interpreters posit an energy-matter relationship, but provide no supporting evidence. According to them, Jesus had such a strong spiritual stature that his physical body became energy (spirit) and ascended to the heavens, similar to Muhammad's Ascension. Mutawaffika naturally would refer to his death as tawaffa, "to call in a loan at the end of its term," and is commonly used in that sense. But the verb also is used for nightly slumber. Therefore we cannot be certain that actual death is implied here.
And because of their saying: We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of Allah,' but they hilled him not nor crucified him, but the resemblance of Jesus was put over another man, and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not. But Allah raised him up unto himself And Allah is ever AU-Powerful, All-Wise (4:157-58).
These verses have been interpreted in two ways: Jesus did not die but ascended, or he really died. Early Qur'anic scholars offered various interpretations. The scholar Mujahid ibn Jabr (d.0722) claimed "they crucified someone other than Jesus, whom they mistook for Jesus," and "Jesus ascended to the heavens alive."24 According to Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), a famous Muslim theologian, Jesus did not die and is alive in the heavens, as the above verses clearly indicate.25 Once again, these verses remind us that Jesus has not died, will return before the Day of Judgment, and eventually will die a natural death. In fact, Jesus is known to have said: So peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die... (19 which shows that he is still alive. It mus remembered, however, that since he said this while still in his cradle, this verse does not prove that he is still alive.
The Qur'an tells us that faith always triumphs over evil. If Jesus' enemies crucified him, evil would be triumphant, It also states clearly that God defends the faithful (22:38). Therefore, Jesus could not have been crucified.26
Arguments against Jesus' crucifixion are considerably more convincing than those favoring it. But both groups have asked: If he is not dead, why is his second coming delayed until soon before Day of Judgment? Those v ' say he has died already dt^-y the second coming.
Elmalili Hamdi Yazir, the best-known Turkish interpreter of the Qur'an, concurs with the majority view, basing himself on the hadith: "Jesus has not died and will reappear shortly before the Day of Judgment."'7 Most Muslims believe that as Jesus has not yet completed his appointed task, he this verse, it means his soul.23
Mahmood Shaltut, a more contemporary Egyptian scholar, is certain of Jesus' literal death. He cites two verses that mention Jesus' forthcoming death and report his death (4:157 and 3:5, respectively). Several contemporary interpreters posit an energy-matter relationship, but provide no supporting evidence. According to them, Jesus had such a strong spiritual stature that his physical body became energy [spirit) and ascended to the heavens, similar to Muhammad's Ascension. Mutawaffika naturally would refer to his death as tawaffa, "to call in a loan at the end of its term," and is commonly used in that sense. But the verb also is used for nightly slumber. Therefore we cannot be certain that actual death is implied here.
And because of their saying: 'We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of Allah,' but they killed him not nor crucified him, but the resemblance of Jesus was put over another man, and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not. But Allah raised him up unto himself. And Allah is ever All-Powerful, All-Wise (4:157-58).
These verses have been interpreted in two ways; Jesus did not die but ascended, or he really died. Early Qur'anic scholars offered various interpretations. The scholar Mujahid ibn Jabr (d.722) claimed "they crucified someone other than Jesus, whom they mistook for Jesus," and "Jesus ascended to the heavens alive."(24) According to Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), a famous Muslim theologian, Jesus did not die and is alive in the heavens, as the above verses clearly indicate.(25) Once again, these verses remind us that Jesus has not died, will return before the Day of Judgment, and eventually will die a natural death. In fact, Jesus is known to have said: So peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die... (19:33), which shows that he is still alive. It must be remembered, however, that since he said this while still in his cradle, this verse does not prove that he is still alive.
The Qur'an tells us that faith always triumphs over evil. If Jesus' enemies crucified him, evil would be triumphant. It also states clearly that God defends the faithful (22:38). Therefore, Jesus could not have been crucified.(26)
Arguments against Jesus' crucifixion are considerably more convincing than those favoring it. But both groups have asked: If he is not dead, why is his second coming delayed until soon before the Day of Judgment? Those who say he has died already deny the second coming.
Elmalili Hamdi Yazir, the best-known Turkish interpreter of the Qur'an, concurs with the majority view, basing himself on the hadith: "Jesus has not died and will reappear shortly before the Day of Judgment."(27) Most Muslims believe that as Jesus has not yet completed his appointed task, he will return to complete it and then die.(28) Relying on: Every soul shall taste death (3:185) and We granted not to any man before the permanent life (21:34), Ismail Fenni Ertugrul, a contemporary Turkish scholar, accuses Elmalili of hiding his real opinion. According to him, the above verses clearly presuppose Jesus' death.(29) But such criticism is groundless; Elmalili does not contradict these verses, as all Islamic scholars agree that Jesus eventually will die and be resurrected.
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960), the most influential twentieth-century Muslim scholar, has defined five distinct levels of life, and places Jesus in the third level (along with the angels). The first level, that of humanity, is very restricted. The second level, that of Khidi and Ilyas (Elias), is free to some extent and allows its inhabitants to be present in numerous places at once. The third level is that of Idris (Enoch) and Jesus who, removed from human requirements, enter an angelic life and acquire a luminous fineness. Quite simply, they are in the heavens with their earthly bodies. In this life, Jesus is more like an angel than a man. The fourth level is for martyrs, and the fifth level is for the spirits of the dead in their graves.(30)
Whether the Qur'an addresses Jesus' second coming has been a matter of contention.
Three Qur'anic verses have been advanced as evidence. The first refers to what Jesus said. Some classical interpreters, with the exception of the Mu'tazilite al-Zamakhshari, based themselves on hadith literature and inferred the second coming from: He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity... (3:45). According to them, the verb's future tense implies the unfinished nature of Jesus' mission. So, he will have to speak to people after his second coming.(31) Some contemporary scholars agree, notably al-Ghumari, who says that this verse refers to an extraordinary event, as he spoke while still in his crib. Before his ascension, Jesus preached among his kinsmen. However, the verse contains the word al-nas, indicating that he will speak to humanity. This necessitates his second coming. (32)
What is actually emphasized here, and in 19:29-31, is the miracle of Jesus speaking when still an infant. The verse also suggests that Jesus will speak to people. Of course he spoke to people as an adult before his ascension. So we cannot infer from the verse's context that such an event will occur after his second coming. Those who assert this offer no concrete supporting evidence. The verse's implied meaning of the second coming, I believe, appears at best to be forced, probably to provide additional support for hadith dealing with the subject.
The second relevant verse is: And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in Him before his death (4:159). Again, their argument is weak. Al-Zamakhshari assigns the pronoun bihi (in him) to Jesus, and infers the second coming in the verse's context. Al-Suyuti and al-Qari (d. 1605) infer a similar meaning.(33) According to al-Baydawi, if both bihi and mawtihi refer to Jesus, his death can be considered real only after his second coming.(34) 'Abd al-Hamid, an al-Azhar scholar, puts forward this verse to those who claim that the Qur'an does not mention clearly or even hint about the second coming.(35) The best interpreters of the verse are the Prophet's Companions. Al-Ghumari points out that Ibn 'Abbas and Abu Hurayra, two Companions with an outstanding command of Arabic grammar and knowledge of the Qur'anic mission, interpreted it in a way that infers the descent of Jesus.(36) The Prophet's grandson Hasan agrees with this interpretation.(37) Therefore the majority of Muslim scholars believe that Jesus will return.
The verse: And he (Jesus) shall be a sign of the Judgment Day... (43:61), according to various classical and contemporary Qur'anic scholars, refers to his eschatological descent.(38) In this verse, la 'ilmun can be recited in three variations: la 'ilmun, refers to knowledge of the Day of Judgment; la 'alamun, points to a sign of the Day of Judgment; and la dhikr, as a warning of the Day of Judgment.(39) Al-Azhar's official fatwa on the second coming offers this verse as evidence.(40) There will be a second coming, because it has been foretold to be a sign of the Hour of Resurrection. Moreover, such Western scholars as Parrinder, also point to this verse as evidence when speaking of the second coming.(41)
Shaltut does not accept the second and third verses as indisputable evidence, but rather prefers al-Tabari's interpretation that Jesus' virgin birth is itself a sign of the Hour of Judgment.(42) This verse addresses those who deny the Hereafter. This miraculous birth is offered to provide evidence of the Hereafter to unbelievers. According to al-Kawthari, who diametrically opposes Shaltut, pertinent Qur'anic verses and traditions necessitate a belief in the second coming. He does not respond directly to Shaltut's views; rather, he accepts the majority view by faith without insisting on concrete evidence. The contemporary scholar Ibn 'Ashur, who also opposes the majority view, fails to offer any convincing supporting evidence.(43)
In the context, the pronoun hu naturally refers to Jesus, meaning that Jesus is a sign of the coming of the Hour. Then the return of Jesus is, of course, one of the signs of the only Qur'anic passage supporting this view. But others say this pronoun refers to the Qur'an, or to Muhammad. In my opinion, these two latter interpretations are not credible, for these verses are generally about Jesus. Therefore the meaning would be "Jesus is the sign of the Day of Judgment." As the exact aspect of Jesus that supposedly is a sign of the Day of Judgment is not mentioned, many interpretations are possible.
For example, some scholars imply that Jesus' virgin birth is a sign: God is showing us His power. Therefore, the All-Powerful God Who created Jesus without a father can create the Hereafter and the Day of Judgment. The verse compares Jesus' creation with, that of Adam, presenting both as evidence of God's infinite power. When God mentions Jesus as a sign of the Hour, the first meaning that logically comes to mind is his miraculous birth. According to others, the verse indicates the second coming because there is a close relation between Jesus and the Hour. Therefore, as Jesus is mentioned as a sign of the Hour, his descent must be meant.
The fourth verse cited as evidence is: And ice be upon me the day I was born and the day 1die and the day I shall be raised alive (19:33). The resurrection mentioned here signifies his second coming, according to those who claim it proves this event. They base this on the fact that the same verse also mentions his future death. In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross.(44)
Another indirect proof is: He (Muhammad) does not speak of his own desire. It is only an inspiration that is inspired (53:3-4). This verse literally explains that whatever Prophet Muhammad says is an inspiration from God. It is narrated, with a strong chain of transmitters, that the Prophet was talking to his Companions about the second coming. Therefore this verse is a proof that Prophet Muhammad was inspired about the second coming.(45)
Unlike most interpreters, Shaltut opines that all such proofs violate the verses' literal meaning, and that interpreters devised such meanings to avoid conflict with some second-coming traditions narrated by such famous Companions as Abu Hurayra. Therefore, he believes that the Qur'an and the Sunnah provide no trustworthy evidence for this event. The Syrian scholar al-Buty claims that Shaltut changed his view, adopted the majority view during his last illness, and then buried all documents connected with his old views.(46)
But why did Shaltut deny the second coming despite all the proofs mentioned above? It seems to me that he viewed the majority interpretation as unreasonable and against general Islamic principles. He thinks that a person cannot come from heaven, and therefore denies such statements. They based their evidence on God's power, saying: He is able to do all things (67:1) and therefore He can bring Jesus. They think of bodily descent. Is the descent of Jesus from heaven to be considered materially?
In semantic terms, nuzul (descending) does not necessitate a material descent, for other verses treat this descent as a manifestation of God's bounty. For example: He sent down for you eight pairs of cattle (39:6}.(47) We cannot say that the animals descended from the heavens, but we can say that they descended to us from God's Mercy. Moreover, in some hadiths nuzul is used in relation to God: "God descends every night to the first heaven, the heaven of the world…"(48) Of course it is not a physical descend. Therefore, in this sense, the descend of Jesus in his second coming can be spiritual, meaning that God will send him from His Mercy to be a mercy to humanity.
There is another, more spiritual approach: His descent means that Christian spiritual leaders will purify Christianity and return it to the original religion of Jesus. Meanwhile, they do not deny the possibility of Jesus' physical descent. Because of his strong spirituality, Jesus can come and go and appear in different human forms. But the focal point, according to this opinion, is his spiritual domination of the Earth in alliance with Islam. The true religion, seen in the togetherness of Islam and Christianity, will defeat materialism, communism, and atheism. This view is shared by the prominent Turkish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the Indian scholar Siddik Hasan Khan, and partly by 'Abduh. Therefore, the second coming can be a strong means for Muslim-Christians dialogue.
To clarify this matter, we cite Qur'an 30:1-5, which discusses the Muslims' hope that the Roman Christians would defeat the pagan Persians. The Qur'an clearly mentions that Muslims shall rejoice over that victory. If we apply this historical event to today's life, what can we say? In general, when one asks a Muslim about a possible war, for example, between the United States and China, Muslims must support the former, for it believes in God and religious values, and China does not. In fact, as far as I know, many Muslims are very upset over China's persecution of its Muslims and Christians. Since Prophet Muhammad stated in many traditions that some Qur'anic verses hint of Jesus' second coming, the concept of Muslim-Christian dialogue is readily understandable. To sum up, the huge restoration of the Last Days will witness true Christianity (the spirit of Jesus) working hand in hand with true Islam (the spirit of Muhammad) for the benefit of humanity.
* Zeki Saritoprak is an Associate Faculty Member of the Department of Semitics at The Catholic University of America, and a Research Associate at Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The author wishes to thank Seyyid Hussein Nasr, Sidney Griffith, Theresa Ann-Druart, and Monica Blanchard.