Muhammad: The modern Marcion of
By Masud Masihiyyen
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)2
And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. (Surah 4:157)3
The denial of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an (Surah 4:157) cannot be considered an originally and inherently Islamic doctrine targeting one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. History testifies to the fact that certain heretical groups that came into existence in the early apostolic period and gained fame in the second century refused to believe in the reality of the crucifixion. Despite showing minor variations, adherents of such groups were known by the collective term “Gnostics” and contended that the crucified Messiah was but an optical illusion.
Some try to make the argument that the existence of certain believers denying Jesus’ crucifixion in the early era of Christianity is detrimental to the Christian faith, for some producers or followers of conspiracy theories may tend to regard the teachings of the heterodox Christian groups in the early days of the Church as remnants of the major Islamic teachings supposedly delivered by Prophet Jesus. Actually, the false teachings of the Gnostic groups that deny the reality of Jesus’ passion and death are one of the few heresies that Muslims delight in using to back up the charges of biblical corruption and of the so-called apostasy from the Islamic doctrines after Jesus’ ascension. To put it another way, some Muslims may refer to the rejection of the crucifixion in the early period of the Church to validate and historicize their allegations concerning Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an. This is why it becomes crucial to analyze both the Gnostic and Islamic doctrines about Jesus’ death and in order to evaluate the claim that Gnosticism inherited the denial of Christ’s crucifixion from Islam.
WHO WERE THE GNOSTICS? WHAT DID THEY BELIEVE?
It will not be wrong to state that Gnosticism was second to none among the heresies of the early period of the Church, being more systematically developed than all the others. The word “Gnostic” was derived from the Greek word “Gnosis” meaning “knowledge”. The followers of Gnosticism4 repudiated the major Christian doctrine of salvation through Christ’s atoning death when they marked the acquisition of secret “knowledge” as the true source of redemption. The idea that believers could acquire salvation only by hearing certain secret doctrines from Jesus did not only officially separate Gnostics from the members of the universal Church, but also made Gnosticism an elitist philosophy sanctifying knowledge more than Jesus’ sacrifice.
As a major heresy, Gnosticism without doubt included several other heretic doctrines and elements. One of the indispensable components of Gnosticism was Docetism, which vehemently targeted the reality of the Savior’s crucifixion by referring to His death as an illusive incident. Docetism posed a serious threat to the teachings of the apostles because it existed in the apostolic era and tried to replace the physical reality with the concept of “appearance”. The result of this replacement was the heretic tenet that Jesus only appeared to have suffered and died instead of experiencing physical pain and death5.
Docetism was perfectly compatible with the fundamentals of Gnosticism, for the refusal of the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion was a natural result of the Gnostic aversion to human flesh 6. This enmity to human body eventually stipulated that the basic Christian doctrine of the Incarnation be despised and spurned along with that of the Savior’s death:
Perhaps the greatest issue diving Gnosticism from mainstream Christianity, in addition to the “secret doctrines,” was Docetism, which is to say, the belief that Jesus did not actually die. Gnostics claimed that Jesus had never actually come in true physical form — for if he had, he'd have been corrupted by the inherent evil of the physical — but that his bodily existence had been merely an illusion. When he was crucified, his spirit fled, so that he never actually died7.
The strength of the ties between Gnosticism and Docetism was apparent in the formulation of the peculiar Gnostic cosmology. The core of Gnosticism was actually the dualism between good and evil, which manifested itself in various forms. The dualist mode of thinking eventually turned the world of the Gnostics into an arena where different pairs were believed to constantly conflict. Of these pairs, material was taught to be evil in contrast to abstractions. This teaching drove the Gnostics to endorse the doctrine that human body was also inherently impure and evil because it belonged to the realm of the material. Consequently, Gnostics began to view Jesus as a supreme Spirit that saved His followers from the imprisonment of their bodies through the revelation of certain secrets:
The unknowable God was far too pure and perfect to have anything to do with the material universe which was considered evil. Therefore, God generated lesser divinities, or emanations. One of these emanations, Wisdom desired to know the unknowable God. Out of this erring desire the demiurge an evil god was formed and it was this evil god that created the universe. He along with archons kept the mortals in bondage in material matter and tried to prevent the pure spirit souls from ascending back to god after the death of the physical bodies. Since, according to the Gnostics, matter is evil, deliverance from material form was attainable only through special knowledge revealed by special Gnostic teachers. Christ was the divine redeemer who descended from the spiritual realm to reveal the knowledge necessary for this redemption. In conclusion, Gnosticism is dualistic. That is, it teaches there is a good and evil, spirit and matter, light and dark, etc. dualism in the universe 8.
It is obvious that none of the Gnostic teachings had any affiliation with Islam or its allegations regarding Jesus’ crucifixion. The argument that Gnosticism illustrated the influence of the particular Islamic teaching regarding the denial of Jesus’ crucifixion has no historical or theological evidence. More to the point, Gnostics did not consider Jesus an ordinary prophet that was miraculously saved from death in the hands of His adversaries, but theologically bound their refusal of the Christian doctrine of crucifixion to the vilification of human body. This naturally resulted in the denial of Jesus’ humanity and in Jesus’ portrayal as a ghost-like divine Savior. In short, Gnosticism tended to endorse Jesus’ divinity, whose human body was only an illusion, in sharp contrast to Islam, which tried to portray Jesus as one of the only-human prophets of the past.
The primary reason for the quick spread and persistent historical presence of Gnosticism in the world was most likely the superficial similarities between major Christian tenets and Gnostic teachings. The distortion of the apostolic teachings and their easy adaptation to certain Gnostic heresies quickened the development and embracement of Gnosticism by some Christians. In most cases Gnostic heresies became products of the ingenious modification of apostolic teachings having strong theological implications. For instance, Gnostics most likely perverted Paul’s statements about Christ’s pre-determined crucifixion in order to justify their false teaching that Jesus redeemed His disciples by revealing to them great secrets and mysteries:
Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:6-10)
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul had associated the concept of mystery and its revelation with salvation in Christ, but Gnostics twisted Paul’s theological implications to reach the conclusion that salvation in Christ was only through the revelation of some secret teachings. What Paul actually meant was that the only means of salvation was Christ’s crucifixion, which had been kept a secret from mankind until the fulfillment of God’s plans of redemption in accordance with God’s wisdom. Paul’s remarks neither denied the crucifixion nor changed the mystery of salvation into the means of salvation.
In other cases the adherents of Gnosticism tried to distort the apostolic teachings about Christ by misinterpreting particular doctrines through extremism. For example, the Gnostic heresy that human body was evil and Christ could not have had a true human body was a deviated and extreme form of the Christian tenet that Christ was the only sinless human as the divine Savior of mankind. Since Gnosticism established a link between evil and human body through its dualist philosophy, Jesus’ incarnation was automatically denied as taking human nature was considered equal to being sinful and impure.
These similarities and differences between Christianity and Gnosticism illustrate how Gnostic heresies owed their existence to the systematic and meticulous distortion of basic Christian doctrines. Nothing in the Gnostic faith and mentality pointed at the supposed influence of Islamic teachings, the motive driving the Gnostics to refuse the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion being incompatible with the fundamental Islamic denial of Jesus’ divinity. This big gap between Gnosticism and Islam and the fact that the Gnostic theological consistency between the rejection of Jesus’ incarnation and that of His crucifixion is missing from the Qur’an lead us to the conclusion that Islam adopted from Gnosticism.
WHY DID ISLAM ADOPT THE GNOSTIC HERESY?
Why did the Qur’an endorse the illusion theory of the Gnostics although it emphasized Jesus’ humanity at the expense of His divinity? This is a rational and challenging question that exposes the hidden ties between Gnostic heresies and the Islamic denial of the crucifixion. At first it is not easy to understand why Muhammad decided to pursue the Gnostic repudiators of Jesus’ passion. While commenting on the Christian sources of the Qur’an, Rev. Clair Tisdall remarks that Muhammad’s adoption of the Gnostic heresy concerning Jesus’ crucifixion was rather haphazard, being a product of his emotional reaction to the Jews:
Muhammad's denial of the death of Christ on the Cross cannot be traced even to such untrustworthy authority as his favourite apocryphal Gospels. It is needless to say that he contradicts both the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Apostles, though doubtless merely through ignorance. It seemed to him to be derogatory to the dignity of Christ to have been crucified and put to death by His enemies; and Muhammad was all the more convinced of this when he found his own enemies, the Jews, exulting at having slain Jesus. Hence he gladly adopted the assertion of certain heresiarchs, with whose views in other respects he had little in common9.
Even though Gnostic heresies had both theological and philosophical reasons to remove Jesus from the cross, the same thing cannot be said about Islam. For Gnosticism, which fundamentally separated the matter (and the flesh) from the soul as a result of its dualist mode of thinking, the endorsement of the crucifixion would have meant a major contradiction to the point of self-denial. In the Qur’an, however, it is impossible to find a single theological or philosophical motive that necessitates the repudiation of Jesus’ passion and His rescue from the cross in the same way since Islam does not promote the Gnostic view that the human flesh is evil.
To be honest, Islam overtly contradicts Gnosticism when it lays emphasis on Jesus’ human nature while objecting to the Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity. In order to reject the tenet of a divine Jesus, the Qur’an once claims that Jesus the Messiah is nothing more than a prophet and focuses on Jesus’ human nature by disregarding the Christian doctrine of incarnation. According to the writers of the Qur’an, Jesus’ act of eating sufficed to prove that He was but a man as a result of His carnal weaknesses:
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food. (Surah 5:75)
Further, the Qur’an contains two narratives of Jesus’ birth & infancy, both of which were plagiarized from the apocryphal Gospels of infancy. The account about Mary and Jesus in the 19th chapter of the Qur’an is a distorted and reworked version of the stories recorded in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Arabic Gospel of Infancy whilst the source of the account in the 3rd chapter of the Islamic scripture is the Infancy Gospel of James10. The incorporation of the non-canonical stories of Jesus’ nativity into the Qur’an is rather odd since these stories represent Muhammad’s betrayal to the fundamental Gnostic doctrines. If a follower of Gnosticism existed and read what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus’ crucifixion, he would definitely label Muhammad a traitor stripping Gnosticism of its essence and distorting it for his personal interests.
In sharp contrast to Gnostic sects, Muhammad did not deny the reality of Jesus’ human nature when he endorsed the Christian doctrine of a miraculous conception. Even though Muhammad misinterpreted Jesus’ miraculous nativity as a result of his failure to understand the Christian identification of Jesus as the Son of God, he confirmed the physical reality of Jesus’ birth from a virgin named Mary. Most Gnostics, on the other hand, considered Jesus’ humanity an illusion as they were at a constant war with tangible things, including the human body. This is why the Gnostic heresies mostly skipped Jesus’ nativity and infancy and presented Jesus as a phantom-like being suddenly appearing in the midst of the Jews in the first century. In an apocryphal writing named “The Acts of John11”, Jesus’ body was asserted to be a vision:
"Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all. And if at any time he were bidden by some one of the Pharisees and went to the bidding, we went with him, and there was set before each one of us a loaf by them that had bidden us, and with us he also received one; and his own he would bless and part it among us: and of that little every one was filled, and our own loaves were saved whole, so that they which bade him were amazed. And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it."
As it is clear, in the Gnostic teachings Jesus’ physical death was rather naturally impossible and unthinkable because He was believed not to have a real body. In other words, the rejection of the crucifixion in Gnosticism was a natural outcome of the basic allegation that Jesus was not truly human. If we compare this with the rejection of Jesus’ passion in the Qur’an, we see that Muhammad acted arbitrarily and chose to confine the denial only to the reality of Jesus’ death on the cross. Thus, Muhammad’s strategy of promoting the Gnostic theory of illusion was discriminate, which is evidence for the adaptation of particular Gnostic teachings into Muhammad’s fabricated religion. Gnosticism was the fruit of the distortion of Christian creed whilst the Islamic repudiation of Jesus’ death became the fruit of the perversion of those Gnostic teachings.
At this point, Muhammad’s perversion of the Gnostic heresy becomes clear and the assertion that Gnosticism adopted the denial of Jesus’ death from the so-called pure Islamic message given by Prophet Jesus is evidently rebutted. It was actually Muhammad that embraced particular Gnostic teachings and refused some others, discarding the consistency and systematic of the Gnostic faith. Consequently, Muhammad’s refusal of Jesus’ passion had no strong theological basis as it had lost its connection to the genuine Gnostic teaching that cursed the body and necessitated the interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as an illusion.
While seeking an answer to the question why Muhammad chose to deny Jesus’ death on the cross although this denial caused much trouble for him, we notice that the Islamic refusal in view came rather slowly and surprisingly as the Qur’an verses pursuing the Gnostic theory of illusion were written at a late time in the period after Muhammad’s migration to Medina. Interestingly, the Qur’an verses that belonged to the early period of Islam did not refer to Jesus’ crucifixion or His supposed rescue from the cross although they pointed at the Jewish disbelief in Jesus and the relevant religious partition in Israel:
And when Isa came with clear arguments he said: I have come to you indeed with wisdom, and that I may make clear to you part of what you differ in; so be careful of (your duty to) Allah and obey me: Surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path: But parties from among them differed, so woe to those who were unjust because of the chastisement of a painful day. (Surah 43:63-65)
Such is Isa, son of Marium; (this is) the saying of truth about which they dispute. It beseems not Allah that He should take to Himself a ! son, glory to be Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it "Be," and it is. And surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, therefore serve Him; this is the right path. But parties from among them disagreed with each other. (Surah 19:34-37)
It is highly likely that Muhammad was at first reluctant to deny Jesus’ crucifixion since he did not consider it a major threat to his new ideology praising Jesus as a messenger and the Messiah. The idea of rejecting the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion came gradually as a result of Muhammad’s severed relation with the Jews of his era. The more resistance Muhammad received from the Jews, the more he needed to turn his back on them. From this unexpected resistance arose Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments that appeared in various forms. For instance, right after the migration to
Have ye any hope that they will be true to you when a party of them used to listen to the word of Allah, then used to change it, after they had understood it, knowingly? (Surah 2:75)
Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby. (Surah 2:78)
And lo! there is a party of them who distort the Scripture with their tongues, that ye may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture. And they say: It is from Allah, when it is not from Allah; and they speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly. (Surah 3:78)
Muhammad later speeded up his accusations by recurrently labeling the Jews as a disbelieving community that persecuted and murdered God’s chosen servants (messengers and prophets alike). Although Muhammad failed to identify one single Israelite messenger that had been murdered by the Jews12, he delighted in portraying the Jews as infidels thirsting for the blood of the messengers:
We made a covenant of old with the Children of
Verily Allah heard the saying of those who said, (when asked for contributions to the war): "Allah, forsooth, is poor, and we are rich!" We shall record their saying with their slaying of the prophets wrongfully and We shall say: Taste ye the punishment of burning! (Surah 3:181)
Is it ever so, that, when there cometh unto you a messenger (from Allah) with that which ye yourselves desire not, ye grow arrogant, and some ye disbelieve and some ye slay? (Surah 2:87)
Strikingly, this campaign of accusation gets us closer to the solution of the Islamic puzzle about the rejection of Jesus’ crucifixion and reveals the mysterious ties between Gnostic heresies and Islam. After making use of the martyrdom of the Israelite prophets in the hands of the disbelieving Jews to validate and support his anti-Jewish sentiments, Muhammad argued that the Jews had been cursed by David and Jesus:
Those who disbelieved from among the children of Israel were cursed by the tongue of Dawood and Isa, son of Marium; this was because they disobeyed and used to exceed the limit. (Surah 5:78)
Muhammad’s anti-Jewish campaign would finally culminate in the slandering teaching that the Jews called Ezra the Son of Allah and worshipped their rabbis, which served Muhammad’s objective to make Jews equal to the other polytheist communities:
And the Jews say: Uzair is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away! They have taken their doctors of law and their monks for lords besides Allah, and (also) the Messiah son of Marium and they were enjoined that they should serve one God only, there is no god but He; far from His glory be what they set up (with Him). (Surah 9:30-31)
Continues on Part II