Muhammad: The modern Marcion of
Continues from Part I
Making repeated references to the martyrdom of God’s messengers by the Jews did not prevent Muhammad from taking a different course with the Jewish community when Jesus’ death was in question. The only statement that overtly denies Jesus’ crucifixion and endorses the theory of illusion in the Qur’an seems to have been uttered during a heated debate between Muhammad and some Jews who bragged about Jesus’ death in the hands of their ancestors:
And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah … (Surah 4:157)
Obviously, this verbal dueling bothered Muhammad a lot since the Jews he invited to Islam presented the crucifixion as a sign of Jesus’ failure and the invalidity of the doctrines concerning His miraculous birth and His identification as the Messiah. This resistance led Muhammad to the conclusion that the acceptance of Jesus’ humiliating death on the cross would be equal to conceding defeat to the Jews. In other words, Muhammad was easily convinced that Jesus’ crucifixion indicated weakness as it came to represent for him a stumbling block to the strength of his ideology. Naturally, Muhammad joined the side of the people teaching that Jesus’ cross was foolishness and a shame that had to be covered. Paul the apostle had predicted this kind of an approach to the message of the cross and rebuked the people who were ashamed of the cross:
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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent.” Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
As a mainly political leader of this age, Muhammad failed to understand that the cross meant God’s wisdom and might. Ironically, he made himself similar to the Jews in that he agreed with them that Jesus’ crucifixion was a shame and disgrace for his faith.
While struggling with the Jewish disbelief and their exploitation of the cross as a strong political weapon against his ideology, Muhammad became aware of the Gnostic theories and embraced them as they saved him from the supposed shame of the cross. The influence of the Gnostic heresies on Muhammad’s refusal of the crucifixion is evident in that Muhammad did not only deny Jesus’ death, but also affiliated his denial with Jesus’ returning to the Heavens (God’s presence). This is why he deemed it necessary to repeat that Jesus’ alleged redemption from death on the cross was bound to His ascension to Heaven:
They killed him not for sure. Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Surah 4:157-158)
More, it is by no means a coincidence that in the same verse rejecting the crucifixion, Muhammad established a thematic connection between his denial of the Jewish allegations and the supposed Jewish ignorance of what had actually happened to Jesus. The way Muhammad accused the Jews of ignorance and following a conjecture implied that Muhammad’s god was then revealing a secret about Jesus, which reminds one of the Gnostic secrets:
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)
Muhammad was definitely grateful to the Gnostic heresies and reserved a place for them in his Qur’an although he distorted them by being unfaithful to the basic Gnostic tenet fed by the duality between the matter and the spirit. Interestingly, this new version of the Gnostic Docetism in the Qur’an replaced the constant struggle and enmity between the flesh and the soul with that between the Jews and Muslims. Actually, what persuaded Muhammad to adopt the Gnostic denial of the crucifixion was that he and the Gnostics had the common enemy: the Jews.
The fundamental dualist mode of thinking in Gnosticism that was related to the constant clash between contrastive pairs (flesh versus soul, darkness versus light, death versus life, etc.) inevitably marked the Jews as the evil community that was affiliated with the Law and the body. The projection of these contrastive pairs unto the sphere of racial affinities and politics resulted in the contention that the Jews corresponded to the evil and deadly flesh because they followed the Mosaic Law at the expense of the supposed redemption through the acquisition of the secret knowledge from Jesus. This dangerous tendency to associate the Jews with this “sinful and mortal world” that adored the flesh and hated the soul formed new Gnostic heresies that abhorred not only the Jews, but also their religion and their God.
It was true that Christians, as the followers of Jesus the Messiah, were rather naturally separated from the Jews, but this estrangement started to target the faith of the Jews even to the point of denying the God of Israel along with His nation when Gnosticism tried to replace mainstream Christianity. In the second century after Christ a certain man named Marcion posed a serious threat to the Christian teachings when he attempted to distinguish Jesus as the good God from the so-called evil God of the Old Testament. Marcionism13 was the name given to this new and challenging heresy that the Church faced in her early days. Marcion’s objective to remove the Torah from the Christian scriptures and the reason underlying his zealous opposition to the God of the Jews illustrated how the dualist structure in Gnosticism equated the Jews with the supposedly evil material and corrupted human flesh. This inclination to stigmatize the Jews as a vicious and sinful community became an indispensable element of Gnostic teachings. Accordingly, Gnosticism came to reflect anti-Semitic ideas and teachings14.
Undoubtedly, Muhammad was not concerned with the theological system of Gnosticism. However, he allowed the Gnostic theory of illusion that served to deny Jesus’ crucifixion make its way into his Qur’an primarily because he saw that the anti-Jewish implications of the Gnostic heresies was perfectly fitting for his new ideology named Islam. In Muhammad’s eyes the Jews were politically evil and treacherous. This is why he once forced the Jews into the same category as the cruel pagans whilst he praised the Christians for their good relations with Muslims:
Certainly you will find the most violent of people in enmity for those who believe (to be) the Jews and those who are polytheists, and you will certainlyfind the nearest in friendship to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians; this is because there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly. (Surah 5:82)
Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sensations in the
Then We made Our apostles to follow in their footsteps, and We sent Isa son of Marium afterwards, and We gave him the Injeel, and We put in the hearts of those who followed him kindness and mercy. (Surah 57:27)
The parallelism between Muhammad’s anti-Semitic propaganda and certain Gnostic teachings that targeted the Jews would become apparent in the narration of Jesus’ life story in the
And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners. (Surah 3:54)
Although Muhammad clearly denied that Jesus had been slain by the Jews in Surah 3, he did not explain the historical reality of Jesus’ passion through an illusion until he got the 4th Surah devised. Still, the verse rejecting the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion in the 3rd Surah displays the influence of the Gnostic teachings in a couple of ways. First, the assertion that Jesus was not slain by the Jews is directly associated with Jesus’ ascension. Second, the sentences supposedly uttered by God in a speech to Jesus perfectly reveal the anti-Jewish teachings propagated by Gnosticism:
And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve… (Surah 3:55)
Muhammad’s god confesses in this verse that his motive for taking Jesus up to himself was Jesus’ “purification” from those who did not believe Him. If one understands that “those who do not believe” pertain to the Jews, the question why specifically the verb “purify” is used in this verse can find an explanation. Jesus’ ascension in the Islamic scripture corresponds to His purification from the Jews because Muhammad’s god thought that the Jews were dirty people that contaminated Jesus in this world. This is exactly compatible with what some Gnostic heresies – for instance, Marcionism – taught about the Jews.
More, the Islamic supposition of Jesus’ purification from the Jews through His ascension is also related to the Gnostic depiction of humans’ creation as the imprisonment of the soul in the evil body. Accordingly, death in Gnostic theology is the equivalent of a soul’s freedom from the prison of the mortal body and the world of the materials. Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments and policies modified this theology and resulted in the portrayal of the Jews as the morbid community of disbelievers that wanted to humiliate and kill Jesus. While refusing Jesus’ crucifixion in the 3rd Surah, Muhammad once more preferred Christians to Jews by marking those who did not believe in Jesus as inferior people. This contrast and the idea that Christians are preferred to Jews until the Day of Judgment illustrate Muhammad’s intimacy with the Gnostic doctrines:
And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve and make those who follow you above those who disbelieve to the day of resurrection. (Surah 3:55)
Another interesting detail in the verse above concerns Jesus’ death prior to His ascension. The meaning of the verb occurring in the original text has been subject to dispute among Muslim scholars for many centuries. Since some scholars believe that Jesus will taste death after His second coming, they avoid interpreting the verb in this verse literally. No matter how Muslim scholars interpret the particular word referring to Jesus’ death (or sleep), the association between the termination of Jesus’ life and His ascension can still be construed in favor of the Gnostic influence on Muhammad’s approach to the cross and Jesus’ death. Although it is true that Gnosticism denied the reality of Jesus’ physical death, it is also true that Gnosticism regarded Jesus’ supposedly prevented crucifixion as the termination of His mission in
The Qur’an verses in Surah 3 similarly present the end of Jesus’ life as the cause of His ascension and glorification after binding it to the Jewish scheme of murder:
And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners. And when Allah said: O Isa, I am going to terminate the period of your stay (on earth) and cause you to ascend unto Me and purify you of those who disbelieve. (Surah 3:54-55)
Thus, it is possible to construe the reference to Jesus’ death (termination of His life) in Surah 3:55 metaphorically and assert that the cause and meaning of Jesus’ death in the verses above were also influenced by the Gnostic teachings. Muhammad believed that the Jewish plots to kill Jesus motivated His separation from this world in the unique form of ascension. To consolidate this doctrine, Muhammad did not refer to Jesus’ physical death in the 4th Surah when he vainly attempted to refute the historical reality of Jesus’ crucifixion with the help of the Gnostic theory of illusion. His adherence to the presumption that Jesus only appeared to have been crucified and murdered by the Jews was naturally related to his anti-Jewish propaganda and aims to stigmatize the Jews as deceived people.
It is likely that Muhammad could never be acquainted with the Christian theology concerning Jesus’ passion or with the significance of the cross for the basic Christian doctrine of salvation. The fact that the Qur’an lacks a reference to the Christian veneration of the cross as well as a critique of the Christian faith in a crucified Messiah supports the allegation that Muhammad or his scribes knew almost nothing about the way Christians viewed Jesus’ crucifixion. Nevertheless, the following verses of the Qur’an may be presented by some Muslim scholars to support the theory that Islam openly objects to the idea of salvation through one’s atoning death:
Say: What! shall I seek a Lord other than Allah? And He is the Lord of all things; and no soul earns (evil) but against itself, and no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another; then to your Lord is your return, so He will inform you of that in which you differed. (Surah 6:164)
Whoever goes aright, for his own soul does he go aright; and whoever goes astray, to its detriment only does he go astray: nor can the bearer of a burden bear the burden of another, nor do We chastise until We raise an apostle. (Surah 17:15)
And a burdened soul cannot bear the burden of another and if one weighed down by>burden should cry for (another to carry) its>burden, not aught of it shall be carried, even though he be near of kin. You warn only those who fear their Lord in secret and keep up prayer; and whoever purifies himself, he purifies himself only for (the good of) his own soul; and to Allah is the eventual coming. (Surah 35:18)
It should be noted that the recurring rule accentuating an individual’s responsibility only for one’s personal sins in the verses above are violated by other Qur’an verses under specific circumstances. In contrast to the dogmatic teaching that no sinner can be held responsible for someone else’s sins, the following verses in the Islamic scripture teach that some sinners will be regarded guilty for misleading others and eventually carry the sins of the people they lead astray:
And most certainly they shall carry their own burdens, and other burdens with their own burdens, and most certainly they shall be questioned on the resurrection day as to what they forged. (Surah 29:13)
That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear. (Surah 16:25)
It must be stressed that the Islamic doctrine repudiating the transfer of sins between sinners, even with exceptions to this rule, have nothing to do with the Christian concept of atonement through Jesus’ death. The repeated statements in the Qur’an can by no means be associated with Jesus’ redemptive act defined in the New Testament, for these statements overtly talk of the relation between sinners and imply that no sinner can save or help another sinner. This particular Islamic teaching does not essentially contradict the Christian doctrine that Jesus became our Savior by carrying our sins and dying on the cross for us since in Christian theology Jesus is the only sinless human. Thus, the assertion that the verses quoted above refuse the possibility of redemption through Jesus’ death has no validity as in Christian theology Jesus is considered neither a sinner nor an ordinary man or prophet.
While analyzing the context of the Islamic denial of the crucifixion, one should also take into consideration the prospect that Muhammad heard and at least partly knew what Christians believed about Jesus’ death in the hands of the Jews, but was not concerned with the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice since this tenet would by no means serve him anything good in his war against the Jewish allegations in the political arena. It is also worthy of note that Muhammad gave implicit reasons for his adoption of the Gnostic theory of illusion in the 4th Surah of the Qur’an when he strove to affiliate the supposed illusion with the sins and misdeeds of the Jews. To follow it from the Qur’an:
The followers of the Book ask you to bring down to them a book from heaven; so indeed they demanded of Musa a greater thing than that, for they said: Show us Allah manifestly; so the lightning overtook them on account of their injustice. Then they took the calf (for a god), after clear signs had come to them, but We pardoned this; and We gave to Musa clear authority. And We lifted the mountain (Sainai) over them at (the taking of the covenant) and We said to them: Enter the door making obeisance; and We said to them: Do not exceed the limits of the Sabbath, and We made with them a firm covenant. Therefore, for their breaking their covenant and their disbelief in the communications of Allah and their killing the prophets wrongfully and their saying: Our hearts are covered; nay! Allah set a seal upon them owing to their unbelief, so they shall not believe except a few. And for their unbelief and for their having uttered against Marium a grievous calumny. 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, butit 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 4:153-157)
Obviously, Muhammad targeted the Jews in the verses prior to the promotion of the Gnostic theory of illusion as he tried to give almost a chronological list of the sins the Israelites had committed until Jesus’ death. Although the phrase “the followers of the Book” may refer to both Jews and Christians in the Qur’an, the accusations in the verses are apparently directed at Jews as Christians did not worship a calf in Moses’ period or libeled Jesus’ mother Mary as an unchaste woman. Interestingly, the accusations against the Jews in the Qur’an are directly affiliated with the schemes of Jesus’ crucifixion. This thematic parallelism and the relevant presentation of the supposed illusion as the punishment of all the Jewish misdeeds are a product of the false combination of some Christian doctrines with the anti-Jewish sentiments of Gnosticism.
Although in Christian theology Jesus’ crucifixion is in line with the martyrdom of the prophets and messengers in
However, the same Qur’an overtly contradicts the Bible when it comes to the point of explaining how Jesus’ case was made unique as it contends that Jesus was the only Israeli prophet whose murder by the Jews was prevented through divine intervention and an illusion. This drastic modification in the interpretation of the peculiarities of Jesus’ death shows that Muhammad wanted to make use of Jesus in his political hostility toward the Jews and chose to strip Jesus’ death of any theological implications concerning the salvation of mankind. Since Muhammad’s priority was the punishment of the Jews because of and through Jesus, the denial of the crucifixion with the help of a deceptive strategy would perfectly serve the Islamic ideal of identifying the Jews as a foolish community that was castigated thanks to their desire to crucify Jesus.
The outcome of this priority was a fundamental shift from the essential faith of universal salvation in Christianity to the degradation of Jews in Islam. Since Muhammad delighted in abusing Jesus of Nazareth as an amazingly powerful political weapon and a handy tool of anti-Jewish sentiments, he tried to dissociate Jesus from the cross and the basic Christian doctrine of salvation. Consequently, in Muhammad’s scripture Jesus’ crucifixion ceased to represent divine love and grace extended by the merciful Father, but began to stand for the foremost instrument of divine hatred against the Jewish community. This is why in the Qur’an Jesus is not the Lamb of God offered for the eternal covenant between God the Father and his children, but is a sacrifice offered so that Muhammad’s desire to take revenge from Jews, the murderers of all the former messengers, can be satisfied.
Muhammad’s pursuit of the Gnostic theory of illusion at any cost was definitely related to his enmity to the Jews. The assumption that Jesus’ crucifixion was but an optical illusion provided by Allah’s might and wisdom is actually the ultimate Islamic achievement of a long-term political campaign that endeavored to designate “the Jewish” as “the foolish”. Such a struggle is apparent in the Islamic supposition that Allah, despite his primary attribute of honesty, managed to fool the Jews by making them kill someone else in Jesus’ stead. The alleged deception of the Jews in the Qur’an takes the form of an eternal curse that condemns the Jewish race to ignorance and foolishness. In short, Muhammad’s god sacrificed his honesty so that he could punish and mock the Jews through Muhammad whilst Muhammad became the modern Marcion of
The comparative analysis of the Gnostic heresies with the Islamic teaching denying the crucifixion confirms the theory that Islam borrowed the denial and its means from the Gnostic Docetism. No matter how reluctant Muslim scholars are to admit it, the sudden occurrence of the denial of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Qur’an and the absolute political nature of this denial indicate that Muhammad adopted from Gnostic heresies only after distorting the Gnostic creed by straining it through a political filter. Consequently, what we read today about Jesus’ death in the Qur’an is the distorted version of Gnosticism, which is fathered by Muhammad’s anti-Jewish sentiments and ideology.
1 This article is dedicated to the six Christian believers martyred by Muslims in
2 All the Christian scriptural references in this study come from the NET Bible.
3 All the Islamic scriptural references in this study come from Shakir's English translation of the Qur'an.
4 For a detailed information on the doctrines and historical development of Gnosticism: www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm
5 For more on Docetism and its history: www.newadvent.org/cathen/05070c.htm
6 It should be born in mind that Gnosticism was actually around before Christianity. Gnostics only tried to incorporate many great Christian thoughts into their system by subjecting the Gospel to their own principles.
9 The Original Sources of the Qur'an, chapter IV: The Influence of Christianity and Christian Apocryphal Books, section 6 www.answering-islam.org/Books/Tisdall/Sources/chap4.htm
10 For more information on the abuse of the non-canonical Christian scripture in the devisal of some Qur'an chapters: Surah Mariam: The Curse of the Apocrypha
11 The full text of this Gnostic scripture can be read at wesley.nnu.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/acts/actjohn.htm
12 A detailed analysis of this issue can be found in these two articles (1,2).
13 For more information on this particular Gnostic heresy and its founder: www.newadvent.org/cathen/09645c.htm
14 "Because Gnosticism villifies the God of the Old Testament, a number of scholars believe it is 'fundamentally anti-Semitic'", says Scot McKnight, professor of religion at North Park University: www.covchurch.org/companion/articles/2006-june-hidden-secrets-of-the-lost-gospels
15 Source: www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf