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Book's List > Muhammad and Christ > Chapter 5: Circumstances Relating to Death > Section 1: The Alleged Ascent to Heaven

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Chapter 5:
Circumstances Relating to Death --
Section 1:
The Alleged Ascent to Heaven
:

Another argument of Christ's superiority runs thus:

From the Qur'an it is manifest that when the enemies wished to seize Christ, angels came down from heaven and took him up with this body of clay to heaven and thus God guarded him from wretched unbelievers. But when the enemies surrounded Muhammad in Mecca, neither there came an angel to save him, nor was he taken up to heaven; but like ordinary men walked down through a thorny desert, hidden from the enemy's sight, to take shelter in a dark cave, then flying from there took refuge with the Helpers at Medina. Is it not a difference of heaven and earth? ... These facts make it clear that Christ is superior to Muhammad.

It appears from the above quotation that the writer is either quite ignorant of the Holy Qur'an, or intentionally misrepresents the Holy Book as to the supposed ascent of Jesus to heaven. That the latter is the case is more probable, for while he claims that it is manifest from the Qur'an, he does not quote a single verse; such quotations are abundantly given where they could be found. It is a fact that there is not a single verse in the Holy Qur'an stating that when Christ was about to be arrested angels came down from heaven and that he was taken up to heaven with this body of clay. While there is not even the remotest hint to the coming down of angels which is merely a pious invention, even Christ's going up to heaven with this body of clay, notwithstanding what the majority of the Muslims believe, is nowhere mentioned in the Holy Qur'an.

What is wonderful, however, is not that the Holy Qur'an does not speak of Jesus' rising to heaven with this body of clay, but that even the Gospels fail to furnish the necessary testimony. If such an incident really took place, it was the most important event of the life of Christ and it ought to have been not only recorded unanimously by all the Gospel-writers but should further have been shown to have taken place in the presence of large crowds of men, for a miracle loses all its value if it is not performed publicly. But what have we got? Matthew is quite silent as to Jesus' rising to heaven. St. John is also silent. Two of the four Gospels do not know anything about the supposed ascent to heaven. This omission casts very serious doubt on the truth of the allegation of ascent to heaven; for if it took place, it was the most important event of Jesus' life, more important than a thousand miracles of healing the sick, far more important than the crucifixion itself and the post-crucifixion appearances, and no Gospel writer could omit it.

What have the other two Gospels to say? Luke says:

And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven (Luke 24:51).

A strange miracle this! Not a single Jew was there to witness the scene. Not even all the believers were present. Jesus was carried up into heaven stealthily lest the Jews getting information about it should frustrate the attempt! If there really was an ascent, how was it that not a single person except the eleven saw it? The whole of Jerusalem could have easily witnessed it and people would all have become believers immediately. The matter, on the other hand, was kept secret, and great was the secrecy that not even the believers got any news of it. Does it not show clearly that the parting was brought about not by Jesus going up into heaven, but by some other manner which it was necessary to conceal. It was clearly a flight which was to be kept secret, for if the slightest news of it had got out, the life of Jesus would have been in great danger. And thus Jesus, according to the events narrated in the Gospels, fled secretly, hidden from the enemy's sight, to use the very words of the slighters of the Prophet's flight. That this is the only right conclusion of what is narrated by Luke in his last chapter is established conclusively by the fact that the words and carried up into heaven are really a later interpolation, for we are told by J.R. Dummelow in his commentary on the Bible that "a few ancient authorities omit these words." Thus if two of the Gospels entirely discredit the story of the Ascension and do not give it a place in their record of the life of Jesus, the words of the third, which are looked upon as the basis of the theory, are not merely out of place in the narration of events, but are actually not met with in ancient manuscripts.

Three of the Gospels being thus against the ascent to heaven, the fourth need not detain us long. The story as related in Mark is still more incredible. In the concluding chapter of this Gospel we find that the women who went early to the sepulchre were told by a young man clad in white, apparently none other than Jesus himself, to "tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee" (Mark 16:17), while the 19th verse of the same chapter gives the unexpected news that "he was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God." In the first place, the writer of this passage describes his being "received up into heaven" and sitting "on the right hand of God" as two incidents of which he was an eyewitness. The words of Luke "carried up" are safer, because they indicate that the narrator only saw him being carried up. But the narrator in Mark seems to have gone up to heaven along with Jesus, where he saw that Jesus "was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God." Who can think of relying on such testimony, and accepting on its basis such an extraordinary thing as the rising of a man to heaven? Secondly, the 19th verse clearly contradicts the 7th verse of the same chapter. The 7th verse tells us that Jesus intended to go to Galilee; the 19th tells us that he went up to heaven. Apparently the two statements are inconsistent with each other.

But what is more, the concluding twelve verses of Mark are shown by recent investigation to be an interpolation, and thus it is proved beyond all doubt that the 19th verse of Mark which states that Jesus "was received up into heaven" must be rejected altogether, and the last testimony to the ascent of Jesus to heaven thus vanishes into nothingness. The last twelve verses of the sixteenth chapter of Mark are admittedly not by St. Mark. Thus says Dummelow, the commentator of the Bible:

Internal evidence points definitely to the conclusion that the last twelve verses are not by St. Mark. For (1) the true conclusion certainly contained a Galilean appearance (Mark 16:7, cp. 14:28), and this does not. (2) The style is that of a bare catalogue of facts, and quite unlike St. Mark's usual wealth of graphic detail. (3) The section contains numerous words and expressions never used by St. Mark. (4) Mark 16:9 makes an abrupt fresh start, and is not continuous with the preceding narrative. (5) Mary Magdalene is spoken of (16:9) as if she had not been mentioned before, although she has just been alluded to twice (15:47; 16:1).

This settles the matter conclusively. The last twelve verses of Mark are not a part of the original manuscript, and one uncial manuscript gives quite a different termination. Instead of the last twelve verses we have there:

And they reported all the things that had been commanded them briefly (or immediately) to the companions of Peter. And after this Jesus himself also sent forth by them from the east even unto the west the holy and incorruptible preaching of eternal salvation.

How did these twelve verses find a place here? The account is interesting as given by the same commentator:

The Gospel of St. Mark, being the first extensive and authoritative account of our Lord's life, as distinguished from His discourses, attained at its first publication (A.D. 55-60) a considerable circulation first in the west and afterwards in the east. At the time it concluded with an account of the Galilean appearance, which is now only to be found in St. Matthew (28:16). The subsequent publication of the first and third Gospels, which incorporated practically its whole subject-matter, and were far more interesting as containing discourses, practically drove it out of circulation. When at the close of the Apostolic age an attempt was made (probably in Rome) to collect the authentic memorials of the Apostles and their companions, a copy of the neglected second Gospel was not easily found. The one that was actually discovered, and was used to multiply copies, had lost its last leaf, and so a fitting termination (the present appendix) was added by another hand. A recently discovered Armenian MS. (1891) definitely ascribes the appendix to Ariston, i.e. probably Aristion, "a disciple of the Lord mentioned by Papias (A.D. 130)".

Indeed if the early Christian Fathers had not been so adept in the art of making up deficiencies in spoiled manuscripts, a very large portion of the present Gospels would never have reached us. Thus not only two Gospels, but really all the four canonical Gospels, know nothing about Jesus' ascent to heaven and the theory is evidently of much later growth, when evidence was fabricated in the form of interpolations in two of the Gospels.

On the other hand, the Bible records Elijah's ascent to heaven, and he must therefore be regarded as much superior to Jesus Christ from a Christian's point of view. "And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:11). Elijah's ascent to heaven is so clear that according to the Bible record it was witnessed by another prophet Elisha who even "took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him." Another parallel is that of Enoch who "walked with God and he was not; for God took him" (Gen. 5:24). This was indeed the material on which was built up the theory of Jesus' ascension by Christian zealots who were eager to ascribe to their hero whatever greatness they met with in others.

Does the Holy Qur'an support the theory of Jesus' bodily ascent to heaven? Not in the least. Not once does the Holy Book say that Jesus was taken up to heaven. It speaks of his rafa` to Allah, i.e. exaltation in the presence of God, but never of his ascent with the body, and never mentions the heaven in connection with his rafa` which has wrongly been supposed to mean ascent. The Holy Qur'an speaks of the rafa` of Jesus on two occasions. In the third chapter we have: "O Jesus! I will cause you to die and exalt you in My presence" (3:54). And in the fourth: "And they killed him not for sure; nay, Allah exalted him in His presence" (4:157-158). In both places I have rendered the word rafa` as meaning exaltation, as the great commentator Razi himself says when commenting on 3:54, "Rafa` here is the exalting in degree and in praise not in place and direction." There exists some misunderstanding as to the meaning of the word rafa` which means both the raising of a thing and the exaltation of a person (see Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon). The latter is always the significance when the rafa` of a person by God is spoken of and the clearest testimony on this point is afforded by the word al-Rafi` which is one of the names of God. All Arabic lexicons agree that al-Rafi` means "the Exalter of the believer by prospering him and of his saints by teaching them" (Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon). Therefore when Allah is spoken of as granting rafa` to a person, the only significance that the words convey is that He has granted him exaltation, and not that He has raised him up bodily from a lower level to a higher one.

The Holy Qur'an and the sayings of the Holy Prophet are full of examples of the true meaning of the word, while not a single example is to be met with in the whole Arabic literature in which the rafa` of a man by God means raising him up bodily. Thus we have in 43:32, "And We have exalted some of them above others in degrees" where in the original we have rafa`na. Again in 6:84 and 12:76, "We exalt in dignity whom We please." These are general statements showing that the rafa` of a person by God means his exaltation in rank, and not raising him up in body. Indeed if the latter significance were acceptable under any circumstances, the Divine law should have been that the righteous should all have been translated bodily from the earth to some higher region.

Two concrete examples may also be cited. The Holy Qur'an 7:176 thus speaks of a person who rejects the truth after it has been brought to him:

And if We had pleased We would certainly have exalted him thereby, but he clung to the earth and followed his low desire.

All the commentators agree in explaining rafa` in the above verse as meaning exaltation. Thus the Fath al-Bayan explains the meaning as "exalting to the place of the learned," or "exalting so as to make him enter paradise." Baidawi accepts a similar interpretation, i.e., "exaltation to the place of the righteous." Ibn Jarir, explaining the word rafa`, used in this verse says:

And rafa` conveys a number of significances; among these is the exaltation in rank in the Divine presence, and the exaltation in the greatness and excellences of the world and the exaltation in good renown.

All this shows that the rafa` of a person by God in the language of the Holy Qur'an means nothing but exaltation.

The other example is that of Enoch. Speaking of him the Holy Qur'an says: "And mention Idris in the Book; surely he was a truthful man, a prophet; and We exalted him to an elevated state" (19:56-57). In this case, the same misunderstanding has arisen to a certain degree as that in the case of Jesus Christ, and the reason of it is to be met with in what the Bible says of that prophet. Gen. 5:24, on this point has already been quoted and though the words there are not very clear as regards his being taken up alive to heaven, but even the New Testament writers were influenced by the prevailing Jewish belief, for in Heb. 11:5, we have:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death and was not found because God had translated him.

Some commentators of the Holy Qur'an were also influenced by the same idea, and accordingly they interpreted the above words as meaning Enoch's being taken up alive to heaven. But the more learned among them have plainly ascribed these ideas to the influence of the Israelite story-tellers. Thus Ibn Kathir says of the stories of Enoch's being taken up alive to heaven as met with in some commentaries: "These are among the Israelite stories of Ka`b and some of these are unacceptable." The Fath al-Bayan gives a similar judgement: "These are the Israelite stories which Ka`b used to narrate." The Ruh al-Ma`ani gives the significance of rafa` here as exaltation to "the great dignity of prophethood and nearness." Hasan explains it as meaning exaltation to paradise. The Ruh al-Ma`ani which I have already quoted concludes its discussion of this point in the following words: "And this rafa` must be in respect of the greatness of rank and the exaltation of dignity, for that is a praiseworthy thing, and the merely being uplifted to a higher place is nothing."

The misunderstanding in the case of Enoch very clearly explains how the misunderstanding arose in the case of Jesus Christ, and anyone who considers the matter critically in the latter case can as easily get out of the error as the more critical commentators have got out of the misunderstanding with respect to Enoch. Certain prevailing Jewish or Christian stories influenced the ideas of some commentators and they misinterpreted the word rafa`. In fact, the use of the word, not only in the Holy Qur'an but also in the sayings of the Holy Prophet and the whole of Islamic literature, settles the meaning conclusively. For instance, every Muslim is taught to pray while sitting between the two prostrations in his prayer: "O Allah grant me protection and have mercy on me and guide me and grant me sustenance and exalt me ..." Now this prayer for rafa`, or exaltation, by every Muslim would be a meaningless prayer if it were supposed that God's granting rafa` to a man meant his bodily translation to some upper region; for from the great Prophet down to this day, not the prayer of a single Muslim has been accepted in this sense. Again, there are many sayings of the Holy Prophet regarding humbleness in which the word rafa` is used always indicating exaltation of degrees: "Whoever humbles himself for God's sake, God exalts him"; and in one report we have the words: "Whoever makes himself humble for God's sake, God exalts him to the seventh heaven by means of a chain," the word in the original being rafa` in both the cases. Notwithstanding such express words apparently indicating a bodily translation, no one has ever supposed that the meek and the humble are ever raised in body to the seventh heaven.

The above examples are sufficient to establish the fact conclusively that by the rafa` of Jesus Christ is meant his exaltation in rank and degree and not his bodily translation. And this is in fact clear from the very words used about him: "I will cause you to die and exalt you in My presence", where the exaltation follows death, and could therefore only be exaltation in rank. In the other verse: "And they killed him not for sure; nay, Allah exalted him in His presence", the exaltation is brought in as a contrast with killing on the cross; for death on the cross was looked upon as subjecting a man to abasement, such a person being held to have been accursed and driven out of Divine presence. Thus Paul says:

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal. 3:13).

It is to denounce the false belief of Jesus Christ being under the curse of God that the Holy Qur'an speaks of his rafa` or exaltation.

As regards the manner in which our Holy Prophet was saved from the hands of his enemies, the chief point that distinguishes him from Jesus Christ is that he never fell into their hands to be treated in the humiliating manner in which Jesus was treated, who, though saved from an accursed death on the cross, fell yet so completely into the enemy's hands that he was made to resemble a man who had actually met death on the cross. But the Holy Prophet, notwithstanding that he fled alone through a host of enemies that had surrounded his house to put him to death, never met with the humiliation which it had been the fate of Jesus Christ to meet. Though alone, yet so well did the angels guard him that not one of the hosts assembled around his house could see him while he passed through them. Even in the numerous battles that he had to fight, though many a time he was left alone among enemies who thirsted for his blood, yet never was he actually overpowered by them. He no doubt received wounds in one battle, but the enemy could not lay their hands on him, and Divine protection was always with him to a far greater degree than it was with Jesus Christ.

 

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