بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The widespread, but deeply erroneous, belief among ordinary Muslims is that the Messiah of Nazareth ascended into heaven with his flesh and blood body, while someone else was supernaturally given his physical appearance and crucified in his place. This absurd idea has no basis in history, nor is it backed by the holy Qur’an or the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allahu alayhi wasallam). Instead, some medieval exegetes concocted this fancy tale based on an extremely imaginative explanation of the verses of the Qur’an:
وَمَكَرُوا وَمَكَرَ اللَّـهُ ۖ وَاللَّـهُ خَيْرُ الْمَاكِرِينَ
They planned but Allah planned. And Allah is the best of planners.
وَقَوْلِهِمْ إِنَّا قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولَ اللَّـهِ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ وَلَـٰكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ ۚ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُوا فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ ۚ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلَّا اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ ۚ وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا
بَل رَّفَعَهُ اللَّـهُ إِلَيْهِ ۚ وَكَانَ اللَّـهُ عَزِيزًا حَكِيمًا
Their saying: “Indeed, we killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah”. But they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear so to them. And indeed those who differ about it are in doubt about it. They have not any knowledge concerning it except the following of conjecture. And they did not kill him for certain. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself, and Allah is Mighty, Wise.
I have previously explained the correct meaning of this passage in the holy Qur’an to be referring to the fact that although the enemies of the Messiah attempted to kill him by means of crucifixion, he nevertheless survived his ordeal on the cross. This is known as the so-called ‘swoon theory’, i.e., that the Messiah merely fainted or lost consciousness while on the cross, and the people present mistook him for dead. He then appeared alive and well to his disciples a few days later, having been healed and fully rested, though the Christians claim this is proof he was resurrected from the dead.
As for the ‘orthodox’ Muslim idea that the Messiah was physically raised alive to heaven before he could be arrested, and that someone else was supernaturally given his appearance, and it was this other person who was crucified and killed instead, this belief has no historical basis but is a laughable tale and should be a cause of embarrasment for any academic and open minded Muslim. Firstly, the words wa laakin shubbiha lahum simply mean ‘but it was made to appear so to them’. There is no mention whatsoever in the text of the Qur’an of another person supernaturally given the physical appearance or face of the Messiah. Secondly, this concocted and baseless story itself has contradictory versions. According to the most well known version, present in most of the classical commentaries, such as the Tafsir of Ibn Jarir, the Messiah asked for a volunteer from among his twelve disciples who would be willing to be killed in his place. According to the story, it was the youngest of those disciples who volunteered. So the Messiah physically ascended to heaven through the roof of the house, and the Jews came with their guards and arrested the disciple whose appearance was transformed to look like Jesus of Nazareth. He was then crucified and killed instead of the Messiah, and the Jews and Christians till this day believe it was really Jesus who was killed on the cross. Another narration embellishes the story further by stating that when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, all of his disciples were transformed to look exactly like him. The Jews claimed this was sorcery, and demanded to know who the real Jesus was otherwise they would kill everyone!
But other versions of this story state that it was not a young, faithful disciple who was transformed to look like Jesus, but a hypocrite among his companions – presumably Judas Iscariot:
وقيل كان رجلاً ينافق عيسى، فلما أرادوا قتله قال أنا أدلكم عليه، فدخل بيت عيسى فرفع عيسى وألقي شبهه على المنافق، فدخلوا عليه فقتلوه وهم يظنون أنه عيسى
(Tafsir al-Kashshaf p.270):
The fabricated ‘Gospel of Barnabas’, no doubt a concoction of some dishonest Muslims, also states that it was Judas Iscariot who was crucified instead of Jesus. Yet another version states that it was one of the men of the Jewish opponents of Jesus who was transformed and mistakenly killed in the place of the real Jesus. Apparently, his name was Tatianos: “Allah destroyed their man Tatianos. Allah made Tatianos look like Jesus and so they killed him instead of him.” (Tanwir al-Miqbas p.111):
Now where did these medieval Muslim exegetes and scholars get the idea that someone else was made to resemble Jesus and was mistakenly killed in his place? Allah knows best, but it appears this idea came from certain heretical Christians groups like the Gnostics and Docetists. Third century Gnostic texts, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, discovered in the Nag Hammadi library, and the Gospel of Basilides, claims that Jesus was not crucified, but raher it was Simon of Cyrene, the man according to the Synoptic Gospels who was forced by the Romans to carry the heavy cross for Jesus to Golgotha.