Some people maintain that although the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was not martyred by the unbelievers of his time, he still died, and that Allah first caused the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to pass on and then raised him into His Presence. This claim is incompatible with the Qur’an and the belief of ahl al-Sunnah.
They use the term “I will take you back” from verse 55 of Surah Al ‘Imran as evidence, at least in their own eyes, to support this claim. The verse reads:
[Allah said:] "Jesus, I will take you back [mutawaffeeka] and raise you up [wa raafi`uka] to Me and purify you of those who are unbelievers. And I will place the people who follow you above those who are unbelievers until the Day of Resurrection..." (Surah Al 'Imran:55)
The words"... I will take you back... " means that the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was put in a state resembling sleep and raised into the Presence of Allah. The Prophet Jesus (pbuh) did not die, but merely departed this dimension by Allah’s choosing.
The word translated into English as "to die" is the Arabic verb tawaffaa derived from the root waffaa. This verb does not imply death, but rather taking the soul, or surrender. Allah also reveals in the Qur'an that taking a person's soul does not always imply death. For instance, Allah uses tawaffaa in another verse to refer not to a person's death, but to taking his or her soul while asleep:
Allah takes the souls [of people] at death [yatawaffaa], and those who do not die [lam tamut] during their sleep. Those on whom He has passed the decree of death [al-mawt], He keeps back [from returning to life], but the rest He sends [to their bodies] for a term appointed. Verily in this are signs for those who reflect. (Surat az-Zumar:42)
The word here translated as "taking back" is the same as that used in Surah Al 'Imran:55: yatawaffaa. Since a person does not actually die during the night, the word yatawaffaa here refers not to death, but to taking the soul at night. If tawaffaa were being used in the sense of death, then that would mean that all people would be biologically dead during sleep. Thus, the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) would have died every night of his life. Such an assertion is both irrational and illogical.
Another instance in which sleep is regarded as a kind of death, but which does not refer to biological death, is the following hadith: "'All praise is for Allah, Who has made us alive after He made us die [sleep] (Al-hamdu li Allah illadhi ahyana ba'da maa amatana; wa ilayhi al-nushoo)' Our Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) often said this after he woke up." No doubt, he used these wise words not to refer to biological death when one is asleep, but rather to a sleeping person's soul being "taken."
STATEMENTS ON THE SUBJECT BY AHL AL-SUNNAH SCHOLARS
Great ahl al-Sunnah commentators on the Qur’an are also agreed when interpreting the word tawaffaa that the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) did not die, but was raised into the Presence of Allah and will return to Earth before the Day of Judgment. These Islamic scholars include:
Ibn Kathir, the famous Islamic scholar and commentator, used this hadith, along with many other proofs in his commentary on Surah Al 'Imran, to explain that tawaffaa refers to sleep:
Ibn Abi Hatim says that: "My father told us … from Hassan that the meaning of the verse 'I will take you back...' is this: Here it means that 'I shall kill you with the death of sleep; in other words, I shall cause you to sleep.' So Allah raised the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to the heavens while he was asleep … As an incontrovertible truth, Allah caused the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to die the death of sleep and then raised him to the sky, rescuing him from some of the Jews, who were inflicting suffering upon him at the time. (Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'Azim, 1:573-76.)
Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, another Islamic scholar who examined the meaning of tawaffaa, stated that it did not mean death, and drew attention to the use of mawt in Surat az-Zumar:42:
Had the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) died [which is not the case], then the word mawt revealed in the verse: "Allah takes the souls [of people] at death" (Surat az-Zumar:42), would not have been revealed… This is because if, as has been claimed, Allah had referred to normal death [in the biological sense], then this would have been clearly stated. Since Allah refers to the fact that the Jews did not kill the Prophet Jesus (pbuh), but that he was taken and raised to the sky, then one must think of a meaning beyond that of ordinary death… (Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, Nazra 'Abira fi Maza'im Man Yankur Nuzul 'Isa 'alyhi al-Salam aabla al-Akhira (A Cursory Look at the Claims of Those Who Deny Jesus' Descent before the Next Life) (Egypt: 1980), 34-37.)
Sheikh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri, a contemporary of al-Kawthari, cites this verse as evidence and offers the following interpretation:"If we were to take the word tawaffaa as meaning 'killing,' then souls would also have to die.” (Sheikh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri, Mawqif al-'Aql (Beirut: 1992), 4:177-79)
In his commentary on the Qur'an, the Islamic scholar Mawlana Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi makes the following statement about mutawaffeeka, which appears in Surah Al 'Imran:55 (the same word is also used in Surat al-Ma'ida:117):
The word mutawaffeeka, in the Arabic text comes from the word tawaffaa, meaning "to take the surrender of" and "take the soul," although here it is used in a figurative sense. Here, it means "relieving from duty.” (Mawlana Sayyid Abul A'la al-Mawdudi, Tafhim al-Qur'an, 1:230-31)
Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi, regarded as one of the first Qur'anic commentators, also stated that the verse does not refer to the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) dying in the familiar biological sense:
The thing being referred to in the verse is not passing on in the sense of death, but in the sense of the body being taken from this world. (Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi, Kitab Tawilat al-Qur'an (Beirut), 67)
The famous commentator and scholar al-Tabari stated that mutawaffeeka is used in the sense of "removing from Earth" and interpreted the verse in the following terms:
In my opinion, the soundest thing is to take this word in the sense of "to take into one's possession," "draw [away] from Earth." In that case, the meaning of the verse is: "I shall take you from Earth and into the heavens." The rest of the verse emphasizes the [believers'] victory over unbelievers in the End Times, which confirms the above idea. (Tafsir al-Tabari, 3:290-91.)
Further on in his commentary, al-Tabari included other interpretations of mutawaffeeka. Islamic scholars are in general agreement that its correct interpretation is "a kind of sleep." According to Imam Hasan al-Basri, the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Khalil Herras stated that the verse means: "I shall put you to sleep and raise you to My Presence as you sleep." In his commentary, al-Suyuti said, based on reliable hadith, that the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) did not die, and then continued:
In that case, the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was raised to the skies and will return before the Day of Judgment. (Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Durr al-Manthur, 2:225-27.)
Mehmed Vehbi, a commentator who lived during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, interpreted the verse in the following manner:
O Jesus, I shall put you to sleep and raise you to the skies, the place of plenty and My sanctity. I shall rescue you from the Jews' wickedness and cleanse you of the unbelievers' impure actions, rescuing you from their wickedness by drawing you up away from them. (Mehmed Vehbi Hadimli, Hulasatu'l Beyan-i fi Tefsiri'l Kuran (Tafsir al-Qur'an) (Istanbul: 1979), 2:613. [emphasis added by the author])
The great Islamic scholar Imam Ibn Taymiyya stated that Surah Al 'Imran:55 indicates that the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) did not die, but most likely experienced a kind of "sleep death." He then wrote:
This verse is proof that the death of the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is not being referred to… The word al-tawaffi [the infinitive form of the word mutawafeeka used] in the verse requires the death of the soul without that of the body, or of both, but with the existence of another piece of evidence explaining the circumstances in this sense. The meaning may be the death of sleep (as in Surat al-An'am:60). The words at the end of the verse, to the effect that: "I shall separate you purified from the unbelievers," are also along these lines. Had the Prophet Jesus' (pbuh) body been separated from his soul, then his body would be in the ground, as with the other prophets. (Imam Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu' Fatawa (The Collected Fatwas), trans. by Abdurrahman ibn Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Asimi an-Najdi, (Riyadh: 1991), 4:322-23. [emphasis added by the author])
In his commentary, Hamdi Yazir of Elmali stated that the verse in question means:
... In my view, a summary of this interpretation and belief is as follows: The soul of the Prophet Jesus (pbuh), described as a "word from Allah" and reinforced with the "Purest Spirit", has not yet been taken. His soul has not come to the hour of death. "The Word" has not yet returned to Allah. He still has work to do in this world. (Elmali Hamdi Yazir, Hak Din Kuran Dili (The True Religion, the Language of the Qur'an), 2:1112-13.)