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Islamic View of the Coming/Return of Jesus

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(May 2003)


The Jewish tradition, as is well known, contains expectations of a figure called the Messiah, who in Christian tradition is identified with Jesus. For the Jews, this figure is yet to come but even in Christianity the Messiah, although he came two thousand years ago in the person of Jesus, will accomplish his expected work in a future time upon his return. Thus the expectation of a future activity of the Messiah is common to Judaism and Christianity. In this article I discuss Islamic view of this expectation. As always, any discussion about Islam needs to be done at two levels: 1) in the light of the teaching of the Prophet as contained in the Qur`an and authentic ahadith and 2) in the light of other Muslim traditions.

 

The Idea of the Messiah

The expectations about the Messiah are so varied that it seems impossible to construct a coherent picture that can be realized in real time. No wonder then that in Christianity the Messiah comes only to go away without fulfilling his main role.

For the purpose of this article it is convenient to divide the views about the Messiah as follows:

The word “messiah” means “anointed one” and refers to the practice of anointing individuals for a divinely ordained role such as a king1 or a priest2 or a prophet3 and gives three pictures of the expected Messiah.

  1. The Messiah is a king of David’s line (King-Messiah) who will restore the Davidic kingdom that ceased to exist centuries ago, expanding its rule to many other nations, if not the whole world.

  2. He is a priest of Levi’s or Aaron’s line or Melchizedek’s order (Priest-Messiah) who will restore a perfect worship. Connected with this is the expectation of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.

  3. He is a prophet of Moses’ type (Prophet-Messiah, usually called simply the Prophet) who will lead the people of Israel to redemption as Moses did long time ago. 

Sometimes the Messiah can be a king, priest, and prophet all at once but in some brands of Judaism more than one Messiah is expected to perform the three roles. Thus the Dead Sea Scrolls expect two Messiahs, a king and a priest, and one Prophet. The New Testament also knows of the expectations of three messianic figures, but it merges them all into a single figure that is identified with Jesus. But the New Testament evidence is far from clear whether Jesus himself thought of his role in terms of a Messiah in any sense4

At first, the Christians expected Jesus to return very soon after his departure (within the lifetime of the first Christian generation) to perform his messianic roles, but when the expectation was not fulfilled, a “realized eschatology” was devised which believed that in some way Jesus had already done his work of salvation during his first coming. At the same time belief in the second coming continued in Christianity, frequently producing groups excited by the prospect of Jesus’ return.

It is also interesting that in Pauline and Gentile Christianity some of the expectations connected with the Messiah are retained but the term “Messiah” itself is emptied of its contents so that “Christ” (latinized Greek equivalent of “Messiah”) became a mere name. Already in Paul’s writings “Christ” is nothing more than a name5.

As for Islamic sources, they do not mention a King-Messiah who restores the kingdom of David or a Priest-Messiah who restores the temple rites. Not only the Qur`an does not mention the King-Messiah or the Priest-Messiah, but it also does not give much importance to the institutions of kingship and priesthood. The really important figures in the Qur`an are prophets (ambiya`) and messengers (rusul) not kings or priests. Even when the Qur`an talks about the two greatest Jewish kings, David and Solomon, it does not stress their kingship. David is probably presented in 17:55 as a prophet who was given a book (zabur, or Psalms) and in case of both David and Solomon it is their wisdom and spirituality that is prominent in the Qur`an rather than their kingship.

The primacy of the Prophet/Messenger means the primacy of knowledge and revelation. It is a recognition that human beings need a message from God for their spiritual and moral development. Institutions such as kingship and priesthood are of secondary importance, if at all.

Jesus is called al-masih (Messiah) both in the Qur`an and the Hadith but the term is used as a name: in 3:45 the Qur`an explicitly makes al-masih a part of the name of Jesus: Mary is given glad tidings of a son “whose name is al-masih, Jesus son of Mary”. This corresponds exactly to the usage of “Christ” in much of the Christian tradition. Beyond the use of the name al-masih the Qur`an and the Hadith do not link Jesus with early messianic expectations. He is not given any of the functions of the kingly or priestly Messiah. Some ahadith present him as a just ruler bringing extraordinary prosperity during his second coming, but there is no indication that this is meant in any traditional messianic sense. He is never called a king or son of David or otherwise associated with the establishment or restoration of the Israeli kingdom. Nor is he presented as a priest of the end-time, as in some New Testament books. Moreover, while the Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, the Qur`an and the Hadith do not even state in anything like a clear way that the coming of Jesus was in fulfillment of earlier prophecies6. Such a statement would have provided a strong basis to view Jesus as a messianic figure in some traditional sense7.

Earlier Biblical prophecies are recognized in the Qur`an but mostly as predictions of the coming of a prophet and the victory of truth and righteousness. This is somewhat similar to the fact that the Torah does not talk about the coming of the Messiah but it does talk about the coming of a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-19).

Interestingly, it is the Prophet Muhammad who is said by the Qur`an and the Hadith, in the clearest terms, to be prophesied in the Torah and the Gospels (Qur`an 7:157, 17:107-108, 61:6; Mishkat al-Masabih, 26/18/1, 26/18/2, and 26/20/3 in James Robson’s translation). Therefore, in the light of the Qur`an and the Hadith, the figure that comes closest to fulfilling earlier messianic or eschatological prophecies and thus being a messianic figure is the Prophet Muhammad. The belief in Muhammad as the last prophet also gives him an eschatological or messianic character. Thus if Islamic sources provide any positive basis for affirming any type of Messiah, it is the Prophet-Messiah, and he should be identified with the Prophet Muhammad. But in the Qur`an and Hadith there is no insistence that the Prophet Muhammad is the only messianic figure and so it is possible to accept more than one Prophet-Messiah. Therefore in view of the use of al-masih as a name of Jesus in the Qur`an and the Hadith, absence in them of any kingly or priestly role for him, and their presentation of him as a prophet and a messenger of God we can regard him as a second Prophet-Messiah if we are so inclined for some reason. Indeed, it will be at least consistent with the Qur`an to talk of three Prophet-Messiahs, the third being Yahya or John the Baptist8.

 

The Return of Jesus

We now look at the belief in the return of Jesus in the light of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (the Qur`an and authentic ahadith) and the Muslim traditions. 

THE QUR`AN 

The Qur`an has no clear reference to the return of Jesus. An implicit reference is seen by some in two verses. 

1)         In Surah 43 we find passages about Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in that order. In the passage about Jesus it is said:

wa inna hu la ‘ilm al-sa‘ah, “surely he is (a means) of knowledge for the hour”.

In opinions attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, ‘Ikramah, Qatadah, Suddi, Dahhak, Abu al-‘Aliah and Abu Malik this is understood to refer to Jesus’ return before the Hour as its sign: he is a means for the knowledge for the Hour in the sense that upon his return people will know that the Hour is surely coming. To support this interpretation some have read ‘alam (sign) instead of ‘ilm (knowledge). A related shi‘ah interpretation, also held by some sunnis under shi‘ah influence is that the verse refers to the coming of al-Mahdi, who may or may not be identified with Jesus (Ibn Hajar al-Haythami, al-Sawa`iq al-Muhriqah).

But the interpretation that sees in the verse a reference to the return of Jesus or the coming/return of al-Mahdi is only one of several interpretations. Thus some early authorities, e.g. Hasan Basari and Sa‘id bin Jubayr take hu (which could mean “he” or “it”) to refer to the Qur`an. That is: the Qur`an is the source of knowledge for the Hour.

Still others interpret the verse as a reference to Jesus’ miracles – virgin birth, raising the dead – which show that resurrection is a real possibility.

A fourth possible interpretation is that Jesus is a means of knowledge for the hour in its very simple sense that he taught belief in the hour, giving it a very important place in his preaching and spreading this belief in the world more successfully than any other prophet or teacher before him. His teaching, as summarized in Mark 1:14 and Matthew (4:17), centers around the proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. When the disciples are sent on a mission, they too preach the same message (Matthew 10:7, Mark 6:12, Luke 10:9). And before the end of his ministry he talks at length about the hour and its signs (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, John 14-17). As a result the belief in the hour became a firm and central element in Christianity, through which it spread far and wide.

This fourth interpretation is preferable because it simply builds on the words “knowledge for the Hour” without importing references that are not found in the verse or anywhere else in the Qur`an. In the time of the Qur`anic revelation it was probably widely known that the belief in the hour had a very prominent position in the religion founded by Jesus. 

2)         In  4:159, after denying that the Jews killed or crucified Jesus and after stating that God raised him to himself, the Qur`an says:

wa in min ahl al-kitab illa la yu`minanna bi hi qabla mawt hi (And there is none of the people of the book but will believe in him before his death).

These words also can be and have been interpreted in different ways, depending on how the pronouns are understood.

One interpretation takes “his death” as “Jesus’ death” and “believe in him” as “believe in Jesus” That is, before Jesus dies all people of the book, i.e. the Jews will have come to believe in him. This assumes that Jesus has not yet died, for which support is found in the statement that God raised him to himself.

A second interpretation again takes “believe in him” as “believe in Jesus” but takes “his death” as “death of one of the people of the book”.  That is, none of the people of the book – sometimes taken to refer to Jews, since the Christians already believe in Jesus – dies without first coming to faith in Jesus as the true messenger of God. Ibn ‘Abbas said that even if a Jew dies by beheading (unexpectedly) his soul does not depart from the body till he believes in Jesus. Ibn ‘Abbas was asked what if someone among the people of the book dies by falling from a wall. He replied that he will believe during the fall. In addition to Ibn ‘Abbas this opinion is attributed to Muhammad bin Sirin, Dahhak and Juwayriah. The interpretation also produced an alleged variant reading of the Qur`an: instead of mawt hi (his death), Ubayy is alleged to have read mawt him (their death, i.e. the death of the people of the book). One reason given to prefer this interpretation over the first one is that it allows the verse to be applied without exception to all generations of the people of the book that arose after Jesus, whereas the interpretation which takes “his death” as the death of Jesus would apply only to the generation that lived at the time of Jesus’ return and death.

Another interpretation attributed to ‘Ikramah, takes “believe in him” as “believe in Muhammad” and “his death” in the sense of “the death of the people of the book”. This gives the same meaning as the first interpretation except that the faith attained by the people of the book before dying is faith in the Prophet Muhammad.

Thus there is no Qur`anic verse that clearly refers, or is generally believed by commentators to refer to Jesus’ return. Moreover, there are verses that call into question the traditional picture of Jesus being taken to heaven alive only to return from there at some future time. Thus 3:55 talks of the death of Jesus as if it had already taken place, for, it reads: “And when God said, ‘O ‘Isa! I am going to cause you to die and raise you towards myself …’”. This suggests that Jesus died before being raised, in which case his raising is in some spiritual sense and not in a bodily sense, as is often assumed. In 19:31 Jesus says: God “has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah for as long as I am alive (hayy)”. The command to pay zakah (poor-rate) as long as one is alive fits much better with the picture of Jesus dying like other human beings during his stay on this earth rather than with the picture of his bodily ascension without death and his being alive in heaven. A couple of verses later in 19:33 Jesus says: “So peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die and the day I am raised to life”. This is best understood as the usual Qur`anic sequence of birth, death, and resurrection through which all human beings must pass. This explanation is further supported by the fact that exactly the same statement is made concerning John the Baptist earlier in 19:15: “And peace on him the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is raised to life”.  One may also note the parallel between the following two verses, one about Jesus and the other about Muhammad:

And Muhammad is no more than a messenger; messengers have already passed away before him … (3:144)

Al-Masih, son of Mary is no more than a messenger; messengers have already passed away before him … (5:75)

MUWATTA 

This, earliest extant collection of Hadith, compiled by Imam Malik (died 179 H) contains no reference to the return of Jesus. This may be explained by saying that Muwatta is primarily concerned with law and is not like the other more comprehensive collections. But this argument is only partially valid in view of the following:

  1. Muwatta does record traditions that are not directly related to law, e.g. the description of hell (57/1-2) or the description or names of the Prophet Muhammad (49/1, 61/1).

  2. Bukhari mentions the return of Jesus (3/425) relating to a legal point: killing of pigs and illegality of the sale of pigs. Muslim uses a tradition about Jesus’ return to support hajj al-tamattu‘.  Malik could have similarly found a legal point in the traditions of Jesus’ return.

  3. Muwatta gives ahadith about the Dajjal (12/4, 15/33, 45/16, 49/2), in the last of which a description of Jesus and of the Dajjal is given (49/2). In this connection a mention of the return of Jesus was perfectly appropriate. Yet no such mention is made.

The absence of any clear reference to the return of Jesus in the Qur`an and our earliest source of ahadith makes it difficult to say that the Prophet Muhammad taught the belief in the return of Jesus. This is understandable since the belief is problematic. It implies that Jesus did not or could not fulfill the messianic expectations the first time around. The question is why he did not or could not. There is nothing in the whole Jewish prophetic tradition – the foundation of Christian messianic expectations – which says that the Messiah must come twice. Perhaps one possible explanation of why Jesus had to come twice is that the first time around the circumstances were not ripe for the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. But then why did God send the Messiah before his time? It is not consistent with God’s omniscience and omnipotence that he should send his Messiah and then let him not fulfill the task that he was meant to do. Finally, recall that if the Qur`an gives Jesus any messianic role it is that of a Prophet-Messiah who brings revelation from God. This function Jesus either completed in his first mission or he left it for the Prophet Muhammad (61:6; cf. John 16:7, 12-13) to complete and hence there is no need for his second coming.

 

Muslim traditions about the return of Jesus

Books of ahadith written in the third century do contain several traditions about the return of Jesus. In view of the above considerations it is doubtful that these traditions go back to the Prophet of Islam. They should be rather regarded as the views of some early Muslims, which, as we shall see later, nevertheless have some value and validity.

BUKHARI AND MUSLIM

On any subject the traditions considered most reliable are usually those that are recounted by both Bukhari and Muslim. Such a tradition is called muttafaq ‘alay hi (agreed upon). There are two agreed upon ahadith about the return of Jesus.

FIRST HADITH COMMON TO BUKHARI AND MUSLIM

Abu Hurayrah said: The Messenger of God said: “How will you be when the son of Mary descends amongst you and your imam (is) from amongst you (wa imam kum min kum)?”

The Arabic is identical in Bukhari and Muslim. The words “your imam from amongst you” can be understood in two ways: a) Jesus will descend as your imam; b) when Jesus will descend, you will have your own imam other than Jesus. The two interpretations seem to have given rise to other versions of the hadith, not agreed upon (muttafaq ‘alay hi). Thus we read in Muslim:

Abu Hurayrah said: The Messenger of God said: “How will you be when the son of Mary descends amongst you and will be your imam (fa amma kum)?”

In this hadith the interpretation a) is given a clear expression. When it is said that Jesus will be the imam of the Muslims it is understood that he himself will be a Muslim. This is clarified in the following version:

From Abu Hurayrah: “The Messenger of God said: How will you be when the son of Mary would descend amongst you and would lead you as one amongst you (fa amma kum min kum)?” So I (Walid bin Muslim) said to Ibn Abi Dhi`b that al-Awza‘i related to us from al-Zuhri from Nafi‘ from Abu Hurayrah the words: “Your leader amongst you  (wa imam kum min kum)”. Ibn Abi Dhi`b said: “Do you know what the words: ‘He would be your leader from amongst you (amma kum min kum) mean?’” I said: “Explain these to me.” He said: “He would lead you according to the book of your Lord and the Sunnah of your Messenger” (Muslim).

The interpretation b), where Muslims have their own imam during the second coming of Jesus, finds expression in the following hadith:

Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah is reported to say: I heard the Messenger of God say: “A section of my people will not cease fighting for truth and will prevail till the Day of Resurrection.” He said: “Jesus son of Mary would then descend and their (Muslims') commander (amir) would ask him to come and lead them in prayer, but he would say: ‘No, some amongst you are commanders over some (amongst you).’” This is the honor from God for this Ummah (Muslim).

Whether Jesus himself will be imam of the Muslims or Muslims will have their own imam, there is consensus on the belief that Jesus will return as a follower of the Qur`an and Sunnah. This belief proceeds from two Islamic doctrines:

  1. When a new messenger comes with a book and a shari‘ah the age of the earlier prophets ends for that nation. Consequently, when the Prophet Muhammad who was a Messenger for all humankind, came the time of all the earlier prophets ended. Of course, in reality Jesus and Moses continue to have following. But this will end when Jesus returns. Then the reality will conform to theory.

  2. Religious truth is essentially one and all the prophets are part of a single brotherhood. Therefore prophets support and help each other (3:81). Jesus during his second coming will support and help the work that is being achieved through the Qur`an and authentic Hadith. By the same token if any of the prophets recognized by Islam came back, be it Jesus or Moses or Ishaq or Yaqub, Muslims would love to make him their leader (imam).

 

SECOND HADITH COMMON TO BUKHARI AND MUSLIM

The second agreed upon hadith comes from Al-Layth who relates it from Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri who reportedly heard it from Sa‘id bin al-Musayyab who in turn heard it from Abu Hurayrah:

God’s Messenger said: By him in whose hands my soul is, (Jesus) son of Mary  will descend amongst you shortly as a just ruler (hakaman  muqsitan) and will break the cross and kill the pig and abolish the jizyah. Wealth will flow (in such abundance that) nobody will accept (any charitable gifts). (Bukhari 3/425, Muslim 1/p. 255).

Again in Arabic there is a complete agreement between Bukhari and Muslim. In the part about abundance of wealth vowels can be and have been supplied differently (yufid al-mala instead of yafid al-malu) to get the following sense: Jesus will distribute so much wealth that nobody will be left to want it.

There are two other versions of the above hadith mentioned in both Bukhari and Muslim. But if we go by what is supported by at least two of the three versions, we see that the version of Al-Layth quoted above is the most original. This version can be attributed with great confidence to Ibn Shihab (died around 125 H), since three persons quote from him. We cannot take it earlier than this with the same confidence because we do not have any version independent of Ibn Shihab. The possibility therefore exists that words of Abu Hurayrah (d. 59 H) or Ibn al-Musayyab (d. 93 H) have been attributed to the Prophet during the process of transmission. This strengthens the doubts already raised about the authenticity of the traditions about the return of Jesus.

Many of the five things that Jesus will do during his return according to the Hadith – breaking the cross, killing the pig, abolishing jizyah, bringing prosperity, leading the Muslims as one of them – are also mentioned in other ahadith. Let us look at their meaning more closely.

Even though some questions can be raised about the authenticity of the above traditions, they do reflect some genuine Islamic ideas.

Breaking the cross: This signifies the end of the doctrines that Christians introduced concerning Jesus after his departure from this world. The cross, with or without the statue of Jesus is often worshipped. “Jesus”, upon his “return”, will end this worship and restore his teaching of the wholehearted worship of, and commitment (al-islam) to, the one true God. Also, the doctrine that the salvation comes through the death of Jesus on the cross will be negated, as well as the very claim that the Jews crucified or killed him.

Killing the pig: This means that the eating of pork will be abolished9. It is interesting to note that Isaiah 66:17 suggests that those who eat pork will come to an end and will not share in the kingdom of God.

Since prohibition of eating pork is the most important and constant element in the dietary laws of the Old Testament, restoration of this prohibition will deal a death blow to Paul’s claim that the Law was nailed to the cross. This claim was in complete violation of the teachings of Jesus and the understanding of that teaching by his eyewitness disciples. Evidence from the Acts and Paul’s own letters show that James the brother of Jesus and other leading disciples of Jesus such as Peter continued to follow the Law of Moses, as they knew it, long after the departure of Jesus who himself was faithful to that Law, although he interpreted it very liberally. Some sayings in the Gospels also state clearly that he taught his followers to respect the Law (Matt 23:2, Luke 11:42).

Abolishing the jizyah.  Jizyah means a tax that non-Muslims living in a Muslim state pay. Muslims also pay a tax called zakah. That Jesus will abolish the jizyah does not mean that jizyah is something undesirable, since normally all have to pay some type of tax. It also does not mean that Jesus will take liberties with the Islamic law. This abolishing is connected with the fact that there will be abundance of wealth, which means that taxes will not be needed. This is why in some ahadith it is also said that zakah or kharaj will be abolished (Muslim, kitab al-hajj). In a version of the hadith it is said that war will be abolished. Some scholars interpret the abolition of jizyah to mean that the unbelievers will be given two options: accept Islam or face war. The third option of living in the Islamic state by paying taxes will be excluded. This interpretation is the least likely.)

The ahadith presented above are probably the earliest traditions on the subject of Jesus’ return. Certainly they have the earliest and best documentation. Many of the later traditions elaborate the two traditions we have considered, giving more specific details, e.g. at which place and time Jesus will descend. Some also add new elements: His coming is said to be one of the signs of the Hour. He is said to kill the Dajjal. He marries and has children. He stays for 40 years before dying and so on.

 

Important differences between the Christian and Muslim view of Jesus’ return

One important difference between the Christian and Muslim view of Jesus’ return is of course that in the Muslim view he will return as a follower of the Prophet Muhammad and will very closely relate with the Muslims. This is by no means unreasonable. For, if the returned Jesus will be anything like the Jesus of Nazareth who came to this world two thousand years ago, then it is natural to think that he will be neither acceptable to committed Christians nor to committed Jews – Christians, because Jesus is nothing like the second person of the Christian trinity, the Son of God who comes to be crucified for the salvation of the world; and Jews, because he was not acceptable to them during his first coming and nothing suggests that he will be acceptable to them during his second coming. But someone like Jesus of Nazareth can be easily backed by the Muslims.

Another important difference between the Christian and Muslim views is that in the Muslim view Jesus’ return takes place in history as we know it, before the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment. Even in traditions in which Jesus’ return is a sign for the coming of the hour, the return does not play any role in bringing the hour nor does Jesus perform any special function in the hereafter. In the Christian tradition Jesus is presented as the eschatological “judge of the living and the dead”. But in Islam the final judge is God himself. In fact, Jesus, like other messengers (7:6), will himself be judged and questioned. The Qur`an even gives the interrogation of Jesus that will take place before God as the final judge:

And when God will say, O ‘Isa son of Maryam! did you say to men, Take me and my mother for two gods besides God, he will say: Glory be to you, it did not befit me that I should say what I had no right to (say); if I had said it, you would indeed have known it; you know what is in my mind, and I do not know what is in your mind, surely you are the great knower of the unseen things.1 did not say to them aught save what you did enjoin me with: That serve God, my Lord and your Lord, and I was a witness of them so long as I was among them, but when you did cause me to die, you were the watcher over them, and you are witness of all things. If you should chastise them, then surely they are your servants; and if you should forgive them, then surely you are the Mighty, the Wise. God will say: This is the day when their truth shall benefit the truthful ones; they shall have gardens beneath which rivers flow to abide in them for ever: God is well pleased with them and they are well pleased with God; this is the mighty achievement. God’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and what is in them; and he has power over all things (5:116-120).

 

Some questions raised by the belief in the return of Jesus

I have been asked the following question by some non-Muslim friends: Does the Muslim belief in Jesus’ return mean that Jesus is superior to Muhammad?

As part of the answer, it should be first noted that in Islam there is a certain reservation to occupy oneself with the question, who is the greatest prophet? There are two reasons for this: 1) In the past, because of the tendency to glorify the founders of their religions and other great individuals, people have been misled to deify and worship them. This is particularly clearly seen in case of Jesus, since from history we can actually witness the stages of Jesus’ glorification that finally culminated in his widespread deification and worship. In order to avoid such errors, Islam stresses that God is the greatest and discourages too much glorification of human figures. 2) Islam wants to bring together different peoples into a single brotherhood/sisterhood under one true God. Too much preoccupation with the question as to who is the greatest prophet will create rivalries among different religious communities, which would unnecessarily hinder the process of bringing them together.

In line with the above tendencies the Qur`an says that the Prophet and his followers “make no difference (nufarriqu) between any of his messengers” (2:285). This does not mean that all prophets are equal in status and rank but that all true prophets form a single brotherhood engaged in the same work and Muslims honor them all.

Elsewhere the Qur`an says that God has favored some messengers above others and raised some in ranks (2:253, 17:55). Although, the Qur`an does not clearly say so, there is no doubt that the role given to the Prophet Muhammad makes him the greatest prophet. He is the prophet of God for all humanity (7:158, 10:57, 21:107, 25:1, 81:27 etc) and as the last prophet (33:40) he is also the prophet for all future time. He completes and perfects (5:3) the revelation given to earlier prophets.

The two tendencies found in the Qur`an are also found in the Hadith except that the Hadith lacks the consistency of the Qur`an. Thus there are ahadith in which the Prophet tells his followers not to consider him superior to some other prophets.

The Prophet said, "None of you should say that I am better than Yunus (i.e. Jonah)." (Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 624)

The choice of Jonah here is significant. Jonah is a relatively minor prophet who is known to have made a terrible mistake. The idea probably is that Muhammad is not to be raised even above Jonah.

A person came to God's Messenger and said: “O, the best of creation”; thereupon God’s Messenger said: “He is Ibrahim.” (Muslim, Book 030, Number 5841.)

In another tradition, a Jew swears “by him who gave Moses superiority over all human beings!" A Muslim slaps him, whereupon the Jew goes to the Prophet and complains. The Prophet was angry with the Muslim and said:

“Don't give superiority to any prophet amongst God’s prophets, for when the trumpet will be blown, everyone on the earth and in the heavens will become unconscious except those whom God will exempt. The trumpet will be blown for the second time and I will be the first to be resurrected to see Moses holding God’s Throne. I will not know whether the unconsciousness which Moses received on the Day of Tur has been sufficient for him, or he has got up before me.” [This may give the impression that Moses is superior to all the other prophets. In order to counter this impression, in some versions the Prophet adds:] “And I do not say that there is anybody who is better than Yunus bin Matta.” Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 626, Muslim Book 030, Number 5853).

But despite this, traditions leave little doubt that God has appointed the Prophet as leader of humanity till the judgment day. Thus we read that when the Prophet was transported from the sacred mosque in Makkah to the site of the sacred mosque in Jerusalem, he met all the prophets and led them in prayer. Also, it is stated that if Moses were to come back to life, he will have the religious obligation to follow Muhammad. Likewise, when Jesus will return he will come as Muhammad’s followers. The spirit of the Qur`an and Hadith therefore is that while we should not be too occupied with glorifying the Prophet Muhammad above other prophets, as for example, the Christians are occupied in the glorification of Jesus, it is necessary for us to believe that the Prophet is the God-appointed leader and messenger for all humanity and for all times to come, for, otherwise he cannot perform his mission.

As for Jesus’ rank among the prophets, he appears in the Qur`an and Hadith as one of the major prophets, but he is not the greatest of all the prophets after the Prophet Muhammad. Thus Jesus is included among the prophets whom the Prophet Muhammad meets during his ascension to heaven, but he is not the one who is found in the highest heaven. That place is sometimes given to Abraham and sometimes to Moses. The Qur`anic statements that God has favored some messengers or prophets above others is followed in one case by a reference to Moses (2:253) and in another case by a reference to David (17:55), although Jesus is also mentioned in one of them (2:253).

It is thus not surprising that the return of Jesus is never understood by Muslims to imply his superiority over other prophets, much less over the Prophet Muhammad. This is not unlike the situation in Judaism. For most Jews Moses is the greatest of all prophets. Yet it is Elias or Elijah whose return in the end time is expected. To be sure Moses’ return is also sometimes expected but this expectation is relatively of late origin, is not found in the Old Testament, and is probably nowhere as widespread as the expectation of Elijah’s return.

Which figure is expected to return usually depends not on his superiority but on the way his ministry ended. If his ministry ends suddenly, leaving the mission somewhat incomplete or if he disappears mysteriously, there develops a belief in his return. Thus mystery surrounds the final fate of Elijah and this seems to have led to the idea of his ascension and return. Likewise, among the shi‘ah there is the belief in the occultation and return of the 12th imam. It so happens that after the age of 6 the whereabouts of the imam were a secret shared only by a very few people and his final fate was no better known. This led to the belief in his occultation and return. The case of Jesus was probably similar. In order to escape the hostile authorities he hid himself and then disappeared. The tradition of his crucifixion probably arose as one explanation of what happened to him. Another explanation was that he ascended to heaven whence he will come back to complete his messianic work.

In case of the Prophet Muhammad no belief in his return developed because his life and death were very public events. Also, he accomplished the mission that he was ordained by God to accomplish, as is in fact declared in the Qur`an (5:3). Finally, his return is not needed because he did not really leave the world. Through the well preserved words of the Qur`an and his Sunnah he has assumed a permanent authentic presence in the world. This is also why he is the last prophet: Through the Qur`an and Sunnah prophecy has become an ever-present reality. According to Muslims this cannot be said of earlier prophets because their words were not meant for all people and for all times and they were not preserved with the same degree of faithfulness as the Qur`an and the Sunnah.

There is yet another reason the belief in Jesus’ return is not seen in Islam as a basis for his superiority over the Prophet of Islam is that the Muslim tradition views this return as taking place in the service of Islam. As a follower of the Prophet Muhammad and he will bring Christians and Jews under the fold of Islam by overcoming factors that have so far prevented this. In case of Christians, these factors are: the doctrine of redemption through the cross, Trinitarian conceptions of God, and Pauline rejection of the law. In case of the Jews these factors are: beliefs that make them see their nation, their ancient land, and their ancient Davidic kingdom much more important religiously than they actually are. Jesus upon his return will drive home to Christians the Islamic message that he was no more divine than Moses and other prophets, that his blood had nothing to do with man’s salvation and that the law is not nailed on the cross but is only adapted to changing circumstances. To the Jews he will drive home the Islamic message that although in the history of revelation and salvation some nations may be more important than others and God may even at times favor some above the others, as indeed he did in case of the children of Israel (2:47-48, 122-123, 7:138-141), neither the Jewish nation nor any other nation is permanently and unconditionally given a favored or chosen status (5:54, 62:6).

Why could this message not be conveyed to Christians and Jews by the Muslims? Well, Jews and Christians have to find their way to Islam through their own internal developments. The return of Jesus represents those internal developments.

Another question raised by the belief in the return of Jesus is: Does the return of Jesus mean that the Prophet was not the last prophet? How can it be said that there is no prophet after Muhammad when according to some ahadith Jesus, a prophet, will come again?

This question has been discussed quite early by Muslims. It is raised and answered by Zamakhshari in his comment on 33:40: “If you ask how Muhammad can be the last of the prophets when Jesus will appear towards the end of the world? I shall reply that the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad means that no one will be endowed with prophethood after him. Jesus is among those upon whom prophethood was endowed before Muhammad. Moreover, Jesus will appear as a follower of Muhammad and he will offer prayers with his face towards the Qiblah of Islam, as a member of the community of the Muslims.” It is probably this question and answer that lies behind a saying attributed to ‘A‘isha, the Prophet’s wife: “Say that he (i.e., the Prophet) is khatam (seal) of the prophets, but do not say, there is no prophet after him.” The attestation of this saying is very late and no early oral authority is known for it. The saying conflicts with earlier traditions in which the Prophet himself says, “There is no prophet after me”, exactly the statement that ‘A‘ishah allegedly tells people not to say. The saying is probably one way to answer the question raised above. It is trying to tell us that while the Prophet Muhammad is indeed the last prophet, it is not quite accurate to say that no prophet will come after him since the return of the Prophet Jesus will take place after him.

 

Reflections in the light of current circumstances

Although the ahadith about the return of Jesus probably do not go back to the Prophet, they are in some way valuable and valid. The very expectation among numerous and powerful followers of the Jewish and Christian religion of the coming/return of the Messiah will produce some figure claiming to be the Messiah. For the very fact that Christians are waiting for the second coming of Jesus and the Jews are waiting for the Messiah is enough to guarantee that some day some one will rise as the Messiah and attract numerous followers. Their will be a willful attempt to “fulfill” the messianic prophecies. This will play havoc in the world because of the number and power of Jews and Christians. The world has already tasted the disastrous results of the willful attempt to create and maintain with violence a Jewish state in fulfillment of Biblical ideas. More comprehensive attempts to fulfill the Biblical prophecies will result in even greater disaster.

The figure that Judeo-Christian expectations will produce will not be very close to Jesus of Nazareth. That figure will have to live up to the Christian belief that Jesus was God the Son who was crucified for the salvation of the world. He will have to be the judge who will destroy those who do not believe in these doctrines. He will also in some way try to fulfill the expectations about the restoration of the Temple and of the Davidic kingdom that will rule the earth with a rod of iron.

Evangelical Christians and Zionist Jews are already creating out of the Biblical prophecies plans for the future course of history leading to the coming of the Messiah or the return of Jesus and are willfully trying, with considerable power and money, to move events in the direction of those plans. There is an alliance between the Jews and Christians against Islam and Muslims, with a focus on the destruction of the Dome of the Rock even though the Christian plan also involves destroying those Jews that would not accept the crucified Son of God.

Because of the willfulness involved and inherent contradictions of the Evangelical/Jewish alliance, the messianic “play” that will be enacted will be based on great deception. The leader presented as the Christ will try to be many things to many people. He will play at once on the traditional Christian beliefs, the Jewish nationalistic beliefs, and even Muslim beliefs. He will talk love and democracy but build and maintain his leadership by coalitions of wars, military might and money.

In short, what Judeo-Christian expectation will produce will be the Dajjal (equivalent of Anti-Christ), predictions about whose coming are better attested in the Hadith than that of the return of Jesus. But humanity has an inbuilt ability to correct the evil that it sets in motion. Hence the evil brought by the Dajjal will generate opposition. Another leader will arise to oppose him from within the Judeo-Christian world that produced him in the first place. This leader will remind Jews and Christians of the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and lead them on that basis. For this reason he can be called a second Jesus, or, if you like, the returned Jesus, though not literally. While the Dajjal will derive support from powerful people, from military might, and from abundance of money and he will rule by fear even as he talks of love and democracy, “Jesus” will derive support from a vast majority of common people, from fair-minded, truth loving Jews, Christians and particularly Muslims all over the world. He will manage to defeat the Dajjal (mostly through political struggle) and restore some semblance of sanity, real compassion, justice, and prosperity to a world ravaged by the Dajjal. The victory of “Jesus” will necessarily deal a blow to the Christian incarnational and redemptive doctrines and to the Jewish nationalism, the main obstacles in the way of Islam. As these obstacles are removed, the world will be ready and willing to accept Islam. To the extent this “Jesus” will rise from the Judeo-Christian world, will be rejected by traditional Christians and Jews, will be supported by Muslims and will help in the final acceptance of Islam by most of the world, the traditions in Bukhari and Muslim and other books of Hadith have got it exactly right.

 

The following section was added in response to questions from some Muslims:

Why the ahadith about the return of Jesus, even the two found in both Bukhari and Muslim probably do not go back to the Messenger of God?

How we evaluate the reliability of ahadith depends on how we answer four questions:

First, is the process of determining authentic ahadith a human science or is it an act of God inspiration? My answer is that it is a human science. This is also accepted by many scholars. To be sure, there is a story that the Prophet Muhammad used to appear to Imam Bukhari in dream and tell him which hadith he should include in his sahih. But this story is not taken seriously by scholars. In the vast corpus of discussions among Muslim fuqaha and muhaddithun we rarely if ever hear recourse to this story to argue that all ahadith in Bukhari are authentic.

Second, if the process of determining authentic ahadith is a human science, has it reached its final development or can it be improved further to a considerable degree? My answer is that it can be improved further to a very high degree. The basis of this is that even in exact sciences such as physics human beings have been proved wrong each time they concluded that a science has reached its final development. The science of Hadith is clearly an inexact science requiring much use of subjective judgments and is therefore all the more subject to errors and hence improvement. This means that we cannot shut the argument about the authenticity of a hadith by appeal to past authorities.

Third, do the Qur`an and the Hadith together form the foundation of Islam or is the Qur`an the foundation upon which the Hadith builds by explanation and elaboration and by providing the context? My answer is that the Qur`an alone is the foundation. The basis for this is provided by several Qur`anic verses and several ahadith that clearly state that Qur`an provides complete guidance for humanity. My answer is also based on the fact that only the Qur`an has been preserved with complete faithfulness by a divine act. If the Qur`an and the Hadith were both foundational, they should have both been preserved with equal faithfulness.

Fourth, how far the isnad method is reliable? My answer is: not very much and here is my basis for saying so.

It is well known that very large number of ahadith were wrongly attributed, either as deliberately fabricated lies or by mistakes of varying degree of innocence. Clearly, if words/actions could be falsely attributed to the Prophet, then isnad could also be falsely constructed. The isnad method tries to avoid this conclusion by requiring that the narrators be “trustworthy” both in terms of character and memory. To elaborate the idea, suppose we have a report like this:

“A said that B said that C said that D said that the Prophet said ….”.

Suppose also that A, B, C, D are all trustworthy. Since A is trustworthy we can accept the report: “B said that C said that D said that the Prophet said …” Since B is also trustworthy we can accept the report: “C said that D said that the Prophet said …” Continuing this way, we can accept the report: “the Prophet said …”.

This approach certainly makes some sense and was worth pursuing. Indeed we should be thankful that our classical muhaddithun pursued this approach, since in the process they have preserved for us a vast amount of data that we can today analyse. But the approach is not without problems and it is easy to see that it has not produced very reliable results.

To begin with, very few people are completely faithful to facts, as we can see from what even modern journalists do to the events that they report. In earlier times, especially in the time before our great muhaddithun, objectivity and accuracy in reporting was not even held by most people as an ideal to be pursued. The need to provide isnad was also not felt. Moreover, characterization of people as trustworthy or untrustworthy is not like the distinction between black and white. Even trustworthy people can distort facts under the influence of certain assumptions they have made or certain motivations they feel. For example, Muhammad Muhsin Khan who translated Sahih of Bukhari is trusted person but in many places his translations can be shown to reflect his assumptions and not to faithfully represent the original Arabic. Thus, he translates hadith number 282 volume 6 as follows:

'Aisha used to say: "When (the Verse): "They should draw their veils over their necks and bosoms," was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces."

Here the reference to "faces" is not at all found in the original Arabic. Living in Saudi Arabia Muhsin Khan has assumed that Islam teaches women to cover their faces and this has influenced his translation. This type of changes in the original are very common both in transmission and in translation.

It is therefore not surprising that even for trustworthy narrators we possess negative judgments that calls their credibility to question. Take for example Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri from whom traditions have been reported by almost every muhaddith including of course Malik, Bukhari and Muslim. Yet the following evidence suggests that al-Zuhri did not always conform to acceptable standards of accuracy and objectivity:

Rabi‘ah would say to Ibn Shihab: My situation is totally different from you. Whatever I say, I say it from my own self and you say it on the authority of the Prophet and so you must be careful, and it is not befitting for a person to waste himself [like this]. (Bukhari, Tarikh al-Kabir, vol. 3, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, pp. 286-7)

Rabi‘ah would say to Ibn Shihab: When you narrate something according to your own opinion, always inform the people that this is your own view. And when you narrate something from the Prophet, always inform them that it is from the Prophet so that they do not consider it to be your opinion. (Khatib Baghdadi, Al-Faqih wa Al-Mutafaqqih, vol. 1, Lahore: Dar al-Ahya al-Sunnah, p. 148).

Imam Bukhari had the following opinion:

Zuhri would narrate ahadith and on most occasions would insert sentences from his own self. Some of these would be mursal and some of them would be his own. (Ibn Rajab, Fath al-Bari, 1st ed., vol. 5, Jaddah: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996, p. 286)

In a letter to Imam Malik, Imam Layth Ibn Sa‘ad writes:

When we would meet Ibn Shihab, there would arise a difference of opinion in many issues. When any one of us would ask him in writing about some issue, he, in spite of being so learned, would give three very different answers, and he would not even be aware of what he had already said. It is because of this that I have left him – something that you did not like (Ibn Qayyim, I’lam al- Muwaqqi‘in, vol. 3, Beirut: Dar al-Jayl, p. 85).

Imam Shaf‘i, Darqutni and many others have attributed Tadlis to Zuhri. (Ibn Hajar, Tabaqat al-Mudallisin, Cairo: Maktabah Kulliyyat al-Azhar, p. 32-3)

It is possible to go beyond the above general considerations and actually demonstrate that isnads got modified/invented during the process of transmission just as the contents of the ahadith did, not only by untrustworthy narrators but also by trustworthy one. Thus the story of the malicious accusation (ifk) against umm al-mu`minin ‘Aishah is narrated by al-Zuhri in Ibn Ishaq, Bukhari and Muslim. In all versions al-Zuhri learns details of the story from four persons. But in Ibn Ishaq one of the four persons is Sa'id bin Jubayr while in Bukhari and Muslim the same person changes to Sa‘id bin al-Musayyab.

Another example: In Muwatta we read the following saying of Ibn ‘Umar:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi’ that ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar used to say that muhrima (a woman in ihram) should wear neither a veil (niqab) nor gloves.

But in Bukhari it has become a saying of the Prophet:

‘Abd Allah bin Yazid related to us: al-Layth related to us: Nafii’ related to us from ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar who said: A person stood up and asked, “O Messenger of God! What clothes may be worn in the state of ihram?” The Prophet replied, “… the muhrima should wear neither a veil (niqab) nor gloves.” (Bukhari, kitab jaza al-sayd ..., bab ma yunha min al-tayyib li al-muhrim wa al-muhrima)

The words “the muhrima should wear neither a veil (niqab) nor gloves” are exactly the same in Arabic as the words attributed to ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar in Muwatta.  The above hadith from Bukhari is also quoting ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar but while in Muwatta the words are the opinion of Ibn ‘Umar in Bukhari Ibn ‘Umar is attributing them to the Prophet. One naturally asks, Why in Muwatta Ibn ‘Umar does not attribute these words to the Prophet? Ibn ‘Umar lived in Madinah and so did Malik. The knowledge of the Hadith left by Ibn ‘Umar would have been more easily available to Malik than to Bukhari who came much later. Moreover, from Ibn ‘Umar the tradition is being narrated by Nafi‘ in both the Muwatta and Bukhari and Malik personally knew Nafi‘. Had Nafi’ heard from ‘Abd Allah a saying of the Prophet he would have known. This suggests the conclusion that the saying that a muhrima should not wear niqab or gloves existed as an opinion of ‘Abd Allah ibn Umar or someone else, and by the time Bukhari compiled his Sahih the opinion was attributed to the Prophet himself. Further support of the above view is provided by the fact that not all companions of the Prophet agreed with the opinion.  It is evident from the following tradition in Muwatta that some companions saw nothing wrong with women using veils during the state of ihram:

Yahya related to me from Malik from Hisham bin ‘Urwa that Fatima bint al‑Mundhir said, "We used to veil our faces when we were in ihram in the company of Asma bint Abi Bakr as‑Siddiq." (Muwatta, kitab al-hajj, bab takhmir al-muhrim wajhahu).

Numerous serious contradictions among ahadith, often found in the same collections, including Bukhari and Muslim, show that the isnad method has not given satisfactory results. For if the chain of narrators used by the muhaddithun were trustworthy in character and memory, why did some of them contradicted so seriously with others in reporting the same event. To illustrate such contradictions I will give here one example.

In Bukhari (kitab al-istidhan, bab ayah al-hijab, kitab at-tafsir, bab la tadkhulu ...) and Muslim (kitab as-salam, bab ibahat al-khuruj li an-nisa ...) we read the following explanation of the circumstances of the revelation of the verse of hijab:

Ishaq related to me: Yaqub bin Ibrahim inofrmed us: my father related to us from Saleh from Ibn Shihab (al-Zuhri) who said: ‘Urwah ibn al-Zubayr informed me that ‘A’ishah said: ‘Umar bin al-Khattab used to say that the Messenger of God, “Let your wives be in hijab”. But he did not do so. And the wives of the Prophet used to go at night to al‑Manasi (a vast open place near Baqia at Medina to answer the call of  nature). Once Sawdah bint Zam‘ah (the wife of the Prophet) went out and she was a tall lady. ‘Umar bin al-Khattab saw her while he was in a gathering and said, “I have recognized you, O Sawdah!” (He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verse of al‑hijab  may be revealed.) So God revealed the verse of al‑hijab.

But in another version of the same story in Bukhari ‘Umar sees Sawdah not before but after the verse of hijab had been revealed:

Zakariya bin Yahya related to me: Abu Usamah related to us from Hisham from his father (’Urwah) from ‘A’ishah who said: Sawdah (the wife of the Prophet) went out for her need after hijab had been ordained. She was a fat huge lady, and everybody who knew her before could  recognize her. So ‘Umar bin al‑Khattab saw her and said, “O Sawdah! By God, you cannot hide yourself from us,  so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out. Sawdah returned while the Messenger of God was in my house taking his supper and a bone covered with meat was in his hand. She entered and said, “O Messenger of God! I went out for a need and ‘Umar said to me so‑and‑so.” Then God inspired him (the Prophet) and when the state of inspiration was over and the bone was still in his hand as he had not put it down, he said (to Sawdah), “You (women) have been allowed to go out for your needs.” (Bukhari, kitab at-tafsir, bab la tadkhulu buyut an-nabi ... )

Some harmonisers may argue that ‘Umar twice saw Sawdah go out, once before the revelation of the verse of hijab and once after. But such an explanation is most unlikely and extremely artificial. It is much more natural to conclude that we are dealing here with two versions of a single story. The contradiction here is significant. In one version the story provides an occasion for the revelation of the verse of hijab while in the other version the verse of hijab had already been in force when the story happened. It is clear that one of Bukhari’s “trustworthy” narrators is either deliberately changing the story or has such a bad memory that he could not remember whether the incident took place after the verse of hijab or whether it provided the very occasion for the revelation of that verse.

When we examine numerous examples of such contradictions it becomes clear that the isnad method has not worked very well.

Let us now turn to the ahadith about the return of Jesus. My view that these ahadith probably do not go back to the Messenger of God is based on the following arguments already presented in my article in a somewhat different way:

  1. The Qur`an does not state that Jesus will return to establish the religion of truth throughout the earth. This fact will not have much relevance for those who believe the Hadith to form the foundation of Islam along with the Qur`an. But if one believes, as I do, that the Qur`an is the foundation while the Hadith simply builds upon it, then the omission of a reference to the return of Jesus from the Qur`an becomes much more significant. The return of a past prophet and the global victory of Islam is such an important event in the history of humanity that a reference is expected to it in the Qur`an, if it is the foundation of Islam. The Qur`an thrice promises Islam’s global victory (9:33, 48:28, 61:9) but never hints that this victory will come when Jesus returns.

  2. Muwatta also does not mention the return of Jesus. In my article I showed that if Imam Malik knew of the traditions of Jesus’ return and he believed in them, he would have no reason to omit them. Hence there are only two possibilities: either the Imam did not know about these traditions or he did not believe in them. In both cases the authenticity of the traditions is cast into doubt. Malik wrote his Muwatta after the middle of the second century, about 150 years after the Prophet. During this time the belief in the return of Jesus -- an interesting, fascinating and important belief -- would have spread far enough for a man of Malik’s knowledge to come to know about it. And if Malik knew about it but did not believe in it, then his judgment in the matter carries some weight since he lived a considerable time before Bukhari and Muslim.

  3. In Bukhari all the ahadith about the return of Jesus have chains that pass through Ibn Shihab and then after one more link through Abu Hurayrah. If the isnad method was very dependable this would have been acceptable but given the fact that the isnad method has not produced too dependable results we cannot put too much confidence in the reliability of these ahadith. There is a distinct possibility that al-Zuhri heard these “ahadith” from not-too-reliable sources and then transmitted them without mentioning the source, as he was at times wont to do. This will explain why these “ahadith” are not found in Muwatta: Imam Malik might have heard these traditions from al-Zuhri, but he did not put much trust in them since no reliable source was given by al-Zuhri. Later, by the time of Bukhari and Muslim these traditions had been attributed to the Prophet through Abu Hurayrah and then they became acceptable.

 

The following section was added in response to more questions from some Muslims:

Return of Jesus: Response II 

It does not at all surprise me that some readers are not convinced by my reasons for holding that the traditions about the return of Jesus are probably wrongly attributed to the Holy Prophet. This is partly because it is not easy to abandon old assumptions and partly because how we evaluate the reliability of ahadith depends on how we answer four basic questions that I raised previously. If two Muslims do not agree on their answers to these questions, they can argue about particular ahadith forever without agreeing. Therefore once again I will anchor my discussion around my answers to the basic questions. 

1)         The Qur`an alone is the foundation of Islam 

This can be understood in two ways. One is that the role of the Sunnah/Hadith is to explain and elaborate the Qur`an and provide information about the context of the Qur`anic statements. Sunnah/Hadith is not an independent source of the Islamic guidance. (Some readers have made an issue of the distinction between Sunnah and Hadith but Sunnah is almost always known through the Hadith and is practically a part of the Hadith). The other is that the Qur`an is a crystallization or a comprehensive summary of the Sunnah/Hadith that God himself produced and preserved so that it can teach the basis of everything that we need to know. 

A reader’s concern that the position that the Qur`an alone is the foundation of Islam sounds “dangerously close” to the Qur`an-only people is understandable. But it is dangerous only if we do not pay attention to words being used. I clearly recognize the role of the Sunnah/Hadith in Islam but not that of an independent source. 

The position is supported by general rational arguments, by the Qur`an and by the MOST reliable ahadith. The rational argument is that if the Qur`an and the Sunnah/Hadith both constitute the foundation of Islam, they should have both been preserved with equal reliability which is obviously not the case. Clearly, then the role of the Sunnah/Hadith is so secondary in comparison to the Qur`an that it can perform that role despite the flawed nature of the transmission of the Sunnah/Hadith. 

The Qur`anic basis of the position is provided by verses like: 

And We have sent down unto you (O Prophet) the book explaining (tibyanan) everything and as a guidance, and mercy, and glad tidings for those who have surrendered (to God) (16:89). Shall I seek other than God as judge when it is he who has sent down unto you the book well explained (mufassalan)? … (6:114-115). A book whose revelatory statements (ayat) have been firmly formulated (uhkimat) and then explained (fussilat) by one wise and informed (11:1).

The statement that the Qur`an “explains everything” must mean at the very least that everything we need to know for our religion is found in the Qur`an in a clear reference, although some less significant details could be found in the Sunnah/Hadith. This is not to say, as one reader puts it, “the essentials of faith (Iman) are all grounded in the Qur'anic teachings themselves. Certainly, all ‘seven’ elements of the declaration of faith in detail (Iman-e Mufassal) are all there in the Qur`an.” This can hardly be described as “explaining everything”. The import of the words “explaining everything” is that whatever we are required to believe or do as Muslims and not just the “essentials of faith” is grounded in clear references in the Qur`an. Now this is not the case with the belief in Jesus’ return. I am well aware that there are two verses that some people interpret as a reference to Jesus’ return. But the references are far from clear and have led commentators to suggest a variety of different interpretations. If God wanted us to believe in Jesus’ return he would have been far clearer. Consequently, my interpretation of “explaining everything” requires me to seriously doubt whether belief in Jesus’ return is part of Islam. 

The most reliable traditions also suggest that the Qur`an alone is the foundation of Islam. Thus in the well known khutbah that the Prophet gave during the farewell hajj he said: 

Then [during his farewell hajj the Prophet] came to the bottom of the valley, and addressed the people saying: “…. I have left among you the Book of God, and if you hold fast to it, you would never go astray ….” . 

Here there is no mention of the Sunnah. But Ibn Ishaq as quoted by Ibn Hisham records the saying in the following form: 

I have left with you something which if you hold fast to it you will never fall into error – a plain indication, the book of God and the Sunnah of his prophet, so give good heed to what I say (p. 651). 

Ibn Ishaq does not give any isnad for the hadith, but Muslim does give the isnad: Ja‘far bin Muhammad from his father Muhammad bin ‘Ali (bin Husayn bin ‘Ali bin Abi Talib) from Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah from the Prophet. The existence of isnad makes Muslim’s version somewhat preferable to that of Ibn Ishaq even though Ibn Ishaq is much earlier. If so, the Prophet only told people to hold fast to the Qur`an but someone added to his words a reference to the Sunnah. 

It is because Sunnah was not part of the original tradition, it gets replaced by other sources. Thus in a farewell type of address set at Khumm the Prophet says in a hadith recorded by Muslim that he was leaving two things. The first is the Book of God but the second is NOT Sunnah: 

The Prophet said: O people, I am a human being. I am about to receive a messenger (the angel of death) from my Lord and I, in response to God's call, (would depart from you). But I am leaving among you two weighty things. The first is the Book of God in which there is right guidance and light, so hold fast to the Book of God and adhere to it. He exhorted (us) (to hold fast) to the Book of God and then said: (The second are) the members of my household. I remind you of God regarding the members of my family.” (Muslim, Urdu, 6. p.101)

In the above hadith the source of guidance is still the Qur`an alone. Ahl al-bayt are not presented as a second source of guidance, for, Muslims are not exhorted to hold fast to ahl al-bayt as a source of guidance as they are exhorted to hold fast to the Qur’an. The Prophet only says, “I remind you of God concerning the ahl al-bayt” which could mean simply to be kind and just to them. But ahadith similar to the above are found in many later books, where the ahl al-bayt become a second source of guidance along with the Qur`an:

I have left among you that which if you abide by, you will never go astray: the Book of God, and my family, the members of my house (ahl al-bayt) (related by al-Tirmidhi, Ahmad, Ibn Abi 'Asim, al-Hakim, al-Tabarani and al-Tahawi).

The tendency to add other sources to the Qur`an is also found in other traditions. Thus in Ibn Sa‘d (Tabaqat) in the context of the farewell hajj we have the following hadith:

Umm al-Husayn narrated: I saw the Prophet on the night of ‘Arafah on a camel …. And heard him say: O people! Hear and obey, even if it be some deformed Abyssinian slave who establishes the Book of God among you.

Here only the Book of God is mentioned, but in the following hadith from Abu Da`ud, set in a similar farewell situation, the rightly guided khulafa` also become a source along with the Sunnah:

The Prophet said: I enjoin you to fear God, and to hear and obey even if it be an Abyssinian slave, for those of you who live after me will see great disagreement. You must then follow my Sunnah and that of the rightly-guided khulafa. Hold to it and stick fast to it.

A very well documented tradition about the khalifah ‘Umar shows that the sahabah clearly understood that the Qur`an alone is the foundation of Islamic guidance. The tradition is documented by Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, and Bukhari. Here are the three versions:

Bukhari’s version:

Anas bin Malik heard 'Umar speaking while standing on the pulpit of the Prophet in the morning (following the death of the Prophet), when the people had sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr. He said the tashahhud before Abu Bakr, and said, “amma ba'du God has chosen for his Messenger what is with him (paradise) rather than what is with you (the world). This (Qur`an) is the book with which God guided your Messenger, so hold on to it, for then you will be guided on the right path as God guided his Messenger with it.”

Ibn Ishaq’s version:

Al-Zuhri told me from Anas bin Malik, On the day after Abu Bakr’s acceptance in the hall he sat in the pulpit and ‘Umar got up and spoke before him, and after duly praising God he said: “O men, yesterday I said something which I do not find in the book of God nor was it something that the Messenger of God entrusted to me; but I thought that the Messenger would (continue) running our affairs and be the last of us (alive). God has left with you his book, by which he guided his Messenger, and if you hold fast to that God will guide you as he guided him ....” 

Ibn Sa‘d’s version:

Al-Zuhri said that he was told by Anas bin Malik that he heard ‘Umar bin al-Khattab in the Prophet’s mosque on the morning of the day when people gave allegiance to Abu Bakr and when Abu Bakr was sitting on the pulpit. ‘Umar recited the tashahhud before Abu Bakr and said: “amma ba‘d, yesterday I said something to you which was not true. By God I did not find it in the book of God nor was it something that the Prophet entrusted to me. It only reflected my desire that the Prophet should remain alive. Then ‘Umar came to what he wanted to say,  (my desire was to see) the Prophet die after all of us but God chose for the Prophet nearness to him rather than nearness to you. This (Qur`an) is the book with which God guided your Messenger, so hold on to it, for then you will be guided on the right path as God guided his Messenger with it.

In all versions ‘Umar regards only the Qur`an to be the source of guidance. In Ibn Ishaq’s and Ibn Sa’d’s versions, the words “something that the messenger of God entrusted to me” do show that the Prophet taught things not contained in the book of God and that this was important in the eyes of the companions. But in subsequent words, the focus shifts entirely to the Qur`an which is considered sufficient for guidance: “God has left his book with you, that by which he guided his messenger, and if you hold fast to that God will guide you as he guided him.” In Bukhari’s version, there is no reference to what the Messenger entrusted to ‘Umar and the entire focus is on the book of God. Ibn Sa’d seems to be dependent on both versions. 

The farewell khutbah and the above traditions about ‘Umar have the earliest and most varied documentation among all the traditions that talk about the sources of guidance. That they originally talked only about the Qur`an supports the view that the Qur`an alone is the foundation of Islam.

 

2)      Determining authentic ahadith is a human science 

This becomes clearer if we compare the situation with the Christian tradition. Just as in Islam, Christianity was also faced with a great mass of traditions about Jesus -- some fabricated, some distorted, and a few genuine ones. At one point Christians could no longer avoid the decision as to which traditions are to be accepted and which are to be rejected. So they made their decision but the basis of the decision was to accept those books that had gained acceptability among the people and reject the rest. Later, they attributed the accepted books to the Holy Spirit. No rational analysis was used to separate the reliable from the unreliable traditions. Muslims in contrast attempted to base their decision on some objective rational methods, that is, they used a scientific approach. They gathered all the traditions that they could without prejudice, while at the same time collecting data about their transmitters and then reached some conclusions. This work needs to be developed further but its scientific spirit cannot be doubted.

 

3)      The isnad method has not proved to be very successful and the    results reached by our classical muhaddithun are not very    dependable.

 

That the isnad method, on which our great muhaddithun primarily depended, has not produced sound results is clear from very significant differences in the various versions of the same ahadith. Previously I illustrated this with the example of the story of ‘Umar and Sawdah concerning the hijab. Another example is provided by the traditions where some versions have only the Book of God as the source of guidance while other versions mention the Sunnah and/or ahl al-bayt and/or rightly guided khulafa`. The addition (or, possible but unlikely omission) of the reference to the Sunnah etc as a source of Islamic guidance cannot be dismissed lightly. It is a difference of tremendous importance and it is clear that someone changed the words of the Holy Prophet.

Here is yet another example of serious changes in the earlier version:

Bukhari thrice tells us the following beautiful story:

Yahya bin Qaza‘ah related to us: Ibrahim bin Sa‘d related to us from his father from ‘Urwah from ‘Aishah who said: The Prophet in his fatal illness, called his daughter Fatimah and told her a secret because of which she started to weep. Then he called her and told her another secret, and she started laughing. When I asked her about that, she replied, The Prophet told me that he would die in his fatal illness, and so I wept, but then he secretly told me that from amongst his family, I would be the first to join him, and so I laughed".

In this version the second secret that turns Fatimah’s crying into laughing is the good news that she will be the first among the Prophet’s household to follow him (in death), which corresponds to the fact that she died very soon after his father. But in another version of the story this has changed as follows:

Musa related to us from Abu ‘Awanah, Firas related to us from ‘Amir from Masruq (who said): ‘Aishah related to me: … Fatimah said: “ … And when the Prophet saw me in this sorrowful state, he confided the second secret to me saying, O Fatimah! Will you not be pleased that you will be chief of all the believing women (or chief of the women of this ummah)?” 

It is clear that someone had changed the reason for Fatimah’s laughing. Both ahadith are agreed upon in that they are found in both Bukhari and Muslim. It is clear that no category of ahadith, however trusted by some Muslims, was immune to tahrif of a significant nature. This is not the case just with a few ahadith. We can find similar differences in ahadith on almost every subject, even though the ahadith are supposed to be narrated by unbroken chains of trustworthy transmitters. We have over the centuries developed a tendency to pass over such contradictions and pretend that they do not exist or are not important. But the moment we open our eyes we begin to see that we are dealing with a rather flawed process of transmission. 

My criticism of the isnad method resulted in some readers thinking that I consider Muwatta to be completely reliable and only reject traditions in Bukhari and Muslim. Thus one brother commented: “If Muwatta is the ultimate criterion for what we do, or do not, consider acceptable, then we should entirely do away with the rest of the authentic collection.” But this is the result of a misunderstanding. I do not consider Muwatta as the ultimate criterion. The ultimate criterion is the Book of God, the Furqan. I believe that there are some authentic ahadith that did not find their way into Muwatta while at the same time there are some inauthentic traditions that did get included in Muwatta. The misunderstanding of my position also prompted the same brother to raise the question: “Imam Malik was born in 93A.H, long after the prophet had passed away. It cannot be that what he collected is what he heard from the prophet himself. So he must also have relied on reports through chains of narration. Now how is that any different from the issue of isnad that Dr. Shafa'at questions?” My answer is that isnad method is subject to the same criticism in case of Muwatta as in case of Bukhari and Muslim except that Imam Bukhari was born in 194 and Imam Muslim was born in 204, more than hundred years after the birth of  Imam Malik. This is surely significant from the point of view of a scientific approach to the Hadith. Imam Malik depends on only one or two narrators to reach a companion while Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim may need as many as five narrators to do the same. The possibility of errors in the asanid, the contents, and attribution of ahadith therefore increase considerably in case of Bukhari and Muslim. In other words, the importance of Muwatta arises not because its methods and approach are infallible or superior but simply because it is much nearer the time of the Prophet than Bukhari and Muslim. 

If some belief or practice or event is found in the Qur`an and then in Muwatta and then in Bukhari and/or Muslim a certain continuity is established which inspires confidence in the authenticity of that belief/practice/event. But if some belief/practice/event cannot be established by a clear reference in the Qur`an and is absent from Muwatta and is first documented by the third-century collections such as Bukhari or Muslim then this continuity is lost and serious doubts about the authenticity of the belief/practice/event are justified. This is precisely the case with the belief in the return of Jesus. 

Sometimes continuity can be established even if the belief/practice/event is not found in Muwatta. Thus for example the Muwatta mentions a story of the loss of Aishah’s necklace during one of the Prophet’s journeys, which was the occasion for the revelation of the verse about tayammum. But unlike Muwatta, Bukhari and Muslim mention that in this same journey the incident of the malicious accusation against umm al-muminin also took place. In this case, however, we can establish continuity, since a) the incident is clearly referred to in the Qur`an, although the relatively unimportant details about when it took place and who was involved etc are not mentioned in the Qur`an; b) the incident during the journey is mentioned in Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Sa‘d, of which the former was a contemporary of Imam Malik and therefore his book is of a date comparable to that of Muwatta. This continuity means that we can trust the historicity of the incident and with that trust proceed to examine the four available versions and try to reconstruct the historical truth. 

In a few cases, the continuity is established by vast number of witnesses of a belief/practice/event in every generation. This is the case with details about the five daily prayers. On the basis of the Qur`an we can be certain that several prayers a day were prescribed for fixed times of the day involving adhan, wudu etc. We can also be certain that the practice continued among Muslims from generation to generation and consequently the form of the prayers as we have it today goes back to the Holy Prophet except that in some matters the Prophet himself did not follow a standard procedure leading to differences later. Now the belief in Jesus’ return does not possess such continuity. Almost all the traditions in Bukhari and Muslim about Jesus’ return are narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayrah. Only Muslim has a tradition on the authority of Jabir bin ‘Abd Allah. Thus we cannot say that the tradition was well known in the time of the sahabah and successors and hence we cannot establish its continuity. 

 

4)      The science of Hadith is capable of considerable further development.

 

One brother showed scepticism about this position by stating that he “does not see how the present authentic collection can be improved to a very significant degree”. Without actually plunging into a science the possibilities of its development cannot be seen and so such scepticism is understandable. Previously I tried to explain the situation by alluding to situation with such exact sciences as physics about which the same brother reacted by saying: “I think that the analogy is not apt.” This is because the brother completely missed my point. I was not using physics as an analogy. The point was that if in such an exact science as physics we find that at one point a theory is working perfectly well with remarkable exactness and later find it to be fundamentally flawed, this should be all the more so in inexact sciences such as the science of Hadith. Here it should be all the more expected that the results reached by one generation of scholars are found to be inadequate by a later generation. 

A considerable further development in the science of Hadith is possible because the data that we possess in the form of traditions found in various books – Muwatta, Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, Shafi‘i, Yusuf, Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Da`ud, Tirmidhi, Nasa`i, Ahmad, Ibn Majah, Bayhaqi, Daraqutni, Ibn Hibban etc – together with the information about the transmitters of those traditions, and about early Islamic history have not yet been subjected fully to a rational analysis. Carrying out such an analysis by putting sufficient resources, making full use of the computer and of other disciplines such as anthropology, history generally, and studies of the laws that govern the formation and transmission of traditions will certainly lead to some phenomenal developments. 

A prerequisite to the further development of the science of Hadith is the revival of the scientific spirit. We must be willing to face the facts and the conclusions that they suggest. In particular we have to stop closing our eyes to the discrepancies between various extant versions of the traditions.


Notes

1Saul was chosen by God and anointed by Samuel (1 Sam 10:1). Later, God chose David to be the king and commanded Samuel to anoint him (1Sam 16:12-13).

2The priests of Aaron’s line and other priests were anointed (Exodus 29:7, Num 35:25).

3See 1 Kings 19:16, Elisha is anointed as a prophet and Isaiah 61:1-2, where an anonymous person with a prophetic role is anointed by the Lord.

4There is not a single saying of Jesus in the gospels that is generally accepted as authentic by critical scholars and that presents him as a Messiah.

5N. A. Dahl has noted that to understand Paul “it is never necessary to know that ‘Christ’ is a term filled with content and highly significant. All the statements in the letters make good sense even to those who only know that Christ is a surname for Jesus” (quoted from Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, p. 68). Thus in the Pauline epistles, Christos is never used as a general term but always as a name of Jesus (contrast Acts 17:3, 26:23); it is never used as a predicate in a statement like “Jesus is the Christ” (otherwise Acts 18:5, 28); never a genitive is added as in “Christ of God.” Paul says “Christ,” “the Christ,” “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus.” The term “the Christ” is not found in the oldest texts of the epistles (against 1 Cor. 3:11 TR). (Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, p.72).

6There are two passages in the Qur`an in which one can see the idea that Jesus came in fulfillment of earlier prophecy: 3:45 and 3:81. In the first of these passages Jesus is called “a word from God” (see also 4:171), which can be interpreted to mean “a promise from God”, that is, an earlier prophecy from God. But this interpretation is not certain.  The second passage, 3:81, talks of a covenant of the prophets by which all prophets are bound to believe in and help when another prophet comes confirming them. One possible interpretation of this verse is that earlier prophets prepare in some way for the coming of the later prophets and this preparation involves prophesying their coming. But this interpretation is not certain and does not particularly apply to messianic figures but generally to the whole series of prophets.

7The absence of any clear indications for identifying Jesus with a Messiah in any sense corresponds to a similar absence in Jesus’ own authentic statements, as observed in note 4

8In Qur`an 3:39 the angels give to Zechariah the good news of the birth of his son Yahya (=John the Baptist) “verifying a word from God, outstanding in character, very chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous”. The words “verifying a word from God” are often understood to mean that John will testify to Jesus who is called “a word from God” some verses later. But there are several difficulties with this explanation: a) Verses 3:33-54 form a well-connected passage following a chronological order of the stories of Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus. In this passage “a word from God” is not used in connection with Jesus until after its use in connection with John. b) If the passage about John is referring to Jesus why he is not referred to by his name? Why, for example, is it not said “musaddiqan bi ‘Isa al-Masih”? In view of these objections a better interpretation may be that “word from God” means an earlier promise from God, that is, John will come in fulfillment of earlier (messianic) prophecy. It is also possible that both interpretations are intended and that is why “a word of God” is used instead of Jesus or al-Masih. The two interpretations are consistent with some earlier Christian traditions. Thus in the Gospels Jesus is presented as the Messiah and John the Baptist as his Elijah-type forerunner. This means that John testifies to Jesus (the first interpretation) and since Elijah-type forerunner himself is promised in earlier prophecy, John himself comes in fulfillment of earlier prophecy (second interpretation). (See, A. Shafaat, Islam, Christianity, and the State of Israel:As Fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecl, American Trust Publication, 1989).

9Some Muslim scholars deduced from this hadith that pigs should be killed. This deduction is unsound for the following three reasons: a) The word for pig is in the singular (al-khinzir); b) The time of Jesus’ return will be a special time and what takes place during such a time should not become a general rule; c) there is a vast body of traditions that encourage us to be nice to all animals including dogs, wolves, snakes etc.

It should also be noted that not all earlier scholars agreed that the pigs should be killed or that Jesus will kill pigs because they should be killed. Thus in Muwatta we have the following tradition:

Malik related to me from Yahya ibn Said that Isa ibn Maryam encountered a pig on the road. He said to it, “Go in peace.” Somebody asked, “Do you say this to a pig?” Isa said, “I fear lest I accustom my tongue to evil speech.” 

 


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