The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ
by AGRON BELICA
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In this book, Agron Belica offers a fresh interpretation of the momentous events on a hillock beyond the walls of Jerusalem nearly two millennia ago: the Crucifixion. Belica asks disconcerting questions about the received version of gospel “history” and gives free rein to his inquisitive nature. Many of his ideas and speculations will strike the casual reader schooled in the ancient Biblical Traditions with which they conflict as unhistorical, impossible, and unbelievable. Yet, when questioning established premises, the impossible may often be shown to be possible, as Socrates was fond of doing.
Mr. Belica does not claim to be proving anything, except that with some speculation and reinterpretation of the Biblical record and relevant Quranic texts, when coupled with a few remarks from Josephus, the whole traditional version of the Crucifixion can be seen in a different light. Belica throws new ideas and new possibilities at the reader, asking only that they be considered. Like a barrage of rockets shot into the moonless night sky, some flaring more brightly than the others, some of his speculations are more plausible than others, but all are provocative and worth thinking about. His is the first innovative interpretation of the Crucifixion since Dr. Hugh Schonfield looked at it two generations ago.
Beyond that, Belica has taken upon himself the task of redressing the imbalance between the gospel Jesus and the gospel John the Baptist and, in our opinion, has done so with justice on his side. The gospel writers diminished John in order to exalt Jesus and transform him into a superhuman, divine entity. While their motives are understandable, the researcher who seeks to explore unanswered questions and obscure “competitors” to the demigod they were creating, is understandably frustrated and can only mourn the lost evidence. This is particularly true for John the Baptist. In the New Testament, he is a minor figure, his purpose is to introduce and validate the mission of his kinsman Jesus as the Messiah.
Belica asks why was John the Baptist so used by the gospellers and then dismissed to the limbo of silence, together with the Essenes who, though a considerable presence in the Palestine of the day, are not even mentioned by them? He was intrigued by that question and began to study the references to John, gradually conceiving unprovable, but provocative theories. His work became known to a mutual friend, the author of a number of valuable books and articles on various aspects of Islamica, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar—who also became interested in John the Baptist, and through her, I was introduced to him. At first, I was rather skeptical, but was persuaded to look into the historical injustice done to John. (He is much better served in the Quran than he is in the Bible.) Having trusted her instincts over the years in such things in my own literary projects, and with her continuous encouragement and suggestions, I set to work. The result of my own inquiry, the monograph Rethinking John the Baptist, is appended to the present volume.
Meanwhile, Agron Belica continued his own research, examining new evidence while elaborating and working out his theories and speculations. The results of this work constitute the main portion of this volume that is dedicated to the rehabilitation of the repute and stature of that much neglected prophet, John the Baptist, known in the Islamic world as Yahya. I was pleased to be chosen as his editor and annotator for this book.
The Quran confirms the position and status of the son of
Zechariah: And the angels called to him (Zechariah) as he stood
praying in the sanctuary: God giveth thee glad tidings of (a son
whose name is) Yahya, (who cometh) to confirm a word from
God, chief (sayyid), concealer (of secrets) (hasur), a prophet of
the righteous Q. 3:39)
Let us examine these Quranic epithets for Yahya more
closely: The first is “chief” (sayyid). In his Commentary, Ibn
Kathir reports the following concerning these word sayyid,
meaning of: “Abu Al-‘Aliyah, Ar-Rabi‘ bin Anas, Qatadah and
Sa‘id bin Jubayr said that God’s statemen, (and sayyid) means ‘a
wise man.’ Ibn ‘Abbas, Ath-Thawri and Ad-Dahhak said that
sayyid means, ‘the noble, wise and pious man.’ Sa‘id bin Al-
Musayyib said that sayyid is the ‘scholar and faqih.’ ‘Atiyah
said that sayyid is the man ‘noble in behavior and piety.’
‘Ikrimah said that it refers to a person who is ‘not overcome by
anger,’ while Ibn Zayd said that it refers to ‘the noble man.’
Mujahid said that sayyid means, ‘honored by God.’”38
In the Quran, the Prophet Yahya is referred to as sayyid
(chief). The commentators have interpreted this to mean that he
was a scholar of religious law, a wise man, a noble wise and
pious man, etc. However, this was a prophet of God; intuitive
knowledge and wisdom were given to him by his Lord. The
epithet given to Yahya indicates that he was one endowed with
authority over his people and not “noble” or “honorable,” as this
word is usually translated. Honor and nobility are praiseworthy
qualities, but they fail to connote that God had given Yahya a
38 Tafsir of Ibn Kathir.
The Return of the Messengers
role of leadership.39
The second is “concealer (of secrets)” (hasur): The
passage quoted from Ibn Kathir above continues: “God’s
statement [and hasur] does not mean he refrains from sexual
relations with women, but that he is immune from illegal sexual
relations. This does not mean that he does not marry women and
have legal sexual relations with them.”40
The word hasur is usually translated as “chaste.” My
research shows that the Arabic word =a~]r does not mean
“chaste” with respect to the Prophet Yahya. Why this preference
for “chaste” in translation of and commentary on the Quran? As
there was no extensive information given in the Quran about the
life of Prophet Yahya nor in the Sunnah, the Muslim
commentators turned to Christian writings and simply repeated,
with some adjustments, what they found there.
Commentators on the Quran have placed much emphasis
on this issue. Tabari interprets the word (hasur) to mean: one
who abstains from sexual intercourse with women. He then
reports a Tradition on the authority of Said ibn al-Musayyab
which has Prophet Muhammad saying the following: “‘Everyone
of the sons of Adam shall come on the Day of Resurrection with
a sin (of sexual impropriety) except Yahya bin Zechariah.’ Then
picking up a tiny straw, he continued, ‘this is because his
generative organ was no bigger then this straw (implying that he
Does this mean that even the prophets other than Yahya
would be raised up guilty of the sin of sexual impropriety? How
can we accept that this was said by such a modest human being,
comparing a straw to another prophet’s generative organ? Was
Yahya impotent? According to other commentators—for
example Ibn Kathir, who is considered a renowned scholar of
Islam, rejects this view and further states: “This would be a
defect and a blemish unworthy of prophets.” He then mentions
that it was not that Yahya had no sexual relations with women,
but that he had no unlawful sexual relations with them. Why
make mention of this? It is well known that the prophets of God
39 Belica, Ihya’ al-Nabi Yahya, pp. 2-3.
40 Tafsir of Ibn Kathir.
41 Tafsir of Tabari, cited by Mahmoud M. Ayoub in his The Quran and
Its Interpreters, p. 109.
The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity?
are innocent of major sins, so this statement about Yahya makes
no sense at all when interpreting the word, =a~]r. Moreover, in
his commentary, Ibn Kathir says he (Yahya) probably married
and had children.
There are several reasons why interpreting hasur as
“chaste” here is inappropriate: God says in the Quran that Islam
did not bring monasticism, but that it was something that they
(the Christians) invented. (Q. 57:27) Also, And verily We sent
messengers (to mankind) before thee, and We appointed for them
wives and offspring, and it was not given to any messenger that
he should bring a portent save by God’s leave. For everything
there is a time prescribed. (Q. 13:38) This is definitely not a
recommendation for monasticism. Furthermore, we find in the
Traditions that the Prophet said that there is no monasticism in
Islam. Therefore, God would not have sent a Prophet who was
celibate. In addition, to be celibate is against the Jewish
exhortation to “go forth and multiply.”
The word hasur is used but once in the Quran and that is
in regard to the Prophet Yahya. Well-known Arabic lexicons
state that when =a~]r is used alone, it means “concealer.”42 The
Prophet Yahya as a “concealer (of secrets)” will play a very
special role in the life of Jesus.
Many, if not all, translations of the Quran render the
word sayyid in Q. 3:39 as “noble,” as the meaning can refer to
nobility, and hasur as chaste. However, after scrutinizing these
words in their Quranic context, I find that these words as
interpreted by the above mentioned scholars diminish the power
of this prophet’s identity, character, and status, and especially his
role in the messianic story. Although the Quran gives us but a
brief description of the son of Zechariah, it does make mention
certain key points, his position, status, role, and unique name that
42 A major Arabic-English Lexicon, that of Edward William Lane
(based upon Taj al-Arus) states that when hasur is used alone, it
means “concealer [of secrets].” In his translation, of Ibn al-Arabi's
Book of the Fabulous Gryphon, Elmore also translates the Arabic
=a~]r “as concealer [of secrets].” In the referenced passage, “chaste”
would not have been appropriate (Q 3:39). (Gerald T. Elmore, Islamic
Sainthood in the Fullness of Time, p. 482.) See also Belica, Ihya’ al-
Nabi Yahya, pp. 1-2.
The Return of the Messengers
are clues to his real greatness that distinguish him from all others
before him. As we proceed, we shall point out these
characteristics of the son of Zechariah and bring to light some of
his long-hidden qualities and distinctions, God willing.
The Crucifixon: Mistaken Identity?
'The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? by Agron Belica is an engaging analysis of the life and mission of the two kindred religious personages, John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus (`Isa). Even though the central argument of the book, namely that the man who was hung on the cross was John and not Jesus, may be academically open to question as it rests on circumstantial evidence, the book will add much to the discussion of an epoch-making event that has shaped world history. The book is informative and entertaining. It is certainly worth reading.'
Dr. Mahmoud M. Ayoub
Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations
Hartford Seminary, Hartford CT
The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity?
There are two methods of gaining knowledge in the great religious traditions of the world in general, and Islam, in particular. One method is knowledge that is imitated (taqlid) or transmitted by hearsay from generation to generation like the sciences of language, history and law. With this method, a person never asks “Why?” but accepts what is taught by an authority. In the Islamic tradition this leads to ijtihad, ijtihad specifically referring to developing expertise in jurisprudence (fiqh) to the level of being able to use independent judgment in understanding Islamic law (Shariah). Such a person is known as a mujtahid. Whoever is not a mujtahid, whoever has not reached that level, must “imitate” or “follow” a person who has, whether that person is dead (Sunni Muslims) or alive (Shia Muslims).
The second method of gaining knowledge is what is of most interest to us in this book review, that of tahqiq or intellectual knowledge where one may have a teacher for guidance but it is knowledge that cannot be passed from one generation to another. Each person has to discover it for himself or herself by “polishing the heart,” by becoming a person who sees with the eye of Oneness or tawhid, a person who deeply senses his responsibility to God, His creation and His humanity. The person who gains knowledge with this method is called “a seeker of truth” (muhaqqiq).
Intellectual knowledge (tahqiq) builds on transmitted knowledge but goes deeper. Transmitted knowledge includes memorizers of the Quran and the Hadith but only with intellectual knowledge can one understand what God and the Prophet are saying. Those who lack this intellectual endeavor have, one might say, not sought the means to see with the eye of “Oneness.”
Questions like “why” are not the only ones that the intellect of the seeker of truth asks because the underlying distinction is to think, “to think for oneself,” and not to stop at “imitation alone.”
Not everyone has been burdened with this capacity as the Quran says in 2:286, but one person who has is Agron Belica. He is a seeker of truth, seeker of the Reality (haqq), a person who has verified knowledge, not on the basis of imitating the opinion of others, but on the basis of having realized the truth for himself as well as being one who acts in accord with haqq, all the time realizing his belief in the One God, the one creation and the one humanity.
A faith tradition may survive without a living mujtahid, but it rapidly disappears without a living muhaqqiq. Without a living seeker of truth, a seeker of reality, the faith tradition cannot remain faithful to its principles because it cannot understand those principles.
Agron Belica’s basic premise is to follow the Quran and and the New Testament which all assert that Jesus is the Messiah. However according to the Quran, it only appeared to the people who bore witness to the Messiah that he had been crucified. In reality, according to the intellectual endeavor of the author, it was “he who lives” (Yahya), the Concealer of Secrets (hasura), as the Quran refers to him who was placed on the cross and lived, a view held by early Christian gnostics as well, but later declared to be a heresy. The Concealer of Secrets concealed the secret of his identity and that of the Messiah in order to save the Messiah. The Messiah was then allowed to carry on his prophetic mission (perhaps traveling even as far as Kashmir where many believe that he is buried).
At the same time that Mary retired to a sanctuary, Zechariah becoming her protector, Zechariah prayed for an heir. The the son of Mary, was close in age to the son of man (the Concealer of Secrets fathered by Zechariah). They may have even been cousins who resembled one another. They both began their prophetic mission around the same time yet neither revealed themselves as to who they actually were.
The author traces these and other parallels in the lives of the son of Mary and the son of man for a fascinating read. In the great tradition of seekers of truth in the past, Agron Belica brings harmony to ancient mysteries. He shows the possibility of how thing may be in the Presence of the Oneness of God and he does so through scriptures – the Quran, and the New Testament.
This is a book that should be read by everyone who wants to discern the Reality of the story of the Messiah.
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar
Chicago, October 21, 2008
The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity?
Agron Belica is a first generation American of Albanian descent. He is devoted to a few things. One is his family, another is his religion, and yet a third is intellectual and spiritual religious inquiry. His book is a tribute to this devotion and inquiry. It is a brilliant and original look at the Gospels and the Quran, as well as the earlier Mosaic texts. In this book, the self-taught Belica, with no formal education, points out linguistic and spiritual parallels between generations of key characters in three religious histories. A devout and inquiring Muslim, using the close reading of the Quran as his guide, Belica, is able to look back at the central story of the crucifixion through a new lens, the Muslim lens, using key passages from a number of religious scriptures to build a fascinating new argument. His thoughts, insights and interpretations are remarkable, profound, and leaves the reader in awe.
Belica notices that a son is born to the prophet Zachariah at about the same time as a son is born to Mary. He systematically and spell-bindingly leads us through the parallels between these two prophets, the second of whom we have come to know as Jesus. Both are raised in secrecy, and bring prophesy and healing. Both are spared somehow the decree of Herod at birth, only to befall religious ostracism and apparent physical mutilation beheading/crucifixion at the time of apparent earthly death. Belica takes us through the similarities in these prophet’s lives, their coming into the lives of their parents, as the sons had done, in response to prayer, or in the unlikely moment, for Mary, of her chastity. The coming together of Zachariah and Mary is cemented with the former shielding Mary from harm as her foster-father. Belica brings us back further in scriptural history to draw other such parallels when it comes to prophets, and he draws upon the Arabic roots of the names of these figures, from Adam to Zachariah’s son, to convince the reader of his novel contribution to scriptural reading. But I’m not going to give that away! For that, you must read the book yourself!
This book is slim, but both erudite and yet easy to follow, in its step by step progression through the many scriptures, seemingly so familiar is Agron Belica with every passage, the apt ones come easily to mind for him, and strike an immediate cord in us, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar we are with the text and story. And yet, this book is no recipe for persuasion. It is much more sophisticated than that. Written in a devout and true Muslim spirit, it is also—as mentioned at the beginning of this review—an inquiry and a wholly new contribution to that body of sculptural scholarship. Agron Belica advances a theory which sheds an entirely novel light on the views that are commonplace today, and, through an examination of linguistics, passages, intent, and meaning, causes us to re-examine, in an exciting, clue-ridden way, what we have assumed to be true about the three major religions for centuries, concentrating on his own Muslim faith.
Dr. Harte Weiner
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