This 19th century Indian Muslim scholar had an interesting take on Christ’s crucifixion

Among the various positions of Muslim scholars and clerics across history on crucifixion is a fascinating exegesis of both the Christian and Islamic scriptures formulated by a mid-19th century Indian Muslim scholar, Moulvi Chiragh Ali.
Moulvi Chiragh Ali
Moulvi Chiragh AliSyed Sikender Ali, family of Moulvi Chiragh Ali
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Around Easter every year, I am reminded of an amusing anecdote, a recurring chuckle between my grandmother Sarojini Luke and her sister-in-law, Sugunamma, both working as government teachers in the state of Hyderabad during the 1940s-60s.

Sugunamma would recollect the non-teaching Muslim staff at her Urdu medium school in Goshamahal, Hyderabad, asking her in Dakhni “Kya hai ki baava, aap logon ka Good-Friday har saal jumme koich aata?” (Why is it that your Good Friday always falls on a Friday?) On the other hand, Hindu friends and neighbours would greet our family “Happy Good Friday”. A few still do. One cannot blame them as the name itself suggests a festival.

In Christian theology, Good Friday is a day of mourning, the day when Jesus Christ was crucified on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish priestly class and of treason by Roman authorities. Christians see Christ’s sacrifice as redemption of the sins of mankind. Nevertheless, there is an associated festival, the light at the end of the tunnel, on the third day, i.e., Easter, the day of the resurrection of Christ.

Islamic narratives hold that God intervened during the crucifixion of Christ (a highly revered Prophet in Islam) with varying views across different sects and madhabs ranging from a total denial of crucifixion to accepting the crucifixion but questioning the redemption part.

Among the various positions of Muslim scholars and clerics across history on crucifixion is a fascinating exegesis of both the Christian and Islamic scriptures formulated by a mid-19th century Indian Muslim scholar, Moulvi Chiragh Ali.

Born in Meerut to a Kashmiri family and displaced economically by the revolt of 1857, Moulvi Chiragh Ali (1844–1895) found a livelihood in the princely state of Hyderabad in 1877 and made it his home. Sir Salar Jung I, the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad hired Chiragh Ali as a translator, recommended by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan. He quickly rose through the ranks to the post of Finance Secretary.

Moulvi and Sir Sayyid both were active Muslim commentators and authors on theology, politics, and culture in the 19th century. Having access to original Islamic and Western literatures on Islam, they both developed unique positions on various topics such as Quranic exegesis and recommendations on socio-cultural and political reforms within Muslim thought within the context of the Indian subcontinent, influencing each other. However, “Chiragh Ali’s speculative position is slightly more radical and perhaps a little more extravagant than that of Sayyid Ahmed Khan … with an incomparable spiritual freedom and courage,” in the words of H Kraemer, author of Islam in India Today, published in 1931.

From the collection of fascinating writings of Moulvi is an essay exploring the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, named “Hazrat Esa Masih ibn Maryam, Rasul Allah aur Salib” (“Jesus, the Messiah, son of Maryam, messenger of Allah and Cross”). In his essay, he formulated novel ideas on the nature and circumstances of crucifixion different from both Christian and Islamic commentaries on the subject.

Moulvi postulated that the person who was crucified was in fact Jesus, opposing the general Islamic stance of a substitute. However, he further elaborates that Jesus survived the crucifixion, was buried alive and then taken out alive from the tomb by his disciples.

Being a rationalist, he observed from a scientific point of view that crucifixion itself does not cause death but the real cause of death would be by hunger and thirst when someone was left hung on the cross for four to five days, as was the norm those days. However, he observes Jesus was only hung for three to four hours.

Having been crucified on a Friday, there was a concern of desecrating the Jewish holy day, Sabbath (that fell on the very next day) by leaving a dead man hanging on the cross. This, he says, may have contributed to the hurried burial of Jesus.

“Hazrat Esa Masih ibn Maryam, Rasul Allah, aur Salib” by Moulvi Chiragh Ali
“Hazrat Esa Masih ibn Maryam, Rasul Allah, aur Salib” by Moulvi Chiragh Ali

He also suggests that the notion of blood and water flowing out when someone thrust a spear into Jesus’ body on the cross, as found in Gospels, is further evidence that he was still alive medically as a dead body cannot spill blood and water. He strongly felt that Jesus was alive but in a state of what modernly became known as a “state of coma”.

 It is interesting to note that Moulvi’s rationalisation can find a place in people’s imagination without being at odds with either the Christian Gospels or the Quranic take on the subject, at least exoterically.

With Gospels being human documentation, they were justified in documenting what they saw and believed in — crucifixion, death, and resurrection. As per the Quranic verse 4:155, Moulvi suggested that while it denies Jesus dying on the cross, it doesn’t necessarily deny crucifixion itself. He also argues against the substitution theory as he found the supposed substitute, Shamun Qarini, to have lived a long life after Jesus.

Sir Sayyid not only agreed with him but also helped propagate this unique stand on crucifixion. However on matters further divulging into Muslim reforms, the case was slightly different. Who would have thought that from being a prodigy of the Aligarh Movement, the Moulvi was going to go as far as giving Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan himself a run for his money? 

This is what Sir Sayyid had to say in response to Moulvi Chiragh Ali reaching out to him from Hyderabad for an Urdu translation of his writings in Persian:

“Dear Moulana, I have seen your book Azam al-Kalam and after receiving your cable, l have translated into Urdu its entire content … But in my understanding this is not a proper time to publish in Urdu. The people will not understand its aim and objectives. On the contrary, they will attach an adverse meaning to it … In Aligarh, a bad feeling has already been spread against you … In Hyderabad, ignorance is far greater and therefore there is a danger of spreading severe contempt.”

When eventually published, the writings of both Moulvi Chiragh Ali and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan met with mixed response, mostly harsh criticism. 

Moses Tulasi is a Hyderabad-based filmmaker who writes on Hyderabad and Telangana history, culture and politics.

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