Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
And there is none of the People of the Scripture but he will certainly believe in him before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them. 4:159
`Abd al-Razzaq (d. 211) in his Tafsir (1:177-178) cites reports from al-Kalbi, Qatada, and al-Hasan stating that it means "believe in `Isa before `Isa's death," and a report from Shahr ibn Hawshab that it means "believe in `Isa before the death of the Kitabee."
Imam Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310) said in his Tafsir (6:18-21): "Commentators differ on the meaning of this verse, some saying that it means 'believe in `Isa before `Isa's death'." He then cites reports to that effect from Ibn `Abbas, al-Hasan, Qatada, Abu Malik, and others. Then he said: "Others said that it means believe in `Isa before the death of the Kitabee." He then cites reports to that effect from Ibn `Abbas, Ubay, Mujahid (Tafsir 1:180-181), `Ikrima, al-Dahhak, al-Hasan, Muhammad ibn Sirin, and others. Then he said: "Others said that it means believe in Muhammad - blessings and peace upon him - before the death of the Kitabee." He cites a report to that effect from `Ikrima. Then Imam al-Tabari states that the likeliest view to be correct is: there is none of the People of the Scripture but he will certainly believe in `Isa before `Isa's death.
Al-Bukhari and Muslim in their Sahihs: Abu Hurayra, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated that Allah's Messenger - Allah bless and greet him - said: "By Him in Whose hand is my soul, the Son of Mary - peace be upon him - will soon descend among you as a just ruler. He shall destroy the crosses, slay the swine, abolish the Jizya, and wealth shall pour forth to such an extent that no one will accept it. A single prostration shall be better than the whole world and all that is in it." Abu Hurayra added: "Recite, if you will, Allah's saying: ‘And there is none of the People of the Scripture but he will certainly believe in him before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.’"
In al-Tabari, Ahmad, and Ibn Marduyah's narration of the above report Abu Hurayra adds: "Meaning, `Isa's death."
1. "Before his death meaning: before `Isa's death." Narrated by Sufyan al-Thawri, Tafsir (p. 98) and al-Tabari in his Tafsir.
2. "Before his death meaning: before the Kitabee's death." Narrated by al-Tabari and Ibn Abi Hatim in their Tafsirs as stated by al-Suyuti in al-Durr al-Manthur (2:733).
3. "Before his death is read Before their [i.e. the People of Scripture's] death in Ubayy's canonical reading." Narrated by Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi, Sa`id ibn Mansur, al-Tabari and Ibn al-Mundhir in their Tafsirs as stated by al-Suyuti in al-Durr al-Manthur (2:733).
4. "Before his death meaning: at the time `Isa comes forth, Allah's blessings upon him." Sahih according to al-Hakim in al-Mustadrak (1990 ed. 2:338).
" While `Ikrima narrated: The soul of the Kitabee does not leave him except he bears witness to the prophethood of Muhammad, Allah bless and greet him.
"Another explanation is that the pronoun refers to `Isa. Ibn `Abbas said that at the time he descends there shall not remain on the face of the earth any Kitabee or anyone that worships other than Allah, all believing in `Isa and following him as the spirit from Allah and His Word, His servant and Messenger. This is the position of Qatada, Ibn Zayd, and Ibn Qutayba, and Ibn Jarir al-Tabari chose it."
Al-Qurtubi (d. 771) in his Tafsir () states: "It means believe in `Isa before the Kitabee's death, and it is of no benefit to him. It is also said that it means before `Isa's death, but the former interpretation is more likely."
Ibn Kathir (d. 774) in his Tafsir (1:367): "The pronoun in the clause 'before his death' refers to `Isa, upon him peace, meaning there is none of the People of the Scripture but he will certainly believe in `Isa when he descends to the earth before the Day of Resurrection. At that time he shall abolish the jizya and nothing shall be accepted other than Islam."
(d. 951) in his Tafsir (2:252): "The pronoun 'his' refers to an
omitted attribute, while the previous pronoun ['him'] refers to `Isa. Meaning:
there is not one of the People of the Scripture but will certainly believe,
before his soul is taken away, in the fact that `Isa ibn Maryam is Allah's
servant and Messenger. That is: when belief no longer counts because legal
responsibility (taklif) ceases at that time. This is reinforced by
one of the canonical readings which states: `but THEY will certainly believe
in him before THEIR death.' [
"It has also been said that both pronouns refer to `Isa, at which time there will be but one community on earth, lions and tigers and wolves shall graze side by side with the camels and cattle and sheep etc. for forty years, after which `Isa shall die and be buried.
"It has also been said that the pronoun 'him' [in the clause 'shall believe in him'] refers to Allah. It has also been said that it refers to Muhammad, Allah bless and greet him."
All of the commentators agree that in either case - whether belief in `Isa takes place when `Isa rules on earth or before a Kitabee's death - it is a belief that does not benefit, since it comes at a time when the responsibility to believe has been lifted. In the first case there will not be other than Islam on the face of the earth while the second case occurs at the time of one's death. As for the clause "he will be a witness against them" it means: in the sense that he conveyed his message faithfully and declared his own servanthood for all to know. Cf. Ibn al-Jawzi (2:250). And Allah knows best.