How do we go about understanding when it says that Isa (Jesus – peace be upon him) is still alive?


In regards to your question, then we say that ‘Isa ibn Mayram is not like others in that he did not died, rather he is still alive. As for the verse in the Quran:

إِذْ قَالَ اللَّهُ يعِيسَى إِنِّي مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَىَّ

And (remember) when Allah said: “O ‘Iesa (Jesus)! I will take you and raise you to Myself [3:55]

Imam ash-Shawkaani rahimahullah said:

“What is correct is that Allah raised him to the heavens without dying as many of the Mufassiroon have taken as the correct opinion. This was the chosen opinion of Ibn Jareer at-Tabari. From that angle, there are authentic narrations from the Prophet sallalahu alayhi wa salam about the descending of ‘Isa and killing Dajjal. It was said: verily Allah the Exalted made him die for three hours of the day then raised him to the heavens and in it is weakness. It was said the intent of dying is sleeping and the likes. Allah says:

وهو الذي يتوفاكم بالليل

It is He, Who takes your souls by night (when you are asleep)

That is, we make you sleep [ie. the word die in the verse means sleep] and many of the Scholars said that”

[Fathul-Qadeer under Tafsir (3:55)]

So ‘Isa was raised to the heavens and he will return. As Allah says:

وإن من أهل الكتاب إلا ليؤمنن به قبل موته

And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), but must believe in him [‘Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), as only a Messenger of Allah and a human being], before his [‘Iesa (Jesus) or a Jew’s or a Christian’s] death (at the time of the appearance of the angel of death)

Imam Qurtubi mentions:

“Hasan al-Basri rahimahullah said: before ‘Isa dies. By Allah he is alive now with Allah. However, when he descends all of them [the people of the Book] will believe in him. Something similar was reported from Dahhak and Sa’eed Ibn Jubair”

[Tafsir al-Qurtubi under 4:159]

So with that, when ‘Isa ibn Maryam saw the Prophet sallalahu alayhi wa salam during the Isra wal-Mi’raj, he saw him while still alive and therefore became Companion. As for everyone else who has died, they are not alive, in regards to the dunya, because they will not return to the dunya. They are alive; however, in the barzakh. Allah says:

ولا تقولوا لمن يقتل في سبيل الله أموات بل أحياء ولكن لا تشعرون

And say not of those who are killed in the Way of Allah, “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, but you perceive (it) not

Imam Ibnul-Jawzi rahimahullah said:

“Their souls are inside green birds in Jannah. So they are alive from this angle, even though they have died from the angle that their souls have exited [their body]

[Zad al-Maseer under Tafsir (2:154)]

So the Martyrs, pious, and all those who die are dead in the worldly life. They are alive in the Barzakh.

And Allah Knows Best

Faisal Ibn Abdul Qaadir Ibn Hassan
Abu Sulaymaan