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Do You Know What You Need to Know about Islam?
by Scott McClare
There was a time when Islam seemed like an exotic religion practiced half a world away. Thanks to immigration, today many of your friends and neighbours are probably Muslims. And, of course, Islam is a staple of the evening news, especially since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Do you know what your Muslim neighbours believe? Can you answer Muslim claims about Christianity?
Like many Americans, apologist James R. White became interested in Islam after 9/11. He began studying the Quran and learning Arabic. In 2006, he started debating regularly with Muslim apologists, and since then, Christian-Muslim dialogue and debate has been the main focus of his ministry. His most recent book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), is one of the fruits of that labour. If you want a good introduction to Islam, this is a great place to start.
White’s greatest apologetic strength is getting to the “meat” of a subject. He focuses on the major theological differences that divide Islam and Christianity: specifically, the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, salvation, and the inspiration and transmission of the sacred texts. His goal is to present Islam accurately, fairly, and charitably—but honestly, as he writes: “I respect those who disagree with me enough to tell them when I believe they are wrong” (p. 15).
On the other hand, he avoids the sensationalism that sometimes characterizes Christian-Muslim polemics. For example, Mohammed’s marriage to his child bride, Aisha, is definitely shocking to our modern Western sensibilities, but in his own time and culture was not unusual. However, child marriage is still a worldwide scandal because many of Mohammed’s modern disciples regard him as the ideal man and follow his example to this day. As White often says, theology matters.
What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an begins with background on the origins of Islam and the Quran. Islam’s holy book is a revelation purportedly given by Allah through his messenger, Mohammed. It is shorter than the New Testament and divided into 114 surat (chapters) which are subdivided into ayat (verses). Understanding the Quran can be difficult at first, because the surat are acontextual and arranged neither chronologically nor topically. Quranic scholars depend on commentary collections called the hadith to supply the necessary context. Historical, cultural, or other human influences on the Quran are considered irrelevant, since it is said to have been delivered directly from Allah. Some Muslims (particularly Sunnis) believe the Quran is eternal.
The best of White’s points contrasts Christian and Muslim views of the nature of God. Both Christians and Muslims share a commitment to monotheism. However, the Islamic doctrine of tawhid(oneness) is unitarianism, and thereby sharply opposed to Trinitarian Christianity. To a Muslim, the Trinity is shirk: idolatry, literally ascribing partners to Allah. It is inconceivable that a prophet, as they view Jesus, could be deity, or that Allah would procreate and produce a son. Hence the Quran says to Christians, in reference to the Trinity: “Commit no excess in your religion . . . and say not ‘three'” (Surah 4:171).[i]But in its critique of Trinitarianism, the author of the Quran commits a fatal error: he misidentifies Christian belief in the Trinity as belief in three gods, Allah, Jesus, and Mary. This is a mortal blow for the Quran’s claims to divine origin. Even supposing that Christians’ belief in the Trinity is wrong, shouldn’t an all-knowing God know what they actually believe? As White writes, “the Qur’an came down to refute assertions that were not being made” (p. 86).
Several years ago, two adolescent Muslim boys joined me for a few minutes in waiting for a bus. While they waited, they discussed what I guessed they had been taught that day about the Trinity. It was obvious from their discourse that they (and their teacher) were very confused about what Christians believed. At the time, I didn’t feel I had a sufficient grasp of Islam to try and help their understanding. Had I been able to read What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an back then, I might have tried to engage them.
Regarding the person of Jesus, even non-Christian historians attest to the historical fact of his crucifixion. But the Quran stands against the overwhelming testimony of history:
And because of their saying: “We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger.” They slew him not, nor crucified him, but it appeared so to them; and those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge of it except the pursuit of a conjecture, but certainly they slew him not. (Surah 4:157)
Many Western Muslims say it is impossible to know what this ayah means, but outside of Christendom, the usual interpretation is a substitution theory. In the Muslim worldview, Allah would never treat one of his prophets so dishonourably, so someone, maybe Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene, was made to look like Jesus and crucified in his place. Thus, the central truth of Christianity—that Jesus Christ is truly man and truly God and died a real death on a cross as an atonement for sins—and one of the most accepted facts of history, is repudiated by a mere 40 Arabic words.
The final two chapters, on the Quran’s transmission and supposed perfection, are more technical and thus less engaging, but they clearly show a major worldview conflict between Christianity and Islam. Islam sees the Bible as corrupted, and so changed from its original meaning that Christians can no longer tell the difference between fact and fable. We have already seen an example of this in the Quran’s denial of the crucifixion. By contrast, the Quran is supposed to be the direct words of Allah, given without human intervention. White argues that the opposite is true: while the Bible can be shown to be unchanged since the earliest years of Christianity, the Quran was redacted early on by Uthman, a companion of Mohammed. It also relies on extra-biblical legends for its stories of biblical figures (such as Gnostic infancy narratives about Jesus). Unfortunately, the Muslim worldview—in which human authorship and cultural influence played no part whatsoever in the Quran’s origin—precludes the kind of reflective, text-critical study of the Quran that Christians have done with the Bible for centuries.
One place where this book could be improved is the back matter. White helpfully provides a glossary of common Arabic terms, but for a few (such as kalam), I needed to go to Wikipedia for help. A fuller glossary and index would have been useful. In the introductory chapters, I also would have appreciated more background on the various schools of Islam, especially Sunni and Shia, and where they differ. Like Christianity, Islam is not a monolithic faith.
What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an exemplifies serious, biblical thought about Islam. Maybe you are just interested in learning something about Islam, particularly where and why it differs from Christianity. Or maybe, like me, you observe the increased influence of Islam on Western society or live in an area with a high Muslim population, and you see a greater need for bringing the Gospel to Muslims. Either way, this primer on the Quran will help equip you for the task of understanding the Islamic faith, interacting with your Muslim neighbours, and asking the right questions.
[i] Quranic citations are taken from The Majestic Qur’an: An English Rendition of Its Meanings, tr. Ali Ozek et al (London: The Ibn Khaldun Foundation, 2001), the same translation White uses.