This article, inshallah, will be the first of a series of articles that are in part a refutation of Christian polemics, and in part a discussion of recent academic articles by top experts in the field of Quranic exegesis and pre-Islamic Arabia. The two objectives are in fact two sides of the same coin as I hope to demonstrate.
Readers may wish to read the article by Sam Shaman before going on: Let The Study Quran Speak! Pt. 1
Now before we go any further I want to clear up a question that may occur to the reader: by what right do I – an evident non-scholar – have the gall to disagree with the distinguished Editors of the recently published work The Study Quran (hereafter ‘SQ’)?
In mitigation for my hubris I plead that I do read the scholarly literature and I would like to promote an alternative interpretation and reading of the Quranic text to that of the Editors of the SQ based on recent research undertaken by specialist scholars that makes much better sense (in my humble view) of the Quran’s compelling message and provides a sound and effective basis for Islamic dawah going forward.
It has been observed in reviews of the SQ that all the authors share a particular philosophical and theological outlook known as the Perennialist school of thought. This world-view is not shared by many other Islamic scholars and is even considered heretical by some. In a recent devastating review of the SQ Shaykh Dr Gibril Haddad (an influential Islamic scholar) wrote,
‘The Perennialist leitmotiv of the universal validity of all religions is perhaps the chief original message of The Study Quran which readers will not get anywhere else, because it is as alien to the Qur’ān and Sunna as it is alien to Islam and all other religions. This novel theme creeps in and out unsourced; it is part of what the introduction innocuously describes as “providing in some places our own commentary, which is not found… in the earlier sources” (xliv), in comments such as “most Muslims believe that these women [Mary, Fāṭima and Āsiya] lead the soul [sic] of blessed women to Paradise” (p. 143) and “Some might argue, therefore, that Jesus, by virtue of being identified as God’s Word, somehow participates (uniquely) in the Divine Creative Command” (p. 267). The latter co-Creator comment suffices to describe the effect of The Study Quran on the Perennialist School in the same terms Abū Muḥammad al-Tamīmī described the effect of Abu Yaʿlā al-Farrā’s anthropomorphist book Ibṭāl al-ta’wīlāt on the Ḥanbalī School: “He has beshat them with filth even water cannot wash away” (Ibn al-Athīr, al-Kāmil, obituaries for the year 458).’
Read the full review here. While I agree with the Shaykh’s justifiable dislike of Perennialism, I do not condone his intemperate attack on the authors of the SQ, which has provoked an outraged response from SQ Editor Professor Caner Dagli here.
Mr Sam Shamoun (the mild-mannered Christian apologist from the Answering Islam website) in a recent article has gleefully pounced on the SQ commentary as a “weapon” to bash Islam and Muslims. (See article already cited above here).
Shamoun recommends the SQ:
“this study Quran is a must have for any Christian evangelist and/or apologist who seeks to share the Gospel with Muslims, since this is a resource that shall prove to be a great tool and weapon against the Muslim assault and distortion of the Christian faith. The commentary will also help refute the distortion and misinterpretation of the very Quranic texts that Muslim apologists often cite to convince Christians and others that their respective scripture denies core, essential Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.” From ‘Let The Study Quran Speak! Pt. 1’
In conclusion Shamoun claims:
‘The Quran nowhere condemns (at least not explicitly) the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, but seems to be censuring some heretical misunderstandings of the faith, such as the mistaken notion that there are three gods consisting of Allah, Mary, and Jesus their offspring. We will have more to say about the Quran’s condemnation of those who say that Allah is the Messiah in the next part of our discussion.’
‘These comments by some of Islam’s most qualified scholars and philosophers confirm what we have been saying all along, namely, the Quran nowhere defines or condemns the historic orthodox understanding of the Trinity or the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is nigh time that ‘Muslim polemicists such as Shabir Ally pay careful heed to what these learned men of Islam are saying, and stop misusing the Muslim scripture to mislead people into thinking that it addresses subjects which in fact it does not even touch upon.’
I will demonstrate, inshallah, why Shamoun’s conclusion is premature by an examination of the arguments of two eminent experts in the field of Quranic exegesis and the Christianity of pre-Islamic Arabia.
I refer the reader to two recent publications:
1) The Journal of Qurʾan and Ḥadith Studies 12 (2014) 42-54, article On the Presentation of Christianity in the Qurʾān and the Many Aspects of Qur’anic Rhetoric by Gabriel Said Reynolds, University of Notre Dame, USA. Reynolds is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology and the History of Christianity.
2) The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam by Sidney H. Griffith who is Professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Catholic University of America.
The Abstract of On the Presentation of Christianity in the Qurʾān and the Many Aspects of Qur’anic Rhetoric summaries Reynolds’s argument:
‘Many important western works on the Qurʾān are focused on the question of religious influences. The prototypical work of this genre is concerned with Judaism and the Qurʾān: Abraham’s Geiger’s 1833 Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen, or “What Did Muhammad Acquire from Judaism?” In Geiger’s work – and the works of many who followed him – material in the Qurʾān is compared to similar material in Jewish or Christian literature in the hope of arriving at a better understanding of the Qurʾān’s origins.
In the present article I argue that these sorts of studies often include a simplistic perspective on Qur’anic rhetoric. In order to pursue this argument I focus on a common feature of these works, namely a comparison between material in the Qurʾān on Christ and Christianity with reports on the teachings of Christian heretical groups. Behind this feature is a conviction that heretical Christian groups existed in the Arabian peninsula at the time of Islam’s origins and that these groups influenced the Prophet. I will argue that once the Qurʾān’s creative use of rhetorical strategies such as hyperbole is appreciated, the need to search for Christian heretics disappears entirely.’
This last sentence (here in bold) is the meat of his paper and I find it persuasive and compellingly argued and documented.
‘I will argue that once the Qurʾān’s creative use of rhetorical strategies such as hyperbole is appreciated, the need to search for Christian heretics disappears entirely.’
The complete article is available in PDF format here. I hope the reader will forgive my extended quotations from the paper. I wish to reproduce the meat of his argument and the textual evidences he so well deploys.
Reynolds sets the historical context for Western scholarship to date:
‘Western scholars have long attempted to explain the Qurʾān’s material on Christianity with reference to the views of Christian heretics. They often begin by connecting some turn of phrase in the Qurʾān’s statements on Jesus, Mary or Christians with a certain Christian heresy, and continue by looking through historical chronicles, or heresiographies, for that heresy in Muhammad’s Arabia. This strategy is employed both for passages which express the Qurʾān’s own teaching and for passages which condemn Christian teaching. In both cases Christian heresies are imagined to have influenced or informed – or better, misinformed – the Prophet Muhammad.
The common recourse of scholars to Christian heresies is connected to the traditional idea that Muhammad preached the Qurʾān in a remote outpost in Arabia, a spot beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire and thus safely beyond the reach of the imperial enforcers of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. In this vein scholars not infrequently refer to a statement that is (falsely) attributed to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 458 or 466) by which Arabia is “haeresium ferax,” the “bearer” (or “mother”) or heresies. To my knowledge this phrase is not found with Theodoret or any other classical Christian author; even if it were there, the reference to “Arabia” would presumably mean Arabia Petraea – an area well to the north of the Ḥijāz.
Yet none of this has dissuaded scholars much. It is often assumed that the Prophet Muhammad was influenced by Monophysites and “Nestorians” (that is, East Syrian Christians) or by still more exotic heresies, but not by Melkite (that is, Chalcedonian) Christians. Writing in 1900, the American Protestant missionary Samuel Zwemer emphasizes the presence of heretics in his milieu:
“Not only was religious life at a low level in all parts of Christendom but heresies were continually springing up to disturb the peace or to introduce gigantic errors. Arabia was at one time called “the mother of heresies.”
A second Protestant missionary, Robert Speer, argues that the reason why Muhammad did not convert to Christianity is because he never met true Christians:
“When we inquire into Muhammad’s rejection of Christianity, we find that he never had anything but the most perverted idea of what Christianity really was. The Christianity which he rejected was of a very debased type, half polytheistic in its theology, superstitious in its worship, and with a sacred history encrusted with puerile legends. He had evidently never read the New Testament, and his conception of Christ is largely derived from the Apocryphal Gospels. It is not, therefore, historically just to say that Muhammad rejected Christ.”
After citing other examples of the same type Reynolds continues..
The point of the present paper is not to prove such arguments right or wrong; indeed, I can think of no way to prove that Muhammad did not overhear the preaching of Quss as he strolled through the fair of ʿUkāẓ one day. I mean instead to say something here about the nature of such arguments. I mean to criticize the tendency of scholars to seek out Christian heretics whom Muhammad might have met as a way of explaining Qur’anic material on Christianity. The problem with this habit is not that any particular theory is demonstrably wrong. The problem is that it keeps us from recognizing the rhetorical creativity of the Qurʾān.
Scholars who explain the Christian material of the Qurʾān with reference to heresies seem to assume that the Qurʾān is nothing more than a transcript, or record, of the conversations which took place in its historical milieu. Yet the nature of the Qurʾān’s rhetoric suggests that it is nothing of the sort. Instead the Qurʾān is a creative work, a work which purposefully exaggerates and satirizes the views of its opponents in order to refute them more effectively.
A similar perspective on the Qurʾān’s rhetoric is suggested by Sidney Griffith in his article, “Al-Naṣārā in the Qurʾān: A Hermeneutical Reflection.” Griffith’s article is in part a response to a common argument in western scholarship on the Qurʾān, namely that the Qurʾān’s use of the term naṣārā to designate Christians (as opposed to some calque of the Greek kristianoi, such as masīḥiyya, the term with which Arabic-speaking Christians label themselves) reflects the influence of some sort of Jewish-Christian sect. This argument rests in part on the use of the term “Nazarenes” (nazōraioi in Greek; nāsrāyē in Syriac) in early Christian heresiographies for (supposedly) Judaizing Christian sects. Griffith, however, insists convincingly that the Qurʾān gives us no reason for recourse to early Christian heresiographies in our efforts to understand this term:
“Hermeneutically speaking, an important corollary of the recognition of the Qurʾān’s intention polemically to criticize Christian belief and practice is the further recognition that in the service of this purpose the Qurʾān rhetorically does not simply report or repeat what Christians say; it reproves what they say, corrects it, or caricatures it.”
By “caricature” here Griffith means the description of an opponent’s views in a way that makes them appear less reasonable. This caricaturing can be found, for example, with the wording, “those who say ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary’ ” in Q 5:17 and 5:72. Griffith notes that “Christians in the Qurʾān’s time did not normally say that ‘God is the Messiah.” However, by describing Christian doctrine in this way the Qurʾān means to make it easier to refute:
“The Qurʾān’s seeming misstatement, rhetorically speaking, should therefore not be thought to be a mistake, but rather a polemically inspired caricature, the purpose of which is to highlight in Islamic terms the absurdity, and therefore the wrongness, of the Christian belief, from an Islamic perspective.”
Indeed it seems to me that even the appellation “Son of Mary” is a product of the Qurʾān’s creative rhetoric.15 Christians refer to Christ as the son of God, and the Qurʾān explicitly rejects this appelation (Q 9:30); yet it also insists (against the Jews) that Christ had no father at all (Q 3:59), and so it cannot refer to him as “Son of his father”. Thus the Qurʾān refers to Jesus as the son of his mother, and thereby encapsulates its argument against both Christians and Jews.
Another case of the Qurʾān’s creative rhetoric is found in al-Tawba (Q: 9) 31a: “They have taken their scribes and their monks as lords besides Allah, and also Christ, Mary’s son.”16 Now if we were to examine this verse with a concern to find historical communities that influenced the Qurʾān’s material on Christianity we should begin to search for some Christian heretics who worshipped their scribes and monks as gods. We might call them Sacerdolators. Perhaps the Sacerdolators had fled into the Arabian desert where they could worship their monks in peace, far away from the cruel and rigid Byzantine keepers of orthodoxy. Or, alternatively, we could recognize here a case of hyperbole, that in the Qurʾān’s milieu no heretical sect of monk-worshippers existed. We could thus recognize that the Qurʾān has a rather skillful way of painting caricatures of its opponents. It is this same recognition that should shape our understanding of those passages which are often assumed to be closely related to Christian heresies.
For example, the Qurʾān repeatedly declares that God would not “take a son.”17 Behind the verb “take” (ittakhadha) scholars have not infrequently found a connection with some heresy. Parrinder suggests Adoptionists and Arians:
“But for our present purpose the key words are “take to himself any offspring.” “Take to himself” means literally to “acquire” ( yattakhidha), and so this verse denies that God acquires a son in the course of time. This had been said by Adoptionist and Arian heretics in Christianity, who said that Jesus became or was adopted Son of God at his baptism or some other moment. But the orthodox rejected this in teaching that the Son is eternal.”
For his part Basetti-Sani suggests instead “Nestorians,” commenting: “The Koran rejects the Nestorian formulation of the Incarnation (‘to take a son to oneself’).”19 Yet we might instead understand the Qurʾān’s use of the verb “to take” not as a perfectly preserved record of some Christian group’s doctrinal articulation, but rather as a feature of the Qurʾān’s creative rhetoric. In Yūsuf (12) 21 Potiphar’s wife says (regarding Joseph), “Maybe he will be useful to us, or we may take him as a son (nattakhidhahu waladan).” In al-Qaṣaṣ (28) 9, the Qurʾān has Pharaoh’s wife say (regarding Moses), “Maybe he will benefit us, or we will take him as a son (nattakhidhahu waladan).”20 In light of these verses it seems less likely that the language which the Qurʾān employs is a reflection of the Christology of some heretical sect which Muhammad encountered.21 Instead this language seems to be part of the Qurʾān’s creative rhetoric. By using the expression “take a son” the Qurʾān implies that the Christians think of God as a woman – such as the wives of Potiphar and Pharaoh – who desired to adopt a child. Christians accordingly appear to be ridiculous, and the Qurʾān’s position on Christ appears to be a more reasonable alternative.
With this we might turn to the case of al-Māʾida (5) 116:
“And when Allah will say, ‘O Jesus son of Mary! Was it you who said to the people, ‘‘Take me and my mother for gods besides Allah’’?’ He will say, ‘Immaculate are You! It does not behoove me to say what I have no right to [say]. Had I said it, You would certainly have known it: You know whatever is in myself, and I do not know what is in Your Self. Indeed You are knower of all that is Unseen.”
The manner in which the Qurʾān has Jesus deny that he ever told people, “Take me and my mother for gods besides Allah” has long led western scholars to imagine that the Prophet had a mistaken idea of the Trinity, that he imagined the Christian Trinity to be a family: Father, Mother, Son.26 Some scholars justify this idea with reference to the Panarion of Epiphanius’ (d. 403), a Christian heresiography which includes a sect named the “Collyridians,” so called – according to Epiphanius – because they liked to baked cakes (kollurida) for the Virgin Mary. The Collyridians, Epiphanius explains, were made up of women in “Arabia” who “decorate a barber’s chair or a square seat, spread cloth on it, set out bread and offer it in Mary’s name on a certain day of the year” (VII:1,6).27 Somehow, according to the scholars who rely on such reports, Muhammad met or heard of these Collyridians and gotthe idea that Christians generally worship Mary. This led him to imagine that they think of Mary as the third member of the Trinity.28 On the Collyridians Bell comments:
“In later times we hear of other kinds of heretics, the Collyridians, and a class of idolatrous worshippers of the Virgin Mary. Our information about these is very meagre, if indeed what we have is not due to Epiphanius’ imagination. It is possible, however, that some of the heretical movements persecuted in the Empire may have sought refuge in Arabia and helped to form the soil out of which Islam grew.”
Francois de Blois resists the temptation to explain al-Māʾida (5)116 in light of the Collyridians, yet he does so not because of any methodological problem with the notion of seeking out heretical sources for the Christian material in the Qurʾān. He does so because he is not satisfied that he has found the right heresy, and he goes on to look for another. Scholars like de Blois who would take us on a quest for heretical Christian sects seem to neglect the possibility that the Qurʾān has the ability to produce creative rhetoric, to satirize the views of its opponents, or to employ particular turns of phrase which are something more than simple recordings of its sources or its doctrine. In the case of al-Māʾida (5) 116, for example, could it be that the Qurʾān is taunting Christians by intentionally exaggerating their devotion to Mary? Could this verse be more about the Qurʾān’s creative rhetoric and less about the Collyridians?
That the Qurʾān has a penchant for such creative rhetoric is evident in certain passages on divine judgment. In al-Tawba (9) 34, for example, the Qurʾān asks its prophet to “Give the ‘good’ news of a painful punishment” to the unbelievers. In al-Dukhān (44) 49, the Qurʾān has God say to a damned soul in hell, “You are indeed the powerful and noble one!”31 The Qurʾān here is not reporting that the condemned – who after all suffer humiliating punishments – are powerful and noble. Instead the Qurʾān is employing irony. One might find irony, too, in the description of hell as a “bed” (mihād) for the unbelievers in al-Aʿrāf (7): 41.
In reading the Qurʾān we should generally be sensitive to its creative use of rhetorical tools such as irony and hyperbole. The Qur’anic material on Christianity is a testament to this creativity, and not to the influence of Christian heretics.
I will leave the last word to Shaykh Dr Gibril Haddad,
‘Their [Editors of SQ] reduction of the Quranic condemnation of Christian doctrines as addressing only “a local sect of Christians with beliefs different from mainstream Chalcedonian Christianity” (p. 31), “those who assert the existence of three distinct gods” (p. 267), “certain sects among the Christians… such as the Jacobites and the Nestorians” (p. 316), is a revision of the Qur’ān and a woeful justification of Orthodox and Catholic Trinitarianisms. As pointed out by an earlier review […], “in the formative period, Chalcedonian Christology was not being treated any differently than other forms of Christology, and the earliest Muslims regarded it as constituting the very Trinity which the Qur’ān rebukes.” The comments from al-Rāzī to that effect cited on all the above pages show that the editors are fully aware of the fact.’
In Part 2 I will discuss the significance of The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam by Sidney H. Griffith and how it refutes Christian polemics about the Quran with particular reference to this article: Do Christians Believe Allah is really Jesus?