This article is the second of a series of articles (the first can be read here) 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 Shamoun before going on: Do Christians Believe Allah is really Jesus?
My response to Shamoun’s article focuses on recent research by Sidney H. Griffith (published 2013):
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.
A typical endorsement of this work:
“The Bible in Arabic represents the work of a scholar at the height of his powers. Griffith demonstrates widespread mastery of his subject: his expertise spans not only Christian Arabic translation and interpretation of the Bible, but also Jewish and Islamic Arabic literature as well. The result is a book that fills a conspicuous gap in our knowledge: it will surely become a standard in the field.”–Stephen Davis, Yale University
In his article Shamoun complains that,
‘The Quran is in gross error concerning what Christians actually believe, and the contributors to The Study Quran are absolutely correct when stating that the Islamic scripture does not address, let alone censure, the orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.’
There are two passages where the Quran censures Christians for believing that Allah is the Messiah:
Surely, in disbelief are they who say that Allah is the Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary). Say (O Muhammad): “Who then has the least power against Allah, if He were to destroy the Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary), his mother, and all those who are on the earth together?” And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them. He creates what He wills. And Allah is Able to do all things. S. 5:17 Hilali-Khan
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire. For evil-doers there will be no helpers. S. 5:72 Pickthall
The problem with this assertion is that no informed Christian believes this, since historically Christianity has never taught that God is the Messiah. Rather, the orthodox historic position has been that the Messiah is God, not the other way around.
So let us explore Griffith’s discussion of this popular criticism of the Quran’s presentation of Christian belief and doctrine.
In the Introduction we are told,
‘The Bible is at the same time everywhere and nowhere in the Arabic Qur’an; there are but one to two instances of actual quotation. The second chapter of the present study advances the hypothesis that the recollections and reminiscences in the Qur’an of the biblical and para-biblical narratives of the patriarchs and prophets are not random, but that they are selected according to Islam’s distinctive ‘prophetology’. It envisions a series of ‘messengers’ and ‘prophets’ sent by God to warn human communities, which ‘messengers’ and ‘prophets’ God protects from the machinations of there adversaries. The Quran recalls only such biblical stories as fit the paradigm of its prophetology, and it edits the narratives where necessary to fit the pattern.’
The Bible in Arabic p.3
Griffith proposes as a working hypothesis for his book concerning the collection of the Quran into its ‘canonical form’ the following view by Patricia Crone, one of the most prominent historians of Islamic origins, who has most vigorously questioned the accuracy of the traditional Islamic sources. She says:
‘The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the Middle East, must be said to be exceptionally good…Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangements in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt.’
Patricia Crone, “What Do We Actually Know about Mohammad?” OpenDemocracy June 10, 2008
Griffiths notes that the Quran seems to presume extensive knowledge of Jewish and Christian themes and stories. Nevertheless, he notes,
‘It is a polemic stance, critiquing the faith and practice of both communities. One is left to determine the identities of the Christians whom the Qur’an criticises from the distinctive traces one can discern in the language with which the Islamic scripture censures them. This is a dimension of the Qur’an’s rhetoric that many commentators on the Quran’s Christians and their beliefs have missed, thereby making a hermeneutical mistake. Instead of attempting to discern the Christians through the Qur’an’s rhetoric, they have looked from the other way around for Christian influences on what the Qur’an has to say about Christians, as if the Qur’an had no agenda of its own and were borrowing words, phrases, themes, and narratives rather than commentating on them from its own point of view. The scholars who adopted this latter approach, ignoring the Qur’an’s rhetoric, often supposed that Muhammad and the Qur’an had only a rudimentary or distorted view of the Bible and of Christianity.’
The Bible in Arabic p. 24
Griffiths suggests that the Qur’an’s criticism of Christian doctrines and practices indicate its polemical engagement with mainstream types of Christianity and not heretical Christians (see examples on page 27).
He explains as follows (page 32)
‘In passages critical of Christian doctrines and practices, the Qur’an is referring to contemporary Christians, who, in its view, have gone beyond the bounds of their religion unjustly and have followed the fancies of earlier peoples who went astray. (cf. surah 5:77) And the principal way they have gone astray, in the Qur’an’s judgement, is in what they say of the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary. The most comprehensively critical passage in the Qur’an addressed to Christians is the following.
O Scripture People, do not go beyond the bounds of your religion, and do not say about God anything but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, is God’s messenger and His word He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not say ‘three’; stop it, it will be better for you. God is only one God. Glory be to Him, He has no child. His are whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. God suffices as one in whom to put one’s trust. (surah 4:171)
That Christians are the ‘Scripture People’ addressed here is evident from the nature of the critique level against them. That what they say about the Messiah, Jesus, Mary’s son, is what leads them to speak of ‘three’ in reference to the one God seems equally clear. Similarly, that the Qur’an here and consistently elsewhere speaks of Jesus as ‘Mary’s son’, is most evidently to be taken rhetorically as a polemical corrective to the usual Melkite [i.e. Chalcedonian], Jacobite, or Nestorian habit of speaking of Jesus as ‘the Son of God’. The passage furthermore, as Muslim commentators have consistently claimed, presents God’s word and spirit as they are evoked here in connection with Jesus, as referring to God’s action in His messenger Jesus.
[Griffiths adds a footnote here: ‘Elsewhere God speaks in the Qur’an of how “Our word (kalimatuna) had previously come to our servants, the messengers” (surah 37:171), and of “our spirit whom We sent to her (i.e. Mary) and he seemed to her to resemble a well-shaped man” (surah 19:17)’.]
Griffiths continues (page 33):
‘Word and spirit bespeak God’s creative action and do not imply the ‘association’ (ash-shirk) with God that the Qur’an thinks is meant by conventional Christian talk of God’s Word and Spirit. Again, the Qur’an’s rhetoric is seen to be polemically corrective.
This point is made crystal clear in other passages. For example, in the following two verses, among several that Muhammad is commanded to addresses to the ‘Scripture People’ (surah 5:68), the Qur’an speaks directly to current Christian usage.
They have disbelieved who say that God is the Messiah, Mary’s son. The Messiah said, ‘O sons of Israel, serve God, my Lord and your Lord. God has certainly forbidden the Garden to one who gives God an associate; his abode is the fire and wrongdoers have no helpers (ansar). They have surely disbelieved who say God is one of three (thalithu thalathatin). There is no God save one God. If they do not stop what they are saying, a sore punishment will certainly touch those of them who have disbelieved. (surah 5: 72-73)
‘Rhetorically speaking, the two identical phrases at the beginning of the two successive verses, “They have disbelieved who say,” are clearly critical of the following quotations attributed to those who say, “God is the Messiah, Mary’s son,” (vs. 72) and those who say, “God is one of three” (vs.73). But the quotations, while clearly meaning to censure Christian belief, do not in fact quote actual Christian usage of the era. Rather, the Christians in the Qur’an’s milieu would have said, ‘the Messiah is God, the Son of God’, and they would also have said, ‘the Treble One, the One of Three, is God’. But for reasons of orthodoxy they would never have said that God is Jesus; rather, they would have said Jesus is God. It seems clear, therefore, that here the Qur’an, aware of actual Christian usage, has for its own rhetorical polemical reasons, reversed the customary Christian order of words in these formulaic phrases in order the more effectively to highlight what it considers wrong about Christian faith in Jesus, and to criticise what it regards as the objectionable Christian doctrine that God has a Son and that He is the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The Quran consistently and persistently teaches in varying phrases that God has no offspring; e.g. “How would He have offspring, not having a female consort” (6:101). “It is not for God to take a child; Glory be to Him, when He determines a matter He but says to it, ‘Be’, and it comes to be” (surah 19:35). “God is one….He has not begotten, nor is He begotten” (surah al-Ikhlas, 1-3)’
[Griffiths adds a footnote here: ‘Some half a dozen times in contexts of inter-religious controversy the Qur’an repudiates those who say that God has taken, or adopted, a child, a son (walad). See surahs, 2:116; 10:68; 18:4; 19:88; 21:26; 23:91. The adversaries are either pagans or Christians, highlighting the Qur’an likening what Christians say about Jesus to the errors of the pagans before them. See the passage addressed to the ‘Scripture People’ in surah 5:77: “Do not follow the fancies of a people who went astray in the past and led others astray and strayed from the Right Path.”]
to be continued…