Islam is the second largest religion in the world, and growing rapidly. As such, it’s important for Christians to have a basic understanding of this formidable religion, and in particular, it’s sacred text, the Qur’an. Christian apologist, James White, has written an excellent book – What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an – that provides Christians with a basic understanding of the Qur’an, focusing on the topics that divide Muslims and Christians.
White begins the book by making a case for why Christians should concern themselves with the teachings of the Qur’an. From there, he provides a broad overview of both Muhammad and the Qur’an:
- A brief sketch of Muhammad’s life and the origin of Islam
- According to Muslims, the Qur’an was written by God from eternity past and merely dictated to Muhammad by an angel over a period of 22 years. As such, it is inerrant.
- The central tenet of faith for Muslims is the absolute numerical oneness of God (tawhid), and a confession that Muhammad is His greatest and last prophet.
- The worst of all sins is to associate anything with God (shirk), so the Christian claim that Jesus is God is shirk.
While White’s book is not written as a refutation of the Qur’an’s claims to be divine revelation, there are a number of points raised in the book that expose the Qur’an’s claims as false:
- Abraham and the Kaaba
The Qur’an says Abraham built the Kaaba in Mecca, but there is virtually no evidence that Mecca even existed prior to the time of Jesus. Furthermore, it would require that Abraham travel 1000 miles.
- Mary in the Trinity
While the Qur’an does not use the word “Trinity” to describe the Christian view of God (it simply uses the number “three” with reference to God), it does attempt to describe the view and clearly it gets it wrong. According to the Qur’an, the Trinity consists of God the Father, his wife Mary, and their son Jesus (Surah 4:166-172; 5:12-17,68-77,116). What’s at issue here is not the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, but whether the doctrine the Qur’an condemns is even an accurate portrayal of the doctrine. Clearly it is not. While the Catholic Church and the Christian laity had an overly exalted view of Mary by the 7th century, she was never elevated to a member of the Trinity! There can be no question that the doctrine of the Trinity has always held the three divine persons to be the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In contrast, the Qur’an replaces the Holy Spirit with Mary, and understands the Trinity to consist of a divine male, a divine female, and their divine offspring. Such a gross misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is what we would expect if the Qur’an reflects the understanding of Muhammad based on his limited interactions with Christians, but not at all what we would expect if the Qur’an is divine revelation. Since the Qur’an grossly mischaracterizes the doctrine of the Trinity, it is evidence that it is not divine revelation but the musings of a fallible man.
- Jesus was human
The Qur’an argues against Christians by declaring that Jesus was a man (Surah 5:75). This evidences an unfamiliarity with Christian doctrine since orthodox Christian teaching has always held that Jesus was fully human. Certainly there weren’t any major Christian groups in the 7th century that were disputing Jesus’ humanity. Christians did not deny that Jesus was human, but merely that He was only human. It’s apparent that the author of the Qur’an did not grasp this aspect of Christian theology. If the author were Muhammad, we might understand how such a misunderstanding arose. But since the supposed author is Allah, we would expect Him to know what Christians believe. This is evidence that the Qur’an is not the product of divine revelation from Allah.
- Did Jesus die?
The Qur’an appears to contradict itself on Jesus’ death. In Surah 19:33 Jesus says “So peace be upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life [again],” using the same language to describe His own death as the text uses to describe John the Baptist’s death (Surah 19:15). Even Surah 3:55 reads, “When Allah said: ‘O Jesus! I am gathering you and raising you to Me, and cleaning you of those who disbelieve, and setting those who follow you above those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection.” The normative meaning of the phrase “I am gathering you” is “I will cause you to die.” The reason Muslims translate it differently in this instance is to avoid a contradiction with Surah 4:157 which appears to say Jesus never died: “They slew him not, nor crucified him, but it appeared so to them; …certainly they slew him not.” So which is it? Did Jesus die and come back to life as He is quoted as saying in Surah 19:33, or did He only appear to die (and thus never really come back to life) as Surah 4:157 claims? If the Qur’an was inspired by Allah it would not contain such a contradiction.
- Was Jesus crucified?
We have no historical record for most individuals in antiquity. For those who do have record of, they are typically the movers and shakers in the world of politics and warfare. Jesus is an anomaly. We have a treasure trove of historical information about His life based on eyewitness testimony within two generations of His death. We have five independent Christian accounts of his death by crucifixion from the first century, more attestations from the earliest Christian bishops, as well as several attestations from non-Christian Jewish and Roman historians within 80 years of Jesus’ death. The evidence is so good for Jesus’ death by crucifixion that even the most liberal and atheist scholars acknowledge its historical truth. In contrast, the Qur’an – written more than 600 years later by a man who was not an eyewitness and lived 750 miles from the event – merely asserts that Jesus was not crucified (Surah 4:157). When a book purporting to be from Allah denies a historical event for which we have such astounding evidence of its occurrence, it should be evident that the book is not divinely inspired. There is no reason to believe the Qur’an’s claim on this matter other than one’s prior belief that it is the Word of God. This claim, however, should call that presupposition into serious question.
- Egyptian crucifixion
The Qur’an claims that the Egyptians practiced crucifixion in the days of Joseph (Surah 7:124; 12:41; 20:71; 26:49), but we know from history that crucifixion was not yet invented at that time. This is an anachronism, once again invalidating the Qur’an as a divine revelation.
- Muhammed in the Bible
The Qur’an claims that Mohammed is described in both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures (Surah 7:157; 10:94). Muslims have attempted to find Mohammad in Dt 18:15-19, Jn 14-16 (the Comforter), and Song 5:16, but the context of these passages clearly rules out such a reading. If the Qur’an says the Jewish and Christian scriptures speak of Mohammad, and yet they do not, then once again the Qur’an is shown to be in error and thus its claim to divine origin are undermined.
- Legendary material
The Qur’an includes folklore that does not appear in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as if these events were historical. Examples include the raising of Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites (Surah 2:93; 4:154; 7:171), Jesus speaking from the cradle (Surah 3:46; 19:27-34), Jesus making birds from clay (Surah 3:49-50; 5:110), ravens teaching Adam and Eve how to bury the dead (Surah 5:30-32), Abraham’s preaching to the people in Ur (Surah 21), and Solomon employing animals in his army and miracles surrounding the Queen of Sheba (Surah 27:17-44).
- Affirms the inspiration/truth of the OT and NT
The Qur’an teaches that the Qur’an, the Jewish scriptures (OT), and the Christian scriptures (NT) are all divinely inspired (Surah 29:46-7; 3:84-5). Mohammed even appealed to these Scriptures as containing the truth (Surah 3:3-4; 5:42-3,46-7,65-8). This raises an interesting problem since the Jewish and Christian scriptures contradict some of the truth-claims found in the Qur’an. How could God inspire contradictory material? Muslims respond to this challenge by claiming the OT and NT text have become corrupted (despite the fact that Surah 15:9; 6:114-5, 18:27, and 10:64 all say God’s revelation cannot be corrupted – see also Surah 5:44,47). In their original form the teachings in these former revelations matched the teachings of the Qur’an. The problem with this response is that we know what the Jewish and Christian scriptures looked like in the early 7th century (and even centuries earlier) when Muhammad made his claim. What we read today is essentially identical to what Jews and Christians were reading in Muhammed’s time.This puts Muslims in a bind. If the Jewish and Christian Scriptures still contain the same teachings that Muhammad affirmed as divine revelation and a source of knowledge for Muslims, then Muslims need to believe what the Bible says about Jesus. Of course, the Biblical view of Jesus differs from the Qur’anic view of Jesus. If Muhammad was right about the Bible, then he was wrong about Jesus.
Reliability: Differences Between the Transmission of the NT and the Qur’an
Chapter 11 alone is worth the price of the book. White compares the historical transmission of the NT and the Qur’an, demonstrating how we can have greater confidence that the words of the NT authors have been accurately preserved than Muslims can have regarding the Qur’anic text (despite Muslim claims that not even a single punctuation mark has changed over the centuries).
There was no centralized control of the copying and distribution of the NT manuscripts (and for the most part, there were no single manuscripts of the entire NT, but 27 different manuscripts or smaller groupings of those 27 books that were copied and distributed separately). While this decentralized approach to the transmission of the NT has resulted in variations within the NT text (these variations do not threaten any orthodox teaching, and the original text is usually recoverable with a high degree of confidence), it provides us with great confidence that we have what the apostles and prophets actually wrote, and invalidates conspiratorial theories about textual corruption.
The transmission of the Qur’an is quite different. First, the original Qur’an was not written down (except for a few portions written on palmed stalks and thin white stones). Instead, it was memorized in whole or in part by appointed men called the Qurra. A few months after Mohammad died, after some of the Qurra had been killed in battle, the need for a written version of the Qur’an became clear. Abu Bakr As-Siddiq commissioned Zaid bin Thabit to commit the recitations of the remaining Qurra to writing, as well as collect the various written fragments. For at least one verse (and possibly more), Zaid bin Thabit confessed that only one of the Qurra had recited it. One can only wonder how many other Qur’anic texts were only known to a single Qurra and were lost upon his/their death. About 18 years later, when Uthman was in power, it came to his attention that there were different versions of the Qur’an in different parts of the empire, and the differences were causing confusion and division. To remedy this problem, Uthman sent a request to one of Mohammad’s wives, Hafsa, asking her to send him the manuscripts of the Qur’an she had in her possession. She did, and a committee of men (including Zaid bin Thabit again) were told to make perfect copies of it. It is clear, however, that they were not simply copying the manuscript because Uthman instructed the copiers to use the dialect of the Quraish if there was any disagreement with Zaid concerning the content. If they were strictly copying an established text, there would be no need to make such a comment. Also, we know of at least one more verse that Zaid uncovered during this “copying” project that, once again, was only found with a single person. Once the copies had been made, Uthman sent them to the major Muslim centers and ordered that all other copies be burned (although other sources indicate that some remained). This is an example of a controlled copying, in which the powers that be control what the text says and the distribution and copying of the text. It would be no surprise if there are no variations in the Qur’anic copies after Uthman’s recension since all variants (that we know once existed by the testimony of the hadith) were destroyed by a centralized authority. The uniformity of the text (and there are differences between the extant manuscripts) is not due to a divine miracle, but due to a power play (we have good evidence that large portions of Qur’anic material were purposely omitted, as evidenced by the different manuscripts that existed in Al-Kindi’s day that were kept from being destroyed by Uthman – but are no longer extant today). Indeed, given the history of the Qur’anic transmission, recovering the original is impossible! Again, this stands in stark contrast to the NT. Because there was no controlled transmission of the text by a centralized power, no editing of manuscripts to make them conform to an official version, or destroying manuscripts variants that did not conform to an official version, we can be confident that we possess the original wording somewhere in the manuscript tradition. It merely needs to be properly identified from among the variants.
My review of White’s book has focused more narrowly on what White had to say in the way of critique regarding the Qur’an’s claim to divine inspiration. White’s aim is much larger than this, however. He wants to help Christians better understand Islam so we can engage in more productive dialogue with Muslims. To that end, he compares and contrasts Muslim and Christian theology regarding God, Jesus, salvation, and more. If you are looking for a good introduction to Islam written by someone who is well-studied in the topic, look no further than What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an.
While the Qur’an does say Jews and Christians corrupted their texts (Surah 2:75; 3:78; 5:13,41), the context reveals that it was the meaning that they corrupted, not the words. While most Muslims today view the corruption as pertaining to the text, that is not the best interpretation of the Qur’an, and had not been the orthodox Muslim view in days past.