Miscellaneous and Other Interesting Articles

Muslim apologetics today: how do they stand up to critical scrutiny?

By Paul A. Williams

This article is not written from a confessional point of view. Though I have views pertaining to the truth claims of Islam and Christianity, I endeavour to screen out any prejudice I may have about the truth or falsity of the core beliefs discussed below. My concern is to critically evaluate English speaking Muslim apologetics as found in popular Islamic media such as DVD, video, Internet and in writing. I focus exclusively on Islamic/Christian interaction. [1] I attempt to assess this output against the actual Christian faith as it exists in all its diversity, asking how accurate is the presentation of the Christian faith it seeks to challenge. After outlining some typical approaches adopted by Muslim apologists I will consider how fair they are to Christian thought and attempt to offer explanations for the results.

In my experience [2] English speaking Muslim polemicists adopt differing styles and strategies in their arguments, from the pugnacious to the scholarly and irenic.

Because of certain shared characteristics, for the purposes of this study Muslim polemicists will be grouped together into four categories:

1) Ahmed Deedat and followers such as Zakir Naik [3]
2) Dr Gary Miller
3) Shabir Ali and his followers
4) Gai Eaton, Marin Lings, Muhammad Asad and Hamza Yusuf

A detailed description of each:

1) Ahmed Hussein Deedat (1918 - 2005), was a Muslim student of comparative religion, an author, lecturer, and an orator. He was best known for his witty but highly combative public debates with well known Christian evangelicals. [4]

What differentiated Deedat’s approach from his contemporaries, apart from his eloquent English, was his use of references from the Qur’an and the Hadith, but also his intensive, though simplistic knowledge of the Bible. His writings have been criticized by his detractors as fundamentalist, anti-Christian and anti-Hindu, though his supporters deny this. Many Muslims called Deedat a “scholar” though he had no qualifications in biblical or Islamic studies. He was self-taught. (The same, I have been informed is the case with Zakir Naik). The following quotation, though in my view unduly harsh in its estimation of Deedat’s work, typifies the reaction he has engendered amongst non-muslim obsesrvers: Lloyd V. J. Ridgeon, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow writes:

Ahmed Deedat’s pamphlets are being recycled to a brand new British Muslim constituency. Thus, a new generation is exposed to his malicious new disinformations. The reason for the popularity of such polemicists as Ahmed Deedat is varied: Muslim self-understandings as “the best of all communities” leads them to suppose that Islam prevails over all religions. Combined with the wounded pride of living in a post-colonial world within the continuing hegemony of western culture, some dignity can at least be preserved by claimimg moral and religious superiority.

Islamic scholar Farid Esack has criticized Deedat, comparing him to such fundamentalists as Rabbi Meir Kahane and Jerry Falwell, and writing [5]

Deedat’s multitude of anti-Christian, anti-Jewish and anti-Hindu videotapes have told us all that there is to be told about the other, and we are comfortable with that. There are times, of course, when questions surface about the importance of correct dogma, about the importance of labels to a God whom we believe sees beyond labels and looks at the hearts of people. Instead of pursuing these questions, we hasten back and seek refuge in “the known.” We order another of those Deedat tapes.

2) Dr Gary Miller (Abdul-Ahad Omar) is a Canadian Muslim. He is notable for being a former Christian theologian and missionary who converted to Islam in 1978. Since his conversion he has been active in giving public presentations on Islam including radio and television appearances. He has also given many lectures and is the author of several popular articles and publications about Islam and about the dialogue between Islam and Christianity.

Dr Miller is a university mathematician by profession, and uses his considerable analytical skills in the service of a penetratrating and logical analysis of traditional Christian beliefs. [6]

3) Shabir Ali is the President of the Islamic Information and Da’wah Centre International in Canada. [7] Amongst Muslims he is considered an accomplished and experienced Muslim debater dealing particularly with Christianity and atheism. He has debated people such as the prominent Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, Tony Costa, Robert Morey, Dr. Peter Atkins and Prof. Kenneth Howkins. He joins an emerging generation of Islamic intellectuals who are taking great pains to gain scholarly accreditation at an advanced level in NT scholarship. They are deliberately irenic, balanced, academic and erudite. He is the author of numerous booklets and articles on Islam and comparative religion.

4) Gai Eaton, Marin Lings, Muhammad Asad and Hamza Yusuf. This quartet of Muslim intellectuals share common backgrounds and characteristics: they are Western converts to Islam and have made substantial contributions to scholarship that is recognised and highly valued in both East and West, amongst Muslims and non-Muslims. Although their work could not be characterised as polemical in nature they are all Islamic apologists in the sense of a person who speaks or writes in defence of Islam.

A list of their achievements would need a study in itself.

Martin Lings has written the definitive English biography of the Prophet Muhammad [8] and numerous works on Sufism and mysticism;

Gai Eaton authored the highly influential work Islam and the Destiny of Man [9] and has regularly broadcast on BBC Radio.

Muhammad Asad wrote several books, including Road to Mecca, an account of his travels through Muslim lands and his conversion to Islam, as well as his thoughts on the growing Zionist movement. He also wrote The Message of The Qur’an, a translation and brief commentary on the Muslim holy book based on his own knowledge of classical Arabic and on the authoritative classical commentaries. It has been acclaimed as one of the best, if not the best, translations of the Qur’an into English. (10)

Hamza Yusuf founded the Zaytuna Institute [11] located in California, to ‘revive the time-tested methods of traditional Islamic scholarship and provide education to Muslim Americans in a contemporary context’. Imam Hamza is considered as a “conservative” Orthodox Muslim, though one belonging to the traditional school of thought, which encompasses the Sufi tradition and tasawwuf.

Despite diversity of background and approach, the first three groups (in strong contrast to the fourth, comprising Gai Eaton et al.) share certain notable features in common which may be surprising to the uninitiated, and this fact is deserving of some exploration.

In my critique I will focus on types 1,2 and 3 above as they articulate the most demotic aspects of Muslim polemics that reach a mass global audience. Interfaith dialogue needs to be cognisant of these debaters and take account of their modus operandi.

They share the following characteristics:

a) They articulate a conservative, ‘orthodox’ Sunni Islam. Conversely, none share the so-called progressive ideology of liberal Muslims [12] or the traditional Islam of Sufism, which though it is never mentioned, they would probably abhor. In Christian terms, they are ‘Puritan’ rather than Catholic or mystical.

b) They seek to attack or debate with conservative Evangelical Christians, and occasionally appear to relish debate with discredited evangelists (see especially the hugely influential Jimmy Swaggart debates with Deedat). [13]

c) Muslim debaters appear to assume:

Many informed observers would see these omissions as grave defects in Islamic apologetics. What does this preference for fundamentalist interlocutors tell us about Muslim discourse? I will consider this question later on.

d) Additionally, there is apparently no awareness whatsoever of the denominational diversity and range of spiritual expression to be found in the global church (Catholic, Anglican and Protestant). The fact is that Christianity is not monolithic, but characterised by an extremely wide spectrum of expression far more than is the case in Islam. But I have not encountered a single popular Muslim work engaging with Russian or Greek Orthodox Christianity or the wealth and diversity of Roman Catholic views despite the latter representing the largest single Christian grouping on the planet. I have come across no recognition and appreciation of the giants of Christian theology: St Augustine of Hippo, St Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. Why is this?

e) Types 1,2, and 3 often rely on highly dubious ‘evidences’ to support their position and to critique fundamentalist Christianity. Here are just three examples:

Why does contemporary Islamic discourse on Christianity show such a lamentably narrow understanding of the depth and breadth of Christianity today?

To my knowledge, no research has been undertaken in answer to this question.

In this study I want to suggest some possible lines of investigation. A fuller, more definitive analysis is sorely needed.

1) Fundamentalist evangelical Christianity with its extreme sola scriptura [16] emphasis mirrors Islamic beliefs about the Qur’an. Therefore a certain symmetry exists between the two faiths. This superficial similarity is attractive to debaters. However, in fact the two scriptures are quite dissimilar in composition and authorship, a factor which is usually overlooked. Happily, some Muslims intellectuals appreciate the difference. The English Muslim writer Gai Eaton was once asked why there is no historical criticism of the Qur’an as there is of the Bible. His answer from the Islamic perpective is illuminating:

There is a misunderstanding: the Bible is made up of many different parts, compiled over many centuries and it is possible to cast doubt upon one part without impugning the rest; whereas the Qur’an is a single revelation, received by just one man, either you accept it for what it claims to be, in which case you are a Muslim or you reject this claim, and so place yourself outside the fold of Islam.

2) Evangelicalism is an easy target for Muslim attack. The recitation of a list of alleged errors and contradictions in the Bible is a favourite activity, which all debaters rehearse with relish. Curiously the same harmonisation techniques used to explain away apparent contradictions in the Qur’an are discounted for defenders the Bible.

3) There is a paucity of intellectual engagement with Western theology. There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon: the sheer difficulty and complexity of Christian theology which covers a bewildering array of disciplines including: philosophy, linguistics, textual criticism, historical enquiry, Hebrew and ancient Greek. The research and accreditation required to master these subjects might well be a deterrent.

4) Geo-political factors. The historical non-engagement of the Islamic world with Western culture is due in part to neo-colonialism and Western hegemony. The incursion (so it is perceived) of aggressive missionary activity into Muslim lands has arguably retarded Islamic appreciation of Christian thinking.

5) The so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ has produced deep misunderstanding and even hostility on both sides to the detriment of Muslim knowledge and comprehension of Western religion. Crude caricatures of religious belief have tended to predominate at the expense of fair and responsible dialogue. There are honourable exceptions to this generalisation, which sadly only goes to prove the rule.

Conclusion

These five examples of a narrow understanding of the depth and breadth of Christianity today are not exhaustive, but give a flavour of the kinds of issues involved.

All that I have written is ably summed up in a cri de coeur from a Muslim student of Christianity:

‘…there are no serious Muslim scholarly writings on Christianity. What we have are tons and tons and tons of pamphlets, brochures and 20-30 page booklets…giving a very simplistic presentation of Christianity and the Bible. In sharp contrast, there are tons of learned/scholarly Christian writings on the Qur’an, Hadith, and Islam. Why are Muslims at the bottom in scholarly investigations? And what impact would this have on the ummah as a whole down the line, say, in 10-20 years time? Why don’t we raise trained specialist and scholars from among us, who are conversant with both traditional Islamic sciences and modern critical methods, so that Orientalist challenges and polemics could be met at the same intellectual level?’ [17]

On a happier note, I wish to acknowledge and pay tribute to the existence of a small but truly exceptional group of young Muslim scholars who have embarked on the difficult but necessary road to real knowledge and understanding of the New Testament. Though this group still appears preoccupied with combating evangelicalism and seems unaware of the need to take seriously the global Christian diversity of scriptural understandings and hermeneutics, it is nevertheless open to broadening its knowledge base. A new wave of Islamic polemics, inspired by the example and work of Shabir Ally (whose thought gives evidence of maturing and broadening of horizons) would give reason for optimism that in future Islamic apologetics will leave behind its traditional obsession with Evangelicalism and fundamentalism, appreciate Christianity in all its manifestations, and join in the common human pursuit of knowledge and Truth.


Notes

1) I will not be evaluating the extremely popular claims of Muslim apologists of science. i.e., that the Qur’an has allegedly many statements to make which have been validated by modern science. The problem with this approach is that many Muslim claims have been shown to be exaggerated and false. While some arguments have credibility (such as the description of embryology in the Qur’an), many are highly questionable. Most Muslims one meets out on the street, even if they know nothing about the Qur’an, will almost always say: “Science has confirmed everything that the Qur’an says!!” The exaggerated and repeated claims by some apologists on the topic of science have caused a lot of harm: a lot of nonsense and disinformation is now circulating on Muslim websites on this subject.

2) I refer here to sermons I have heard preached at the Friday Jumma; DVDs and videos on sale in Islamic shops; Islamic literature in English; and popular Internet sites broadcasting debates between well-known Muslims and evangelical Christians and other polemical material.

3) Zakir Naik has been described thus: ‘his manner of talking and style, the use of arguments, is a carbon copy of Ahmed Deedat, but with one difference: Naik is more knowledgeable than Deedat, though his arguments about the Bible are also simplistic.’

4) Deedat’s website can be viewed here: Ahmed Deedat homepage

5) Farid Esack is the author of Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism (1996), On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today (1999) and An Introduction to the Qur’an. The quotation is from a lecture delivered at the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, October 10, 2001.

6) Lectures by Gary Miller can be viewed at: Gary Miller

7) His website can be viewed here: Shabir Ali

8 ) Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources

9) For more on Gai Eaton’s Islam and The Destiny of Man see Islamic Texts Society

10) Muhammad Asad

11) Zaytuna Institute

12) For more on ‘liberal Islam’ see liberalislam

13) See the Jimmy Swaggart debates with Deedat at YouTube

14) Read the illuminating discussion of these issues at Cross Meets Crescent: An Interview with Kenneth Cragg

15) The Gospel of Thomas is a papyrus Coptic manuscript discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Unlike the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which combine narrative accounts of the life of Jesus with sayings, Thomas is a “sayings gospel”. It takes the less structured form of a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, brief dialogues with Jesus, and sayings that some of his disciples reported to Didymus Judas Thomas. Thomas does not have a narrative framework, nor is it worked into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context.

The work comprises 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Some of these sayings resemble those found in the four canonical Gospels. Others were unknown until its discovery, and a few of these run counter to sayings found in the four canonical gospels.

16) Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, “by scripture alone”) is the belief that the Bible as God’s written word is its own interpreter (”Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the only source of Christian doctrine. Sola scriptura was a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation held by the reformer Martin Luther and is a definitive principle of Protestants today. This is in contrast with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching, in which the Bible must be interpreted by church teaching, by considering the Bible in the context of Sacred Tradition.

17) Email communication 8th March 2007 (cited with permission). The author of this email wishes to remain anonymous. I am extremely grateful for the excellent comments and advice he has given me during various drafts of this essay, much of which I have incorporated. All the remaining mistakes are mine.


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