Has Islam Misunderstood Christianity?
A Christian Response to Bassam Zawadi’s Debate
With Dr. James R. White Pt. 1
Dr. James R. White debated Muslim dawagandist Bassam Zawadi on the topic, “Has Islam Misunderstood Christianity?” (Pt. 1, Pt. 2). Dr. White did an excellent job in proving that the Quran misunderstands and/or misrepresents the historic Christian teaching concerning the Deity of Christ and the Trinity. Dr. White also demonstrated that the Quran’s errors concerning these issues are clear and are not open to interpretation.
Zawadi, on the other hand, did a wonderful job of proving that the Quran is an incoherent and disjointed book whose message is unclear. Zawadi tried to show that the passages which Christians quote to prove that the Quran is mistaken concerning what Christians believe regarding Christ and the Trinity (i.e. Q. 5:17, 72-75, 116) didn’t necessarily refer to these doctrines, but may be referring to beliefs held by some deviant groups. Zawadi argued that such passages were open to multiple interpretations.
What made this debate rather intriguing is that it was the Christian who tried to argue that the message of the Quran is clear, whereas it was the Muslim who did his best to prove that the Muslim scripture is anything but perspicuous!
In this series we are going to take a look at Zawadi’s arguments in order to see how they actually backfire against him. We will show how Zawadi’s own points end up proving that the Quran is grossly mistaken concerning Christian beliefs. We will further expose the lengths that Zawadi will go to in order to defend the indefensible.
Zawadi’s Abuse and Misuse of Q. 3:7
Here is what Zawadi said when Dr. White asked him whether he believed that the Quran is clear:
Yes I believe that it is in a general sense. But there’s also a verse in the Quran that says that there are verses which are clear and verses which are ambiguous in meaning – and that only people who study a lot such as scholars would be able to know those meanings – the meaning of those passages. So, I harmonize between that verse and the other verse. So I would say the Quran is not [sic] clear but not that every single verse is clear to every layman.
When Dr. White then asked whether this means that the Quran should be clear to the ulema, or religious scholars, Zawadi replied that,
No, some of the passages. The Quran says that there are verses which are muhkamat. Those are clear, umm al-kitab, and those are the foundations of the book. Like God is one, pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan – the basic fundamentals of the religion. But there are also those that verses which are mutashabihat, those which are ambiguous. And for those kinds of passages people with knowledge would qualify to understand them. And it works the same way with the Bible. A layman Christian wouldn’t understand every single verse in the Bible but he would understand the basic and fundamental aspects of the Bible.
[Sidenote – It is ironic that Zawadi would mention the oneness of God, the five daily prayers, and fasting as examples of plain teachings which form the foundation of the book when these are the least clear aspects of the Quran. For example, the Quran nowhere explains what it means for Allah to be one, nor does it explicitly prescribe praying five times a day. The Quran doesn’t even tell Muslims how or what to pray, nor does it explain how to perform the fast.]
Zawadi had the following passage in mind:
It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear (muhkamatun) that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous (mutashabihatun). As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring dissension, and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, 'We believe in it; all is from our Lord'; yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds. S. 3:7 Arberry
There are major problems with Zawadi’s appeal to this passage. In the first place, this text contradicts the repeated assertion of the Quran that it is a scripture which is clear:
Thus doth God MAKE CLEAR His Signs to you: In order that ye may understand. S. 2:242 Y. Ali Medina
Alif Lam Ra. A Book whose verses ARE SET CLEAR (ohkimat), and then distinguished, from One All-wise, All-aware: S. 11:1 Arberry Mecca
A. L. R. These are the Ayats of Revelation, - of a Qur'an that makes things clear. S. 15:1 Y. Ali Mecca
And indeed We know that they (polytheists and pagans) say: "It is only a human being who teaches him (Muhammad)." The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this (the Qur'an) is a clear Arabic tongue. S. 16:103 Hilali-Khan Mecca
We verily, have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that you may be able to understand (its meanings and its admonitions). S. 43:3 Hilali-Khan Mecca
By the manifest Book (this Qur'an) THAT MAKES THINGS CLEAR, S. 44:2 Hilali-Khan Mecca – cf. Q. 2:187, 219, 266; 3:103, 118; 4:26, 176; 5:89; 24:18, 58-59, 61; 57:17
The Islamic scripture also makes the repeated assertion that it is a book which fully explains all its verses:
And thus do We explain the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) IN DETAIL, that the way of the Mujrimun (criminals, polytheists, sinners), may become manifest. S. 6:55 Hilali-Khan Mecca
It is He Who has set the stars for you, so that you may guide your course with their help through the darkness of the land and the sea. We have (indeed) explained IN DETAIL Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, Revelations, etc.) for people who know. It is He Who has created you from a single person (Adam), and has given you a place of residing (on the earth or in your mother's wombs) and a place of storage [in the earth (in your graves) or in your father's loins]. Indeed, We have EXPLAINED IN DETAIL Our revelations (this Qur'an) for people who understand. S. 6:97-98
Thus We explain variously the Verses so that they (the disbelievers) may say: "You have studied (the Books of the people of the Scripture and brought this Qur'an from that)" and that We may make the matter clear for the people who have knowledge. S. 6:105 Hilali-Khan
[Say (O Muhammad)] "Shall I seek a judge other than Allah while it is He Who has sent down unto you the Book (The Qur'an), EXPLAINED IN DETAIL." Those unto whom We gave the Scripture [the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel)] know that it is revealed from your Lord in truth. So be not you of those who doubt. S. 6:114 Hilali-Khan
And this is the Path of your Lord (the Qur'an and Islam) leading Straight. We have DETAILED Our Revelations for a people who take heed. S. 6:126
Say (O Muhammad): "Who has forbidden the adoration with clothes given by Allah, which He has produced for his slaves, and At-Taiyibat [all kinds of Halal (lawful) things] of food?" Say: "They are, in the life of this world, for those who believe, (and) exclusively for them (believers) on the Day of Resurrection (the disbelievers will not share them)." Thus We explain the Ayat (Islamic laws) IN DETAIL for people who have knowledge. S. 7:32 Hilali-Khan Mecca
Certainly, We have brought to them a Book (the Qur'an) which We have explained IN DETAIL WITH KNOWLEDGE, - a guidance and a mercy to a people who believe. S. 7:52 Hilali-Khan
Thus do We explain the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) IN DETAIL, so that they may turn (unto the truth). S. 7:174 Hilali-Khan
And this Qur'an is not such as could ever be produced by other than Allah (Lord of the heavens and the earth), but it is a confirmation of (the revelation) which was before it [i.e. the Taurat (Torah), and the Injeel (Gospel), etc.], and A FULL EXPLANATION of the Book (i.e. laws and orders, etc, decreed for mankind) - wherein there is no doubt from the Lord of the 'Alamin (mankind, jinns, and all that exists). S. 10:37 Hilali-Khan Mecca
But if they repent, perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat) and give Zakat, then they are your brethren in religion. (In this way) We explain the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) IN DETAIL for a people who know. S. 9:11 Medina
Alif Lam Ra. This is a Book, whose verses have been made firm and free from imperfection and then they have been expounded in detail. It is from One Wise, and All-Aware. S. 11:1 Shakir Mecca
Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding. It (the Qur'an) is not a forged statement but a confirmation of Allah's existing Books [the Taurat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel) and other Scriptures of Allah] and A DETAILED EXPLANATION OF EVERYTHING and a guide and a Mercy for the people who believe. S. 12:111 Mecca
One day We shall raise from all Peoples a witness against them, from amongst themselves: and We shall bring thee as a witness against these (thy people): and We have sent down to thee the Book EXPLAINING ALL THINGS, a Guide, a Mercy, and Glad Tidings to Muslims. S. 16:89 Y. Ali
He sets forth for you a parable from your ownselves, - Do you have partners among those whom your right hands possess (i.e. your slaves) to share as equals in the wealth We have bestowed on you? Whom you fear as you fear each other? Thus do We explain the signs IN DETAIL to a people who have sense. S. 30:28 Hilali-Khan Mecca
A Book whereof the Verses are explained IN DETAIL; A Qur'an in Arabic for people who know. S. 41:3 Hilali-Khan Mecca
Here is another version of this last passage:
A scripture whose verses PROVIDE THE COMPLETE DETAILS, in an Arabic Quran, for people who know. Khalifa
The above verses (most of which were composed in Mecca) go out of their way to affirm that all of the Quran’s passages (not just some) are clear and fully detailed. It is therefore evident from the foregoing texts that Muhammad actually thought that the Quran was a perspicuous book which could be easily understood by the people he was communicating with.
In fact, all throughout his stay in Mecca, and up until his final years in Medina, Muhammad was repeatedly boasting of just how clear and fully detailed his “revelation” was. This means that his audience had been led to believe that all of the verses of the Quran were perspicuous and explained in detail. It wasn’t until Muhammad composed Q. 3:7 in his latter years in Medina that these individuals heard for the first time that the Muslim scripture actually contains ambiguous passages whose meanings were known only to Allah.
However, here is where the problem lies for Muslims such as Zawadi. There shouldn’t be any passage whose meaning is uncertain in a book which constantly says that it is a clear exposition, one that provides complete details for all of its verses so that others may understand. Yet not only do we find ambiguous and unintelligible passages, Q. 3:7 even admits that such verses do exist and can actually be found in the Quran!
The Muslim scripture is therefore contradicting its own repeated emphasis and insistence that it is a complete revelation whose verses are plainly detailed.
This leads us to our second point. Zawadi conveniently forgot to inform his audience that Q. 3:7 was composed after a Christian group from Najran used Muhammad’s own teachings concerning Jesus against him.
The early 8th century Muslim biographer Ibn Ishaq wrote:
… ‘The plain verses are the mother of the Book; the rest are obscure.’1
I heard a scholar above suspicion mentioning that these verses were sent down about the people of Najran when they came to the apostle to ask him about Jesus the son of Mary. (Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, p. 257; bold emphasis ours)
1. Sura 3.5. (Ibid.)
When the two divines spoke to him the apostle said to them, ‘Submit yourselves.’ They said, ‘We have submitted.’ He said: ‘You have not submitted, so submit.’ They said, ‘Nay, but we have submitted before you.’ He said, ‘You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.’ They said, ‘But who is his father, Muhammad?’ The apostle was silent and did not answer them. So God sent down concerning their words and their incoherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of ‘Imran up to more than eighty verses… (Ibid., p. 272; bold emphasis ours)
Noted Muslim expositor Ibn Kathir concurs with Ibn Ishaq:
Surah Al `Imran was revealed in Al-Madinah, as evident by the fact that the first eighty-three Ayat in it relate to the delegation from Najran that arrived in Al-Madinah on the ninth year of Hijrah (632 CE). We will elaborate on this subject when we explain the Ayah about the Mubahalah [3:61] in this Surah, Allah willing. We should also state that we mentioned the virtues of Surah Al `Imran along with the virtues of Surat Al-Baqarah in the beginning of the Tafsir of Surat Al-Baqarah…
<He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He wills.> meaning, He creates you in the wombs as He wills, whether male or female, handsome or otherwise, happy or miserable.
<La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Almighty, the All-Wise.> meaning, He is the Creator and thus is the only deity worthy of worship, without partners, and His is the perfect might, wisdom and decision. This Ayah refers to the fact that `Isa, son of Mary, is a created servant, just as Allah created the rest of mankind. Allah created `Isa in the womb (of his mother) and shaped him as He willed. Therefore, how could `Isa be divine, as the Christians, may Allah's curses descend on them, claim `Isa was created in the womb and his creation changed from stage to stage… (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; bold emphasis ours)
The reason for the call to Mubahalah and the revelation of the Ayat from the beginning of this Surah until here, is that a delegation from the Christians of Najran (in Yemen) came to Al-Madinah to argue about `Isa, claiming that he was divine and the son of Allah. Allah sent down the beginning of this Surah until here, to refute their claims, as Imam Muhammad bin Ishaq bin Yasar and other scholars stated. (Q. 3:61; bold emphasis ours)
These Christians successfully used Quranic verses to prove the Deity of Christ by zeroing in on statements which called Jesus the Word of God which he sent to Mary and a Spirit which proceeds from God himself:
O ye who have received the scriptures, exceed not the just bounds in your religion, neither say of God [any other] than the truth. Verily Christ Jesus the son of Mary [is] the apostle of God, and his word, which he conveyed into Mary, and a spirit [proceeding] from him. Believe therefore in God, and his apostles, and say not, [there are] three [Gods]; forbear [this]; it will be better for you. God is but one God. Far be it from him that he should have a son! Unto him [belongeth] whatsoever [is] in heaven and on earth; and God is a sufficient protector. Christ doth not proudly disdain to be a servant unto God; neither the angels who approach near [to his presence]: And whoso disdaineth his service, and is puffed up with pride, [God] will gather them all to himself, [on the last day]. Q. 4:171-172 Sale
The angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God. S. 3:45 Sale – cf. Q. 3:39
Notice how the following version renders this last text:
“Behold,” the angels told Mary, “God has given you the glad news of the coming birth of a son whom He calls His Word, whose name will be Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be a man of honor in this life and the life to come, and who will be one of the ones nearest to God.” Muhammad Sarwar
The Quran is merely echoing some of the things that the inspired Scriptures of God teach concerning Christ.
For instance, the Holy Bible says that Christ is our apostle sent by/from the Father
“Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.” Hebrews 3:1
“As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” John 17:18
“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’” John 20:21
Christ is also the eternal Word through whom the Father created all things:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-4, 9-10, 14
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1-3
“He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.” Revelation 19:13
Christ is even called a life-giving Spirit:
“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” 1 Corinthians 15:45
Finally, the Holy Bible says that Christ voluntarily humbled himself to become a servant of God:
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 – cf. Matthew 20:28
“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:27 – cf. John 13:3-17
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:5-8
Hence, there is nothing in Q. 3:45 and 4:171 about Jesus which a Christian would object to.
When the Christians successfully stumped Muhammad by using his own words against him to prove the Deity of Christ, Muhammad needed to find a way out of the dilemma which he had created for himself.
Muhammad did manage to come up with a reply, namely, those passages which refer to Jesus as God’s Word and Spirit are unclear and one should therefore not focus on them!
In his exegesis of Q. 3:7 Ibn Kathir mentions that this text addresses Christians who utilized the Quran to prove that Jesus is divine:
<So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation> meaning, those who are misguided and deviate from truth to falsehood…
<they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof> meaning, they refer to the Mutashabih, because they are able to alter its meanings to conform with their false interpretation since the wordings of the Mutashabihat encompass such a wide area of meanings. As for the Muhkam Ayat, they cannot be altered because they are clear and, thus, constitute unequivocal proof against the misguided people. This is why Allah said…
<seeking Al-Fitnah> meaning, they seek to misguide their following by pretending to prove their innovation by relying on the Qur'an -- the Mutashabih of it -- but, this is proof against and not for them. For instance, Christians might claim that [`Isa is divine because] the Qur'an states that he is Ruhullah and His Word, which He gave to Mary, all the while ignoring Allah's statements…
<He [`Isa] was not more than a servant. We granted Our favor to him.> [43:59], and…
<Verily, the likeness of `Isa before Allah is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then (He) said to him: "Be!" and he was.> [3:59].
There are other Ayat that clearly assert that `Isa is but one of Allah's creatures and that he is the servant and Messenger of Allah, among other Messengers. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir; bold and underline emphasis ours)
It is obvious from these quotations that the only reason why Muhammad claimed that the Quran contains unclear passages, whose meanings are known only to Allah, is because the Christians were using his own words against him, showing how he contradicted himself concerning Jesus. He therefore needed a way out of this mess that he created. Prior to that time, Muhammad was constantly boasting how clear and fully detailed the verses of his book were.
[Sidenote: Nor is this the only time that Muhammad had people use his own words against him, thereby causing him great embarrassment. There were other occasions where Muhammad was forced to come up with verses or an argument in order to undo the damage that he had created due to statements which he made in the Quran. Here is one example:*; *; *; *.
Another one would be Q. 9:31, a text which we will be examining in the next part of our rebuttal.]
Thirdly, Zawadi begs the question since he assumes that the texts which refer to the beliefs of Christians are part of the unclear passages of the Quran. However, that is not what the Quran claims about these verses, but actually makes the exact opposite assertion.
The Quran says that it clearly explains and clarifies to the Jews and Christians the matters in which they differ and dispute over, as well as to bring to light the things which they have hidden from others:
And with those who say 'We are Christians' We took compact; and they have forgotten a portion of that they were reminded of. So We have stirred up among them enmity and hatred, till the Day of Resurrection; and God will assuredly tell them of the things they wrought. People of the Book, now there has come to you Our Messenger, MAKING CLEAR TO YOU many things you have been concealing of the Book, and effacing many things. There has come to you from God a light, AND A BOOK MANIFEST whereby God guides whosoever follows His good pleasure in the ways of peace, and brings them forth from the shadows into the light by His leave; and He guides them to a straight path. They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary's son.' Say: 'Who then shall overrule God in any way if He desires to destroy the Messiah, Mary's son, and his mother, and all those who are on earth?' For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, creating what He will. God is powerful over everything. Say the Jews and Christians, 'We are the sons of God, and His beloved ones.' Say: 'Why then does He chastise you for your sins? No; you are mortals, of His creating; He forgives whom He will, and He chastises whom He will.' For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them; to Him is the homecoming. People of the Book, now there has come to you Our Messenger, MAKING THINGS CLEAR TO YOU, upon an interval between the Messengers lest you should say, 'There has not come to us any bearer of good tidings, neither any warner.’ Indeed, there has come to you a bearer of good tidings and a warner; God is powerful over everything. S. 5:14-19 Arberry
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers (the like of whom) had passed away before him. And his mother was a saintly woman. And they both used to eat (earthly) food. See how We make the revelations CLEAR TO THEM, and see how they are turned away! S. 5:75 Pickthall
The above verses expressly say that the Quran was “revealed” to make some things clear to the Jews and Christians concerning their cherished beliefs such as the Deity of Christ and the divinity of Mary. We will have more to say about the meaning of these texts in the second part of our rebuttal.
And We did not send before you any but men to whom We sent revelation -- so ask the followers of the Reminder if you do not know -- With clear arguments and scriptures; and We have revealed to you the Reminder that you may make clear to men what has been revealed to them, and that haply they may reflect. S. 16:43-44 Shakir
By Allah, We indeed sent (Messengers) to the nations before you (O Muhammad), but Shaitan (Satan) made their deeds fair-seeming to them. So he (Satan) is their Wali (helper) today (i.e. in this world), and theirs will be a painful torment. And We have not sent down the Book (the Qur'an) to you (O Muhammad), except that you may EXPLAIN CLEARLY unto them those things in which they differ, and (as) a guidance and a mercy for a folk who believe. S. 16:63-64 Hilali-Khan
Since the Quran says that one if its functions is to clarify the differences between the Jews and Christians, and to make clear what has been revealed to them, this means that those verses dealing with Christian beliefs are not part of the unclear passages. Rather, these are some of the texts whose meanings are supposed to be perspicuous and therefore cannot be open to multiple interpretations.
After all, if these particular texts were unclear, and open to multiple meanings, then they could not provide any clarification for the Christians, but only cause them further confusion. This would therefore defeat one of the main functions of the Quran, which was supposedly “sent” to make things clear – not make them more confusing – for the Jews and Christians.
We have come to the conclusion of the first part of our analysis. It is now time to move on to the second part of our rebuttal.