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Reading The Qur'ān as a Christian and a Protestant
1200 Years - An Introduction to Pre-Reformation Literature
Earlier this week I released a bonus article on Andrew Tate, his effect on young men, and how we as Christians ought to respond. You can check that out by clicking on this link.
Reading the Qur'ān as a Christian and a Protestant
When I began working on this series, about which books protestants should read from a largely unexplored 1200-year period, the main question in my mind, was:
“Which books have had the most profound effect on the Church, for good or for ill?”
Whilst I will be focussing on Christian literature for the rest of this series, it is impossible to cover this period without taking the Qu’rān into serious consideration. To be clear, this article isn’t titled, “I read the Qu’rān so you don’t have to!” but rather, “Reading the Qur'ān as a Christian and a Protestant.” I want you to read the Qu’rān for yourself1. We protestants are famous—or perhaps infamous—for being at the forefront of reacting to cultural trends; Earlier this week I “reacted”, for example, to the Andrew Tate phenomenon. Whilst Tate will soon be long-forgotten, and his reach isn’t huge from a global-historical point of view, the Qu’rān has close to two billion adherents in the world right now—not to mention billions affected indirectly. The historical influences of the Qu’rān in culture, theology and philosophy are undeniable, not to mention the fact that the temple mount, arguably the most geographically important place in Biblical/redemptive history, is currently host not to a temple, synagogue, or church, but a Mosque.
Explaining how to read the Qu’rān in a single article is no simple task. In addition, as Christians, we have to reckon with the Qu’rān’s polemic nature (Polemic: a critique, or strong argument against a world-view), as it was written specifically against Judeo-Christian values and both Judaism and Christianity themselves. Please read it slowly, and carefully, with the following points in mind, which I hope will aid you in doing so well.
Where you live, your experiences and the make-up of your church could influence how important you feel this book is, but imagine for a second that you heard a book had sold two billion copies overnight. Would you be intrigued?
Abrogation - Contradiction by Design
“Whatever verse We2 cancel or cause to be forgotten, We bring a better (one) than it, or (one) similar to it. Do you not know that God is powerful over everything?”
Al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:106
Whether you know it or not, we are stuck in the middle of a reboot renaissance right now. From terrible sequels, no one asked for like the horrendous recent Avatar film, soft reboots like Ghostbusters, or more obvious rewrites like Anne with an E or Wednesday. What many of these have in common is an odd relationship with the source material they’re drawn from. Many commentators on a recent spin-off of Scooby-Doo called ‘Velma’ suggested that the creators were even antagonistic towards the original series—not to mention that Scooby-Doo doesn’t even feature in the show… which is a bold choice. These changes are often made in order to change or modernise, the contents of the source material in order to be more palatable for a modern audience, or even preach a new message foreign, or contrary in nature, to the original book, movie, or TV show.
Reading the Qu’rān I found myself with similar feelings of discontinuity. Whilst the Qu’rān claims to be a successor to the Torah and the Gospel3 if you've read much or anything of the Bible, you'll find yourself scratching your head at almost every call back to the Scriptures. Though an argument could be made that this is similar to Midrash (A form of exegesis by Jewish scholars which expounds on the Scriptures through narrative4); this argument doesn’t hold up though when taking into account the significant alterations made to the Bible in the Qu’rān. Though this is jarring, and taken at face value might seem like an argument against the validity of Qu’rānic authority, the Qu’rān itself addresses these alterations. Scholars call this Abrogation, which is a legal term, meaning to repeal. Abrogation is what occurred not long ago in the States to the laws formed following Roe vs. Wade. These laws became subject to “Abrogation” or in other words, the laws were repealed. Abrogation in the Quran, however, doesn’t refer to just repealing Biblical laws/commands but also to alterations to historical/biblical accounts, the gospel5, as well as who Jesus is6. It is clear from the sixteenth Sūra that criticisms of this practice have been common throughout history, it reads:
“When We exchange a verse in place of (another) verse — and God knows what He sends down — they say, “You are only a forger!” No! But most of them do not know (anything).”
An-Naḥl (The Bee) 16:101
The message of the Qu’rān—which Muslims believe was recited7 to Muhammed by the angel Jibril (or Gabriel), is different to the Bible by design, but what this verse from An-Naḥl doesn’t tell us is the second reason for these changes. Muslim apologists will often raise an allegation that while the Qu’rān does certainly abrogate what has come before, that any major issues between the Qu'rān and the Bible are as a result of corruption within the Bible itself—though it's unclear when these alterations would have occured. This is worth keeping in mind when speaking with Muslim friends; pointing out the differences between the Bible and the Qu’rān is unlikely to have much effect because the differences in the Qu'rān have been defended on multiple fronts. For us as Christians though, this makes reading the Qu’rān, and accepting it as scripture—or even as being delivered to Muhammed by Gabriel—impossible. Calvin sums up why in his commentary on Galatians:
“It is impossible, no doubt, for angels from heaven to teach anything else than the certain truth of God.”
I raise this because I found this the most difficult element of Qu’rān as at points I was bewildered by the discontinuity, not only from the Bible to the Qu’rān but also within the Qu’rān itself.8
The obvious argument some might levy against Christians disagreeing with these changes is that they believe the New Testament makes changes itself with regard to the Old Testament.
Jesus himself dispels that, saying:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:17–20.
This fulfilment presents in a variety of ways but it is clear that where some have claimed the New Testament seems to repeal the Old Testament, it instead either bolsters the original intent of the law9 or renders certain laws unnecessary because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus1011. If you would like a fuller explanation, please leave a comment to let me know, and I’ll work on that.
Finally, as protestants, we have a rich history of retrieving historical theology and returning to Church tradition and teaching which the years sought to erode. We have often been rightfully accused, however, of rejecting our catholicity and large parts of our catholic heritage. Note, I don’t say Catholic here, but catholic—not “Roman”, but “universal.” We must not think that the protestant reformation or even our particular denomination—or “non”-denomination—is the “true” representation of the Church. To do so would be to be no different than the adherents of the Qu’rān who themselves claim to be the true remnant of the people of God. We must be universal as protestants, not universalists—we believe in the sole authority and exclusivity of Christ—but we must accept that we are not the arbiters of truth within the church. We have other Christian brothers and sisters around the world from different traditions and churches, and we must join together under the umbrella of theological orthodoxy, even if we disagree on some minor points. Reading the Qu’rān should be a stark lesson for us against claiming authority which is not ours to claim.
The reformation is not a third testament, but a call to return to the two true testaments.
“What is with you fails, but what is with God lasts and We shall indeed pay those who are patient their reward for the best of what they have done. Whoever does righteousness—whether male or female—and he is a believer—We shall indeed give him a good life, and We shall indeed pay them their reward for the best of what they have done.”
An-Naḥl (The Bee) 16:96-97
With the narratives and polemics removed, the Qu’rān is largely a book of laws, most of which are either based on the Old Testament laws, adding clauses or removing protections12, and then some which are analogous to contemporary regional laws. In the Christian tradition, it is largely accepted that there are three uses of the Law for us today, first that it would reflect our shortcomings and highlight our need for grace, secondly in civil cases—either as national laws or as a basis for them—and then thirdly, to help guide us in the way we ought to live as Christians.13
On reflection upon the laws in the Qu’rān, two of these three uses of the law cannot carry over into our understanding of the Qu’rānic laws. The second use, for civil peace, is obviously a known element of the Muslim faith, with articles coming out all the time with varying statistics which suggest anywhere between 20% and 70% of Muslims support bringing in Sharia Law (Islamic Law), and that Sharia Councils exist throughout the UK14. I would like to suggest that whenever I see the statistics cited; I’m surprised and shocked that the numbers of Muslims who want Sharia law in the UK aren’t higher! In fact, I think there is a good argument to be made that 100% of practising Muslims should want this law, not that I agree with it, but because if you asked me—or other practising Christians—whether I would like the law of the land to be based on Christian values, of course, I would say yes. That said, I would make sure when reading the Qu'rān for yourself to make a careful comparison, wherever possible, to Biblical laws, commands, principles, and ethics. I have wrestled with whether or not to do an exhaustive comparison of one or more laws from the Qu'ran here, but I think on reflection that would be unwise, though others have done so to greater effect. What I will say is that we mustn't begrudge others in our country for wanting to adhere to this law themselves—to do so would be proof that we harbour malice against them, something the Qu'rān repeatedly accuses us of—but also that when reading the laws in the Qu'rān we must be cognisant of the fact that there are people around the world currently living under these laws who are not Muslim.
Finally, these laws, rather than reflecting our brokenness and revealing our need for grace, reveal in some their own self-righteousness and promise of reward15 but promise no grace in the end. As a “sucessor” to the Bible, we might falsely assume that salvation plays a similar role within the Muslim faith, but on a close inspection of the text, you’ll find not only a return to the law, but a law without redemption, and with little space for forgiveness16. I will refrain from talking about civil justice here, but I would suggest that in your own reading, this would be at the forefront of your mind, especially with regard to Christians.
Laws are not a bad thing in and of themselves. Unfortunately, laws sometimes come in which aren’t just or are corrupted over time, but we mustn’t think when we read laws which are either unjust or confuse us that this casts a long shadow over the laws of the Old Testament or the commands of the new. In addition, we must be extra careful in this case not to transfer our understanding of Qu’rānic laws back into the Biblical Laws, in fact, we must be diligent in making sure this does not happen.
A Final Word
I could, as you might well imagine, write ten times more on this subject, and perhaps one day I will, but for now, these two major elements are the main ones I suggest you look out for in your own reading of the Qu’rān. As a final word, however, as a general rule, there are three major elements of any given Sūra in the Qu’rān, which repeat in various ways:
Polemics - Criticism of Christianity, Judaism, or some other worldview
Narrative - Usually Biblical to some extent, local/cultural, or apocryphal (i.e. the Book/Gospel of Thomas)
These are not always obviously connected and books will zigzag between subjects sometimes without explanation. I wouldn’t take too much time to try and reconcile these in your mind, but I would recommend picking up Gordon D. Nickel’s Qu’rān with Christian Commentary, as he brings together both a Christian understanding, as well as a background in Islamic studies, in order to help Christians to get to the heart of the texts.
In addition, I have linked to some videos in the footnotes by Jay Smith, who is an expert in the historical development of Islam, as well as the development of the Qu’rān over time.
If you’ve made it this far, please do read at least some of the Qu’rān for yourself, even if only to better understand your neighbours. This series is on the 1200 years of literature left largely unread by Protestants, and my hope is that you’ll decide to read at least two of these. If you do read this one, or you intend to, please let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to get in touch and help in any way I can.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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“We” refers to Allah, but this shouldn’t be understood as Islam affirming the Trinity, but is more akin to what we would call “the royal we,” think, “we are not amused,” memes about England’s late Queen.
“He has sent down on you the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it, and He sent down the Torah and the Gospel before (this) as guidance for the people, and (now) He has sent down the Deliverance.
Āl-'Imrān (House of 'Imrān) 3:3-4
These narrative additions to the scriptures are intended to exegete the original understanding of the text at hand, though Christian scholars would strongly disagree.
Qu’rān means “recitation”
I suggest that if you’re interested in why this discontinuity came to be, and the heritage of the Qu’ran, you should take a look at Jay Smith’s explanation of the history of the Qur’ān, and its earliest manuscripts.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:21–22.
In him also vyou were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by wputting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 xhaving been buried with him in baptism, in which yyou were also raised with him through faith in zthe powerful working of God, zwho raised him from the dead. 13 aAnd you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God bmade alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by ccanceling dthe record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 wHe disarmed the rulers and authorities2 and eput them to open shame, by ftriumphing over them in him.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Col 2:11–15.
Consequently, bwhen Christ1 came into the world, he said,
c“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’ ”
8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in csacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, d“Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will ewe have been sanctified through the offering of fthe body of Jesus Christ gonce for all.
11 And every priest stands hdaily at his service, ioffering repeatedly the same sacrifices, jwhich can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ2 had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he ksat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time luntil his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering mhe has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 10:5–14.
This applies to both Old Testament laws as well as New Testament commands.
The UK Government has done significant research into this, and has made a determination to allow this kind if internal self-government on elements of the Islamic faith which is not coverd by UK law:
“Observe the prayer and give the alms. Whatever good you send forward for yourselves, you will find it with God. Surely God sees what you do.”
"Surely God turns (in forgiveness), compassionate. " But God only turns (in forgiveness) to those who do evil in ignorance, (and) then turn (in repentance) soon after. Then God will turn to them (in forgiveness). God is knowing, wise. 18 But (His) turning (in forgiveness) is not for those who continue to do evil deeds, and only when death approaches say, 'Surely I turn (in repentance) now. Nor (does He turn in forgiveness) to those who die while they are still disbelievers. Those - for them We have prepared a painful punishment."