What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an is the latest apologetic work by James White. White has for some time been one of the great apologists of modern Evangelicalism even though he does not receive the credit he deserves for this. White is a careful scholar who has a concern to communicate truth in a way that is accessible to the average Christian (the best sort of scholarship in my mind). White’s writing can be described as direct, pointed, clear and concerned to demonstrate truth from a careful exegesis of actual texts of scripture. His theology is an exegetically based theology which once again is the best kind. He writes not only with clarity but with profundity and uncompromising devotion to scripture and the honor of God.
This examination of what the Qur’an teaches is a tour de force. In it White plies his careful research skills to the critical task of examining the Muslim holy book. As with so many other of White’s works he does not rely on second hand information but goes right to the sources. I had a professor who taught his students to make sure you know what the opposition really teaches before you venture to criticize their work. In this book you will find multiple direct sources from Muslim authorities themselves but few secondary sources, particularly Christian ones. This indicates that White has done his homework. He is not content to parrot what others have already said. In that regard, this is truly an original work of scholarship, yet accessible to any interested reader.
White has two audiences – fellow Christians and Muslims. This is a real apologetic effort. On the one hand, it seeks to inform Christians of the crucial things the Qur’an has to say about Christianity, God, Christ and the Bible at those critical points of contention between the two faiths. On the other hand, it also seeks to challenge Muslims with misrepresentations about Christianity and the short-comings of their own claims about Islam especially as it relates to what the Qur’an actually teaches vis-a-vis Christianity. What is most commendable about how White does this is the respect he shows Muslims in the process, exemplifying the instructions of 1 Pet. 3:15.
In chapter 1, White canvases the history behind Muhammad and demonstrates some of the difficulties of ascertaining that history coming from sources over 100 years after Muhammad’s death. Chapter 2 gives us an introduction to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is organized by size and not chronology. Thus, the Mecca and Medina revelations are mixed together making it difficult to sort out the progress in thinking the Qur’an (Muhammad?) demonstrates from these two periods of Islamic history.
Chapter 3 deals with the central tenet of Islam known as Tawhid – the notion of unitarian monotheism. Muhammad was greatly concerned with polytheism in his day and considered the Trinitarian doctrines of Christianity to be polytheistic. Those who deny Tawhid (that Allah is a unitarian god) commit the sin of shirk (idolatry). All other sins can be forgiven in the afterlife except shirk. Surah 29:46 speaks of Muslims and Christians with regard to “our God and your God” being originally the same. But Christians engaged in “excess” when they exalted Jesus to the status of divinity and therefore have engaged in shirk.
In chapter 4, White examines how the Qur’an and thus Islam views the doctrine of the Trinity. He shows how the Qur’an has distorted the understanding of the Trinity as referring to the Father, the Son (Jesus) and Jesus’ mother (Mary). This assumes some sort of celestial relations that brought about the birth of Jesus. Of course no one can even remotely make the case that any branch of Christianity has ever taught such a notion. White gives a plausible reason why this misrepresentation came to be. First of all, it is unlikely that Muhammad had access to the actual NT scriptures in his day. However, he did visit a number of Catholic churches that had images of the Virgin and Child. It is very likely these images distorted his view of the mater. Throughout the Qur’an the Holy Spirit is neither directly mentioned nor alluded to as being a member of the Trinity. This is a devastating critique of the Qur’an for one simple reason. If the Qur’an represents the exhaustive and divinely inspired knowledge of Allah, how is it that the Qur’an gets this fundamentally held belief of Christians so wrong? Has Allah erred in his understanding of Christian beliefs? It casts serious doubts upon the claims of inspiration for the Qur’an.
In chapter 5, White deals with the contention that Muhammad is the only intercessor for mankind whereas Jesus declined such an invitation. The hadith (authoritative Islamic historic traditions including things Muhammad said and taught) speaks of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses each being approached to fulfill such a role, but each declined reciting sins that disqualified them. What is curious is that the Islamic tradition says Jesus was invited and even though he recited no sins he declined and said he could not intercede. However, when Muhammad was approached he recited sins he committed but which were forgiven and this allowed him to intercede. What makes this curious is the fact that the Bible teaches that the only reason Jesus can be the intercessor between God and man is precisely because he was sinless and needed no forgiveness. Only a sinless intercessor can offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against God. In the Islamic tradition Muhammad removes from hellfire first those with the most faith and goodness. According to the Bible no one is good (Rom. 3:12) nor can corrupted acts of righteousness prevent any from the fires of hell. This is why a sinless intercessor is so necessary and this gets to the heart of the difference between Christianity and Islam’s way of salvation.
Chapter 6 deals with the contention that the Qur’an says Jesus was never crucified. This is a hard sell since even the most liberal scholars acknowledge that the evidence for the crucifixion is overwhelming. At the time of the Qur’an’s establishment Muslims relied on 2nd century gnostic teaching that denied the crucifixion. Islam teaches that for a prophet to be crucified is dishonorable; therefore Jesus could not have died in this manner. Muslims believe Judas or Simon of Cyrene was substituted in Jesus’ place. White points out that western Muslims who have been exposed to the evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion often plead ignorance saying only Allah knows the truth.
Chapter 7 deals more directly with salvation in Islam. Passages in the Qur’an specifically treating salvation are sparse and not always clear. Nonetheless, a threefold set of basic affirmations emerge as the basis for Islamic soteriology: (1) good works, (2) faith in Allah and, (3) faith in the Qur’an. To have faith in Allah does not mean the forgiveness of sins per se, rather it means to be “rightly guided.” White shows that the Islamic doctrine of predestination is basically fatalistic and means that guarantees of heaven rest on Allah’s capriciousness. Thus in the end, forgiveness is granted regardless of meeting any other criteria or demands that Allah’s justice be properly met. Forgiveness is issued arbitrarily which has a tendency to strike fear and uncertainty in the hearts of Muslims. White also points out that in early Islam, the sins of some Muslims were blamed on Jews and Christians who in turn suffered in hell so as to free those Muslims for paradise. But the question remains, how can guilty sinners bear the punishment for others while bearing their own? In contrast, according to the Bible, Jesus, the sinless intercessor, willingly and graciously took upon himself the sins of others.
Chapter 8 deals with a thorny problem for Muslims: “the people of the book.” The “book” refers to the Bible and “the people” refers to Jews and Christians. Muslims consistently state that the Torah (i.e. OT) and the gospels (i.e. NT) are corrupted and unreliable sources of truth. However, the Qur’an states (see Surah 5:42-48; 5:65-68) that Allah revealed the Torah which judges the Jews as well as the gospels (called “guidance and light”) through Jesus which judges Christians. Jews and Christians are enjoined to abide by the words of their “book.” Where is the problem here? Incontrovertible evidence indicates that the Bible we hold in our hands today was the same Bible that existed when the Qur’am was written. This would mean that the Bible was already corrupted in Muhammad’s day, so how could Jews and Christians abide by a corrupted book? Furthermore, if Allah revealed these books then how could he allow them to be corrupted when the Qur’an supposedly is perfectly preserved by Allah? A further problem exists for Muslims. The Qur’anic passages would suggest that Jews and Christians can use the OT and NT to judge Muhammad and whether he is a true prophet. Muslims are faced with an insurmountable dilemma. If they agree with these passages from the Qur’an then both the Qur’an and Muhammad stand judged by the inspired revelation of the OT and NT that came at the hands of Allah. The Qur’an loses in this scenario.
Chapter 9 deals with a further problem Muslims must deal with considering the fact that they hold to a corrupted Bible. Muslims have taught that the OT and NT predict the coming prophet Muhammad. Of course, they have a vested interest in using this assertion as an apologetic for their prophet. The Qur’an states that the Bible prophesies Muhammad but never mentions specific texts. Modern Muslims often appeal to Deut. 18:15-19 which speaks of a prophet arising “from among your countrymen.” That prophet is said to be Muhammad and “countrymen” is said to refer to the “sons of Ishmael” (early Muslims were all Arab claiming descent from Abraham’s son Ishmael). But the context of Deuteronomy 18 clearly indicates that countrymen refers to Jewish descendants (see verse s 1, 2 and 5). Furthermore, Acts 3:22-24 applies this passage to Jesus not Muhammad. Some Muslims appeal to John 14-16 which repeatedly speaks of the “Helper/ Advocate.” They suggest the term here has been corrupted and really means, “Exalted or honored one,” a title given to Muhammad by Muslims and not a title for the Holy Spirit. The problem is these passages specifically state that Jesus will send the “Helper/ Advocate” to His immediate disciples in order to reveal, recall and expand truth concerning Himself. How could this possibly apply to Muhammad some 7 centuries later?
In chapter 10, White deals with the double standard in which Muslims accuse the gospels of having conflicting accounts when in fact the Qur’an has its own conflicting accounts of historic Jesus material. Specifically, it takes mythic accounts of Jesus’ birth and childhood that came hundreds of years after the canonical gospels were written and conflates the two together as if historical. White’s point is if the Qur’an is a genuine product of the inspiration of Allah and not Muhammad’s limited understanding, we would not expect this conflation of historic and non-historic material.
In chapter 11, White deals with the critical issue of the Qur’an’s textual history. White is especially equipped to deal with this area. His book, The King James Only Controversy, is an excellent introduction to the lay person of the complex discipline of Biblical textual criticism. White knows the subject well, and again plies his trade to a brief treatment of the Qur’an. There is a fundamental difference between the textual history of the Qur’an versus the NT. White points out that the NT has an uncontrolled textual transmission history whereas the Qur’an has a very controlled textual transmission history. This means several things. First of all, the NT has thousands of manuscript evidence dating back to within a generation of the original. The Qur’an has only a handful of manuscripts because of the controlled nature of its transmission. With an uncontrolled transmission like the NT, it is easier to ascertain what the original said. With a controlled transmission like the Qur’an it is difficult to know what the original said since you must trust the few gateways that controlled the flow of textual material. Muslims believe the Qur’an was transmitted by Muhammad to a few trusted aids to whom he dictated the material received from the angel Gabriel. However, the authoritative hadith tell a different story. Accordingly, the Qur’an derived from many different sources including some material that was memorized by special clerics. Other fragments were written down on odd bits and pieces of material. The material was collected in a haphazard manner and organized with little thought toward a comprehensible document. A Muslim authority named Uthman was responsible for the major Qur’anic textual tradition. He ordered previous versions and fragments of the Qur’an to be burned so they would not conflict with the material he put together. Other hadiths mention that some portions of the Qur’an recited by earlier Muslims were no longer contained in the present Qur’an. In fact, there is one story from the hadith that says an irreplaceable potion of the Qur’an was eaten by a sheep. Many Muslims are unfamiliar with these official Islamic traditions that conflict with modern beliefs that the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved by Allah.
These careful and judicial investigations by White present a solid apologetic for Christians and a real challenge for Muslims. I have not listened to any of the extensive debates James White has done with Muslim apologists, but I would love to know how they answer these devastating arguments against the veracity of their claims. It would be profitable if a publisher was willing to print one of these debates for wider consumption. In either case, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an serves as a highly effective examination of Islamic claims based on the Qur’an. White shows these claims to be severely wanting. This is a most highly recommended resource for Christians as well as Muslims willing to be challenged by their own claims.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.