In my previous post I discussed Harley Talman’s argument that Christians ought to entertain the notion that Muhammad might have been a prophet (though not a very good one). Other critics have pointed out biblical and scriptural flaws with his argument. But since very few Christian bloggers have specific training in Islamic studies (the academic study of Islam), I thought it might be useful if I pointed out some criticisms of Talman’s argument from the perspective of Islamicists (experts in studying Islam). In addition to a few outright errors, Talman provides historically ignorant interpretations of the available sources. In particular, the crux of my disagreement is that Talman argues that the Qur’an is not in fact anti-Trinitarian, as accepted by almost all Islamicists (regardless of their religious views). Instead, he claims that the Qur’an only criticizes unorthodox Christian views which orthodox Christians ought also to reject. I think this assertion is untenable, and this flaw is fatal to his entire argument.
First, I must make plain the scope of this post. Some polemicists delight in mis-characterizing the views of those with whom they disagree, but such caricature serves no purpose beside the vanity of the disputant. That approach seeks to call attention to every particular error in order to discredit the opponent. Although this is a long post, I have not attempted to call attention to every place where I disagree with Dr. Talman. Instead, this is an academic response to an academic article. I have attempted to present Talman’s views faithfully, and if at any point I have misunderstood him, I shall be grateful of people pointing out my failure of comprehension in comments. I have also restrained my commentary to topics pertaining to the early Islamic history of the Middle East. There are many other points (theological and biblical, for example) where I disagree with Talman’s article, but those disagreements are not germane to this post. My point is simply to critique Talman’s arguments about Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Middle Eastern Christianity at the time of Islam’s origins. Conversely, if I fail to mention a point, it should not be construed that I agree with it. This post has already grown long enough.
Talman’s argument makes a few outright errors about the history of early Islam and Christianity at that time. Relying on Fred Donner’s (controversial, but scholarly) suggestion that the origins of Islam were not exclusive of Jews and (some) Christians, he suggests that this theory is supported by early Islamic coins which depict people holding crosses, and by the absence of archaeological burn layers corresponding to the Islamic capture of cities in the seventh century (172). This argument does not work; neither detail supports that interpretation. Instead, as both Muslim and non-Muslim historical works tell us, most conquered cities capitulated to the Arab invaders, and even the ones that were stormed were not burned, but this was not out of any notion of religious respect for the people being conquered. It was just because the conquerors wanted more loot. Unburned cities are more profitable. The coins reflect the reality, mentioned by both Muslim and non-Muslim historical works, that the new rulers maintained administrative continuity with their predecessors, and continued issuing coins using the molds of Byzantine mints. (Examples are shown here.) Similarly, in the former Persian lands, early Muslim coins were circulated depicting Zoroastrian fire altars, even though early Muslims rejected fire altars as a form of idolatry. These pieces of evidence do not support this theory.
Talman used a Christian text, the “debate of John and the Emir,” as evidence of earliest Muslims (in 644, twelve years after Muhammad’s death!) examining the Bible with Jews and Christians (172-3). He notes that this text does not refer to the Qur’an. But this is mistaken: the text does indeed depend upon the Qur’an, and it is most likely not to be dated to 644 as it (falsely) claims (see a scholarly article on the subject here).
While the subject of Islam’s possible relationships to deviant versions of Judaism, Christianity, or a scholarly chimaera known as “Judeo-Christianity” have long been debated, one cannot establish historical fact by merely juxtaposing citations of different people who assert something vaguely along those lines (especially without dealing with the reality that all of those scholars disagree with one another in what they are precisely asserting). No solid relationship between earliest Islam and any other religion has been demonstrated by scholars beyond the obvious use of Jewish and Christian stories in the Qur’an itself. Talman’s entire method of historical argumentation is more misleading than accurate, and his appeals to earlier precedents for his views are facile and false.
I was disturbed to see Talman invoking the racist notion of a “Semitic mentality” (cited on p.179). This use is logically indefensible, since Semitic people (Jews, Arabs, and some others) have minds indistinguishable from those of non-Semitic people, and they also share every aspect of their culture (“mentality”) with non-Semites in one or another group. There is no distinctively Semitic mentality. It pains me to have to point out that such reasoning cannot be taken to bear logical weight.
Having rejected the early biography of Muhammad as “dubious” (171) Talman then cites it in support of his argument whenever it is convenient, e.g. the notion that Muhammad converted polytheistic Arabs to righteousness and eliminated practices such as infanticide (180). Similarly, Talman’s account of the mode of revelation of the Qur’an (176-177) is entirely based on the early biographical accounts of Muhammad that he earlier described as “dubious.” He makes no attempt to argue why we should accept (as he does here a priori) that revelation has in fact occurred, or why we should accept these aspects of the Islamic tradition but not others. Since I have encountered false prophecy in real life, I am very sensitive to the distinction between understanding and accepting someone’s claims to revelation. Talman fails to use this necessary distinction in his discussion of the Qur’an’s (alleged!) mode of revelation, making his argument at this point logically circular: Talman’s conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet depends upon how Muhammad received the revelation, which in turn depends upon him having in fact received revelation, which makes him in fact a prophet. Since I do not accept that Muhammad was a prophet, I deny any claim that the Qur’an is revelation, and I (understand but) reject Muslim doctrines of the mode of revelation as pious fictions. (Incidentally, Talman also seems to regard the traditional Muslim doctrines of the mode of revelation as pious fictions; he prefers a Christian’s and a modernist Europeanized Muslim’s theories of the mode of Muslim revelation, a strange colonialist concoction.)
Talman is mistaken in saying that later Islamic tradition regards Muhammad as bringing “a new religion that abrogated the previous revelation” (181). While there is the view within the tradition that later revelations abrogate earlier ones, this is used only to deal with contradictory imperatives within the Qur’an. The traditional Islamic view is that Islam was the first and original religion, confirmed by all the revelations, and Muhammad only restored it and brought the (eternal and uncreated!) final revelation, which in the Muslim view agrees with all prior revelations, but Jews and Christians have corrupted those earlier revelations (at least in meaning, perhaps in text). Therefore, when the Qur’an speaks of confirming the Tawrat and the Injil (the Torah and the Gospel), Muslims do not understand this as confirming the Christianity which is actually taught by those texts today, since according to Muslim doctrine the texts which we possess today are corrupted. (They are wrong about that, but that is a different question.) Talman misunderstands Islam even when he disagrees with it.
If, as Talman (following Donner) alleges, Islam began more ecumenically than it ended up, he needs to explain the appearance of (later?) Muslim rejection of Christianity. He suggests that the developing relationship between Pacific cargo-cults and Christianity may be a model (180). But this is not parallel: the cargo-cults experienced nominally Christian colonial rule, while Muslims did not.
Talman asserts that Muslim hostility to Christianity (which I think began rather earlier than he is willing to admit) is due in part to “resentful Eastern Christians in their withdrawal from witness” (181). But in fact this is backward: Christians under Islamic rule continued witnessing to Muslim neighbors (in typical late antique and medieval ways, not in modern American Baptist ways) until long after the appearance of Islam, and were only dissuaded from it by the very hostility that Talman postdates and tries to explain. They only ceased witnessing when (and where) it became dangerous to do so. Hostility drove cessation of witness, not the other way around. But without this alleged fault on the part of local Middle Eastern Christians, Talman’s argument is reduced to Eurocentrism: his suggested other cause is that Muslims became hostile to Christians because of what European Christians did, despite Muslims’ greater interactions with Middle Eastern Christians. That is no more plausible than someone in the USA who knows and interacts with hundreds of Roman Catholics on a daily basis suddenly deciding that all of them are bad because of what the government of the Philippines did. Sure, the government of the Philippines claims to be Roman Catholic, but it is just not relevant to the discussion.
As in the case of coinage and cargo-cults, the realities of rulers and ruled are absent from Talman’s awareness at another key point: Talman quotes Timothy I as an early Christian testimony to the prophethood of Muhammad (183). He neglects to mention that Timothy was speaking to the caliph, and had he expressed any negative views about Muhammad, he would have been killed. Timothy’s quotation cannot be taken as a neutral statement of what he “really believed,” but as a very guarded political statement. Even so, Timothy was very careful not to say that Muhammad was in fact a prophet, merely that he “walked in the path of the prophets,” i.e. he imitated them, and when Muhammad did good, then all reasonable people celebrate that fact. I as an evangelical Christian can say that, like godly spiritual leaders, the Dalai Lama advocates for peace, and when the Dalai Lama teaches people good things, I am happy for that. This does not in any way mean I consider the Dalai Lama a godly spiritual leader. I don’t. I have merely been politic. Timothy I was a masterfully politic Christian leader.
But Talman seems equally ignorant of the varieties of Middle Eastern Christianity. Talman lists four kinds of Christians in Arabia in Muhammad’s day: “Monophysite, Syrian Orthodox, Nestorian, and Assyrian” (184). He evidently is unaware of the fact that his list is essentially two pairs of synonyms. “Monophysite” is a polemical label used by Greek and Latin Christians (and their heirs in Europe) to refer to Christians who rejected the council of Chalcedon; the label included Syrian Christians, Copts, Ethiopians, and later Armenians. “Syrian Orthodox” is what Syriac-using “Monophysites” prefer to call themselves, and what they are called by most non-polemical scholars; thus it is a near synonym of the first term. “Nestorian” is another polemical label used by Greek and Latin Christians to refer to those who, like Nestorius of Constantinople, speak of two hypostases in Christ. “Assyrian” is an ethnic label which today comprises the heirs of the church polemically labeled “Nestorian” centuries ago. His four-fold variety of Arabian Christianity obscures what were in fact only two theological positions.
But the errors are more severe, and more dangerous to his argument, when it comes to discussions of the Qur’an in its relationship with Christianity. Talman suggests a more negative Qur’anic attitude toward Byzantine Christians than toward local Christians, citing an alleged objection to Heraclius venerating the cross. He neglects the fact that the Church of the East (so-called “Nestorians” or “Assyrians” in his duplicated list) were in fact long known for venerating the cross. This cannot have been the basis of the distinction, if any such existed.
Talman points out that the Qur’an has an exclusively positive view of Christ (180-1), but nowhere does the Qur’an link that view of Christ to Christians or to what Christians proclaim about Jesus. The Qur’an’s appeals to Abraham, Moses, and Christ are not for the purpose of building fellowship with Jews and Christians, but rather to stake an exclusive claim. The Qur’an praises earlier religious leaders in order to take those prior figures (all merely human prophets, in the view of the Qur’an) away from the older religions, or at least away from people of those religions who rejected Muhammad.
Talman also ignores places where the Qur’an’s account of Jesus is simply wrong, e.g. the assertion that the claim that Jesus was crucified is false (Q 4:157-158). If the Qur’an is true about that, then Christianity is a lie. The Qur’an calls Mary the sister of Aaron (Q 19:28) and daughter of ‘Imran (the Arabic form of ‘Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, at Q 66:12). This is obviously a confusion between Mary and Moses’s sister Miriam (in fact they share the same name: both are Maryam in Aramaic and Arabic, so Jesus’s mother was really named after Moses’s sister). Since the Bible nowhere names Mary’s father or references any siblings, one could presume (on the basis of the Qur’anic testimony alone!) that Jesus’s mother had an otherwise unknown brother named Aaron and a father named ‘Imran. But since Christian tradition from before the rise of Islam adopted the name Joachim for Mary’s father, it is clear that the Qur’anic author was in fact contradicting the available stories in circulation, and the most plausible explanation is the telescoping of a millennium and a half between Moses and Jesus, making the former the uncle of the latter!
With all of those misunderstandings of Islam, Middle Eastern Christianity, and the Qur’an as background, it is necessary to turn to my central disagreement with Talman: was the Qur’an anti-Trinitarian?
I am in agreement with every professional Islamicist I have met or read on the subject in stating that the Qur’an is anti-Trinitarian, and insistently so. Even Fred Donner, whose notion of an “ecumenical” origin to Islam Talman is adapting, felt the need to qualify the notion of “ecumenism.” Talman quotes Donner’s assertion that the earliest movement led by Muhammad “was in no way antithetical to the beliefs and practices of some Christians and Jews” (172). The word “some” is critical: in this context, it means “non-Trinitarian,” as Talman recognized in an endnote. But if, as I have recently argued, Trinitarianism is central to the Bible and true Christianity, and Muhammad’s earliest movement was anti-Trinitarian, then it was thereby opposed to God, not in his service. The Qur’an is usually understood to be explicit and emphatic in its rejection of Trinitarianism (e.g. Q al-Nisa’ 4:171; al-Ma’ida 5:72-75 and 116; al-Tawba 9:30; Maryam 19:88-93; al-Mu’minun 23:91; al-Ikhlas 112:1-4).
By contrast, Talman claims to be “persuaded that these verses attack aberrant, not biblical, Christianity” (180). On pp. 173-174, he cites C. John Block to assert that Q 4:171 and “5:173” (sic, an error for 5:73, I presume) only oppose the “tritheist” heresy of John Philoponos, Q 19:35 “corrects the adoptionism of Nestorians,” Q 5:116 opposes worship of Mary, and Q 2:116-117 is only relevant to a Christian textual corruption of a Jewish apocryphal text (!). Block’s interpretations of both the Qur’an and the history of Christian doctrine are bizarre, not accepted by serious scholars in the fields of Islamic Studies or Eastern Christian Studies. It is perhaps worth noting that Block’s book, which came out with a very good press, has only received a single book review, and that from a scholar who has collaborated with Block in the past. Block’s book advocates bizarre interpretations which experts reject, but Talman alone accepts. (Incidentally, Talman’s citation of Block’s “book” is incorrect, which makes it hard to trace: the title he gives is the Ph.D. dissertation, the publisher and date are of the [revised and?] published form of the dissertation, and the publication place has no relationship to either. Has he examined this work? Talman cites p.126 of Block’s “book” in fn. 41 for an assertion only part of which is found on that page. Talman’s use of Block is therefore partly misleading, perhaps deliberately so, and does not adhere to scholarly norms.)
Nevertheless, truth is not determined by a vote, so in addition to recognizing how marginal Block’s interpretations of the Qur’an are, I will also propose brief reasons why his interpretations are erroneous. Q 4:171 tells Christians not to say “three” (which could refer equally to three Gods, or three persons of the Trinity), but then immediately explains it by saying, “Exalted is [God] above having a son.” So it rejects not only the doctrine of “Philoponian Tritheism” (which Block alone believes was present in South Arabia), but also the doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God. That strikes at orthodox Christian belief. Q 5:73 is rather obscure, but Q 5:72 contrasts the dis-belief those who say “God is the Christ, the Son of Mary” with the Christ’s supposed statement, “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Q 5:75 further says that Christ was “only a messenger” (the same term as used of Muhammad in the Shahada). This is again a rejection of the assertion that Jesus is in fact God (even if it is worded backward, probably for shock value, in 5:72), true Christian orthodoxy, not a rejection of some long-forgotten heresy. Q 5:116 does seem to lump in worship of Mary as God (again, probably for shock value), but Jesus’s (supposed) response is to deny knowing what is in God. This contradicts what the real Jesus said (e.g. at Matthew 11:27 or John 17:25). Q 19:35 says, “It is not fitting for God to take to himself a son,” which Block (and Talman) interpret as rejecting “Nestorian adoptionism.” Out of context (and apart from the awareness that so-called “Nestorians” did not advocate adoptionism), this may seem plausible. But in context, this is a commentary in the middle of a long presentation in the Qur’an of Jesus discussing his relationship to God, in which he is merely a human prophet and a dutiful Muslim. The only mention of God’s Son in this passage is in v. 35, where it is rejected. The passage as a whole rules out the thoroughly biblical Christian doctrine of Jesus as the Son of God, not just a certain mechanism of that doctrine. In a similar passage, Q 19:88-93 objects equally to the statements that God “has taken a son” and God “has a son”; the reason for the objection is that “There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a servant.” Any doctrine of divine Sonship is anathema to the Qur’an. For someone who believes Jesus is merely human and God is fully spiritual, “taking a son” is a natural misunderstanding of correct Christian doctrine (seen also at 2:116-117). Block’s interpretations of these verses, as followed by Talman, are excessively clever but clearly false in their literary context.
It should be noted that Talman provides no answer to the other verses of the Qur’an which I quickly generated off-hand as anti-Trinitarian. Q 112:1-4 asserts that God is One (which Christians also assert), but then adds, “He neither begets nor is born.” This rejects the idea that God the Father begot God the Son before all ages (Nicene Creed), and contradicts what the Bible says about the Father begetting Jesus (John 1:18, where I prefer NASB to the recent NIV; also 1 John 5:18). According to this part of the Qur’an, Jesus could not possibly be God because he was born! Thus Christian orthodoxy is excluded. Similarly, according to Q 9:30, Christians are cursed for saying Christ is the Son of God (as well as, bizarrely, Jews cursed for allegedly saying Ezra is God’s son, an assertion with which I am not familiar, but may be derived by the Qur’an’s author by parallelism from the Christian assertion). I assert that anyone who does not say Christ is the Son of God is not a Christian. Therefore the Qur’an curses Christians.
Since the Qur’an is emphatically and pervasively anti-Trinitarian, the rest of Talman’s argument falls apart.
The statement, “The Qur’an does not view Christians with hostility as a matter of principle, but only when they practice polytheism” (184) is misleading, because it ignores the fact that essential Christian doctrine is labeled “polytheism” by the Qur’an. It’s like saying that a group of atheists is not anti-Christian because they don’t antagonize Unitarians, but only when Christians believe in the living Triune God. I would call any position which rules out correct Christian doctrine “hostile to Christians as a matter of principle,” even if that position can find some aberrant Christians to accept!
Talman speculates, “It may be that Muhammad was living faithfully according to the theology of a prior dispensation… OT prophets who addressed non-Jews… emphasized fundamental theological and ethical truths such as we find in the Qur’an” (179). Yet the Old Testament prophets did not teach Unitarianism, as I have argued, and the Qur’an does. Moreover, that is a point of emphasis for the Qur’an, not an incidental “slip.”
Asserting that the Qur’an “strongly affirms the biblical Scriptures that bear witness to” Jesus (180) is misleading, since the Qur’an expressly teaches anti-Trinitarianism. The Qur’an consistently presents an anti-Christian view of Jesus, as Muslims and Christians throughout time have recognized, but Talman does not.
Because nearly everything Talman says about the origins of Islam is at best dubious and at worse false and misleading, his claim that “widespread belief in an inherent incompatibility between the Bible and the Qur’an… was not the case at the outset” (184) must be rejected.
Talman cites the non-Chalcedonian Christians as counter-examples of doctrinal criteria for inclusion in heaven (178). This seems to be his trump card: we should not use doctrine to assess others’ salvation. While I have sympathy for the point in general, especially given the abuses to which doctrinal criteria have been put, the parallel breaks down: unlike those non-Chalcedonian Christians, Muhammad’s message was anti-Trinitarian. I fully agree that many non-Chalcedonian Christians will be in heaven, as they are fully Trinitarian. The fact that many Christian leaders in the past have used the wrong doctrinal criteria does not mean that all doctrinal criteria should be avoided. That is like saying that, because some teenagers have stupid notions about what personality qualities would make a good spouse, no one should use any personality qualities to evaluate the prospects of marriage. It is certainly possible to have bad criteria in the right category.
Finally, one theological criticism: Talman wrote, “As Christians, we do not regard the Qur’an to be utterly infallible and authoritative, but need not rule out the possibility of God’s calling and using Muhammad as a prophet” (177). In light of the foregoing, I begin to wonder, has he read the Qur’an? Not only do Christians not regard the Qur’an as “utterly infallible,” Christians must regard the anti-Trinitarian parts of the Qur’an as downright blasphemous. That is what rules out Muhammad’s prophethood. As Talman points out (though not as correctly as I would like), prophets may be sinful, reluctant, hasty, angry, all sorts of things. But they may not blaspheme the God who sent them.