An Interview with James White about His Book, “What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an”
Sometimes there comes a book that changes the way we think and talk about a subject. That book generally pushes us into deeper fundamental understanding of a theme and helps us see from there the things we did not know or somehow missed. Such books stir fresh thought, fresh zeal, and renewed efforts to see and act in the world according to truth. We need a book to do that for us and to us because we’re so prone to settle into intellectual ruts and hand-me-down assumptions.
I think James White’s new book, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an, is a book that changes the Christian understanding of Islam and its holy book. You can read an excerpt of the book here. I had the privilege of reading James’ book in manuscript and offering the following endorsement:
James White has given the thoughtful Christian a game-changer for Muslim-Christian dialogues about the Qur’an, the Bible, and our claims to truth. For too long, Christians have remained largely ignorant and even reluctant toward one of the world’s largest faiths. We no longer have reason for either ignorance or reluctance thanks to White. I know of no other introduction to the Qur’an and Islam that is as technically competent and easy to read as James White’s What Every Christian Should Know About the Qur’an. This book is my new go-to source and recommendation for anyone wanting a thorough introduction to the thought world of the Qur’an and the Muslims who revere it. For irenic, honest, charitable and careful discussion of the Qur’an, this is the best resource I know.
James deals extensively, charitably and clearly with the Qur’an itself. He’s not lobbing rhetorical grenades or wildly flinging accusations and half truths. He’s incisively investigating the history, theology, and transmission of the Qur’an in a way that’s accessible to any intelligent reader.
I had the privilege of sending James a few questions regarding the book. I hope you find this interview helpful and that you’re moved to buy and read this book.
1. You write, “I believe the best, weightiest, most useful refutation is the establishment of the truth of the gospel” (p. 9). Some apologists appear to think all the other arguments are the “best refutation” of Islam. Why and how does the gospel best establish the truth and refute error?
Islam came after the Gospel (despite Islamic belief otherwise), and includes as part of its teachings the rejection of the heart of the Gospel itself (the Person of Christ, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and hence the exclusivity of Jesus the Messiah as the sole means of peace with God). Hence, Islamic apologetics is first and foremost a “gospel” activity, and the goal of the Christian must always be to make sure the Gospel in all its glory and power and grace is made known to the Muslim who has almost never heard it with clarity. Further, given the position of Islam as the “last” revelation, surely the argument is properly made that the Qur’an’s understanding of the faiths it seeks to correct or refute must be accurate, as God is said to be the author of the Qur’an. But when we demonstrate error on the part of the Qur’an in reference to the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or the gospel, we are helping the Muslim to examine the claims of the Qur’an in an objective manner.
2. Must Christians be experts in the Qur’an in order to engage their Muslim neighbors and friends about the faith?
If a believer were to be ministering in an Islamic country, or even in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, a knowledge of the Qur’an at a certain level would be necessary to be effective in the long run, to be sure. The more we know about the presuppositions of those with whom we speak, about their worldview and language, the more effective communicators we will be. One surely does not have to be an “expert” on the Qur’an to engage their Muslim neighbors, but just as having read the Book of Mormon is a great advantage in witness to a Mormon, being able to show the Muslim that you have respected them enough to gather some knowledge of the Qur’an is a tremendous advantage. One of the great problems that exists between our communities is the fact that most Christians know very little about Islam and the Qur’an, and most Muslims know very little about Christianity and the Bible. Both go on what they have “heard,” and that body of hear-say is normally far from accurate, and can be a great hindrance in any meaningful dialogue.
3. Muslims believe the Qur’an is uncreated and eternal. What does that mean and why is it problematic for the Muslim?
Sunni Islam developed, over time, the concept of the eternality of the Qur’an (though it was a development that had opposition, and is not a part of Shiism). They affirm that the Qur’an is uncreated and eternal. There are many theological and philosophical problems with such a view, but the primary one about which Christians should know is this: if the Qur’an is eternal, and the very words of Allah, then the Muslim sees no reason to consider the development of thought in Muhammad’s life. Hence, asking questions about the consistency of the Qur’an, whether it accurately represents others, etc., is not a part of the interpretive process for the average Muslim. While looking at the context of, say, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is a vital and illuminating element of biblical exegesis, such aspects are almost irrelevant to Qur’anic exegesis, at least amongst Muslims. As a result, the interpretation of the Qur’an is primarily “stagnant,” limited to the conclusions reached by examination of the hadith literature centuries ago. Likewise, the accuracy of the Qur’an’s statements about the Trinity are simply taken as a given by the average Muslim, which introduces all sorts of problems and complications to the witnessing situation.
4. What are the “three pillars of Islamic denial” and how do they complicate our efforts to reach our Muslim neighbors and friends?
These are truly the major barriers we face when trying to communicate the gospel to Muslim friends and neighbors. The first is not an explicit teaching of the Qur’an, actually, but it is nigh unto a universal belief of Muslims: that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, has been corrupted, changed, and is, therefore, in need of correction on the basis of the Qur’an. Though there is a long and distinguished history of Muslims in history who did not believe this to be true, today it has become the common belief of almost every Muslim with whom we will speak. The second barrier is that of the Qur’an’s teaching against the Trinity, or, at least, what the author of the Qur’an thought the Trinity was. By warning against saying “three,” and by misunderstanding the relationship of the Father and the Son (the Qur’an presents these in very physical, literal terms), the Muslim is lead to a warped view of Christian belief. This is then combined with the idea that the one sin Allah will never forgive is that of shirk, the association of anyone or anything with Allah. Many Muslims believe Christians commit this sin in their worship of Jesus, and hence feel that we are inviting them to commit the only unforgivable sin in following Jesus! Finally, the third barrier is found in the Qur’an’s unique denial, in a single verse comprising only forty Arabic words (Surah 4:157), of the historical reality of the crucifixion of Jesus. If Jesus was not crucified, then there was no resurrection, no atonement, etc.
5. You open chapter 4 by identifying a key question: “Does the Qur’an’s author show knowledge of the Trinity to where the criticisms offered are accurate and compelling?” How would you answer that question?
Most definitely not, and this is one of the primary reasons I reject the Qur’an as a divine revelation. While the Old and New Testaments in the Bible are intimately related, the authors of the New showing intimate familiarity with the Old, the author of the Qur’an shows only a surface level, second-hand knowledge of the Bible in its entirety. This results in gross misrepresentation of those Scriptures, and of the beliefs of the Christians especially. I have often said to Muslims, “Putting aside the issue of whether the Trinity is right or wrong, is it not clear that in 632 AD (the year of Muhammad’s death and the completion of the revelation of the Qur’an) Allah knew in perfection what the doctrine of the Trinity was, and hence Allah could have provided a full and accurate refutation of it, had he desired to do so?” But one will search in vain for any accurate representation of the Trinity, and will instead find the repeated assertion that when Christians say “three,” they are speaking of three gods, a form of polytheism.
6. Does the Qur’an correctly understand Christianity? What does that tell us about the nature of the Qur’an?
As noted above, I believe this is one of the most important issues related to the Qur’an’s claims to a divine origin. Given that there is a concerted effort in Surahs 3, 4, and 5 to respond to Christianity, and yet there is no coherent, consistent, or compelling argumentation provided, but instead a muddled, confused understanding is presented, it seems clear that the Qur’an is the product of a human mind, one concerned, to be sure, with maintaining monotheism, but one that does not realize that the Christian faith is fully monotheistic. But a Qur’an that is representative of the understanding and thinking of Muhammad of Mecca is not the Qur’an presented by the vast majority of Islam.
7. What do you think about the “Insider Movement” in predominantly Muslim contexts? Can you be a Muslim and a Christian? Does the “Insider movement” have legitimacy in either the Qur’an or the Bible?
Though I did not really address this subject in the book, it seems self-evident to me that such a concept, that of creating a Christianity where one is a secret disciple while maintaining an outward profession of Islamic faith, replacing prayers in one’s own mind to Allah with prayers to Jesus, etc., is not only utterly foreign to the biblical record (which addresses clearly the responsibility of being a disciple of Jesus in a hostile context) but even from an Islamic perspective is utterly without merit as well. A believing Muslim would find such a concept pure deception and a heart-borne example of unbelief and even shirk, and such would have little attraction to a believing Muslim, to be sure.
8. We’ve heard so much about translation efforts that remove or footnote “Son of God” language in their translations. How would you evaluate such efforts? Do you think such efforts end up corrupting our text not realizing their text is corrupt?
The misguided effort of some to seek to avoid the offense that derives from the Qur’an’s own misunderstanding of the Christian faith is in reality a betrayal of not only the message of the Scriptures (and the wisdom of the Spirit) but of the martyrs who have suffered for the divine truth of the Sonship of Jesus. One explains the meaning of the text and in that explanation vindicates biblical truth over against Islamic misunderstanding. You do not attempt to avoid “offense” when that offense is based upon ignorance and error!
9. You point out that the Qur’an stands against history. In what ways does the Qur’an stand against history and accepted standards of historical research?
One could address a few areas here, but the most compelling and obvious example is that of Surah 4:157, where the Qur’an, in forty Arabic words, sets itself against the combined testimony of all of history in denying the crucifixion of Jesus on a Roman cross under Pontius Pilate. This single verse in the Qur’an, which mysteriously receives no attention in the hadith literature, and is never expanded upon or elucidated in the Qur’an itself, puts the Muslim holy text in direct opposition to the earliest historical sources that clearly and unanimously testify to the reality of the crucifixion. Modern Islamic apologists, at a loss to overthrow this united testimony, are reduced to either abject skepticism about all historical documents (ignoring their own, of course), or to the desperate attempt to link the crucifixion with the resurrection and then, on naturalistic grounds, attacking the resurrection.
10. Muslims often claim that the Bible has been corrupted in some way. But you examine the Qur’an’s transmission and reliability. Is the Qur’an free from errors, redactions, etc? Can we reasonably trust the Muslim claims about the Qur’an’s divine authorship?
The vast majority of Muslims are utterly unaware of the history of the transmission of their own text, just as the majority of Christians likewise suffer ignorance about the history of the Bible (a lamentable problem on both sides). But there is far, far more information available about the transmission of especially the New Testament text than there is about the Qur’anic text, which is ironic, given the relatively younger age of the Qur’an. But it is clear that the Qur’anic text did undergo recension under Uthman, even in the most conservative Islamic understanding. Why was this needed? The manuscripts tell us: there were competing traditions, in particular, the readings of Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, one of the four men Muhammad, in the hadith, pointed to as experts in the reading of the Qur’an. We are not yet at a point to be able to sort out all the issues, as there is no “critical” edition of the Qur’an (unlike the New Testament), but work is proceeding, though very slowly. I must confess some skepticism as to whether there will be sufficient basis for a fully critical text anytime in the near future.