Islam lacks the apologetic resources of Christianity. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the Koran is a one-man show. Muhammad performed no miracles and uttered no prophecies.
The OT, because it was composed over the course of centuries, affords a theater for long-range promise and fulfillment—whereas the Koran, being the record of one man’s effusions, affords no such opportunities.
Likewise, the Bible, like a baroque composition, lays down a variety of theological motifs which, through many surprising historical turns, suddenly comes out on the advent of Christ, whereas Muhammad has no such luxury of time, and--in any event--the Koran is a complete jumble.
Again, because the Bible was composed over a period of 1500 years, and because its narration covers an even longer period of time, the Bible is studded with people and places and datable events which invite and receive a fair degree of external corroboration. The Koran, by contrast, does not. Its recital of Bible history is a garbled and truncated affair.
Because the Bible was composed by a variety of writers, often overlapping each other in period, place, and subject-matter, the Bible enjoys a measure of internal corroboration as well.
Likewise, the Bible brings us face-to-face with a number of lively individuals whom we have time to size up. But, in the Koran, everything hangs on the word of Muhammad.
The Bible also enjoys a universal appeal, even among many unbelievers, whereas the audience for the Koran is strictly parochial--by religion or race.
In addition, Islam has no doctrine of regeneration, and, hence, no argument from experience comparable to ordinary Christian consciousness—which is, frankly, the spiritual backbone of the average layman.
Nor, with its austerely voluntarist view of divine command theory, does Islam have easy access to the moral argument for Allah’s existence.
As such, the defense of Islam presents a formidable challenge. For the most part, Islam has escaped the need of any self-defense by resorting to the sword, criminalizing dissent, and depending on peer pressure—especially tribal solidarity--to keep the faith.
Islam produced a few brilliant thinkers early on—men like Al-Kindi (c. 801-66), Al-Farabi (d. 950), and Avicinna (980-1037). These were polymathic men. Philosophically though, they were rather unoriginal--primarily serving to popularize Platonism and mediate between Greece and Arabia. Averroes (1126-98) was an acute thinker, moving in a narrower groove, but his doglike loyalty to all things Aristotelian was no advance over the other three.
This was in the formative stages of Islam, when the outlines of orthodoxy had not yet hardened into stone.
Perhaps the best-known modern philosopher is Seyyed Hossein Nasr. But his eclecticism and esotericism betray a lack of intellectual independence and critical judgment.
Ibn Hazam (994-1064) was an early exponent of offensive apologetics, as he launched a frontal assault on the historicity of the OT. But there was no complementary form of defensive apologetics to take up the rear.
I should add that attacking the Bible is a suicidal strategy for a Muslim apologist to deploy, for Muhammad appealed to Biblical precedent in order to validate his own prophetic call. But given the irreconcilable differences between the Bible and the Koran, a Muslim apologist has to make the best of a losing hand.
The greatest Islamic thinker was Algazel (1058-1111). In his intellectual autobiography, he describes his personal quest for religious certainty. Let us take the measure of his case for Islamic faith.
As I drew near the age of adolescence the bonds of mere authority ceased t hold me and inherited beliefs lost their grip upon me, for I saw that Christian youths always grew up to be Christians, Jewish youths to be Jews and Muslims youths to be Muslims.
W. Watt, ed. The Faith & Practice of Al-Ghazali (Allen & Unwin 1967), 21.
i) This is, indeed, a general phenomenon. And it would be just as well for those who were raised in the Christian faith to examine themselves and personally appropriate the Gospel rather than rely on a merely hereditary or nominal belief.
ii) At the same time, there is clearly a difference between Algazel’s culture and ours. For it is by no means unheard of in our own time and place for someone to convert from one faith to another, or simply lose his childhood faith entirely.
iii) From the standpoint of Calvinism, with its doctrine of providence, the idea that God uses social conditioning as a means of saving some or many of the elect is quite consistent with our own theological tradition.
I therefore said within myself: “To begin with, what I am looking for is knowledge of what things really are, so I must undoubtedly try to find what knowledge really is.” It was plain to me that sure and certain knowledge is such that no doubt remains along with it, that no possibility of error or illusion accompanies it, and that the mind cannot even entertain such a supposition. Certain knowledge must also be infallible; and this infallibility or security from error is such that no attempt to show the falsity of the knowledge can occasion doubt or denial, even though the attempt is made by someone who turns stones into gold or a rod into a serpent. Thus, I know that ten is more than three. Let us suppose that someone says to me: “no, three is more than ten, and in proof of that I shall change this rod into serpent”; and let us suppose that he actually changes the rod into a serpent and that I witness him doing so. No doubts about that I know are raised in me because of this. The only result is that I wonder precisely how he is able to produce this change. Of doubt about my knowledge there is none
After these reflections I knew that whatever I do not know in this fashion and with this mode of certainty is not reliable and infallible knowledge; and knowledge that is not infallible is not certain knowledge (21-22).
i) Compare this with Bishop Butler’s motto that “probability is the very guide to life.” Here we need to steer a middle course. We need to prioritize our beliefs. Probability is perfectly adequate for most of our day-to-day decisions. And, indeed, probability is often the best we can hope for.
ii) Even in the religious sphere, there is room for a measure of uncertainty. To be unsure of some things is not to be unsure of all things. And one mark of a well-founded faith is to know what questions we must have the answer to, and what answers we can live without.
iii) There is also quite a difference between the role of uncertainty within a providential framework, and the role of uncertainty once the providence of God is denied. A Calvinist is content to live by faith rather than sight, for God can see in the dark, and direct our footsteps by ways unknown.
iv) Just as universal certainty is unattainable, so is universal uncertainty. For we are only uncertain of some things because we measure them against other opposing beliefs of which we are the more certain. Thus, even uncertainty has a foundation in certainty. The real issue is to lay the right foundation.
2.Algazel uses as his example a truth of reason, and compares that with a truth of fact. One wonders if this is just an incidental explanation or if he restricts certain knowledge to truths of reason. There is a weighty tradition, both before and after Algazel, for that restriction.
Yet he later speaks of “creedal principles [which] were firmly rooted in his being, not through any carefully argued proofs, but by reason of various causes, coincidences and experiences which are not capable of being stated in detail” (55-56). This has affinities with Newman’s illative sense and Polanyi’s tacit knowledge.
All knowledge is not reducible to argument. And there is a distinction between first-order knowledge (knowing that), and second-order knowledge (knowing that we know that). And the evidence for reflective, second-order knowledge is different from the evidence for prereflective, first-order knowledge. The evidence by which we learn things and the evidence by which we prove things can be two very different things indeed,
How do I know, just from the sound of her voice, that the person at the other end of the receiver is my wife? The reasons are extremely complex. I doubt that science can state them in full. Yet my recognition of her voice is quite compatible with my utter ignorance of the underlying reasons.
i) Algazel’s example is an implicit attack on the argument from miracle. Since Muhammad laid no claim to miraculous attestation, Islam is naturally hostile to the argument from miracle. Perhaps this has colored Algazel’s own attitude, although his skepticism could be purely epistemic.
ii) It is true, as a rule, that there is no direct connection between the miracle and the message. That, however, is not what the argument from miracle amounts to. Rather, the argument from miracle infers an indirect connection between miracle and message via a direct connection between miracle and messenger.
How do I know that a messenger is, indeed, a prophet of God—a true prophet, and not a false prophet? How do I know that he is not speaking on his own authority?
Well, if he performs a miracle, then he must have some supernatural backing for his message, since the miracle exceeds his human abilities. And by accrediting the messenger, the miracle serves to accredit the message. That’s the argument from miracle.
The argument from miracle is a special case of the argument from authority, whereby the miracle authorizes the spokesman. Algazel seems to be directed his firepower at a straw man.
iii) In addition, there is, in the case of some Scriptural miracles, a more direct connection between miracle and message when the miracle is a metaphor for the message. The cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable. The feeding of the five thousand illustrates the Bread of Life Discourse. Restoring sight to the blind is an emblem of Christ as the light of the world. The Plague of Darkness is a divine judgment on the cult of Amon-Ra, the Egyptian sun-god, and upon Pharaoh, who was worshiped as the son of Amon-Ra.
iv) There is, though, a limitation to the argument from miracle. In general, this is not a direct argument from a miracle itself, but from a reported miracle. Now, if someone doesn’t believe in the Bible, he will not believe in a Biblical miracles. Likewise, if someone doesn’t believe in God, neither will he believe in miracles.
v) This doesn’t mean that the argument from miracle is fallacious or useless. But it needs a supplementary argument.
For example, the argument from the miracle of the Resurrection is usually a two-step process. First, the apologist will argue that the actual event of the Resurrection affords the greatest explanatory power in accounting for all direct and indirect the data. Second, having established the event on those abductive grounds, the apologist will then argue from the Resurrection to warrant other truths of the faith.
Yet the man may still have doubts on the subject of prophethood; he may say, “Grant that your Imam adduces as proof the miracle of Jesus; that is, he says, “The proof of my truthfulness is that I will bring your father to life”; he actually restores him to life and says to me that he is performing what he promised…Yet no one knows the argument from miracle to truthfulness unless he knows magic and the distinction between that and miracle, and unless he knows that God does not lead His servants astray. The topic of God’s leading men astray is one where it is notoriously difficult to make a reply (51).
Here Algazel raises a different objection to the argument from miracle. It isn’t clear if this is one objection or two:
i) By distinguishing between miracle and magic, he seems to imply that an apparent miracle might be of diabolical origin. In traditional terms, this is the distinction between a miracle and a mirable. In fact, Scripture itself allows for that possibility (Deut 13:1-3). Does that destroy the argument from miracle? Not really.
a) It would only mean that miraculous attestation is a necessary, but insufficient condition of divine revelation.
b) A mirable would only cancel out a miracle if the mirable were evidence of a contrary claim. Now, a mirable is evidence of the dark side. But Scripture does not deny the existence of the dark side. Indeed, Scripture affirms the existence of the dark side.
c) You can also differentiate the source of origin by the character of the message. A sorcerer will inculcate a diabolical, God-hating morality. So you can still tell which comes from which.
ii) In addition, Algazel suggests that a miracle could be heaven-sent, yet sent to lead men astray.
There is an element of this in Scripture as well (1 Kg 22:23; Ezk 14:9; 2 Thes 2:11). So is there any way out of this trap?
a) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is no escape. In that event there’s nothing more for us to say or do. Either we’re deluded or we’re not. We have no control over the situation. Since it’s out of our hands, we might as well go ahead do whatever we think is right, for we have nothing to lose one way or the other. If we’re right, we have nothing to lose—and if we’re wrong, we have nothing to lose, for in the worst-case scenario, it’s a lost cause anyway.
b) Scriptural threats are only threatening to those who defy the Bible. It would be nonsensical of a believer to apply these verses to himself, for if he believes them, that makes him a believer, not an unbeliever. The authority for this threat comes from the authority of Scripture. If you acknowledge the authority of Scripture, then the threat is inapplicable to your own case.
c) Unlike the Koran, the God of Scripture would never mislead his servants. The God of Scripture is a God who binds himself by covenant to a people of his own choosing—whereas Allah is an utterly inscrutable and capricious deity.
I continued in this stage for the space of ten years, and during these periods of solitude there were revealed to me things innumerable and unfathomable. This much I shall say about that in order that others may be helped: I learnt with certainty that it is above all the mystics who walk on the road of God…their method the soundest method…to the mystics all movement and all rest, whether external or internal, brings illumination from the light of the lamp of prophetic revelation; and behind the light of prophetic revelation there is no other light on the face of the earth from which illumination may be received (60).
i) Unlike the argument from miracle, Algazel does affirm the argument from prophecy, but with a twist. His way of confirming the prophetic office is to recreate the conditions of the prophetic experience—to reproduce the altered state of consciousness in which the prophet received his visions and auditions.
By this, the finest mind in Islam, we have come down, through steady process of elimination, to one argument, and one argument only, for the veracity of Islam. That’s his only positive argument for confirming the prophetic call of Muhammad. There are, however, several difficulties with his singular appeal:
ii) If Allah deceives his servants, then he can just as easily deceive a Muslim mystic.
iii) Mysticism does not select for one religious tradition over another. There are mystics in every religious tradition (e.g., Catholic, Hindu, Sufi, American Indian)—as well as natural mysticism and atheism (e.g., Buddhism).
iv) There is more to Christianity than a set of timeless truths or repeatable experiences. Fundamental to Christianity is the internal relation between word-media and event-media, historical revelation and historical redemption. Redemptive events are particular and unrepeatable. Even if you could recreate the prophetic state of mind, that general condition does not specify any particular truths of fact.
Psychology is no substitute for history or historical testimony. The abstract phenomenology of the prophetic experience cannot deputize for the historic witness of any individual prophet or apostle.
Those to whom it is not granted to have immediate experience can become assured of it by trial (sc. contact with mystics or observation of them) and by hearsay, if they have sufficiently numerous opportunities of associating with mystics (62).
This only pushes the problem back a step. If an outsider can’t tell which claimant is a true prophet, neither can he tell which claimant is a true mystic.
If you understand what it is to be a prophet, and have devoted much time to the study of the Qur’an and the Traditions, you will arrive at a necessary knowledge of the fact that Muhammad is in the highest grades of the prophetic calling. Convince yourself of that by trying out what he said about the influence of devotional practices on the purification of the heart…When you have made trial of these in a thousand or several thousand instances, you will arrive at a necessary knowledge beyond all doubt (67).
i) If the purpose of mystical exercises is to verify the Koran, then it is viciously circular to take the Koranic definition of a prophet as your point of reference.
ii) The fact that you come to resemble the code of conduct you emulate is no evidence that the code of conduct you have chosen to emulate is God-given. What is pure or impure is a value-laden judgment, contingent on particular value-system in question.
By this method, then, seek certainty about the prophetic office, and not from the transformation of a rod into a serpent or the cleaving of the moon. For if you consider such an event by itself, without taking account of the numerous circumstances accompanying it—circumstances readily eluding the grasp of the intellect—then you might perhaps suppose that it was magic and deception and that it came from God to lead men astray; for “He leads astray whom He will, and guides whom He will.” Thus the topic of miracles will be thrown back upon you; for if your faith is based on a reasoned argument involving the probative force of the miracles, then your faith is destroyed by an ordered argument showing the difficulty and ambiguity of the miracle (67-68).
Here we have two objections rolled into one, the first of which I’ve already addressed. As to the second:
i) This is yet another attack on the argument from miracle. Yet the implicit scope of his objection is by no means limited to the argument from miracle. For if my faith in anything at all is resting on a reasoned argument, then a persuasive counterargument will undercut my faith. But should the risk of being wrong outweigh the chance of being right? This strikes me as both irrational and impractical.
Perhaps, though, Algazel has religious certainty in mind. And I don’t deny that this is a high priority.
ii) People seek reasons because their intuitive conviction is weak. It is true that this leaves them vulnerable if their arguments are overturned. But they were already vulnerable, which is why they turned to arguments in the first place. It does no good to tell them that reason may betray them, for if they had had an unquestioning faith to begin with, they’d have need no arguments to fortify their faith. Since they are doubters, they cannot fall back on their faith. That’s their problem.
In fairness to Algazel, he supposes that he has something better to offer them. But I have proven otherwise.
iii) There are good and bad arguments because of truths and falsehoods. But if we believe in truth, and if we believe in the possibility of true belief, then we shouldn’t be so fearful of reasoned argumentation. If there is a truth to be known, then there ought to be lines of evidence that truly point us to the truth. And it should be easier to reason from one truth to another truth than reason from one falsehood to another falsehood.
If, from time to time, we get our facts wrong, that can only be known because, at other times, we get it right. Error is only discernible in relation to the truth, so the possibility of error presents no serious objection to reason and argument—but, rather, presupposes the very process it decries.