Monday, May 15, 2006

The Muslim conundrum

In the early days of his “prophetic” career, Muhammad made claims like these (in three different translations):

YUSUFALI: And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light, and confirmation of the Law that had come before him: a guidance and an admonition to those who fear Allah.
PICKTHAL: And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him in the Torah, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before it in the Torah - a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil).
SHAKIR: And We sent after them in their footsteps Isa, son of Marium, verifying what was before him of the Taurat and We gave him the Injeel in which was guidance and light, and verifying what was before it of Taurat and a guidance and an admonition for those who guard (against evil).

YUSUFALI: Let the people of the Gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) those who rebel.
PICKTHAL: Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are evil-livers.
SHAKIR: And the followers of the Injeel should have judged by what Allah revealed in it; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors.

YUSUFALI: If only the People of the Book had believed and been righteous, We should indeed have blotted out their iniquities and admitted them to gardens of bliss.
PICKTHAL: If only the People of the Scripture would believe and ward off (evil), surely We should remit their sins from them and surely We should bring them into Gardens of Delight.
SHAKIR: And if the followers of the Book had believed and guarded (against evil) We would certainly have covered their evil deeds and We would certainly have made them enter gardens of bliss

YUSUFALI: If only they had stood fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that was sent to them from their Lord, they would have enjoyed happiness from every side. There is from among them a party on the right course: but many of them follow a course that is evil.
PICKTHAL: If they had observed the Torah and the Gospel and that which was revealed unto them from their Lord, they would surely have been nourished from above them and from beneath their feet. Among them there are people who are moderate, but many of them are of evil conduct.
SHAKIR: And if they had kept up the Taurat and the Injeel and that which was revealed to them from their Lord, they would certainly have eaten from above them and from beneath their feet there is a party of them keeping to the moderate course, and (as for) most of them, evil is that which they do

YUSUFALI: If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee: the Truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: so be in no wise of those in doubt.
PICKTHAL: And if thou (Muhammad) art in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto thee, then question those who read the Scripture (that was) before thee. Verily the Truth from thy Lord hath come unto thee. So be not thou of the waverers.
SHAKIR: But if you are in doubt as to what We have revealed to you, ask those who read the Book before you; certainly the truth has come to you from your Lord, therefore you should not be of the disputers.

YUSUFALI: Nor be of those who reject the signs of Allah, or thou shalt be of those who perish.
PICKTHAL: And be not thou of those who deny the revelations of Allah, for then wert thou of the losers.
SHAKIR: And you should not be of those who reject the communications of Allah, (for) then you should be one of the losers.

YUSUFALI: And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)."
PICKTHAL: And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our Allah and your Allah is One, and unto Him we surrender.
SHAKIR: And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our Allah and your Allah is One, and to Him do we submit.

There’s a certain artless charm in Muhammad’s naïveté. In his ignorance of the Bible, the church, and the synagogue, he appeared to believe, in all sincerity, that what he was preaching was the very same message you could find in the Bible.

And in his incautious innocence, he made the Jews and Christians—the People of the Book—his judges.

If you had any doubts about his prophetic vocation, go to the Jews and Christians for confirmation.

As time went by he became aware of his mistake. This accounts for the discrepancy between the earlier Meccan surahs and the later Medinan surahs.

Now, this presents the Muslim with a conundrum. On the one hand, there’s no positive evidence that Muhammad is a true prophet of God.

On the other hand, there is also positive evidence that he was a false prophet.

This presents the Muslim apologist with an acute difficulty. If what Muhammad said was false, then he’s a false prophet; but if what he said was true, then he was also a false prophet.

For if he truly said the Bible was the standard of comparison, then he’s convicted by his very own yardstick.

How can a Muslim apologist get around this?

i) To the extent that the Muslim world is a closed society, the issue never comes up. Ignorance is the best defense.

ii) And where ignorance is an insufficient disincentive, the law of apostasy will take up the rear. Beheading for conversion is a wonderful deterrent.

But there are times, such as Muslims living in an open society like the United States, when ignorance and coercion are not a readily available.

In this case, the only move a Muslim can made is to deny the identity between the Bible that Muhammad was talking about and the Bible we have today. And this can be done either by attacking the (a) text of Scripture or else attacking the (b) canon of Scripture.

But both moves raise more problems than they solve.

Regarding textual criticism:

i) There is, at this point, a fundamental asymmetry between Islam and Christianity. For the text of the Koran could be word perfect, yet that would not suffice to either prove Islam or disprove Christianity.

On the other hand, the text of the Bible must thoroughly corrupt for Islam to be even possibly true.

So the Muslim apologist is already beginning at a distinct disadvantage.

ii) Then there’s the question of when the Bible was corrupted. Where’s the window of opportunity? Where’s the evidence?

In principle, a Muslim could say this occurred before Muhammad came on the scene. Recently, Muslims have seized upon the writings of Bart Ehrman, a renegade Christian, to advance their claim. But there are two problems with this appeal:

a) Ehrman’s argument has come under sustained and mounting criticism:

b) In addition, it’s self-defeating for a Muslim apologist to say the Bible was hopelessly corrupted before Muhammad was born, for if it were irremediably corrupt in his own time, then he’d hardly be sending doubters to Jews and Christians to vouch for his prophetic credentials.

iii) And it will hardly suffice to say the NT was hopelessly corrupted after he died, for he died in the 7C AD. By then you had copies of the Bible all over the known world. There would be no way to recall all these copies, destroy them, replace them with doctored copies, and reissue them. Not only would that be impossible to do, but even if it were possible, it would be impossible to cover up.

iii) And let’s keep in mind the degree of corruption that is necessary to reconcile to Koran with the Bible.

Among other things, the Koran denies the divinity of Christ, as well as the crucifixion, and therefore denies the Resurrection.

Actually, the Koran seems to be inconsistent on the death and resurrection of Christ, but surah 4:157 has been privileged as the paradigmatic passage, against which opposing surahs are harmonized.

So, in order to square the Koran with the Bible by appealing to textual corruption, one must suppose that the original text of Scripture never taught the divinity of Christ, the crucifixion, or the Resurrection.

And yet the deity of Christ, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection are pervasive themes in all our copies of the NT. Was all this interpolated after the 7C AD?

iv) Yet another problem confronting the Muslim apologist is that, to my knowledge, the Koran never accuses Christians of corrupting the NT.

A most, it accuses the Jews (or Medinan Jews, in particular) of corrupting the OT.

And even in that respect, the charge seems to be, not that they tampered with the text, but that they misquoted or misrepresented the content.

v) Yet another problem with this appeal is that textual criticism is a doubled-edged sword. For the text of the Koran is also a matter of acute and ongoing dispute:

On this score, Muslims have a habit of quoting conservative Muslim scholars on the textual history of the Koran while quoting liberal scholars on the textual history of the Bible. Note the double standard.

Regarding the canon, they have a parallel problem.

i) The 7C Hijaz was surrounded by Christian cultures in Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, representing the eastern Roman Empire, along with Ethiopia and her colonies (e.g. Yemen) at the other end.

Study any standard monograph on the NT canonics (e.g. B. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture).

Was there ever any 7C canon of the Eastern Church in which you had no witness to the deity of Christ, or his crucifixion and resurrection?

ii) And it will hardly sufficient to say that Christians of the 7C Hafiz represented some heretical sect, for, if so, Muhammad would scarcely refer doubters to a heretical sect of Christendom to confirm his message.

iii) There is also a tension between the appeal to a variant text and a variant canon.

Appeal to textual corruption assumes that we’re dealing with the same canon, so that the only way of harmonizing the Bible with the Koran is to allege textual corruption.

But if we’re not dealing with the same canon, then there’s no need to allege textual corruption in order to harmonize the Bible with the Koran. Not, at least, if the canon in use by 7C Christians of the Hijaz is so idiosyncratic as to omit any reference to the deity of Christ, or his crucifixion and resurrection.

So the appeal to either a variant text or a variant canon or both is a purely opportunistic exercise on the part of a desperate Muslim apologist.

iv) There is, in fact, something of an internal relationship between canonics and lower criticism.

On the basis of textual criticism alone, David Trobisch takes the position that the NT canon was standardized by the mid-2C.

He has done this on the basis of certain standardized features in the MSS tradition, such as the number and order of the NT books, titles, nomina sacra, and the use of codices.

To quote a few of his arguments:

“It does not matter when or where the MS was written, whether it is a majuscule or a miniscule, whether the text was written on papyrus or on parchment; and it does not matter whether the text is taken from the Gospels, the letters of Paul, or the Revelation of John. Any MS of the NT will contain a number of contracted terms that have to be decoded by the reader: the so-called nomina sacra, sacred names,” The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford 2000), 11.

“Aside from the characteristic notation of nomina sacra there is another fascinating observation concerning the canonical edition: from the very beginning, NT MSS were codices and not scrolls,” ibid. 19.

“The arrangement and the number of NT writings in the oldest extant MSS of the Christian Bible provide the most important evidence for describing the history of the canon. Methodologically, varied sequences of the writings in the MSS demonstrate that the writings circulated separately at first and were combined to form different collections later. This statement may also be reversed: if the same number of Gospels, letters of Paul, general letters, &c., are presented in the MSS in the same order, it follows that these MSS are based on an established collection,” ibid. 21.

“The four oldest extant MSS [Codex Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus, & Ephraemi Rescriptus], which at the time of the production presented a complete edition of the NT, were produced during the 4-5C,” ibid. 24.

It seems that none of the four MSS served as a master copy for any of the others and that they were produced independently. Furthermore, each of these four MSS constitutes a compete edition of the Christian Bible. They all contain the writings of the OT followed by the NT,” ibid. 25.

“By comparing the sequence of the writings in the four oldest extant editions of the NT, the four collection units of the MS tradition are easily identified: The four-Gospel Book, the Praxapostolos [i.e. Acts], the Letters of Paul, and the Revelation of John.”

“Because most of these MSS were produced after the 5C, at a time when the number of the 27 canonical writings had been firmly established, the division of the NT into collection units does not attest to different stages of the canon. The reason for such a division is probably a purely practical one. Smaller books were easier to bind, transport, and read. In case of loss or destruction, only the affected volume had to be replaced. Moreover, readers were not equally interested in each of the four units; some were clearly more popular than others,” ibid. 26.

“Examining the titles of the NT writings, one of the first observations is that they are transmitted with few variants. They are structure the canonical edition in this way: Gospels, Praxapostolos [i.e. Acts], letters of Paul, and Revelation of John,” ibid. 38.

“The titles serve to group the individual writings into collection units. The organizing function is clear for those letters that are numbered: the letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Timothy, and the letters of Peter and John.”

“Three additional groups are easily discerned: the four Gospels, the seven general letters, and the letters of Paul. The titles of the remaining two writings, Acts and Revelation, contain a genre designation in their first part, just like the titles of the three groups do,” ibid. 41.

“The archetype of the collection most probably was entitled he kaine diatheke, ‘The New Testament.’ Due to their fragmentary character, the oldest MSS do not preserve the title page. The uniform evidence of the extant tradition, however, strongly suggests that this was the title of the archetype,” ibid. 43-44.

Trobisch attributes subsequent debate, not to an effort to arrive at a consensus regarding the canon, but to a retrospective argument over the preexisting canon, as codified by standard editions of the entire NT then in circulation. Cf. Ibid. 34-35.

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