Saturday, November 10, 2012

Is the Koran prophetic?

A friend asked me if it’s blasphemous to credit the Koran with containing predictive (i.e., inspired) prophecies? He posed this question in reference to Joel Richardson’s books on the allegedly Muslim identity of the Antichrist.

It’s a complicated question to answer, for different answers are possible, given different assumptions.

i) To begin with, there are different theories concerning the nature of Muhammad’s “prophetic” experience.

ii) On the one hand, there are naturalistic explanations. For instance, some people attribute his trances to epileptic seizures.

iii) Conversely, the Koran may simply be a product of Muhammad’s garbled, hearsay knowledge of the Bible, supplemented by his imagination or improvisation. 

Assuming naturalistic explanation of this sort, Muhammad didn’t really foresee the future.

I’m not qualified to comment on (ii), and we need to guard against the secular scepticism. For instance, there are infidels who apply that explanation to Ezekiel.

I find (iii) perfectly plausible, although that’s not the only plausible explanation.

iv) However, naturalistic explanations don’t rule out precognition. On this view, Muhammad really could foresee the future, but his ability to do so would have a natural explanation.

For instance, some paranormal researchers who accept precognition explain it by appeal to quantum mechanics and/or retrocausation.

One problem with that approach is that appeals to quantum mechanics or retrocausation to ground precognition raise more questions than the phenomenon they propose to explain.

v) On the other hand, there are supernaturalistic explanations. Perhaps Muhammad did get his information from an angel. After all, there are fallen angels as well as heavenly angels.

I’m open to that explanation as well. However, attributing his prophetic foresight (assuming he had any) to demonic inspiration only relocates the original question. For that raises the question of how, whether, or to what degree Satan or demons can foresee the future.

vi) Scripture does attest the possibility of demonic foresight (e.g. Deut 13:1-5; Acts 16:16).

However, this is presumably limited. For instance, consider how Isaiah deploys the argument from prophecy to debunk idolatry (Isa 40-48). If, however, demonically-inspired prophets could foresee whatever divinely-inspired prophets could foresee, then that would cancel out Isaiah’s argument.

vii) On what basis can evil spirits predict the future? One possibility is that this is just an educated guess. Evil spirits are better at guessing the future than we are because they are more knowledgeable than we are. They can take more variables into account when they extrapolate from the present to the future. They get lucky more often than your run-of-the-mill psychic or astrologer.

viii) As a rule, extrapolating future events from present conditions is more reliable for events in the near future rather than the distant future. The future is less predictable the farther out you go because the variables multiply and ramify exponentially. So this explanation would only work for short-term predictions rather than long-term predictions.

Of course, some things like a solar eclipse or Halley’s comet are easy to predict far in advance. But that’s not the type of phenomenon we’re discussing.

ix) Another explanation is that demons can make an accurate prediction by causing the future event. Because demons are immortal, a demon could presumably predict an event 1000 years from now, and still be around to make it happen a 1000 years later.

In addition, demons can make somethings happen by tapping human or animal agents to do their bidding. So this explanation might work for certain long-term predictions.

x) However, even (viii) has limitations. We don’t know that demons wield any direct power over inanimate nature–although that might be one explanation for reported cases of psychokinesis.

Likewise, they can’t possess just anyone they please. Even among unbelievers there seems to be a natural barrier to possession unless the unbeliever has a special susceptibility to possession. Unless he does something to lower his resistance or invite the demon in.

xi) In addition, there’s a difference between small-scale and large-scale events. Large-scale events may require more participants, more coordination, more intervening events leading up to the denouement. That’s harder to prearrange.

xii) And, of course, God can simply scotch demonic schemes. They can only do as much as he allows them to do.

One can imagine God stringing gullible demons along, letting them think they’re making progress. Winning. Then letting them down hard.

Indeed, isn’t that exactly how God played Satan? The devil “won” on Good Friday, but lost on Easter Sunday. He ended up contributing to his own defeat.

xiii) Finally, none of this is really applicable to Richardson’s claims. That’s because Richardson’s projections aren’t based on Muhammad’s predictions, but Mahdism. That’s not the product of Muslim prophets. To my knowledge, it doesn’t even claim to have its source in Islamic prophetism.

Rather, it simply represents an internal development in Shiite theology. You begin with certain axiomatic ideas. These, in turn, give rise to certain possibilities or implications.

It’s like the Star Trek canon. This began with Gene Roddenberry. He laid down certain narrative “facts” or parameters. That establishes the general framework for further elaboration. To some extent, later directors and screenwriters build on that, although they allow themselves considerable license in modifying or contradicting the original framework. It’s fairly fluid.

Mahdism is theological fiction. Given certain agreed-on starting-points, it can be developed in this or that direction. But don’t confuse it with reality. It’s building on a false premise.


  1. What is the best explanation for what is purported to be the “gift of prophecy” in the church today among continuationists?

  2. I'm a semicessationist, so I allow for the possibility that God sometimes communicates with Christians under special circumstances.

  3. How would you know if the communication was from God?

    On the one hand, you have Edgar saying, “Since these gifts and signs did cease, the burden of proof is entirely on the charismatics to prove their validity,” i.e., that their experience is the reoccurrence of gifts that have not occurred for almost 1,900 years.

    And on the other hand, you have Storms saying, “In other words, the burden of proof rests with cessationists. If certain gifts of a special class have ceased, the responsibility is theirs to prove it.”

    1. How did Abraham know God was the speaker? How did Isaiah or Ezekiel know God was speaking to him?

      If God speaks to someone, surely he can instill in the subject the unmistakable conviction that God is, indeed, the speaker. So I don't think we necessarily need to begin with criteria.

      Of course, there are biblical criteria for false prophecy.

      I wouldn't cast this as a burden of proof argument. I've presented a positive case for my position. And I've considered the ethical and epistemic limitations of ostensible prophecy: