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Why Muslim-Christian debates are futile

 | March 26, 2017

They are a useless form of argument that do little to nothing in provoking critical thought from the audience.

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The Quran speaks with profound respect of the earlier scriptures that were communicated by God’s messengers. Muslims are required to believe in those holy writs and in those divinely appointed heralds: “Believers, hold fast to your faith in God and His Messenger, and in the scripture He has revealed to His Messenger and in the scriptures He formerly revealed. Anyone who denies God, His angels, His scriptures, His messengers and the Last Day has strayed far.” (An-Nisa’ 4:136)

The principle seems clear, but the fulfilment of the requirements is difficult. Practically speaking, what is spiritual commitment composed of? What is, in fact the status of the Torah, the Psalms, the Sapiential Books, the Gospel and the Epistles?

Initially, the position of the Quran on previous revelations was somewhat broad. It started to be more definitive only in the verses that were revealed after Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Medina. In the Meccan revelations, the Quran does not distinguish between Jews and Christians. It refers to Jesus, Moses and other Hebrew prophets, but speaks of them and their brethren as “Children of Israel”. There is no mention yet of the Torah or the Gospel, but only of “The Scripture”.

In Surah Maryam, for example, we have a passage narrating what happened when Mary brought forth the Infant Jesus. The people are horrified because she is not married. But the Infant Jesus, lying in his cradle, vindicates his virgin mother.

“Carrying the infant, she came to her people, who said to her, ‘Mary, this is indeed an astounding thing.’ As Mary had vowed not to speak, she pointed to the infant (suggesting they should ask him). But they replied, ‘How can we speak with an infant in the cradle?’ Whereupon the Child Jesus spoke and said, ‘I am the servant of God. He gave me the Scripture and ordained me a prophet; His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and He has exhorted me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms as long as I shall live. He has exhorted me to honour my mother. He has not made me insolent or arrogant. Peace on me on the day I was born and on the day I will die and on the day I will be raised alive from the dead.’” (Maryam 19:27-33)

Likewise the Scripture was vouchsafed to Moses: “And certainly We gave Moses the Scripture that they might be rightly guided.” (Al-Mu’minun 23: 49) The Quran speaks further of the sacred scrolls of Abraham and Moses (Al-A’la 87:18/19).

During the years of preaching in Mecca, the Prophet saw Islam within the perspective of the earlier Hebrew prophets. The faithful who believed in the biblical revelation formed then only one community. After speaking of a long line of prophets of the past, in Surah Al-Anbiya’, the Quran adds: “Surely this nation of yours is one nation, and I am your Lord; so serve Me. But they fell into schisms and became divided among themselves. They all shall return to Us.” (Al-Anbiya’ 21:92-93)

In the Meccan revelations, the Quran does not dwell on the divisions among the Scriptuaries (Jews and Christians). Though it frequently mentions schism among the Israelites, it focuses on exhortations to unity and dwells on the unity of God’s messengers. It says the Prophet is with the receivers of revelation against the idolaters of Mecca. There is no question of a conceivable contradiction between the Quran and the previous scriptures. As a matter of fact, the Quranic preaching recalls numerous narratives about the holy characters of the Bible.

On the other hand, in Medina, though the Prophet still spoke of the Children of Israel as people favoured over the rest of the world and though he still presented Jesus as sent to the Israelites, the Quran articulated itself more precisely. In the Medinan verses, there is mention of the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospel and of Jews, Christians and Sabeans.

A firm tenet

The Muslims, even today, continue to declare their faith in the earlier emissaries of God and in the divinely inspired writs. This article of Islamic creed is quite firm.

But what does this belief mean in practice? The Muslims have reservations about the present state of those scriptures and therefore limit themselves to the Quran. They do not read the Judeo-Christian sacred writings. Such an assertion may appear exaggerated to some Muslims, particularly to Muslim missionaries who occasionally open the Bible. Still, those occasions represent isolated cases.

While the Christians, through liturgical missals and lectionaries, are constantly in contact with the Old Testament, Muslims never use biblical texts in their canonical prayers and, generally, even in supererogatory supplications. To a Muslim, the Quran is the sole criterion of truth. Muslims judge the Bible as whole by the standard of the Quran. They know the earlier revelations only through the Quran. In practice they do not read the Bible for spiritual growth or edification of faith.

So there is little interest among Muslims in reading the Bible, except out of a curiosity to discover the sources of distinct Christian doctrines and practices. That’s why it is futile to have Muslim-Christian debates. They are a useless form of argument that do little to nothing in provoking critical thought from the audience. The rules are designed to undermine rational interchange. A debater is not allowed to say, “That was a good point, I’ll have to rethink my views.” Rather, they must adhere blindly to their positions even when they recognise that they are wrong.

And what are called “skilled debaters” know that they should use chicanery and deceit rather than rational argument to “win.” Thus, just as a Christian cannot demand as a prerequisite for true dialogue that a Muslim must first believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so also a Muslim cannot demand of a Christian that he should first believe that Muhammad is the Final Messenger of God. This would mean that a Christian would have to become a Muslim (and vice versa) before interreligious dialogue could begin. Indeed, it means interreligious dialogue in general could not take place.

It is a non-negotiable basis for discussion that each side should concede that the Holy Writ on which the faith of the other community is founded forms the foundation and the norm for the understanding and the expression of that faith. This point, which was documented at the Muslim-Christian Congress held in Tripoli, Libya, in February 1976, also implies the importance of Christians learning the Quran and Muslims learning the Bible if the dialogue between them is to be fruitful.

Nurul Haqq Shahrir is a member on the panel for Islamic law transformation under Majlis Dakwah Negara. The author completed his Islamic studies in Jordan where he earned a BA in Shariah with minor in Arabic philology. In addition he also received a BA [STB] Summa Cum Laude in Sacred Theology beside MDiv in Biblical Theology (ΚΣ-USA) with Licentiate in Canon Law – Juris Canonici Licentia [JCL] (PUU). He also holds an M.A. in Islamic Jurisprudence (Usul Al-Fiqh). He is proficient in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Italian.

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