Q. Over the years, some Muslim and Christian "scholars" have debated the true nature of Jesus and which religious viewpoint is correct, the most famous one from the Muslim side being Ahmad Deedat. More recently, others like Jamal Badawi, Shabir Ally, etc. have picked up where he left off. Should these debates be encouraged and supported?
A. The Qur'an, in projecting the idea of strict monotheism, certainly rejects the idea of the divinity of Christ, or his being God's son. Now the Christians who choose to believe in these two things do not logically defend their position, and rely instead on faith. This presents a problem for the Muslim polemic, for when one is presented with a logical argument, and then defends his/her position on the basis of faith, certainly only an impasse is the result. The Qur'an then puts its words and its approach very carefully, its position is clear for those who wish to think and see. For those who are overcome by what they deem to be faith, the Qur'an has a proposition of allowance as far as coexistence is concerned, for it is this very Qur'an that tells us in 2:62: "Verily those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve."
I am quite aware that there are some who restrict the Christians in this verse to mean the few who saw and followed Jesus. This interpretation is patently false as they were not even known as Christians, and the Qur'anic usage of the term can only be taken to mean those at the time of the Prophet -- who by then, in fact since 323 at least, had accepted the concept of a trinitarian Godhead, sonship, etc. But their explanation varies from outright shirk to more esoteric concepts. No average Christian will tell you that there are three gods, but that somehow God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost or some such explanation. Clearly they do not desire to commit shirk, but are at a loss as to how to otherwise express that which they deem to be inspired scripture. In this position, they are not unlike the Muslim who believes the "sahih hadith" that speaks of the Prophet's many miracles, or his physical ascension to the heavens, or Jesus' return.
Given this reality of faith inspired error, Allah tells us in the verse just quoted that probing the faith inspired morass of a belief is sometimes best left alone, and that our benefit to each other is important, as evidenced by the focus on "those who do good deeds." How, you may ask, can they be deemed Christians and still believe in Allah and the last day, to which the answer is: Find me a Christian who does not. As the great scholar Ibn Taimiyah said, we have no problem with the Jews and Christians in terms of Uluhiyya (God) and Rubbubiya (Lordship), but rather in terms of Asma wa sifaat -- "Names and Attributes. Saadia, the great Jewish gaon, who wrote the first book on a structured Jewish theology, put the matter that the Christians sought to separate the Divine qualities from the Divine essence, thence the problem. And his explanation certainly, at least to a Muslim or a Jew, seems correct.
But if that is the case, then it is not "shirk" qua "shirk," and we are thus in a quandary, again because of the verse that I quoted above. And so, Allah orders His Prophet thus: "Say: O People of the Book! come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords besides God."(3:64) Now this verse is not referring to Jesus: but rather to the priests and monks who were so revered that their words were taken as divine (as evidenced by Q9:31). We know it could not be Jesus because the Christians of the Arabian Peninsula, whatever their persuasion -- Monophysite, Jacobite, etc., -- would not give up their shared concept in a divine Jesus, but at the same time still did not say he was a separate God, but a part of God, which again brings up the problem of "real" shirk and "implied" shirk.
The Qur'an goes further; it consoles the Muslims on this issue with the verse: "They say: None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. That is their conjecture. Say, Bring your proof if you are telling the truth."(Q2:111) Notice that here, the Qur'an does not negate a Jew or a Christian entering heaven (don't forget that the difference between the Jew and the Christian at the time of the Prophet was that the Jews rejected Jesus -- which brings up another problem -- how could they, having rejected a prophet of God, be deemed allowable for entry to Heaven?). What the Qur'an challenges is their claim to sole entry. Why not a Muslim? And in the next verse the answer is: "Indeed everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good, such shall have his reward with his Lord; on him shall be no fear nor shall he grieve."
Remember too that in the Qur'an, the spirituality of the priests and monks are praised: 5:82, even though the Qur'an in another verse clearly indicates it does not approve of monastic asceticism (57:27). From all of the above then, certain things become clear: "debates," especially those that are based on heavy polemic, are not encouraged by the Qur'an. If we are defending certain charges, certainly this is allowed as a last resort, more for defending ourselves rather than seeking converts, for certainly heated debate is against the order to "invite to the way of God by wisdom and good preaching." In fact, debate can and does foster more animosity, for as shown earlier, we are arguing about things on which we may never agree, faith being the decisive factor.
In defense of Ahmad Deedat, I will say that he was reacting to those missionaries who, with their evil zeal, adopted all ungodly means of persuasion, including brainwashing our innocent children, and the less educated amongst our umma. He therefore must be commended for the job he did, and the material from the books he wrote should be always at hand to confront those who, totally oblivious of the Islamic way, seek to darken our doors and convert us to a religion Jesus never preached. When Ahmad Deedat debated Jimmy Swaggart and -- to all but the most prejudiced observer -- won handily, how many Christians converted? Was there any cordiality afterwards? As for our brothers like Jamal Badawi and Shabir Ally, they are to be commended too for encouraging our co-religionists to be proud of their religion and to learn it. But their approach to debate is to my mind, based on the verses I have quoted above, to be seen as misguided, except when there is a case of defense involved.
Finding the historic and true Jesus is impossible by the standards of modern academia. The Qur'an, it must be admitted, cannot be, except to a Muslim, seen as a reference for history. It came six centuries after Christ, and by this fact cannot be deemed as the criterion for judging what really happened as far as a non-Muslim is concerned. And neither can the gospels, since they were written after the event, pseudepigraphically, and with much imported Mithraic and other legends. What the Qur'an is concerned with therefore is presenting a personality of obedience and humility, and freeing Christ from certain wrong ascriptions.
I am aware that my foregoing statement may be hurtful to some Muslims, but again bear in mind, I am speaking from the point of view of presenting the Qur'anic version to a non-Muslim and asking him/her to believe the Qur'an on an academic basis. If Muslims were to really examine the Jesus of the Qur'an, they would focus less on the halaal and haraam and who will enter heaven or not, and try to be good humans, not judging harshly, and letting their deeds be indicative of what they claim to be, for "by their fruits ye shall know them." May Allah guide us to that which is right.
[Webmaster's note: Click here for a historical analysis of how the "trinity concept" got incorporated into Christianity. For additional details, visit Encyclopaedia Brittanica and search on "trinity".]
Posted September 15, 2000