Since the Seattle debate Shabir Ally and I have been posting various commentaries on elements of the debate. Obviously, Shabir has had more time to be doing this than I have, but we have both posted some rather lengthy commentary on particular points. I will continue to comment as time allows, but I am certain I will not be able to match Mr. Ally’s literary output. Be that as it may, I do trust the readers to analyze the contributions for themselves.
The Qur’an claims to be a clear, perspicuous book. In Surah 5:15-16 we read,
O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book (مِّنَ اللّهِ نُورٌ وَكِتَابٌ مُّبِينٌ)—wherewith Allah guideth all who seek His good pleasure to ways of peace and safety, and leadeth them out of darkness, by His will, unto the light—guideth them to a path that is straight.
The people of the Book are Jews and Christians, and hence there is a comparison inherent in these words, one claiming the Qur’an is more clear, more relevant, and simply superior, to the Torah (OT) and Injil (NT). The claim that the Qur’an is “clear” and “plain” and understandable is often repeated by Muslims, mainly because it is found in the Qur’an itself. But if that is the case, why is it that Shabir Ally and I can exchange so many pages of text on what is being said in Surah 4:157-158? Remember what is said:
157. That they said (in boast), We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not—158. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise—
Let’s consider this “clear” (مُّبِينٌ) portion of the Qur’an in light of the debate with Shabir Ally in Seattle.
“That they said (in boast)” — This is spoken of in reference to the Jews. One could argue if this is a fair representation of the Jews as a whole, but it must be granted that in some context some group of Jews could have made such a boast. It is unlikely, but not impossible. But keep in mind who the pronouns in this text are referring to. We start with the Jews, a particular group, evidently, who boasted.
“We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary” (قَتَلْنَا الْمَسِيحَ عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ) Obviously, this would extend the accusation to the entirety of the Jewish people, for no one in Muhammad’s day was making the claim that they themselves had done so. It is likewise highly doubtful that any Jew of the day would use “Christ” (literally, Messiah, الْمَسِيحَ) of Jesus to begin with. Now, does this mean that the Jews alone killed Jesus, without the assistance of the Romans? Or that they were guilty of instigating the killing of Jesus? We simply are not told.
At this time I need to take a moment to re-emphasize something. Surah 4:157 stands alone in the Qur’an in making this claim. This is an instance where we have a single ayah (verse) that makes this claim, with no other text in all the Qur’an affirming this assertion. In point of fact, at least two texts (Surah 3:55, 19:33) seem to teach the death of Jesus in plain, clear language. So if the text is going to announce something as ground-shaking as the assertion that Jesus did not die upon the cross, it needs to do so with great clarity and precision. Add to this another amazing fact: for two hundred years after Muhammad no one could remember a single comment the Prophet ever made about this text! Not a word! This only increases the need for perfect clarity on the part of the Qur’an at this point.
but they killed him not, nor crucified him (وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ وَمَا صَلَبُوهُ) The only “they” is the Jews, so, what is being said? That the Jews did not kill Jesus, but, the Romans did? Or that He was not killed at all? And the next phrase says they did not crucify Him. Does this simply acknowledge that the Jews did not crucify? Or that the Jews did not instigate the crucifixion of Jesus? The normative use of “crucify” is a means to execution. Is the repetition simply a matter of emphasis, or, as Shabir Ally wishes us to believe, is it possible that the text is saying the Jews did not kill Jesus, but, they did crucify Him, but, He did not die due to crucifixion? (Though it is outside the strict examination of this text, I remind the reader that even hypothetically assuming the Romans failed to make the crucifixion of Jesus a successful execution is betting on the 1 in 10,000 longshot percentage). It is hard to imagine that the text is saying “they did not do this, but, they did do this…just not to the point of execution.” As Shabir Ally admits, the classical interpreters of the Qur’an, who were far closer to the time of Muhammad than he, understood this to be a blanket denial that the Jews killed or crucified Jesus. The rasool of Allah would never be subjected to such humiliation! This is surely the majority understanding of Muslims down through the history of Islam, but, evidently, the majority view can be wrong, even though the text is so very clear and perspicuous.
but so it was made to appear to them (وَلَـكِن شُبِّهَ لَهُمْ) If the preceding text allowed for a bevy of interpretations, this one sets a new standard for “lack of clarity.” So what was made to appear to them? What is the referent? That Jesus died? It could be “he” was made to appear to them, and that has been the basis of the majority interpretation of the “substitution theory,” that someone else was made to look like Jesus and was crucified in His place. Muslims have confidently asserted that Judas, Simon the Cyrene, a Roman soldier, or one of the apostles (as a volunteer) were made to look like Jesus and crucified in His place. But clearly, the text is far too obscure, far too brief, to even begin to provide a foundation for such a far-reaching concept. Indeed, I would suggest that the substitution theory only proves that even the Muslims who developed it could not imagine that someone had not, in fact, died upon the cross of Calvary.
Next, what does “appear” mean? “It was made to appear” would seem to indicate that this is something Allah did. Indeed, it has been observed rightly that if you accept the majority Islamic view that Allah made someone to appear as Jesus, then Allah started Christianity. Whether He did so inadvertently or not doesn’t really matter, Allah is still the one who “made it appear.”
Further, made it appear to them. To who? The Jews? Romans? Everyone there? Did the disciples know? The text would seem to indicate it was made to appear to the Jews, but, majority Islamic opinion has been that it was made to appear to anyone who was observing, if, in fact, the substitution theory is correct. But again, who can say? The text is not clear, it is not perspicuous. It leaves all sorts of options and, given the unique character of this ayah, leaves room for massive confusion.
and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow (وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ اخْتَلَفُواْ فِيهِ لَفِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهُ مَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِلاَّ اتِّبَاعَ الظَّنِّ) To whom does the text refer? Who is “those who differ”? Jews? Christians? Who? What kinds of doubts? Doubts about what? Without any definition these words have no meaning. Who has “no certain knowledge”? Knowledge of the identity of who was made to look like Jesus? No certain knowledge of what “it was made to appear” means? What conjecture are they following? Conjecture about a substitute? Conjecture about what? We simply are not told. Muslims have read this section in light of what they read into the previous portion, normally making some connection to substitution. But the fact is, these words could bear any number of meanings.
for of a surety they killed him not (وَمَا قَتَلُوهُ يَقِينًا) It seems that placing this here re-iterates the preceding assertion, which, in most normal situations, would mean the intervening assertions are limited to the Jews as well, but that is hard to understand. We can affirm that this source, written long, long after the New Testament, denies the Jews killed Jesus. What this means we cannot determine: it could be a simple statement that others were responsible for Jesus’ death. It could be a denial that Jesus died in any way. It simply isn’t clear. This can be seen in the words that follow.
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself (بَل رَّفَعَهُ اللّهُ إِلَيْهِ) Those who hold to the substitution theory take this to mean that Allah raised Jesus up to Himself rather than allowing Him to die on the cross. However, others point out that the verb here, rafa’ahu (رَّفَعَهُ) “has always, whenever the act of raf (“elevating”) of a human being is attributed to God, the meaning of “honouring” or “exalting.” Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any warrant for the popular belief that God has “taken up” Jesus bodily, in his lifetime, into heaven” (Muhammad Asad, The Meaning of the Qur’an, p. 154). So even here there is confusion as to the meaning of these texts.
So what has just this brief examination of this key text revealed about the Qur’an’s own claims about itself? If part of the apologetic argumentation of Islam is that the Qur’an is the final revelation of Allah, superseding all that came before, and that part of its perfection is found in its clarity, that argument simply cannot stand. On one of the most important historical and theological claims the document makes, we can only conclude that it makes the claim in a muddled, unclear fashion. Any number of clearer, better expressions could have been provided. A fuller explanation could have been given, or other texts in the Qur’an could have provided context and clarity. But this is where Surah 4:157-158 stands apart from any possible parallel in the Bible: it stands alone in announcing one of the key denials of Christian believe. While difficult texts exist in the Bible, in that context they never announce a vital, definitional doctrine in only one place, let alone in one place in exceptionally confusing ways. But this is the situation with the Qur’an, and the results have indeed been far reaching.