Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur'an, by James White - a Review

With great pleasure, I recently read my friend James White's book, "What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur'an," published by Bethany House Publishers. It may be helpful to begin by clarifying what the book is not, then identifying what I liked about the book.

The book is not "what every Christian needs to know about Islam." While understanding the Qur'an is probably the central part of understanding Islam, this book is narrowly focused on the Qur'an. You won't find extensive discussion of all the different schools of Islamic thought, all the different sects and sub-sects of Islam, or discussion of the behavior of Muslims in various countries, except to the extent it is relevant to the topic at hand.

The book is not "what every Muslim needs to know about the Qur'an." While there are some sections that will be particularly helpful for a Muslim seeker who is trying to understand why he should be Jesus' disciple, rather than Mohammad's, this book is not written primarily to Muslims but to Christians.

The book is not "everything there is to know about the Qur'an." While there is in-depth analysis of a number of passages of the Qur'an, and there is a variety of overview material, much of the Qur'an is not discussed in detail.

The book is not "what every Christian needs to know about the Hadith/Sunnah." While a number of important ahadith are discussed in the book, the various collections of hadith cover numerous topics besides the Qur'an and are the basis for the Sunnah, which includes plenty of things that are extra-quarranic.

The book is not "what every Christian needs to know about Arabic." While a number of Arabic words are used, with the exception of one illustration, I believe they are all given in a Romanized form. Moreover, the number of Arabic words is really dictated by the fact that the words tend to have a technical meaning in connection with Islam, and are not necessarily considered translatable by Muslims. There is a helpful glossary at the back of the book for some important terms and phrases, and other terms and phrases are explained in the text itself.

The book is not "the Qur'an for dummies," "Qur'an 101," "what most people already know about the Qur'an" or the like. While there is some overview material, the book aims to educate Christians and elevate their knowledge of the subject.

The book is not "The most sensational and shocking aspects of Islam or the life of Mohammad." While such books may have their place, this book is not in that category. If there are materials that will shock or offend Muslims in this book, they are not being presented simply for that shock value.

From my standpoint, the high point of the book was chapter 4, which deals with the Qur'an and the Trinity. In my view, the Qur'an's treatment of the Trinity is one of the fatal flaws of Islam. Dr. White does a masterful job of proving from the Qur'an and other early Islamic sources that the author of the Qur'an did not correctly understand the Trinity, which demonstrates that the purported authorship of the Qur'an cannot be the true authorship.

Two other chapters I expect Christians will find useful are chapter 10, which deals with the sources and parallel passages in the Qur'an and chapter 11, which deals with the textual transmission of the Qur'an. Chapter 10 could have been two chapters - one on the sources that the Qur'an draws on, and one on the parallel passages in the Qur'an. The section on the sources illuminates the fact that Qur'an draws on a variety of pre-Islamic sources that are unreliable Jewish or heretical legend.

The other section of chapter 10 deals with parallel passages in the Qur'an. This section is not just interesting from the standpoint of highlighting some of the inconsistencies in the Qur'an, but is also interesting from the standpoint of providing rebuttal material when dealing with Muslim criticisms of the Gospels. After all, while there may be differences between Matthew's account and Mark's account of a given event, the Qur'an (in a single work) has differing accounts of the same events.

Chapter 11 is similarly useful in terms of providing rebuttal material to the oft-repeated allegation that the Qur'an has been perfectly preserved. The chapter illustrates that such a claim is undermined by the historical evidence we have, much of it from an Islamic perspective, but also from the earliest major Christian interactions with Islam.

I did scour the book to see if there were things in it with which I would disagree. The few things with which I would disagree are basically trivial points that don't deal with the substance. Let me address the biggest point of disagreement, to illustrate how small the disagreement is. I agree with Dr. White that one possible basis for Muhammad's misconceptions regarding the Trinity are the idols that were growing in acceptance in the churches in Mohammad's region during his lifetime. In particular, he probably saw professed Christians who carried images of Mary and Jesus with them, or saw such images installed in churches. However, I would not expect that the images would be statuary in 7th century middle-eastern churches (more likely paintings, tapestries, or similar flat portrayals), nor do I expect that there were any crucifixes (crosses, yes, but not crucifixes), and I think it is unlikely any of them would have any purported likeness of the Father creating world (presumably Dr. White has in mind the atrocity found on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel). (Cf. p. 87 of the book.) Keep in mind that all of this discussion is about a point on which Dr. White is not dogmatic (he phrases the matter in terms of speculation and as a mere possibility) and does not really matter for Dr. White's argument (after all, Christian iconography probably did contribute to Mohammad's errors). My other points of question or disagreement are even more trivial than this minor point and are definitely not worth mentioning. I would, however, hope that if any Muslim readers spot errors in the book they will bring them to my attention.

In conclusion, the book is a resource that I would recommend to anyone who plans to discuss things theological with their Muslim friends, relatives, or neighbors. The book is not "what every Muslim knows about the Qur'an," and I think it is likely that your Muslim friends, relatives, or neighbors are unlikely to know all the material that is in this book. The book responds to a number of widely-held myths about or based on the Qur'an, and it is likely that Muslims you meet will have heard those misconceptions. Being prepared to talk with them may help you open the door to discussion of why they ought to be Jesus' disciples, rather than (not "in addition to") being the followers of Mohammad. This book is a valuable asset for such preparation.


In the interest of disclosure, I blog at Dr. White's blog, in addition to being his friend.