New Book: History Is 'Entirely Incompatible' With Islam

August 30, 2016

Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, image via Shutterstock.

An American Muslim who investigated the historical evidence for Islam and Christianity discovered an astounding truth: the evidence is "entirely incompatible" with Islam, while it supports the three greatest arguments for Christianity.

"It was not just that history did not support the traditional narratives of Islam, but rather that history proved to be entirely incompatible with Islamic origins," writes Nabeel Qureshi (emphasis his), author of the book No God But One: Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity. The book, released Tuesday, provides a deep investigation of the key differences between the two faiths and delves into the historical evidence (or lack thereof) for each.

Qureshi investigates five basic claims, each disputed by either side. He asks the question of whether there is enough evidence that "an objective observer" would conclude in favor of Christianity or Islam. The arguments for Christianity: that Jesus died on the cross, that his disciples believed he rose from the dead, and that he claimed to be God. The arguments for Islam: that Muhammad is a prophet of Allah, and that the Quran is inspired by Allah.
As the Quran is the "why" of the Islamic faith, I will begin there, and move to Muhammad. Then, I will dive into Qureshi's arguments for Christianity.

1. Is the Quran the word of God?

The Quran is more important to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians — so much so that burning the Quran invites anger and even violence, while no one riots when the Bible is burnt. Qureshi lays out five common arguments for the inspiration of the Quran: its literary excellence, its fulfilled prophecies, the miraculous scientific knowledge in the text, mathematical marvels, and the perfect preservation of the book across the centuries.

Most of these arguments come down to a subjective twisting of the Quranic text. Many so-called prophecies are quoted out of context, and the one clear prophecy was predictable and took too long to occur. The miraculous scientific knowledge is also used out of context, and relies on rejecting specific scientific statements which have been proven false. Finally, in order to argue for mathematical wonders in the text, Muslims have to reject the rules of Arabic grammar and discard entire verses from the Quran.

This draws the literary excellence of the Quran into doubt. Qureshi quotes the scholar Gerd Puin, an expert on the Arabic of the Quran: "Every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense." At every turn, when a challenger would attack the literary excellence of the text, Muslims would redefine the test to protect it from scrutiny. In the end, this claim to literary excellence is subjective — it will not convince someone who does not already believe it.

Finally, the history of the Quran is fraught with mistakes. Qureshi tells the story of the Caliph Uthman (ruled 644-655 A.D.), who recalled all Quranic manuscripts, burned them all, and issued official, standardized copies. Records of dissenting Muslims persist to this day.

Also, when the Quran — which was originally oral — was first being written down, some chapters were nearly lost, and great reciters of the Quran such as Ubay and Abdullah ibn Masud (who was named by Muhammad as one of the four best teachers of the Quran) disagreed with the final written text. Some of the Muslim world still has Qurans with readings different from the best known version, which was promulgated in 1924 – the Royal Cairo Edition.

2. Is Muhammad the prophet of God?

The Shahada, or Islamic statement of faith, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and it declares, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger." Qureshi listed three main arguments for Muhammad's prophethood: his excellent life and character, Bible prophecies about him, and miraculous scientific knowledge.

As stated above, the claims to scientific knowledge are very problematic. One particular section in the Quran which Muslims argue to be uniquely ahead of its time deals with embryology — how a baby develops in the womb. Yet the terms in the verses are far from scientific, and the requisite knowledge long predates Muhammad: Aristotle's On the Generation of Animals is more scientific and detailed, and came 1,000 years before Islam. Also, the Greek scientist Galen shows a similarly nuanced scientific description clearer than Muhammad's.

The Bible prophecies that Muslims claim to be about Muhammad are clearly about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, when studied in context. In Deuteronomy 18, God promises to lift up "a prophet from among their brethren," which Muslims interpret as meaning "from the tribe of the brother of Isaac, i.e. Ishmael." But the text in question clearly refers to the Israelites, and the word translated "brethren" means "countrymen." Indeed, a section right before this promise explicitly differentiates between foreigners and Israelites. This verse promises a Jewish prophet, not an Ismaelite one.

Similarly, Muslims point to John 16:12-14, where Jesus says that he has many things to say to the disciples, but they cannot bear them. He will therefore send "the Spirit of truth" to them. The word for spirit of truth is parakletos, which Muslims claim is similar to periklutos, which means "the praised one," which is what Muhammad means in Arabic. The problem with this should be evident to any Christian — The Holy Spirit is not Muhammad, but the third person of the Trinity. The context makes this very clear.

Finally — and most importantly — the records for Muhammad's life are late and historically unreliable, but the image they show is not that of a virtuous founder. Qureshi takes only stories from one of the most reliable texts, the Sahih Muslim, to demonstrate this. When Muhammad learns of his prophethood, he becomes suicidal, something no prophet in the Old or New Testaments did upon seeing an angel.

Most strikingly, however, Muhammad embraced warfare, saying that "fighting is literally the best thing in the world." He led battles against unarmed cities, he allowed women and children to be killed in raids, and he even consummated his marriage with his nine-year-old bride Aisha at the ripe old age of 52. He allowed his men to have sex with female slaves, he declared women mentally deficient compared to men, and he said women are the majority of hell's inhabitants because they are ungrateful to their husbands. Those don't sound like the acts of a moral exemplar to Qureshi.

But what about Christianity? Is the death and resurrection of Jesus historically reliable?
3. Did Jesus die on the cross?

Muslims claim that Jesus was a prophet, and that he did not die on the cross. Qureshi presented two arguments for this position: the theistic swoon theory and the substitution theory. The Quran states, "They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear so to them." (Surah 4.157) Some Muslims argue that Jesus was put on the cross, did not die there — he was miraculously sustained by Allah. Others claim that another person, most likely Simon of Cyrene, was made to appear like Jesus and died in his place.

The problems with these theories prove to be manifold. Atheist and agnostic scholars conclude that Jesus did die on the cross, and Qureshi quotes three of them on the subject. John Dominic Crossan, in particular, wrote, "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be." Jesus' death by crucifixion is reported by Christians (in the Gospels and the Epistles), a Roman historian (Tacitus), and a Jewish historian (Josephus).

Furthermore, the stigma of crucifixion was not something Christians would have chosen in order to convert skeptical Romans. Not only is the method of death literally excruciating (it would take hours to die), no one had ever survived it, and it was also fundamentally degrading. Qureshi notes the ancient Roman graffiti which mocks a Christian known as Alexamenos by showing him worshipping a crucified man with the head of a donkey.

"No one has ever survived a full Roman crucifixion, and had Jesus done so, that would have been a much more appealing message for the early church to proclaim than was the stumbling block of a crucified Savior," Qureshi concludes.

4. Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Similarly, Qureshi argues that Jesus' resurrection is the best explanation of three important historical facts: Jesus died by crucifixion, Jesus' followers truly believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them, and that people who were not followers of Jesus at the time truly believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them.

These facts are fairly straightforward. The crucifixion is well-documented, and the New Testament includes the stories of disciples believing that Jesus appeared to them, and encouraging an investigator to ask the surviving witnesses. The story of Jesus' brother James corroborates that people who did not follow Christ at the time of his crucifixion later believed his resurrection, sincerely enough to die for their beliefs.

The story of the Apostle Paul, who went from killing Christians to leading them, and who gave up a position of great authority as a student of Gamaliel — and ultimately, even gave up his life — to lead a fledgling persecuted movement also provides strong evidence for Paul's sincere belief in the resurrection. Muslims claim that Paul invented the doctrine of Jesus' resurrection and his godhood, but the book of Acts shows him submitting himself to the teaching of the other disciples.

While some arguments aim to deny the resurrection, each fail. Bereavement hallucinations do indeed occur, but never for five hundred people at one time. If the disciples had stolen Jesus' body from the tomb, they would not have submitted to death for their belief in him. The only theory that best fits the facts is the resurrection.

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Next Page: But did Jesus actually claim to be God? Muslims say no.
5. Did Jesus really claim to be God?

Jesus' divinity is a central point of tension between Islam and Christianity. Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists, of worshipping more than one God. They claim that the real Jesus did not identify himself with God, but that was a later Christian corruption. One of Islam's fundamental beliefs is tawhid, the idea that there is only one God, and He does not have distinct persons. Therefore, if Jesus was a real prophet (as Muslims admit), he cannot have claimed to be God incarnate.

This argument does not stand up to scrutiny at all. Not only do all four Gospels clearly argue that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, but the oldest part of the New Testament — a hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, known as the Carmen Christi — declares, "Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage."

These verses not only clearly reference Old Testament passages about Yahweh Himself (Isaiah 45:22-23), but they also use un-Pauline vocabulary and grammatical structure, which is not even found elsewhere in the Greek language. Scholars concluded that the hymn was composed at the end of the 30s A.D., just a few years after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. Qureshi concludes that "it is impossible to argue that Jesus' deity was a late invention."

Muslims argue that Jesus never declared outright that he was God, and very clearly emphasized that the Father is greater than him. But this argument overlooks the clear context of Jesus' words in the New Testament. In the climax of Mark's Gospel, Jesus is questioned by the Sanhedrin, and he openly declares, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:62)

This declaration is a clear reference to Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 110:1, and each of those sections make it clear that the "Son of Man" in question will be given authority, glory, and sovereign power that are due to God alone. The Sanhedrin decided to put Jesus to death for these words, precisely because he was claiming to be God.

Qureshi's book fleshes out each of these arguments, along with many, many more, and I cannot recommend it heartily enough. His understanding of Islam is deep and enlightening, and it informs and deepens his appreciation of Christianity all that much more. There are some deep Christian truths revealed to him because he was once a Muslim, and Christians who read this book will not just learn solid arguments for the faith, they will also understand both religions better.