A Muslim Defends His Worldview

What's Your Worldview?I was gratified to receive the following message via the Contact form:

Sir, I’m a Muslim, and I’ve read the Islam section in your book What’s Your Worldview. However, to say the least, I haven’t found any of the objections therein to be tenable:

He goes on to give brief responses to two of the “objections” I raised. (In the book, I really presented them only as food for thought, as prompts for readers to think more critically about the Islamic worldview. But still, it’s fair to call them objections.) In this post, I’ll reproduce the relevant sections from What’s Your Worldview? along with his responses, and then reply to them. (In the quotations from WYW, I’ve omitted the endnotes, most of which provide references to verses in the Quran.)

Objection #1

From WYW, pp. 65-66:

One of the central teachings of Islam is that there will be a final day of judgment. On that day, all of our words and deeds will be weighed in the balance of divine justice. Those who have believed in Allah and lived good enough lives will be rewarded with pleasures in paradise, while the rest will be punished with torments in hell.

Muslims don’t think that you have to live an absolutely perfect life to enter paradise. They insist that Allah is compassionate and merciful, and can forgive the sins of those who believe in him and love him (though no one should ever presume upon Allah’s forgiveness). However, there seems to be a tension within Islam between the justice and the mercy of Allah. If justice is to be satisfied, every violation of the law should receive its just penalty. Therefore, an absolutely perfect judge would ensure that no crime goes unpunished. According to Islam, however, Allah simply chooses to overlook some people’s sins. How, then, can he be an absolutely perfect judge? Does Allah consistently uphold his own just laws? The problem for Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it has no doctrine of atonement that could explain how God could forgive human sins without violating his own principles of justice.

Our Muslim friend responds:

1. “First, anyone who acts unjustly towards any person or being would fall short of being perfectly good. So, if there are cases in which God needs to prioritize being just over being, say, forgiving, God’s perfect goodness requires him to do what is just in that case. Second, justice reflects the balance and harmony between God’s moral attributes. Hence, the cases in which God deems it more appropriate to be forgiving over treating people as they deserve, He concedes justice and acts mercifully. However, in those cases, justice is at work in a different way, as God judges it to be more harmonious or appropriate to be forgiving over doing what justice––in its first sense––requires to do.” – Seyma Yazici: Is God perfectly good in Islam?

The obvious problem with this response is that it openly equivocates on the term justice. In essence, it argues that God sometimes “concedes justice” (“in its first sense”) in order to satisfy justice in some other sense (“justice is at work in a different way”). But it’s hard to see how this actually solves the dilemma I posed in the book. Justice by definition entails exacting the due penalty for a sin or transgression. If a sin goes unpunished, justice has not been done. The Quran itself underscores the justness of Allah’s judgment with its vivid imagery of the scales:

We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least, and if there be (no more than) the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it (to account): and enough are We to take account. (Q21:47, Yusuf Ali translation)

And We place the scales of justice for the Day of Resurrection, so no soul will be treated unjustly at all. And if there is [even] the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it forth. And sufficient are We as accountant. (Q21:47, Sahih International translation)

If Allah forgives a sin by merely deciding not to punish it (“concedes justice and acts mercifully”) then whatever else it might be, it is a failure to exact justice. Suppose that two people are convicted of exactly the same crime, but the ruling authority decrees that only one of them will be punished. Wouldn’t that be unjust?

The problem with the Islamic view of Allah’s forgiveness, as a mere suspension or nullification of the demands of justice, is brought into clear view by this well-known hadith:

The Prophet said, “Amongst the men of Bani Israel there was a man who had murdered ninety-nine persons. Then he set out asking (whether his repentance could be accepted or not). He came upon a monk and asked him if his repentance could be accepted. The monk replied in the negative and so the man killed him. He kept on asking till a man advised to go to such and such village. (So he left for it) but death overtook him on the way. While dying, he turned his chest towards that village (where he had hoped his repentance would be accepted), and so the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment quarrelled amongst themselves regarding him. Allah ordered the village (towards which he was going) to come closer to him, and ordered the village (whence he had come), to go far away, and then He ordered the angels to measure the distances between his body and the two villages. So he was found to be one span closer to the village (he was going to). So he was forgiven.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3470; cf. Sahih Muslim, 2766b)

This man murdered a hundred people (and how cold-blooded that last murder was!) but because he repented he was completely forgiven; he received no punishment at all. But that’s not how justice works. Repentance can’t be a substitute for a just punishment. Claiming that this satisfies some “different way” of justice, some “higher principle” of justice, is to arbitrarily redefine the notion of justice. One has to suppose that on the Day of Judgment those hundred murders were simply missing from the “scales of justice.”

So I don’t think this is an adequate response to the problem at all. It is an ad hoc solution, claiming that Allah sets aside justice for the sake of some higher principle, but it doesn’t give us any explanation of how that doesn’t still amount to an injustice. As I noted in WYW (and this is not a novel observation) Christianity has a solution to the problem (Romans 3:21-26) that is unavailable to Islam. You can dispute that solution if you wish, but at least it makes a serious attempt to explain how God can be merciful without abandoning his justice.

For a fuller discussion of this issue, I recommend chapter 7 of James White’s excellent book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an.

Objection #2

From WYW, p. 66:

Another difficulty for Islam is the fact that there are many contradictions between its holy books. For example, all four Gospel accounts state that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and was killed by crucifixion, whereas the Qur’an denies both. Muslims typically deal with these conflicts by arguing that the earlier holy books, although given by Allah, have been lost or corrupted. Only the last book, the Qur’an, is pure and uncorrupted.

This may solve the initial problem, but it introduces several new difficulties. In the first place, the Qur’an itself states that Allah will preserve his words from corruption. But if that’s true, how could those other holy books have become corrupted? Moreover, if Allah didn’t prevent those earlier books from becoming badly corrupted, how can Muslims be confident today that the Qur’an hasn’t also become corrupted? Why should we trust the Qur’an any more than those other books?

Interestingly, the Qur’an seems to assume that the holy books of the Jews and the Christians were trustworthy sources in Muhammad’s day—trustworthy enough to confirm the prophet’s message. Yet we have ancient manuscripts of those books that have been dated well before Muhammad’s birth, and they haven’t changed since then. If these books were trustworthy then and are still trustworthy today, but they contradict the teachings of the Qur’an, where does that leave the credibility of the Qur’an as a divine revelation?

Our Muslim friend responds:

2. Qur’aan says that the previous revelations had been partially distorted. So, we accept from them only that which is in alignment with the Qur’aan. If you had read exegeses, you would’ve found out that the Qur’aan says that preserving Torah or Injeel was up to Jews and Christians, whereas the Qur’aan talks about preservation of the Qur’aan that Allaah would do.

I assume by “exegeses” he means tafsir. If so, it would be nice to have some specific citations. I’m genuinely interested to hear how the Islamic commentaries support this claim.

But in any case, there are at least three problems with this response:

1. The verses in the Quran that speak of Allah preserving “his word” or “his words” don’t specifically restrict the scope to the Quran alone. They appear to be making a general point about any words received from Allah. If later Muslim commentators restricted the scope of those assurances to the Quran alone, that looks suspiciously like an ad hoc move to reconcile those verses with the developing view that the Jews and Christians had corrupted their own scriptures. I would like to see some evidence from the Quran itself that Allah delegated the preservation of earlier scriptures to the recipients of those scriptures, but personally preserves the final scriptures delivered to Muslims. (Aside: if Allah is sovereign over the actions of humans, as the Quran teaches and as Islam has traditionally affirmed, he ought to be able to guarantee the preservation of scriptures regardless of who is entrusted with them.)

2. If Allah can perfectly preserve the Quran, why didn’t he do so with the previous books? Why leave it up to humans if he knew they would distort his revelations? What explains the apparently arbitrary change of policy? (Indeed, why think that the policy did change with the Quran? If the only reason for thinking that is the testimony of the Quran itself, then it looks like Muslims are relying on a narrowly circular argument.) Again, this appears to be an ad hoc rationalization of the fact that the earlier scriptures contradict the claims of the Quran.

3. The response completely fails to address the argument in the third paragraph quoted above: the Quran apparently assumes that the Jewish and Christian scriptures were trustworthy in Muhammad’s day (see, e.g., Q5:41-48, 65-68), but we have hard manuscript evidence from centuries before Muhammad’s birth that those scriptures did not agree with the teachings of the Quran. That’s a formidable problem for Muslim apologists. Were the earlier scriptures corrupted before or after Allah sent down the Quran? Whichever answer is given, it raises serious difficulties for Muslim claims. If before, then the Quran’s assumption that the scriptures were trustworthy at the time of Muhammad is cast into doubt. If after, then that conflicts with the actual manuscripts in our possession. Either way, Muslims have to account for why Allah preserved some scriptures but not others.

For further details on these points, see James White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an, ch. 8, and the even more thorough treatment in Gordon Nickel, A Gentle Answer to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification, chs. 5-12. White and Nickel both make the important point that Muslim scholars have disagreed about whether Christians and Jews corrupted the text of their scriptures or only the meaning of those scriptures, with the earlier commentators favoring the latter view (apparently because, first, the Quran assumes that their scriptures were intact in Muhammad’s day, and second, they thought that Allah would preserve whatever words he sent down). Even Islamic scholars recognize this point. For example, from The Study Quran notes on Q2:75:

Although lexically tahrif seems to be related to “letter” (harf), its meaning is to “slant,” “be oblique,” “twist,” or “deviate” and is often connected by the commentators with the etymologically related inhiraf, usually understood as “deviation.” Whether the Jews and Christians actually altered their transmitted books or instead skewed their interpretations while retaining a faithful text is a subject of debate in the Islamic intellectual tradition. Although later Islamic commentators and theologians often held a view that the Jews and Christians actually changed the text of the Bible, as epitomized in the work of the fifth-/eleventh-century scholar Ibn Hazm, the earlier commentators were not as eager to dispute the text of the Bible and preferred to view the “distortion” as an act of faulty and even malicious interpretation. (p. 36)
Comments are open.

2 thoughts on “A Muslim Defends His Worldview”

  1. “If you had read exegeses, you would’ve found out that the Qur’aan says that preserving Torah or Injeel was up to Jews and Christians, whereas the Qur’aan talks about preservation of the Qur’aan that Allaah would do.”

    If it’s believed that Allah preserves the Quran, then it’s through a causal chain of divine providence, in which case Allah works through free moral agents in the preserving of the Quran. Why should a Muslim believe that Jews and Christians could have undermined the preservation of older books? How could they have trumped Allah’s will? Or did they?

    If Allah is omniscient, omnipotent and alone eternal (leaving no place for ungrounded CCFs that are not a product of divine free knowledge), a Muslim should concede that Allah *intended* for a portion of his revelation to become corrupted. *Why*?

    The reason may not be indexed to to free will because free will is a constant shared by uncorrupted and corrupted revelation. The only significant variable is Jews and Christians vs Muslims. Yet what is *relevantly* different between the two groups given both are sets of free moral agents with wills subject to Allah’s sovereign control?

Comments are closed.