This post is a general reflection on some of the avenues for making a positive case for Islam. I’m not making a case for Islam here – this is more of personal reflection that came about after some external discussions.
Now, apologetics gets a bad rep – there’s a lot of baggage to that word. Most people don’t even seem to know what it means. However, the formal definition is simply: reasoned arguments for the justification of a doctrine. And, given that the Qurʾān itself uses philosophical and historical arguments against its opponents, it is the sort of field that should be very much at home in the Islamic tradition. Medieval scholars used to publish tracts on dalāʾil al-nubuwwa (proofs of prophethood), which served their purposes at the time. Contemporary historical methods and philosophy have gone far and beyond whatever any of these works can offer; but unfortunately it seems Muslims have, up until recently, continued to promulgate (what I feel are) arguments that are simply not demonstrative in any sense. Consider the style of ‘linguistic miracle argument’ that could easily be found in a medieval kalām treatise, and one that some Muslims use today (I’m paraphrasing here):
- The ancient Arabs were masters of their language, and had a prolific poetry culture.
- The ancient Arabs were challenged to produce something like the Qur’an.
- They instead resorted to difficult measures, such as war.
- From 1-3; The ancient Arabs, who were masters of their language, were unable to produce something like the Qur’an.
- Conclusion – From 4: The Qurʾān is inimitable.
I may be simplifying a bit but – There is something inherently dissatisfying about this style of argument. We don’t actually get to see what’s miraculous about the Qurʾān as a literary text. And this is certainly not the sort of argument I would stake my world-view and afterlife on! I would certainly need more evidence for such a claim. And, given that the Qurʾān in multiple places appeals to its own uniqueness as evidence for its origin, we as Muslims are almost compelled to produce such evidence.
(N.B. I believe the Qur’an is of divine origin, but not because of the above argument).
That is not to say that progress has not been made, of course. Many may be familiar with the ‘ring structure’ of sūrah al-Baqara. My good friend, Sharif, had published on this exact topic a few years ago, improving on previous work by Neal Robinson and Raymond Farrin. However, as Sharif himself would admit, these arguments need to be made tighter. What we need to see is a convergence of thematic (for example, content matter) and stylistic markers (for example, end rhyme) that exhibit ring structures for us to affirm without doubt evidence for a ring structure; otherwise one may make a ring structure out of any text based on subjective reasoning.
Now, while chiastic studies of sūrah al-Baqara do, in many cases, actually respect this rule, they do not consistently do so, as Nicolai Sinai (a consistently excellent scholar by the way) pointed out in his review of Raymond Farrin and Michel Cuyper’s studies. I was actually quite struck by this interesting statement in Sinai’s review, which one does not really expect from a secular, non-Muslim scholar:
“A ring-compositional reading of the Islamic scripture may appear to be a promising ally for Islamic apologetics no less than for the sceptical rewriting of the standard narrative of formative Islam. For instance, Farrin’s insistence that the Qur’an ‘possesses a magnificent design’ throughout (p. xv) could easily be used as the crucial stepping stone in a latter-day iʿjāz-type argument for the Qur’an’s divine origin, which Farrin himself comes close to intimating on p. 74 (where Muḥammad’s lack of appropriate literary training for producing such a magnificent document as the Qur’an is underlined). ”
The task for the faithful scholar making a case for the Qurʾān on the basis of a ‘linguistic miracle’ type argument would be this: Firstly, to show that these complex structures exist without doubt; and two, that there is something special about these structures. One does not even need to go all the way with the latter point so as to say no human in an oral society could have thought of these structures— Only that the Prophet Muḥammad was the unlikeliest person to do it (again, an argument that the Qurʾān also makes, by repeatedly pointing out that the prophet did not learn poetry or scripture).
Which, I think, segues nicely into my main point. Here is what I think are promising avenues for Islamic apologetics to explore:
Proof of the miracle of the Qurʾān, in light of the Prophet’s lack of learning:
- The aforementioned ‘linguistic miracle’ I discussed, argued thoroughly and taking into account comparisons with other literature.
- The argument from intertextuality— one may advance an argument that the degree of biblical and extra-biblical knowledge that the Qurʾān shows would require a person who is tremendously knowledgeable about the traditions of the Jews and Christians. This is not limited to stories, but extends to interlinguistic wordplay and very specific rhetorical arguments (I have given a couple of examples recently). For this argument to work, there needs to be many examples demonstrating this, and also disarming arguments that somehow the Prophet ‘garbled these traditions’. I don’t think the latter is a big difficulty, and secular scholarship is moving away from the ‘garbling’ or ‘error’ position in many cases.
- Evidence from Qurʾānic prophecies – for example, consistent guarantees of success for the Prophet’s mission from the very beginning.
There is a fourth argument to be made, one that really interests me. Over the last few decades, ḥadīth studies in the West has brought us a method called the “Isnad-cum-Matn Analysis” (ICMA) which is essentially a far more involved version of how traditional ḥadīth critics verified narrations (it’s a cross between stemmatic analysis and form-critical methods). Using this method, one can reliably trace the origins of particular narrations. Now, I’m told that in many cases, witnesses to miracles of the Prophet reliably trace back to the companions. This argument is basically airtight, and the numbers of these witnesses far outstrip what one sees for Jesus’s resurrection, for example. One can easily make a historical case using this method, just on the basis of the Prophet’s miracles.
The future of Islamic apologetics is promising, but it requires people to take it seriously. Islam is, in many ways, quite privileged when one compares it to other religions. Our primary text is very well attested, and early (current scholarship actually dates the uthmanic text to 650CE on the basis of manuscript evidence alone). Internally, the Qurʾān really does seem to date to the lifetime of the Prophet – this is the working assumption of many more recent publications. By contrast, the Pentateuch is replete with anachronisms and narrative framing that betray a later hand.
Our early history is also well attested, given the sheer number of early ḥadīth (on the basis of ICMA); and now there’s an emerging field of early Islamic inscriptions which, in many cases, attest to known companions or (in a few cases) were actually written by them. By comparison, if we had just one inscription written by anyone from the early church, it would be truly field-changing for Historical-Jesus studies. Our central theology is clearly and obviously actually taught by our book and central figure, and moreover (this is an explicit comparison to Christianity), actually coherent in that one does not need to suspend very basic axioms of thinking such as the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction to accept it.
On that latter point — I do think Muslims have to improve some of their philosophical theology. Medieval kalām can be very dissatisfying. For example, the common position on free will one sees is what is called ‘compatibilism’— humans don’t really have their own will, except in the sense that it’s theirs because God creates their will to do things. Ergo, we think we want to do something, but it’s really God creating that desire within us. The Ashʿarī theologian al-Razi (also one of my favorite exegetes) rightly concluded that there’s really no distinction between this and determinism (which he adopted).
This position is very unsatisfying, and not one that we have to accept either, given that there are far better positions to hold that are still plausible readings of the Qur’an (such as molinism). Similarly, the Ash’ari treatment on ethics and the problem of hell is quite dissatisfying — most Ashʿarite theologians advocate for some hard form of voluntarism, where God can torture the righteous for eternity and that would be ‘good’. Under this view, eternally punishing the disbeliever is even less of a problem. The Qurʾānic God, on the other hand, clearly has obviously moral concerns and is frequently described as a Loving and Merciful Being, from which we can conclude is something essential to Him.
In both the problem of Hell and the issue of ethics, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim are far more satisfying in my personal opinion. Incidentally, they advanced an argument on the basis of Qurʾānic language that Hell was not eternal for anyone — including disbelievers. I have not delved into their arguments so I cannot be the judge of the validity of this viewpoint, but IT’s moral framework is something I find a lot more convincing.
That concludes my brief reflections on ‘positive apologetics’ — there is much more to be written about defending the Qurʾān and Islam from arguments, but I am not going to get into it as it’s another can of worms. I both pray and expect that in a few decades we can see an emergence of real arguments, and sophisticated Islamic apologetics, but there is a lot of work to do on many fronts.