Some brief reflections

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):

    1. The ancient Arabs were masters of their language, and had a prolific poetry culture.
    2. The ancient Arabs were challenged to produce something like the Qur’an.
    3. They instead resorted to difficult measures, such as war.
    4. From 1-3; The ancient Arabs, who were masters of their language, were unable to produce something like the Qur’an.
    5. 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.

 

12 thoughts on “Some brief reflections

  1. Salam Taha,

    It’s interesting that you conclude that the traditional i’jaz argument from inimitability is lacking. I also came to the same conclusion many years ago. I also looked at your intertextual argument with people we both know and while it’s interesting, I’m not convinced it actually proves the Quran is from God. I’m also unconvinced that Muhammad and his milieau were truly isolated from Judeo-Christian tradition.

    I remember you fondly from HPD, and hope you are well even if I no longer agree with you on the Quran’s divine origin. I would love to email about this though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wa salaam,

      Yes, to be honest, I never found this traditional argument convincing – not even five years ago when I first saw it. Now as for your second point – I agree, and I don’t really think the immediate audience were totally isolated from judeo-christian tradition either. However, I think we can tease out basic facts about the Prophet from the Qur’an and well-attested hadith, and contrast it to the sort of information we see in the Qur’an wrt. the point I made. This would formulate a greater cumulative argument for Islam – by itself alone, I don’t think it’s demonstrative.

      Now, I’m aware you’ve obviously changed your religion. I’m currently fairly focused on research, and I don’t really do email exchanges so I wish you best of luck!

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  2. Salam alaikum brother, I recently started following your page and I like your articles very much, do you maybe have an email address, where we can contact you? I would like to ask you something about a subject I was thinking of lately, if you have time of course

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    • Wa salam, glad you liked them. I don’t normally do email exchanges— mostly because I like to research particular issues in depth before answering questions. Though if you’d still like to ask, perhaps leave a comment somewhere on the site.

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  3. @ Taha

    Salaumalakum Taha, do you have any recommended reading on “Isnad-cum-Matn Analysis” (ICMA)?

    Also, I think you’re sleeping a little on the imitability argument (I would recommend reading the origin theory posed by Hamiduddin Farahi who argued for the Quran’s coherence against orientalist criticism (which is generally accepted now) All the popular speakers like Nauman Ali Khan about the vocab and chiasmatic structure etc. all came from him and he makes a lot of interesting arguments regarding surah’s beginning and end relating and all that for example)

    10. Beginning
    10:1. A.L.R. These are the miraculous verses of the Book full of wisdom and JUDGMENT. (hakim)
    10:2. Is it really so strange to PEOPLE (nas) that I’ve revealed to a man from among them that he should warn humanity, and give good news to those who believe, that they’ll be on the first steps of truth from their Lord? Yet still the disbelievers say: “This man is a sorcerer!”

    10. End
    10:108. ˹So˺ tell them: “PEOPLE!(nas) The Truth has come to you from your Lord. Whoever commits themselves to guidance holds onto it for their own good, and whoever strays does so to their own loss. I am not responsible for your affairs!”
    10:109. Follow what is being revealed to you, and be patient until God gives His JUDGEMENT, because He is the Best of all Judges (hakeem) and those who rule…

    11. Beginning
    11:1. A.L.R. A Book in which its verses have been perfected. They are then presented in detail by One who is all WISE (Hakim) and AWARE(Khabirun)

    11. End
    11:121. Tell those who disbelieve: “Stand your ground and do what you’re going to do because we’re busy ourselves.”
    11:122.”Go ahead and wait because we too are waiting.”
    11:123. All that’s unseen in the skies and earth is God’s, and all will come back to Him. Enslave yourselves to Him, and trust God because your Lord’s never UNAWARE (ghafilin) of what they’re doing…

    12. Beginning
    12:1. A.L.R. These are the verses of the Book that makes things clear.
    12:2. I have sent it down as an Arabic recital so that you can understand.
    12:3. I read to you, the best of STORIES(qasas) to follow in what I’ve revealed to you of this Qur’an. Before this, you were from those who were completely UNAWARE (ghafilin)…

    12. End
    12:110. When the Messengers lost all hope and were completely convinced that they had been dismissed as liars, My help came to them and I rescued whoever I wished. But My war will not be turned away from the criminal people.
    12:111. In their STORIES (qasas) is a lesson worthy of tears for those with the purest of minds. This is not a speech that has been made up, it is however a verification of what came before him and an explanation to all things. It has come as a guidance and blessing for PEOPLE THAT SEEK TO BELIEVE…

    13. Beginning
    13:1. A.L.M.R. Those are the miraculous signs of the SCRIPTURE (kitab). What has been sent down to you by your Lord is the Truth, but MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE
    13:2. God is the One who raised the sky as you can see with no support. He then ascended the Throne and subjugated the sun and moon. Everything is moving and flowing until a given time; He plans out the steps to all matters and explains the signs so that you can become convinced of the meeting with your Lord.
    13:3. It’s He who expanded the LAND (ard), placing stable mountains and rivers on it, as well as made pairs for every kind of fruit. He draws the night’s veil over the day and there are signs in this for people who ponder.

    13. End
    13:41. Don’t they see how I come to their LAND (ard) and shrink its borders from all sides? It’s God who decides, none can reverse His Judgement and He’s quick in auditing.
    13:42. Those before them also plotted and planned, but the entire plan is God’s. He knows what every person earns and the disbelievers will soon find out who will have the most incredible home.
    13:43. They say: “You’re not a ‘Messenger’.” Tell them: “God’s enough of a witness between you and I, as well as who has true knowledge of the SCRIPTURE(kitab)…”

    There is more but the point has been made that there’s clear design in the Quran’s structure and not just coincidence. Is it possible that someone sat there doing that, yes but Muslims never noticed this until the 1920s?

    With that being said, I actually don’t think Muslims should engage in apologetics for dawah as it is really for keeping the believer’s faith. I think Muslims should just engage in “dialogues” with other religions like this:

    The set up is both sides, don’t attack the other and just give their religion’s perspective on a topic. In this the pastor says that one should become a Muslim. That right there is more powerful to the audience then any argument one could make in a debate.

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    • On ICMA — Harald Motzki’s Origins of Islamic Jurisprudence uses this method. Having said that, the exact formulation of how this is supposed to work didn’t make sense to me until someone explained it to me. There’s no handbook around (as far as I am aware). This method also works really well with computerized ḥadith databases which can draw isnad diagrams using all the sources. Maybe I will do a post and work through an example…

      As for your second point, I’m aware of the observation you make— I think Robinson called it ‘dovetailing’. Again, ofcourse there are literary / structural features in the Qur’an. We just need to show that they are very intricate, and impressive, and done in an oral context. The ring-structural theory made headway on that. There’s certainly still a lot of work to do though, this field is only just beginning.

      On your third point – The intent of the post wasn’t attack christianity or anything lol (I hope it didn’t come off that way). I was drawing comparisons for the sake of discussing some future direction; Christianity is one of the few other religions with a relatively sophisticated apologetics tradition.

      Liked by 1 person

      • @ taha

        1.Thank you for the work i’ll check it out inshaAllah

        2/3. These kinda flow together. My intent was not to say you were attacking Christianity lol what i mean is, I think it’s pretty obvious there are intricate patterns and themes in the Quran’s structure. So while this study of composition is both interesting and will assist in a field like Tafseer I’m not convinced we should use in apologetics or dawah. For one it would take too long to explain to the average person on the street while something like Tawheed (which is our biggest strength) can be explained in 5 min.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Taha,

        Are you talking about Muslim apologist Ijaz Ahmad? Secondly, I would like to know whether you plan to write a refutation of a Jew who claims that Surah Yusuf in the Holy Koran was allegedly “copied” from Jewish sources. Thanks.

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  4. Here are some of my thoughts on apologetics. Different proofs will be effective for different folks. Perhaps the key ingredient that caused the early generations to enthusiastically embrace Islam was the living embodiments of piety and moral excellence, starting with Muhammad PBUH. Ultimately, knowledge comes from Allah before reason. I believe reason is something we use to arrange ideas in our minds. You can rationalize approximately anything. So if someone wants to disbelieve, Satan will give them an endless supply of arguments. If someone wants to believe, apologetics can help refute some popular assertions of Satan, although there will be a continuous series of Satanic assertions until Judgment Day.

    There is another type of uniqueness of the Quran, which is its uniqueness in history. How many other books are there that claim to be the infallible word of God and insist that we follow them? Not the Bible. Maybe the Vedas? The Bhagavad Gita makes some such claims. The Avestas are often acknowledged by Zoroastrians to be corrupted. None of those books are surrounded by so much well-sourced history as the Quran. The books that are most similar to the Quran in beauty, self-evident theological truth, and spiritual power are also books which don’t contradict the Quran as much as people imagine.

    If you believe in Allah and believe that He communicates with people, the Quran does not have a lot of competition. So you can argue for the Quran based not only on the lack of a linguistically similar text, but also on its proven spiritual power and unique historical role in our age, of upholding monotheism in a way Christianity failed to, spreading monotheism in a way Judaism didn’t care to, and clarifying that the post-Vedic Hindu practice of worshipping God in the form of a million statues is counterproductive.

    The best “competition” comes from books which cannot be proven to have been preserved as perfectly as the Quran, so such books do not need to be denied so much as distrusted, just like you would distrust a copy of the Quran that had 1000 human-invented verses edited into it.

    As for people who believe in Allah but do not believe that He communicates with people, perhaps they need to be outdone in piety and good behavior rather than argued with. Show them how a lover who recognizes their Beloved’s voice is more in love than a deaf lover.

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  5. Salam Taha,

    I agree that the hard voluntarism in Asharism is illogical and immoral and it very clearly goes against many verses of the Qur’an.

    Muslim scholars need to become more aware of the view on hell by Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim. I think many are not aware of this view.

    I don’t subscribe to all of David Namuh’s views against the hadith corpus, but regarding mathematical structure of the Qur’an, I do see them as compelling…please see below….

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