Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christianity, Islam, and Science

Here are a couple of important books available online that contrast the Bible and the Qur'an. The first is The Bible, the Qur'an and Science by Maurice Bucaille, a medical doctor, who argues that while the Bible has numerous scientific and historical mistakes, the Qur'an is free of such errors. Originally written in French, it has been translated into many languages.

In response to Bucaille's book, William Campbell, also a medical doctor, wrote The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science where he argues that precisely the opposite is the case: the Bible not only contains no scientific errors, it actually predicts scientific discoveries. He references Hugh Ross a few times in defense of this. The Qur'an, however, makes many claims that have been disproved by contemporary science. It can be read online in several languages, including Arabic, French, Indonesian, and (fortunately) English.

I have both books on my shelf, and find Bucaille to be reading things into the Bible and the Qur'an that aren't there; and the things he reads into the Bible just happen to be falsehoods while the things he reads into the Qur'an just happen to be truths. If he applied the same standards to the Bible that he does to the Qur'an it would pass with flying colors; conversely if he applied the same standards to the Qur'an that he does to the Bible he would dismiss it as riddled with error. Campbell eviscerates Bucaille. Even though his book has a very particular target -- not only is it focused on contrasting the two holy books and religions, but it is a point-by-point response to another book -- I think it's one of the best books on Christian apologetics that I've ever read. Anyway, I recommend reading both books before drawing your own conclusions.

Let me make two caveats: first, both Bucaille and Campbell are skeptical of biological evolution, however I don't think this affects their respective cases. Campbell only mentions it briefly in a "short chapter without a number" and Bucaille discusses it in another book L'Homme D'Ou Vient-il? Les Reponses de la Science et des Écritures Saintes. Other than this, they both accept the findings of contemporary science.

Second, it should be noted that in comparing these two religions both books tend to take the easy route by applying a sort of one-to-one correspondence between their respective elements. So the Qur'an is contrasted with the Bible, and Muhammad is contrasted with Jesus. This is certainly understandable; it's just easier to compare their holy books with each other and ditto for their founders. But this inevitably applies categories of one of them to the other that do not hold, resulting in inappropriate comparisons.

For example, Christianity believes that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. But no Muslim would say this of Muhammad; rather, they would say this of the Qur'an itself. So in contrasting these two religions, we should be comparing Jesus with the Qur'an, not Jesus with Muhammad. Obviously this creates even worse problems, because now we have to compare two unlike things (a person and a book).

So if Muhammad is not to Islam what Christ is to Christianity, how does Islam depict Muhammad? In Islamic theology, Muhammad is the means through which God's ultimate revelation comes. So any comparison of these two religions should look for something in Christianity to which such a description could apply. I've seen two possibilities suggested.

The first is the Bible, since it is, in a sense, the "messenger" through which we hear about Jesus. However, it should also be noted that the Bible is often called God's Word, although in a different sense than Jesus is (we shouldn't worship the Bible, for example). This has some interesting consequences. My wife and I know a young lady from Turkey who was raised a Muslim but rejected it after reading the Qur'an. Once, when the three of us were discussing the nature of Islam and Christianity, I pointed out to her that there are plenty of Christians who do not accept the inerrancy of the Bible (that is, that the Bible's original manuscripts were completely true in everything that they actually affirmed). In fact, I told her that C. S. Lewis, one of the 20th century's most-read Christian authors, rejected biblical inerrancy, and not only was he still a Christian, he was a fairly traditional Christian. And not only was he a traditional Christian, he was a champion for Christianity. I told her that I didn't think a Muslim could believe that the Qur'an may have errors and still be a traditional Muslim. She responded that such a person couldn't be a Muslim in any sense (although some people, like Irshad Manji, might disagree).

The other Christian parallel to Islam's Muhammad that I've seen suggested is Jesus' mother Mary. Christianity has always had a very high view of Mary, since she was considered worthy of such an incredible blessing (and curse) of being the mother of the Messiah. Sometimes respect for Mary has led to her being venerated. This is similar (to some extent) to the Islamic veneration of Muhammad.

I don't think it's inappropriate to try to understand other religions in light of one's own religion. But we have to first understand other religions on their own terms before we can compare them to our own. Otherwise, we will inevitably end up critiquing a straw man.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


mateo said...

WHICH 'the bible?' Protestant, Catholic before Council of Trent, Catholic after COT, East Orthodox, King James before Restoration, King James after Restoration, Coptic, Ethiopic...

WHICH Qur'an? Pre-Ummayid, post-ummayid, Al-Kophah...

Granted, there is lot less variation in the modern Qur'an than the modern bibles since the Qur'an differences are primarily words "Kabir" vs "Kathir" whereas the biblical differences involve entire books.

mateo said...

"For example, Christianity believes that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God."

What confuses me is that the various Christian sects can't even agree on the nature of Jesus.
Is Jesus God? Was Jesus God in human form? Was Jesus both God and man? Was Jesus God, a man, both, and neither all at the same time?

Yet each individual sect of Christianity claimes to speak for the whole of Christianity - all the while decrying the other versions as misinterpretations or just plain blasphemy.

This is why, IMO, it undermines someone's argument to speak on behalf of "Christianity" a whole when Christians disagree on just about everything from the age of the earth, evolution, literalness of the bible, which bible, the nature of christ, sin, hell, heaven, salvation, resurrection, afterlife, etc. etc.

In light of all this, it would be helpful to understand which version of Christianity you subscribe to and to which bible you are referring.

Jim S. said...

Thanks for the comments. Regarding the books of the Bible, all Christian groups agree on the books of the New Testament. The Catholic and Orthodox churches include a few extra books in the Old Testament, called the deuterocanonical books, that Protestants (and Jews) do not accept as being on the same level as the rest of Scripture. But I'm unaware of any serious theological issue that hangs on them. Some Catholics defend purgatory from 1 Maccabees, but that's all I've ever heard.

As for the Qur'an, there were only a few copies of different versions that were eradicated very early in Islamic history. The alternate texts were largely (if not exclusively) due to the fact that the early copies of the Qur'an didn't have the diacritical marks distinguishing some of the letters. At any rate, the books I link to in the post discuss these points, so I would just encourage you to read them.

Regarding the nature of Jesus, virtually all Christian sects agree that Jesus was fully human and fully God. The closest you'll get to disagreement about this is Nestorian Christians who claim that Jesus' human and divine natures were mixed, but that's really a fine theological point about the relation between these natures. There are, of course, religious groups that have a high opinion of Jesus but do not hold to the Christian view; Muslims being one example, Jehovah's Witnesses being another. And no doubt every Christian sect has some members that don't really believe the Christian claim. But there are no Christian groups that disagree on this point, it unites us. Really, it defines Christianity, although it obviously doesn't exhaust it.

You point to some issues where there are differing interpretations of the Bible. But that's true of virtually any text. The same holds for every philosopher for example; people disagree on exactly what Plato meant, what Aristotle meant, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc. I don't see how the fact that virtually all groups represent a spectrum rather than a point thereby shows that they don't have central areas of agreement that defines them as a group. C. S. Lewis entitled his book Mere Christianity to refer to what all Christian groups have agreed on throughout history.

Other than your two main points, I would of course agree that there are differences between (and within) Christian groups, but the differences are not central. Many of them hang on church government, since that determines who has the final say. One of the things that struck me when I became a Christian is how much the Christian groups agree. I'm a Protestant who attends Bible studies with Catholics, and the differences simply aren't an issue. Christianity is certainly diverse; it had to be in order to allow for the development of the university and modern science. It seems to me that where Christianity is diverse, critics accuse it of not being specific enough and where it is specific the same critics accuse it of being dogmatic.