Answering Missionaries

May 24, 2006

Dissecting James White’s mother of all arguments

Filed under: Addressing James White polemics,Shabir Ally vs James White — answeringmissionaries @ 6:52 pm

After listening to his Dividing Line address, I think there is no doubt that James White is particularly fond and proud of a specific argument he raised during his debate with Shabir Ally. Why, not even the great Shabir Ally was able to deal with it (allegedly, read below), so proclaims James White. It’s one of those arguments which is supposed to make a Muslim “think” real hard and aims to jolt Muslims right down to the core.

But after hearing James White’s mother of all arguments, I found myself saying “huh?” It really didn’t impress me at all and I will try to shortly explain why. First, let me present what James White said in his Dividing Line talk:1

    “Why should I, as a Christian, look at the writings of a man who did not have access to the Christian scriptures – he was illiterate, the Bible had not yet been translated into a language to which he had access to even if he could have read anyways, so its a double – … and, so he doesn’t have direct access to my scripture, unlike the NT which is just soaked in the OT – you cannot separate that, if you try… if you made all the OT citations disappear out of the NT and you could no longer have access to the OT the NT wouldn’t make sense. There is a direct connection, a life blood connection there. No such connection with the Quran. You could never read the Bible and the Quran would stand on its own because it comes from a completely different culture, comes from a completely different time, 600 years later, different language, different culture, no connection with my scriptures. Why should I believe that an illiterate man, without connection with my scripture at all, what he said should supersede the testimonies of the martyrs themselves in those early centuries, those apostles themselves who … Why should I believe that? And then I turned it around – and this is what people heard – I said, and would any Muslim here this evening, abandon their belief in the Quran on the basis of the words of a man 600 years after Muhammed, say in the middle of the 11th or 12th century? And this person comes along he has no access to the Quran in Arabic, he has never read the Quran in Arabic, and yet he comes along and says that if you’re a try follower of God, you’re a true follower of Allah, you should follow him in what he has to say as he overthrows the teachings of the Muhammed and the Quran. Would you follow such a man as that? And a lot of people heard that because Shabir Ally never even attempted to give a meaningful response to that at all and yet there is a direct parallel. A direct parallel. And so they copped out.”

Clearly, James White is much thrilled with this argument of his. So, why do I think it does not work? Let me attempt to explain:

The answer to the riddle provided by White is quite simple: we INVESTIGATE the claims of the person and then make a determination. It seems that this is what James White desperately wishes to avoid – he wants us to dismiss the Quran and Islam right from the very outset without making any attempts to seriously study their claims.

Assuming if Muhammed (P) was really a Prophet and a Messenger of God, one who received direct knowledge and revelation from God, then the fact that he could not speak Greek, had no access to the New Testament writings, and did not know about their contents, becomes besides the point and worthless. Thus we need to study his claims with an open mind to ascertain if he was indeed who he claimed to be – a Prophet of God.

Moreover, if such a person, one who has no way of ascertaining the facts by himself, makes certain statements which turn out to be correct even though he was in no position to “just know” about them, then his words and claims are to be taken very seriously indeed. Here is precisely where, for me, the miracle lies. Muhammed (P) obviously did not speak Greek and Hebrew, he was, in fact, illiterate – he could not read and write – there was no way he could have known about the contents of the New and the Old Testaments, let alone critically examine their contents in a scholarly manner to come to certain conclusions. Yet, his statements turn out to be correct time and time again. Similarly, the general Quranic presentation of Jesus (P) is one which would be readily acceptable to almost all critical scholars. For instance, even if I were to leave Islam one day, my view of Jesus (P) would still remain generally similar to the Quranic presentation. Was this just a coincidence? I think not. I think Muhammed (P) was inspired by God. The fact that Muhammed (P) was illiterate, had no access to the Jewish and Christian writings, was in no position to apply critical scholarly tools upon these texts, should make us consider his statements, as well the statements of what he claims to be the Word of God, even more seriously. Perhaps he was who he claimed to be – a Prophet of God? But to find this out, you will need to study his statements and the statements of his book and then decide. This is precisely what James White seeks to avoid in my view.

In short, however, when anyone claims to be a prophet or a messenger of God, or claims to being inspired etc., then we should study their statements and later decide for ourselves. We shouldn’t just close our eyes, shut our ears and shout, “be gone! I will not believe you!” In the same Dividing Line address, a friend of James White, Mr. Tony Costa – who has debated Shabir Ally in the past on four occasions – presented the examples of the Ahmadiya and the Bhais. The former was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who later proclaimed to be a Prophet of God, whereas the later was founded by Bhaullah, who the Bhais claim was also a Prophet of God and, in fact, the manifestation of God! Mr. Costa does not seem to be aware of this, but Muslim scholars did study the assertions of these individuals and then came to a conclusion, based on proof and evidence, whether or not these individuals were telling the truth or distorting it.2

White asks:

    “…would any Muslim here this evening, abandon their belief in the Quran on the basis of the words of a man 600 years after Muhammed, say in the middle of the 11th or 12th century? And this person comes along he has no access to the Quran in Arabic, he has never read the Quran in Arabic, and yet he comes along and says that if you’re a true follower of God, you’re a true follower of Allah, you should follow him in what he has to say as he overthrows the teachings of the Muhammed and the Quran. Would you follow such a man as that?”

Again, the answer is very simple: as I said above, whenever such a person appears and whatever his literacy level, or the lack of it, we would study his claims with an open mind and then decide.

Moving on, James White’s arguments are also based on a very shaky presupposition. He states (bold added):

    “Why should I believe that an illiterate man, without connection with my scripture at all, what he said should supersede the testimonies of the martyrs themselves in those early centuries, those apostles themselves who …”

Thus, his argument is based on the presupposition that we have the testimonies of the “apostles” and of the “martyrs” and so we know for sure what they believed, said and thought. But according to the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars, we do not have any writings or “testimonies” at our disposal of the “apostles.” None of the canonical gospels are authored by “apostles” and almost all critical scholars are reasonably certain that none of the New Testament epistles were authored by apostles.3 Of course, there are some scholars here and there who argue that Matthew and John were authored by apostles and that some of the New Testament epistles were also authored by apostles, but these are the fringe views. The only point I wish to make based on this reality is that assertions such as allegedly possessing the “testimonies” of the “apostles” are, at the very least, highly disputed and challenged claims even among the Christians themselves. And so, if we do not have the writings and testimonies of the apostles, then we do not know what they actually believed and said.

I am not certain, however, what James White means by “martyrs.” If by “martyrs” he means individuals who witnessed Jesus (P) first hand and later died for their beliefs in the first century, then the above argument applies here as well. But if by “martyrs” he means later Christians in general, such as for instance the apostolic fathers and those who came thereafter, who were also willing die for their beliefs in the early centuries (first to third centuries), then just because a person truly believes that certain things are true and is willing to die for them does not follow that they are really true. He/she could also mistakenly believe that something was true. These later Christians, of course, were in no way eyewitnesses nor in touch with eyewitnesses.

The weakness with White’s argument is that he conveniently assumes that what he believes is 100% accurate, the truth and unchallengeable, whereas when we refer to the scholarly literature on the matter, that is when we realize that all, rather most, of White’s presuppositions are hotly disputed, mostly dismissed, and so nothing is undoubtedly “established.”

Interestingly enough, I feel that the argument used by James White can also be applied by the Jews against Christians with some adjustments and modifications, of course. For arguments sake, let’s accept all of the evangelical claims about the person of Jesus (P) blindly and uncritically accept all of the assertions of the different New Testament writers as well. We are now faced with a Jesus (P) who preached a Trinitarian conception of God, one who claimed to be God himself, one who claimed to die as atonement for the sins of mankind and one who predicted that he would come back to life. The Jews, who had been reading their books for so many centuries, however, never read therein that God was a Trinity, that He would become a man and walk among men on earth sometime in the future, that God would then die for the sins of mankind and come back to life etc. Similarly, we may say that the authors of the individual books of the Jewish Bible also did not subscribe to such views. Therefore, we can say that the Jewish reading and understanding of their own books was certainly radically different from the aforementioned Christian beliefs about Jesus. And so, why should the Jews dismiss their traditional understanding of the teachings of the Jewish Bible and their forefathers and instead adopt the odd and very unusual views of a strange Jew who lived in the first century – Jesus (P)? Granted, Jesus (P) could read and write and was thus familiar with the contents of at least most books of the Jewish Bible. Yet, it remains that his understanding of the contents of these writings was very odd to say the least and radically different from the traditional Jewish understanding. Similarly, while the New Testament writers also appealed to the Jewish Bible at times, the simple fact remains that their understanding and interpretation of those passages are all radically different from the traditional Jewish understanding and interpretations. Therefore, why should what he (Jesus (P)) said supersede the traditional testimony and understanding of the Jews of the past? Why should we believe him (and the New Testament writers) in light of this radical difference as enumerated above? Instead, should we not just dismiss Jesus (P)?

White’s argument reminds me of the people of the old referred to within the Quran who dismissed and rejected the prophets sent to them by God by insisting that they would rather abide by their traditional beliefs – or what was taught to them by their fathers, which obviously differed from the teachings of God’s prophets/messengers. For example, consider a few passages:

When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah hath revealed:” They say: “Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! even though their fathers Were void of wisdom and guidance? 2:170

They said: “O Salih! thou hast been of us! a centre of our hopes hitherto! dost thou (now) forbid us the worship of what our fathers worshipped? But we are really in suspicious (disquieting) doubt as to that to which thou invitest us.” 11:62

(Further, We sent a long line of prophets for your instruction). We sent Noah to his people: He said, “O my people! worship Allah! Ye have no other god but Him. Will ye not fear (Him)?”

The chiefs of the Unbelievers among his people said: “He is no more than a man like yourselves: his wish is to assert his superiority over you: if Allah had wished (to send messengers), He could have sent down angels; never did we hear such a thing (as he says), among our ancestors of old.” 23:23-24

But when Moses came unto them with Our clear tokens, they said: This is naught but invented magic. We never heard of this among our fathers of old. 28:36

When they are told to follow the (Revelation) that Allah has sent down, they say: “Nay, we shall follow the ways that we found our fathers (following). “What! even if it is Satan beckoning them to the Penalty of the (Blazing) Fire? 31:21

When Our Clear Signs are rehearsed to them, they say, “This is only a man who wishes to hinder you from the (worship) which your fathers practised.” And they say, “This is only a falsehood invented!” and the Unbelievers say of the Truth when it comes to them, “This is nothing but evident magic!” 34:43

And they make into females angels who themselves serve Allah. Did they witness their creation? Their evidence will be recorded, and they will be called to account!

(“Ah!”) they say, “If it had been the will of (Allah) Most Gracious, we should not have worshipped such (deities)!” Of that they have no knowledge! they do nothing but lie!

What! have We given them a Book before this, to which they are holding fast?

Nay! they say: “We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we do guide ourselves by their footsteps.”

Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before thee to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: “We found our fathers following a certain religion, and we will certainly follow in their footsteps.” 43:19-23

In my view, James White does nothing more than to rehash the arguments of the disbelievers of the old. The disbelievers asked why they should dismiss their traditional teachings and understandings – those of their fathers – and why should the new teachings of the Prophets supersede their traditional beliefs and practises? Similarly, White also asks us why he should believe the words and claims of Muhammed (P) when his teachings are radically different from the teachings and understandings of Christians, or different from what Christians are normally accustomed to?

Coming to James White’s final statement:

    “Shabir Ally never even attempted to give a meaningful response to that at all and yet there is a direct parallel. A direct parallel. And so they copped out.”

In light of the above discussion, I think the argument James White presented was so lame that there was really no need for Shabir Ally to waste his precious minutes addressing it. Having said this, I feel that James White is being less than honest on this instance, with all due respect. That is because Shabir Ally did reply to this argument of James White, at least twice. When Shabir Ally spoke, he briefly made mention of certain reasons why we could believe that the Quran is inspired and indeed the Word of God. So, if it is the word of God, then it does not matter if Muhammed (P) was illiterate and could not read Greek and had no access to the New Testament writings etc., since the source of the knowledge is God and not Muhammed (P).

Please bear in mind that the topic of the debate was: “Is the New Testament as it exists today the inspired word of God?” As we shall see in my up-coming review, James White virtually ignored the topic and went on and on rambling over entirely irrelevant matters, matters having nothing to do with the topic of the debate. Nonetheless, Shabir Ally did, albeit briefly, reply to the main points raised by James White and also offered a list of certain reasons why the Quran can be argued to be the Word of God.

The actual “copping out” was conducted by none other than James White throughout the debate as he made little or no attempt to engage with Shabir Ally’s arguments and offered virtually no evidence or reason why anyone should believe that the New Testament is “inspired.” Moreover, during the cross examination period Shabir Ally asked James White (I am paraphrasing, or telescoping): “So we don’t know who wrote the gospels, we don’t know when they were written, how then do you know they are inspired?” a direct question, James White conveniently ignored it and went on to another subject.

In conclusion, I hope readers can see why James White’s above discussed argument is most unpersuasive and simply weak, based on certain convenient and highly questionable presuppositions. Moreover, variants of similar arguments can also be applied vigorously upon the Christians as I briefly attempted to do above. Interestingly, James White did nothing more than to appeal to a frequent argument utilised by the disbelievers of the old. There is no escape exit: you must make a serious attempt to study Islam,4 with an open mind, and then decide for yourself.

Notes

1. I attempted to quote James White verbatim. But some words of his were unclear to me and so I left those parts with a simple “…” Nonetheless, you can still follow his arguments rather easily.

2. Please note that both the Ahmadis – who should actually be called Qadianis – and the Bhais are totally outside the fold of Islam. Muslim scholars, both Sunni and Shia alike, are unanimous in this regard.

3. By “apostles” I mean the individuals who spent time with Jesus (P) and witnessed him (P) firsthand.

4. By “study” I do not mean that you seek out a polemical anti-Islamic website and master their arguments against Islam. This is not the way to sincerely study any religion, including Christianity. Instead, to give my example, I attempt to learn about the Bible and Christianity by referring to writings produced by believing Christians such as F. F. Bruce, Donald Guthrie, William Lane Craig, Craig Bloomberg etc. Later, once I am familiar with the Christian arguments and way of thinking, I then refer to opposing arguments and try to decide for myself as to which is the stronger and more probable side. Similarly, if you are an earnest and sincere truth seeker, then refer to how Muslim scholars explain Islam and then, by all means, refer to writings produced by outsiders and decide for yourself.

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