Answering Missionaries

June 4, 2006



Shabir Ally

May 30, 2006

On James’ kind invitation, I have listened to his Dividing Line1 broadcast of May 23 in which he responds to two issues I have written about recently. First, I have pointed out that his reference to Yasir Qadhi’s An Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran2 was incorrect, since the material simply does not exist in the cited book.3 Second, I had attempted to reclaim a point I had surrendered during the debate on the grounds that the information I had received from James, and to whose authority on the Greek language I naturally deferred, was incomplete.4 I will here attempt to evaluate James’ response to the first of these two issues. I will deal with the second issue, on the matter of Matthew’s modification of Mark, in another paper.

A brief summary of the issue regarding James’ citation of Qadhi’s book would be appropriate. In our recent debate, during his prepared opening presentation, James pressed forward the point that the Quran’s textual history is suspect, and that I am being inconsistent in complaining about textual variations of the Bible while remaining complacent with a conservative view of the Quran. The Quran, he pointed out, has been subjected to variations until the Caliph Uthman had ordered that all but a single text be burnt. Ibn Masud, who had a variant text of the Quran, refused to give up his copy, and for this refusal he was beaten. As a result of this beating he died.

During the Q&A, I stated that James had got his facts wrong about this. The traditional reports with which I am familiar have it that after some hesitation Ibn Masud surrendered his text, excusing his former reticence as having been due to some petty jealousy on his part. James was, however, ready with his notes to contradict me on this. When the microphone was passed over to him he supported his point with a citation which he said he was reading from Qadhi’s book. After the debate I tried to locate the passage. Being unable, I wrote to James asking for the page number. In a series of emails back and forth, James explained the circumstances which prevented him from providing the reference as quickly as I wanted to have it. There were new problems arising each time. I would have been patient if a definite date could be stated by which I may have the reference, but when I could not have even this, I wrote to Qadhi himself to find out what I was missing in this whole exercise. In his response Qadhi denied that the cited material was from his book. I then wrote a brief article in which I documented the error. On the edition of Dividing Line being reviewed here, James acknowledged that the citation was not from Qadhi’s book. As he rightly pointed out, he has never claimed to be infallible, and it would be unfair to demand such an attribute of him, especially since he has shown that on occasion I too have committed errors.

Without belabouring the matter and dwelling on the past, it is important that we set some standards for the future. With this purpose in mind, I feel that there are two issues that require my comments here. First, whereas James brushes off the point as having a very minor significance in the debate, in my view it has a little more significance than that. Second, while James now acknowledges the error, he nevertheless claims that the text itself he was reading is correct, since he is able to trace the text to other writings. The issue of importance for me, however, is not the text itself, but the reliability of the source in which it is found.

First, it makes a great deal of difference whether Ibn Masud was beaten so badly for his text that he died of the beating. The traditional Muslim view is that after the standard text of the Quran was prepared under the careful scrutiny of the appointed committee under the Caliph, there was no longer a need for variant copies. Moreover, the proliferation of such variants would have been counterproductive to the preservation of the unmistaken standard text. To avoid confusion between acceptable readings and non-acceptable ones, therefore, there was a reasoned appeal that further copies be made only from the standard text, and that other texts be surrendered for burning. Ibn Masud initially refused to give up his text for two basic reasons. First, he had learned some seventy chapters of the Quran directly from the Prophet, on whom be peace. Second, he felt some personal jealousy for the fact that while he was excluded from the committee that produced the standard text, he had been a Muslim before the birth of Zaid who was the main person on the team.

If, against this traditional view, we are to accept James’ claim that the handing over of variant texts was secured with such violence, two implications seem necessary. First, this would indicate a strong insistence on the part of Ibn Masud that he had something of significance to preserve over and against the standard text. Second, it would indicate that there was an inordinate determination on the part of the Caliph to crush any resistance to his attempt to standardise the text. Indeed, this is the point James continues to maintain with his assertions that Muslim adherence to Uthman’s decision would imply that he too was inspired in preserving the text after the Prophet was once inspired in receiving it.

Without entering here into a detailed discussion on the textual history of the Quran, or even a discussion of the merits of the traditional position outlined above, I would stay on track here by recalling what James set out to deal with and how he handled the matter. Realising that his citation is not from the book by Qadhi, he now brushes off the point by saying that I was demanding a reference to an issue “which was not even slightly a central point of the debate to begin with.”5 As I have shown, however, it was closely related to one of his main arguments, which constituted an important part of his opening presentation.

Moreover, James said on the program that in preparing for the debate he read a lot about this issue, knowing that I would make an issue of errors that crept into the Bible in the process of its being copied over the centuries. As I noted during my rebuttal, James’ carefully crafted opening presentation was an advance rebuttal of what James thought I would say in my opening presentation. Unfortunately for him, the issue of errors that crept into the New Testament during its transmission phase was secondary to my main emphasis. I went beyond this to a deeper level, tracing changes to the story about Jesus during the composition phase of the Gospels. In the light of my actual presentation, and in view of the topic we had gathered to debate, James’ presentation was not central to the debate. And the point he made about Ibn Masud was therefore a distraction. But this is obviously not how James saw the matter when he made it a significant part of his prepared presentation. Moreover, the manner in which he dealt with it in his Dividing Line broadcast shows that the issue still holds great significance to him.

The second issue I feel I need to clarify about James’ attempt to minimize the error is with regards to his satisfaction that, while he had cited the incorrect book, the cited material stood its own ground. Over time he had come across the cited matter in a number of sources. And he is able to cite two of them. One reference is to T. J. Newbold who wrote for Journal Asiatique, December 1843. The second is to Canon Edward Sell writing in his 1909 book. But since this latter work depends on the former for this citation, we are really dealing with only one source: Newbold.

From what I have explained in my paper “Understanding the Rules Regarding the Use of Scholarly Citations,”6 and from the textbooks I have recommended for further reading, it will be obvious that James is not correct in equating Newbold and Qadhi as interchangeable sources for the matter at hand. First, Qadhi is contemporary, whereas Newbold was writing more than a century ago. Second, Newbold was writing at a time when Islam was little understood in the West. Although many advances have been made over the past century, Islam remains largely misunderstood. We do not need to imagine how Islam was misunderstood in the past, for this is already adequately documented.7 This is not to say that Newbold himself was guilty of this, but only to insist that without further knowledge about this person one cannot treat his knowledge as being on par with contemporary scholarship.

Third, Newbold was not in a position to have first-hand knowledge of the facts he is reporting regarding the death of Ibn Masud. In addition to citing Newbold, it was necessary for James to cite Newbold’s sources for this information. But if James traces this piece of information from Canon Sell to T. J. Newbold, and the trail ends there, the mystery remains as to the identity of the first-hand source. Hence it turns out that even in this rescued form the citation is inadequate as support for James’ claim.

In short, while James has acknowledged the error, his attempt to minimize its significance is unconvincing. It would have been formally better if James had realised his error and made the acknowledgement while I was demanding to know the page number of Qadhi’s book from which he had obtained the citation. As he now explains, when he first made the claim he had not realised that the issue was contentious. It seems that my contending with him about the issue during the debate, and my repeated request for the reference after the debate, should have alerted him that something is amiss. As he explains, he had mixed up his references during the debate seeing that he had only a few minutes (or a few seconds) to locate it. It seems to me that if he had expended such a short time to try and locate the reference when I asked for it he might have realised and acknowledged the error before my definitive article on the matter.

In any case, the error was not only in his mis-citation of Qadhi’s book, but in his mis-applying of the rules regarding scholarly citations. As I have explained in my other work referred to above, argumentation by appeal to authority has to follow some reasonable unwritten rules. The authority to whom one appeals should be contemporary, s/he should be a known authority in the field of reference, and s/he should either be in a position to know the facts s/he is reporting or otherwise furnish sources of first-hand information.


1. “The Dividing Line,” a webcast featuring James White, May 23, 2006.

2. Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Quran (Birmingham: Al-Hidaayah, 1999).

3. Shabir Ally, “What Yasir Qadhi’s Book Actually Says On The Initial Hesitation of Ibn Masud” (Toronto: May 21, 2006).

4. Shabir Ally, “A Reassertion That Matthew 24:42 Improves the Image of Jesus Over That of Mark 13:35,” Revised, (Toronto: May 21, 2006).

5. James White, DL, op. cit.

6. Shabir Ally, “Understanding the Rules Regarding the Use of Scholarly Citations,” May 29, 2006.

7. See, for example, Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Oxford: Oneworld, 1993).


1 Comment »

  1. I just wanted to elaborate on this point since I had attended the debate. As the rest of the Muslim attendees how were there, I was amazed at Dr. White’s assertions of the death of Ibn Masud because of his refusal to burn his copy of the Quran. Hence, as soon as the opining presentation was concluded by both speakers, and during the break time, I went to Dr. White and asked him:
    – Dr., would you please give me a reliable source that cites this story about the death of Ibn Masud?
    – I don’t have my references now but e-mail me and I’ll send it to you
    – Dr., you come to a public debate making such claim in your presentation twice, yet you don’t have your references!
    – It was on the answering-islam website
    – But is this website considered a reliable reference for the authentic Islamic narrations, is this considered academic?
    – What about Shabir, he did not quote any references in his presentation
    – You can defiantly ask him about his references that support his claims, and if he did not bring it forward then that would not be scholarly in his part.

    By that time Dr. White turned to his tablet PC trying to browse some of his material, maybe locating the reference for his claimon that website. During the Q&A session Shabir did point out this erroneous point and Dr. White, probably after finding his claimed reference on the answering-islam website, mentioned that it was from AlQadhi’s book which we now know that this even was not true.

    The debate in general was good. I liked the friendly attitude of both speakers. When it comes to the result, I think Shabir had the upper hand in this debate. His arguments were well presented and organized. I just whished if he used more examples that show the progression of stories from Mark to Mathew and Luke. On the other hand, after listening to Dr. White I still don’t know why he believes that the New Testament as it exists today is the pure word of God?, this is because he did not address the topic at all. The only two arguments he raised that are related to the topic were “every Gospel writer was addressing a different audience” and “Mathew was telescoping what Mark had written”. To me this is a very desperate defense since it opens a wide gate to justify any change within the text, so now instead of saying “text alteration” let’s put a newly invented title that is “text telescoping”, yet they are still the same thing.

    Comment by aaea73 — June 9, 2006 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

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