Argument in a nutshell:
- Premise A) The Qur’an says that the People of the Book ‘recognise [something] as clearly as they recognise their own sons’ (Q 2:146, 6:20). This is because of what their Scriptures say.
- Premise B) The object of recognition could be the Prophethood of Muhammad, or the direction of prayer towards the holy city of Islam and the truth of unitarianism.
- Premise C) The Torah and Gospel do not in fact say these things.
- Conclusion) The Qur’an is mistaken.
During my study of the Qur’an, I came across a couple of verses that I had never heard discussed in Muslim-Christian encounters. This is despite their great relevance to topics that lay at the heart of Muslim-Christian debate. The verses are as follows:
ٱلَّذِينَ ءَاتَيْنَٰهُمُ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ يَعْرِفُونَهُۥ كَمَا يَعْرِفُونَ أَبْنَآءَهُمْ وَإِنَّ فَرِيقًا مِّنْهُمْ لَيَكْتُمُونَ ٱلْحَقَّ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ
lladhīna ātaynāhumu l‑kitāba yaʿrifūnahu ka‑mā yaʿrifūna abnāʾahum wa‑inna farīqan minhum la‑yaktumūna l‑ḥaqqa wa‑hum yaʿlamūna
Those We gave Scripture know it as well as they know their own sons, but some of them hide the truth that they know. (Abdel Haleem)
ٱلَّذِينَ ءَاتَيْنَٰهُمُ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ يَعْرِفُونَهُۥ كَمَا يَعْرِفُونَ أَبْنَآءَهُمُ ٱلَّذِينَ خَسِرُوٓا۟ أَنفُسَهُمْ فَهُمْ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
lladhīna ātaynāhumu l‑kitāba yaʿrifūnahu ka‑mā yaʿrifūna abnāʾahumu lladhīna khasirū anfusahum fa‑hum lā yuʾminūna
Those to whom We have given the Scripture know this as well as they know their own sons. Those who have lost their souls will not believe. (Abdel Haleem)
The object of recognition
Clearly the People of the Book (‘Those to whom We have given the Scripture’), i.e. Jews and Christians, are supposed to recognise something very clearly, as clearly ‘as they know their own sons’. But what is it that they are supposed to recognise?
The key pronoun is the attached suffix hu in yaʿrifūnahu (‘they recognise him/it’), which can mean either ‘him’ or ‘it’. Abdel Haleem favours ‘it’/’this’, while others understand hu to mean ‘him’, i.e. Muhammad. Numerous translations supporting both perspectives can be found here for Q 2:146, and here for Q 6:20. The Study Quran (2015, 66) finds both views amongst the commentators; al-Ṭabarī thinks that ‘it’ refers to the Kaʿbah being the correct qiblah (direction of prayer) (cf. the broader context of vv. 142-152), while al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210) think that ‘he’ is a reference to Muhammad as prophet. Commenting specifically on yaʿrifūnahu in Q 2:146 Muqātil (d. 767 CE) writes: ‘I.e. they recognise al-bayt al-ḥarām that it is the qiblah’ (my translation of أى يعرفون البيت الحرام أنه القبلة).
Though I favour understanding hu in Q 2:146 to refer to the direction of prayer being towards al-masjid al-ḥarām, as I have argued at length elsewhere, for our purposes I believe it does not matter too much. I believe that whichever interpretation one adopts, there are serious problems:
- Hu refers to the direction of prayer being towards al-masjid al-ḥarām. How are Jews and Christians supposed to clearly know this? Where does the Torah or the Gospel teach this?
- Hu refers to recognising Muhammad. Due to the context (vv. 142-152), ‘those to whom We gave the scripture’ are meant to recognise Muhammad due to the harmony between his teaching and their scriptures on the direction of prayer. See the problem with this in point 1 above.
- Hu refers to recognising Muhammad. This is not connected to the surrounding context (vv. 142-152), it has a different occasion of revelation. This seems like an odd intrusion given the continuity in subject before and after. Furthermore, based on what scriptures do Jews and Christians clearly recognise Muhammad, as clearly as they recognise their own sons? See more on this below.
The context of Q 6:20 is somewhat different to that of Q 2:146; the early verses of Surah 6 speak of the truth of (Islamic unitarian) monotheism, the foolishness of idolatry, the reality of final judgement and the Prophethood of Muhammad. In light of these themes hu could be understood as:
- ‘It’/’this’, referring to the truth of (Islamic unitarian) monotheism and the foolishness of idolatry. But the Torah and the Gospel paint a more nuanced picture of monotheism, the former perhaps hinting at (e.g. Genesis 1:2, 26; 19:24; Exodus 23:20-21) and the latter teaching that God is more than unipersonal (e.g. Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 2:7-12, 14:61-64; John 1:1, 14, 18). See further materials on this below. How then can the Qur’an suggest that Jews and Christians recognise Islamic unitarian monotheism as clearly as they recognise their own sons?
- ‘Him’, referring to Muhammad as prophet. Due to the surrounding context, ‘those to whom we gave the Scripture’ are meant to recognise Muhammad due to the harmony between his teaching and their scriptures on (Islamic unitarian) monotheism. See the problem with this in point 1 above.
- ‘Him’, referring to Muhammad as prophet. This is not connected to the surrounding context, it has a different occasion of revelation. This seems like an odd intrusion given the continuity in subject before and after. Furthermore, based on what scriptures do Jews and Christians clearly recognise Muhammad, as clearly as they recognise their own sons? See more on this below.
This is not the place to discuss the classical texts appealed to by Muslims to find Muhammad in the Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Song of Solomon 5:16), a necessary endeavour in light of Q 7:157 and Q 61:6, wherein we are told that the coming of Muhammad is predicted by Jesus (Q 61:6), and at the time of Muhammad he is still found ‘described in the Torah that is with them, and in the Gospel’ (Q 7:157, Abdel Haleem). Interestingly Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 are not often appealed to with regard to this topic. Those who wish to watch Muslim-Christian debates on this topic can check out James White’s debates with Zakir Hussain and Shabir Ally.
Particularly interesting is the approach taken by Shabir Ally in his 2016 debate with David Wood on “What Is the Quran’s View of the Christian Scriptures?”. Speaking on Q 7:157, Ally says:
[34:38] The important thing I wanted to point out is the statement whom they find, whom they find. You will notice that this statement is not so much directed at Muslims…it is saying that this is what the People of the Book will find, those who have been reading the Bible, they will find Muhammad mentioned there. Now this passage has created a lot of confusion in the minds of people who think…that they’re supposed to find Muhammad mentioned, for example, by name, and that there should be some very clear and indisputable indications about him in the previous scriptures. But to me, this is not what the Qurʾan is saying. The Qurʾan, to me, in this passage is calling on Jews and Christians to use the interpretative methods with which they are already familiar to see if those interpretative methods will point them towards Muhammad as it has already pointed the Christians…to Jesus. …they have used typology… they use the idea of the fuller sense of scripture, something is there, but it would not have been understood at the time…they use also midrash…they use an interpretative method known as pesher, where they take Jesus as he is and then go back into the Old Testament to see if perhaps there is some sort of indication, no matter how vague…to me, the Qurʾan is asking Jews and Christians, use these methods…’ (emphasis original)
I wonder if Shabir Ally, whose integrity and excellent demeanour I respect, takes this more flexible approach because he is aware that the classic proof-texts for prophecies of Muhammad are not especially convincing? My challenge to Shabir Ally and similarly sophisticated Muslim thinkers is that such a subtle approach, attempting to defend the truth of Q 7:157, falls foul of Q 2:146 and Q 6:20 if such verses are indeed about the Prophet. These verses suggest the clarity with which the subject can be found; as clearly as someone recognising their own son. If these verses are not about the Prophet, then other issues arise as discussed above.
My Muslim friends, how do you understand Q 2:146 and Q 6:20? Let me know in the comments below.
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