Dialogue on Islam and Christology: Reports and Comments

Seems like the following summaries of my dialogue with Dr. Louay Fatoohi at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies on August 13 2009 are being sent around the Internet.

http://ameia-kl.blogspot.com/2009/08/islam-and-christology.html LINK

http://www.iais.org.my/details.php?content_id=226 LINK

I have problems with the summaries at a few points but at least they give a rough idea of what transpired in the dialogue. I did not consider posting further comments on the dialogue, but now that these summaries are being circulated, I will just fine-tune them with a few caveats. I will post a full response only if it turns out that the book is widely received by the reading public and the academia.

First I should give credit where credit is due. Dr. Fatoohi’s 800 page book, The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible and Historical Sources (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2009) represents a major step forward in Muslim engagement with Christology. It is more sophisticated than the other big book “What Did Jesus Really Say? (600pp) written by Misha’al Ibn Abdullah Al-Kadhi in 1995. http://media.isnet.org/off/Islam/JesusSay/index.html in that it tries to engage with critical scholarship.

Nevertheless, I can only conclude that Fatoohi’s book is seriously flawed. It is inadequate from the point of view of methodology when the Biblical sources are treated in abstraction and in isolation from their historical and cultural context. Since Fatoohi detached the Biblical texts from the historical trajectory of the life and faith of the early Christian community, he naturally took liberty with these texts. Without a comprehensiveness and consistent historical methodology and hermeneutics, Fatoohi ends up cherry-picking from critics who share his skepticism about the Biblical texts, primarily Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders.

One symptom of Dr. Fatoohi’s flawed reading is his treatment of the so-called prophecies of  Muhammad in the Bible. This is really a silly feature of simplistic Islamic apologetics that could easily be disposed off in 10 minutes. The way in which so many Muslims go about proof-texting the claim that Muhammad was prophecied in the Bible really makes them look naïve, if not desperate. I would recommend Muslims seriously abandon this fruitless venture.

However, I refrained from giving this Muslim apologetic a proper refutation since I was only given 30 minutes for my presentation. I decided to focus on more fundamental issues like typology and prophecies in the gospels to emphasize that the gospel teachings flow naturally from the Old Testament.

I cited R. T. France’s excellent Ph. D dissertation on Jesus and the Old Testament (Tyndale 1971). France’s gave a succinct explanation of typology:

“There is a consistency in God’s dealing with men. Thus his acts in the Old Testament will present a pattern which can be seen to be repeated in the New Testament events; these may therefore be interpreted by reference to the pattern displayed in the Old Testament. New Testament typology is thus essentially the tracing of the constant principles of God’s working in history, revealing ‘a recurring rhythm in past history which is taken up more fully and perfectly in the Gospel events’.

When the Gospel writers use typology, then, they are often not claiming to be interpreting the meaning of the Old Testament passages cited but rather showing how contemporary events are falling into a pattern so reminiscent of what God did in the past that they can explain the present only in terms of God’s acting again.”

Christian scholars are only happy to demonstrate that the faith of the early Christians was rooted in the Old Testament and map out a plausible historical trajectory between prophecy and fulfillment in the Old and New Testament, supported with details drawn from their historical context and social milieu.  For a starter I refer to the classic work done by C. H. Dodd on The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (1936). See also Paul Barnett two works: Jesus and The Rise of Early Christianity (1999); The Birth of Christianity: The first twenty years (2005).

In contrast, it is neither evident nor possible to discern a plausible historical trajectory between the Biblical texts and the later Quranic references to Jesus. At best, the Quran reflects more of the milieu of later apocryphal stories and post-biblical Judaism several centuries later, cf. Abraham Geiger, Judaism and Islam. In this regard, I must conclude that the Quranic Jesus can only be asserted dogmatically. It is a theological claim rather than a historical conclusion.

Nevertheless, I also pointed out the historical discontinuity between the Old and New Testament. Again for the purpose of a limited oral presentation I only cited a quotation from France and Dodd.

C. H. Dodd described the Christian use of the Old Testament as ‘a considerable intellectual feat’, ‘an achievement of interpretative imagination which results in the creation of an entirely new figure’. He continues, in a much-quoted passage, ‘This is a piece of genuinely creative thinking. Who was responsible for it? The early Church, we are accustomed to say, and perhaps we can safely say no more. But creative thinking is rarely done by committees… It is individual minds that originate. Whose was the originating mind here?’ Various creative thinkers of the New Testament period, known and unknown, are suggested. ‘But the New Testament itself avers that it was Jesus Christ Himself who first directed the minds of His followers to certain parts of the scriptures as those in which they might find illumination upon the meaning of His mission and destiny…. To account for the beginning of his most original and fruitful process of rethinking the Old Testament we found need to postulate a creative mind. The Gospels offer us one. Are we compelled to reject the offer?’

We believe that our study has given us some grounds for concluding that we not only can but must accept the offer. The source of the distinctive Christian use of the Old Testament was not the creative thinking of the primitive community, but that of its founder. It was not the early church which inscribed its theology on the blank cheque of its Master’s teaching but Jesus whose teaching and life initiated that theology. The church did not create Jesus, but Jesus created the church.

The reason for this was not just that he was a creative thinker with new ideas, but that he was the one ‘of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote’, and that he himself knew this, and ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’.

In short, I am confident that only through a careful, respectful handling of present gospels do we arrive at an authentic understanding of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ

I must stress therefore in the light of the above discussion that I judge the following quotation from the IAIS summary as inaccurate, “Ng adduced the typological character of narratives whereby Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, and he aligned it to the parallel function of narratives about Muhammad’s advent fulfilling earlier Jewish or Christian prophecies.”

The fact is, there is absolutely no similarity between how Muslims manipulate  Biblical texts as ‘proofs’ of prophecies of Muhammad and how the New Testament writers saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Finally, I shall address one more issue that was not fully presented because time was short, that is, the criteria of coherence in deciding between the Biblical portrait of Jesus Christ and the Quranic Jesus.  Fatoohi claims the Biblical Jesus Christ is incoherent and opts for the Quranic Jesus.

But we first need to specify in detail the criteria of coherence. By what criteria do we judge whether the portrait of Jesus (Biblical or Quranic) is coherent? I believe the studies by France and Dodd convincingly demonstrate that the prima facie reading of the Bible offers a coherent portrait of the historical Jesus.

Second, coherence alone cannot be the decisive factor in our evaluation. We must also include the criteria of theological comprehensiveness and historical accuracy.

It is not surprising that Fatoohi has no problem in arguing for the coherence of the Quranic picture of Jesus. Coherence is not an issue for the Quran since it only contains a minimum data base of Jesus that is presented ahistorically. Since the  Quranic picture of Jesus is abstracted from its Palestinian background and earlier historical traditions it is only self-referentially coherent – an analytical proposition rather than a synthetic proposition (Kant).

I am suggesting that a proper choice between the Jesus of the gospel and the Quran demands a presentation that is historically grounded and set in a robust historical framework with full details reconstructed from historically attested data. We note for example how Luke provided ample references to prominent contemporary figures and significant descriptions of his social milieu – a clear indication of the writer’s intention to write a contemporary history rather to indulge in myth making. Further archaeological works have so far vindicated Luke as a historian who writes with habitual accuracy (William Mitchell Ramsay).  It is no accident that we see Jewish and Christian archaeologists digging all over Palestine and the Middle East – they are confident that archaeology will vindicate the historical veracity of their religious documents. In contrast, there are few, if any, Muslim archaeologists actively grounding the Quranic claims in its historical milieu.

Equally important too must be the psychological plausibility of the portrait of the historical figure presented – the gospels provide four rich portraits (not photographs) of Jesus Christ. In this regard it is simply just inappropriate to compare a few verses of the Quran with the New Testament that includes a whole range of literary forms – history (Acts), rhetorical speeches (Sermon on the Mount), poems and hymns, prophecies and apocalyptical symbolisms, ordinary epistles or letters and of course gospels (unique biographical genres in their own right). We might as well compare cartoon with the art work of Western Realism in the mid-nineteenth century.

In one respect, Fatoohi is correct about the criterion of coherence. We must see the big picture. Indeed, it is unfortunate that the limited historical paradigm that is adopted by Fatoohi in his book cannot but fail to capture the whole picture of who Jesus really is, notwithstanding its 800 pages of discussion . How can Fatoohi succeed in arriving at an authentic picture of Christ by just discussing the historical problems surrounding the virgin birth, or just a few Christological titles? The desiccated methodology of selective form critical analysis will only disappoint Fatoohi so that the Biblical Christ can only remain a mystery to him.

The challenge is to look at the gospels at they really are – beyond historical analysis to genre, literary, theological analysis of the gospels – not in abstraction but situated within the social milieu of first century – so that the portrait of Jesus is presented so vividly that we can feel the breeze of the Sea of Galilee and the dusty road tracks that Jesus walked on. We are overawed by his theological acumen as he preached from the Old Testament and are exhilarated by his liberating spirituality.

But finally, we must focus on the Jesus as we read the gospels. We will see a man winsome in every way – he accepted the rich and poor, proud nobles and humiliated prostitutes and slaves. He gave hope and dignity to the oppressed. He heals broken lives. The Sermon on the Mount recorded how his listeners all marveled at his wisdom and religious authority. We surely agree that he is a most winsome and great man.

But he is more, he dared challenged and shook the religious establishment with uncompromising judgment on how they abused political power and manipulated religion for selfish interests. He is we all say, an exemplary prophet.

But could he even be more? For the Christian, the answer is yes! – Provided that we take the gospels on their own terms. Is it any accident that Fatoohi only minimally engaged with the most decisive claim: that the historical Jesus was both crucified and resurrected? Then and only then will it be possible for the reader to experience the power (not just logical conclusion) of the resurrection of Christ and affirm that Jesus is sent by God to save and heal a broken world.

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Report by Rev. Fr. Michael Chua, Ecclesiastical Assistant, Archdiocesan Ministry of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur LINK.

‘An Islamic Christology? Wouldn’t that be an oxymoron?,’ would most likely be the skeptical response from both Christians and Muslims. By an Islamic Christology is meant not a theological formulation analogous to the christologies of both the early church and Christians, but, rather, an understanding of the role of Christ within the divine plan of human history, of Christ the man, one of the servants of God, but also of Christ, the Word of God, His spirit and exalted friend.

Jesus Christ, known by his various titles in both Islam and Christianity, has provided both a bridge between Christianity and Islam and at the same time posed a great theological barrier between the Christian Church and the Muslim ummah. For Muslim piety and belief, Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Spirit of God, and His Word, is a model of true Islam, or total submission to God. For the Islamic faith, Jesus, like Adam, is a special creation of God, but unlike Adam, he is free from sin. He is blessed and righteous servant of God, “high honoured in this and the next world, and one of those who are nearest to God” (Qu’ran surah 3:45). So much of these points resonate with the Christian understanding of Jesus, but Christianity goes beyond this to acknowledge that Jesus is not created, no matter how unique and special he may be in comparison to other mortals, and that he is the true and only-begotten Son of God, the Saviour of World. Attempting to find links and recognizing the substantial differences between these two different christologies (the study of the life and works of Jesus Christ) was the subject of this seminar entitled “Islam and Christology,” organized by the International Institute of Advance Islamic Studies (IAIS), Malaysia in collaboration with YADIM (a Muslim missionary foundation) and Islamic Book Trust (IBT), which was held yesterday, the 13th of August.

The seminar not only featured the public talk by Dr. Louay Fatoohi, an Islamic scholar and author, but was also an opportunity for the official launching of Dr. Fatoohi’s book, “The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qu’ran, the Bible and Historical Resources”, published by IBT. But the real highlight of the seminar was the engaging dialogue that took place between Dr. Fatoohi and the respondent, Dr. Ng Kam Weng, Research Director of Kairos Research Centre, who presented the Christian perspective of the topic.

Dr. Fatoohi began his talk by giving a cursory explanation of how Christians and Muslims viewed each other’s scriptures and try to understand both the similarities and differences that lie therein. Christians explained the similarities and differences between the two texts by claiming that the Quran was the handiwork of Muhammad, probably written with the help of others who had knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures and apocryphal writings. Muslims, based on the Quran, believe that the revelation of the Quran was made to the Prophet Muhammad as the final seal in a long progressive line of revelations to various prophets, Moses and Jesus included, thus explaining the similarities in the texts. The Qu’ran, however, attributes the differences through changes made by the authors of the present text of the Bible (both Old and New Testament). These changes were either textual additions (cf. Qu’ran s. 2:79) or textual corruptions (cf. s. 75). Dr. Fatoohi coined a term to explain the latter, “contextual displacement.”

He then enumerated several events in the life of Jesus, to illustrate both the similarities and significant differences between the texts of both scriptures and other historical resources, namely, Mary’s background, the Annunciation, the virginal conception and perpetual virginity of Mary, the concept of Messiah in both scriptures, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the role of Jesus in God’s plan, the eschatological Jesus, and finally the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. In spite of the many differences that were apparent in both texts, there were also surprisingly many areas of convergence, e.g. annunciation, virgin birth, Jesus as the Word of God, his title as Messiah, and his ascension to heaven. By alluding to other historical resources, Dr. Fatoohi attempted to demonstrate that the Qu’ran presented a more credible picture of the historical Jesus.

In response, Dr. Ng Kam Weng, began by stating that he would not have the time to enumerate the many objections he had with the content of the book, “The Mystery of the Historical Jesus,” which he described as ‘driving down a road with many pot-holes.’ He, however, qualified himself with a caveat by stating that this was merely the usual disagreements that academics often had with each other, and it was in no way a sign of disrespect to Islam or Muslims in general. His main contentions were basically his objections to the methodological lenses by which Dr. Fatoohi examined Christian texts. He described that the method used in examining the Bible was one which was derived from the Englightenment, alluding to a purely rationalist approach that applied a hermeneutics of suspicion to the text. He found it a problem that Dr. Fatoohi didn’t give any consideration to the way Christians do textual, historical and form criticisms. He also noted that Dr. Fatoohi came to many conclusions about the Bible from a simple argument from silence (silence in the text, thus implied indictment). He also felt that if such a approach was used to examine the Bible, the Qu’ran should also equally be examined on the same terms. Other objections were that there was too much reliance on apocryphal sources which are spurious, thus challenging the notion of the Canon of the Bible; a refusal to consider to social, cultural and historical modalities that shape all texts; the arguments used both in the book and the talk did not give any weight to eye-witness credence etc. In short, it was clear that the problem of such a comparative study of both christologies was its failure to hinge itself on the significant differences in Biblical and Qu’ranic hermeneutics. At the conclusion of the seminar, Dr. Ng challenged everyone to consider how we can all let the One God lead us to a fuller understanding of Him, and that we must not let ourselves descend into polemics and petty defensiveness.

Both Dr. Fatoohi’s talk and Dr. Ng’s response, led to a lively and engaging dialogue between both scholars and also members of the audience. Undeniably, recognition must be given to the significance of Dr. Fatoohi’s research and his book, in that it fills a gap in both Muslim and non-Muslim literature in the comparative study of the Quranic account of Jesus’ life, its counterparts in the gospels and other historical sources. Such comparison allows the audience and reader see both the similarities as well as significant differences between all these accounts. Overall, the seminar provided a platform for scholarly Christian-Muslim dialogue that went beyond superficialities.
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Here is the report posted on the website of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. LINK

Seminar on ‘Islam and Christology’

Thursday, 13th August 2009 09:30am
co-organised by IAIS, YADIM & IBT
Speaker : Dr Louay Fatoohi
Respondent: Dr Ng Kam Weng
Venue : IAIS Malaysia Jalan Elmu, Off Jalan Universiti, Kuala Lumpur.

Programme includes an address by Dr Louay Fatoohi and launching of book ‘The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible And Historical Sources by Dr Louay Fatoohi’ by Yg. Bhg. Datuk Haji Mohd Nakhaie Hj Ahmad, Chairman, Malaysian Islamic Dakwah Foundation (YADIM).

Dr. Louay Fatoohi is a British scholar who was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1961, and holds a PhD in Astronomy from Durham University, United Kingdom (1998). He reverted from Christianity to Islam in his early twenties. The author of several books and over forty scientific and general articles in Arabic and English, Dr Fatoohi is particularly interested in studying historical characters and events that are mentioned in the Qur’an and comparing the Qur’anic account with the Biblical narratives and historical sources. His books include The Prophet Joseph in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History; Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source; The Mystery of the Crucifixion; and The Mystery of the Israel in Ancient Egypt, which he co-authored with his wife Dr Shetha al-Dargazelli.

Summary

Dialogue on Islam and Christology – 13th August 2009: with Dr LOUAY FATOOHI (PhD in astronomy, Durham University), and a Christian response from Dr NG KAM WENG (Research Director, Kairos Research Centre, KL) Sponsored by IAIS Malaysia, the Malaysian Islamic Dakwah Foundation (YADIM) & Islamic Book Trust. This three and one-half hours Seminar opened with Datuk Haji Mohd Nakhaie Hj Ahmad (Chairman-YADIM) launching the book by Louay Fatoohi, The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible and Historical Sources (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2009). The event was introduced and chaired by Emeritus Professor Datuk Osman Bakar (Deputy CEO–IAIS Malaysia).

Dr Louay Fatoohi summarized his work The Mystery of the Historical Jesus by examining the portrait of Jesus and Mary found in the Qur’an, and in New Testament canonical Gospels & certain apocryphal Infancy narratives, as well as historical sources contemporary with the early Christian era (Josephus & Roman historians). He stated the aim of his study was to establish the historical accuracy of the Qur’an’s depiction of the virgin birth of “Messiah Jesus son of Mary”, his prophetic human life and miracles, and denying Jesus died on the cross – motivated by Dr Fatoohi’s faith conviction in God’s revealed truth in the Qur’an as a totality.

Reviewing the Qur’anic verses relating the lives of Mary, Zachariah, and Jesus, Fatoohi argued in some detail that Islam’s scriptural account was not contradicted in any conclusive manner by the redacted synoptic gospels as well as historical sources, and found supporting confirmation in certain apocryphal Christian writings. He dismissed Muslim exegesis and hadith narratives about Jesus as generally unreliable and reflecting popular Christian views. Fatoohi stressed that the evidence of Qur’anic verses requires careful literal reading entailing drawing out implications not stated explicitly (e.g. Joseph may be unhistorical, since he is not mentioned by the Qur’an). He then briefly reviewed the evidence of the synoptic Gospels, Pauline Letters, Acts, and Roman era historians, finding nothing compelling that controverts the Qur’anic account.

Fatoohi’s vision of the ‘historical’ Jesus affirms these main points: Mary never married and Jesus had no siblings; Jesus’ unique miracle of his virgin birth beneath a palm tree; Jesus as the Messiah was a spiritual teacher performing miracles who predicted the future advent of Muhammad; the original notion of ‘sonship of God’ was not divine; there is no explicitly unambiguous mention of his Second Coming in the Qur’an (despite whatever exegesis and hadith may state); and finally Jesus was raised physically to Heaven.

In his response: Ng Kam Weng critiqued Fatoohi’s methodology of viewing Scripture (both New Testament and Qur’an) as historical texts subject to rational criteria – an epistemic legacy of Enlightenment instrumental reason. This led historically to European Biblical criticism undermining the authenticity and authority of the New Testament Canon (the four Gospels …) by form-critical literary methods with its resulting search for an “historical” Jesus. Dr Ng seriously questioned the frequency with which Fatoohi appealed to ‘arguments from silence’ and their resulting “implications” – and stated that such arguments are always deemed weak at best. Ng strongly upheld the superiority of Canonical texts over those of a variety of doubtful Apocryphal writings, citing reasons of internal coherence, narrative interpretation, and holistic reading of the texts – and he awarded more credence to the Biblical discourse. When dealing with Biblical texts one must understand properly their special religious hermeneutic of typological prophecies within their real context.

Ng adduced the typological character of narratives whereby Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, and he aligned it to the parallel function of narratives about Muhammad’s advent fulfilling earlier Jewish or Christian prophecies. Regarding Jesus’ employment of the ‘Messiah’ figure or ‘son of Man’/[God] language, this was clearly in the context of fulfillment of predictions found in the OT apocalypse Daniel 7. Ng argued that ‘Son of Man’ discourse in NT writings already possessed overtones of divinity, with its semantic range encompassing the idea of ‘son of God’. Furthermore, to dismiss the reliability of NT Gospel accounts on the basis of an (allegedly) forced projection of divinity onto the person of Jesus, stated Dr Ng, is to fail to see the discontinuity between the OT and the teaching of Jesus with its originality. Thus, the creative originality of recasting OT prophecy must be the product of Jesus’ mind, and he himself created the earliest Church.

A lively set of questions was posed to both the speakers concerning specific points in their presentations. Dr. Fatoohi clarified that he never employed evidence from silence, and that he preferred to base his arguments for the historicity of the Islamic Jesus on the Qur’an, not hadith. Several Muslim and Christian viewpoints were expressed concerning the literary nature of the Qur’an itself and whether its inviolability from distortion may be questioned. Professor Hashim Kamali (CEO-IAIS) brought the session to a close with his clarification on the ‘Uthmanic codex of the Qur’an; people lingered for an hour discussing what they heard.

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