I received by email a thoughtful review of my book Jesus the Muslim Prophet: History Speaks of a Human Messiah Not a Divine Christ. The review was also circulated by the reviewer to others, who have interest in Christian theology or may be even qualified in the subject, whom the reviewer at times addresses in his review. The reviewer has welcomed my reply to the review, so I am publishing his review followed by my reply.
This is how the reviewer Juan A. Ayala-Carmona introduced himself:
This writer (yours truly) is an ordained Christian minister and theologian who has degrees in Comparative Religions and Theology. I received my D. Min. in Theology from the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, 1982 and have served as professor of church history, religion, and theology at various colleges and theological schools. I retired as a prison chaplain with the New York State Department of Correctional Services in 2009.
This is the text of the review:
My intention is to evaluate Dr. Fatoohi’s book relative to both its strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Fatoohi is receiving a copy of this critique and his response is welcome. Your comments and responses are also welcome, and I think that they would be helpful to both Dr. Fatoohi, myself, and to all others who are interested in examining the beliefs and practices of the both the Christian and Islamic communities with the greatest degree possible of impartiality, objectivity, and open-mindedness, bearing in mind that pure “objectivity” does not exist. Dr. Fatoohi’s biases are reflected in his book, and my biases are reflected in this response. Absolutely none of us has a 100% handle of the truth. As one of my professors of theology (Dr. Paul Fries) used to say, “All theology is partial and tentative.” The Apostle Paul says “We see dimly through a mirror.” All of our positions are subject to correction and any necessary revision.
I will begin by stating my appreciation for Dr. Fatoohi’s approach to this subject from the standpoints of both faith and scholarship. Contrary to the notion that many believers (both Christian and Muslim) have about scholarship diminishing and eroding faith and spirituality, Dr. Fatoohi makes it very clear that if anything, scholarship strengthens faith. The book calls for a faith which is informed by history, science, and other branches of human knowledge as well as by experience and tradition, both oral and written. This fact, in and of itself, makes Dr. Fatoohi’s book a “must read” type of document. I strongly recommend the reading of this book to all of you. By reading his book, you will be in a much stronger position to evaluate both the book and my critique of it. Dr. Fatoohi makes it clear that he accepts reader responses.
The major strengths of Dr. Fatoohi’s book are:
1. His familiarity with the history, scriptures, and traditions of the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths. Dr. Fatoohi is very conversant with the Torah, New Testament, and Qur’an, as well as with the experiences and traditions which gave rise to and generated those sacred books.
2. His familiarity with the historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), Christian Scriptures (New Testament), and the Qur’an. He demonstrates knowledge of authorship, intended audience, reasons for writing, and the variety of literary styles in each of the sacred books.
3. His familiarity with the historical development of Christian theology, especially relative to the issue of the Christian doctrine of Jesus being God-in the flesh. He points out in a very succinct manner the views of Jesus in the Gospels as contrasted with the views of Jesus in the Pauline writings.
4. Dr. Fatoohi clearly points out the distinction between the doctrines of the early Church (1st century), and the teaching of the Church in the post-Apostolic era. He specifically points out that the doctrine of the Trinity in systematic form was a later development.
5. His clarification about the words “Islam” and “Muslim” meaning submission and one who submits respectively. Thus, it opens the door for Christians to avoid being offended by his use of the word “Islam” and “Muslim” in relation to Jesus and other Bible figures.
The major weaknesses of Dr. Fatoohi’s book are the following:
1. His unstated but clear assumption that divine revelation in the Bible (especially the New Testament) is superseded by divine revelation in the Qur’an. Dr. Fatoohi, like most Muslims that I know, is of the persuasion that the Qur’an is a correction to and revision of the “corruptions” of the New Testament.
2. Subsequently, Dr. Fatoohi assumes and believes that the contents and teachings of the New Testament are true only to the extent that they concur with the contents and teachings of the Qur’an. In a sense, Dr. Fatoohi commits the same mistake that many Christians commit. In the same manner that many Christians are guilty of “Christianizing” the Old Testament by reading it in the light of the New Testament, Dr. Fatoohi “Islamicizes” the New Testament by reading it in the light of the Qur’an.
3. Dr. Fatoohi readily accepts the statements supposedly made by Jesus about Himself relative to His being “the Son of Man,” but when he encounters statements about Jesus referring to Himself as being something other than human, he attributes these sayings not to Jesus, but to Paul, John, and others who wanted to make Jesus equal to God, and/or being “God in the flesh.” Consistent with his Islamic beliefs, Dr. Fatoohi thus endorses the notion that the Bible is true only to the extent that it is in harmony with the Qur’an.
4. By constantly (and consistently) stating throughout the book that it was Paul and subsequently John who introduced the notion of the God-man into Christian theology in order to accommodate to pagans of non-Jewish and non-Christian origins, Dr. Fatoohi is thus making the Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament to be false teachers because they have elevated Jesus to the status of divinity. Because the teachings of Paul and others are found in the book which we Christians believe to be divinely inspired. Dr. Fatoohi is in essence saying that certain parts of the Bible are humanly concocted and constructed. I know that many Muslims would be offended if any one were to suggest anything similar about the Holy Qur’an. This reminds me of an experience that I had in 1972 in New York. A Muslim neighbor of mine (in the Bronx) invited me to attend his Masjid. Out of curiosity to know more about what other people believe and practice, I accompanied the brother to the Masjid. After the congregation completed their prayers, he directed me to the Imam with whom I sat and conversed for a short time. The Imam explained the basic tenents of Islam to me. I asked him if Muslims believe in the Bible. He responded by stating that they do, but mostly the Old Testament Scriptures. I asked him if they believe in the New Testament Scriptures. He stated that they do, but only parts of the New Testament, because the New Testament has been “corrupted.” When I asked him for evidence that the New Testament has been “corrupted,” he said to me “It says so in the Qur’an.” I asked him “how do you know that the Qur’an hasn’t been corrupted?” He asked me to leave.
In essence, Dr. Fatoohi is taking the same approach as the Imam. The Bible, in his view, is to be evaluated in the light of the “truths” of the Qur’an and not the other way around, even though the Bible was written many years and centuries prior to the Qur’an. To sustain this position is to invalidate the divine inspiration of the Bible, and in essence making the writers of the Bible (especially the New Testament) false teachers while claiming total divine inspiration for the Qur’an. Sorry Brother Fatoohi, but with all due respect to you, your faith, and the Qur’an, “no can do.” Only a historical act, such as the Incarnation of God in Christ can help us to make sense out of human history. To you as a fellow scholar and as a sincere believer, I say Asalaam-alaikum. To all others I say to God in Christ be the glory now and forever more. Amen!
I would end this piece by saying that since I am not infallible or perfect, and since I do not have a monopoly on God’s truth, I welcome comments, reactions, responses, and any suggestions that any of you may deem necessary.
Grace and peace,
Juan A. Ayala-Carmona
This is the end of the review.
Thank you Dr Ayala-Carmona for your interest in reading my book, reviewing it, and sharing the review with me. I would also like to thank you for the scholarly tone of your review.
I like to start by saying that I fully respect your views. I would also like to thank you for your generosity in highlighting strengths of the book. As you have kindly invited my reply, I would like to say a few things about the four weaknesses you identified in my book.
Points 1 & 2. I should clarify that this book and two other smaller books (The Mystery of the Crucifixion and The Mystery of the Messiah) were derived from my major and detailed study The Mystery of the Historical Jesus. In the latter, I covered all aspects of Jesus’ life. I later took specific materials from that comprehensive book and revised and extended them into the focused book you have read. The book on the historical Jesus starts with a chapter called “Approaches to the Study of History in the Qur’an and the Bible.” As its title suggests, this chapter reviews the relevant methodologies which I categorize into four approaches: secular, Biblical, secular-Biblical, and Qur’anic. It discusses the assumptions of each approach and the weaknesses of the first three approaches, and presents the Qur’anic approach as the most reliable methodology. The book makes it clear that it advocates the Qur’anic approach. In fact, the last section in that chapter starts with the following:
Having introduced the main approaches to the study of history in the Bible and the Qur’an and explained why it is important to understand what approach a study takes, I need to make it clear that this book follows the Qur’anic approach. Any information in the canon, apocrypha, and history that is relevant to the subject of this book will first be presented and then explained from the Qur’an’s point of view. Presuming that the Qur’an is the Word of God, this book seeks to show the consistency of the Qur’anic story of Jesus and its alignment with historical facts. It also compares the Qur’an’s consistent account of Jesus’ life with the problems that the same story has in Christian sources.
That section and chapter then conclude with the following:
As it follows the Qur’anic approach, this book will argue that the historical Jesus is that of the Qur’an, and that his real role in history is accurately explained by the Qur’an’s view of the world, not the view of the Bible or any secular approach. However, it will consider in detail the arguments of the other approaches and any counter argument to the Qur’anic approach.
I will make every effort to differentiate between bare facts and their interpretations according to the Qur’anic approach. These facts can then be looked at by others to examine the validity of the given interpretations and test whether a different approach gives better interpretations of these facts. I will point out the similarities and differences between the Qur’an and relevant Jewish and Christian sources, and I will explain and relate them to established historical facts, using the Qur’anic perceptive. It is then to the reader to decide whether this Qur’anic interpretation of history is more consistent, convincing, and in line with established facts, or other alternatives, including the Bible’s.
Let me repeat again, this book does not claim to be a dispassionate, neutral study of Jesus’ history. I am not sure that such an attempt is possible at all anyway. Nevertheless, I will ensure that I make my assumptions clear and differentiate between facts and their interpretations, allowing the reader to decide whether the arguments of the book are likely or unlikely, credible or absurd.
I think this is fair to say that I could not be clearer about the approach that the book takes.
This substantial chapter is not something that I could have added to the three smaller books that I derived from the source book. However, the “Preface” of the current book still says enough to make clear what the book tries to achieve:
Like my other writings, this book tries to bring the Qur’an to the study of the historical Jesus which Western scholarship has mainly restricted to the Old and New Testaments, along with historical writings. My other, related goal is to get Islamic scholarship to show more interest in historical sources and to also look at the Old and New Testaments and other Jewish and Christian sources from a historical perspective.
This book focuses on contrasting the human Jesus of the Qur’an with the divine Jesus of Christian sources. Admittedly, this subject has been examined by Christian, Muslim, and other scholars considerably more than other topics of the historical Jesus. However, one new contribution to the literature that my book makes is to show that the human Jesus as presented in the Qur’an is the one that fits in history. The concept of a divine Jesus can only be an invention from the post-Jesus era.
Nevertheless, I appreciate how the absence of the original introductory chapter might have given the impression that I have not stated my assumptions explicitly.
Point 3. You are right in your observation that I use the Qur’an to differentiate between which statements attributed to Jesus that are likely to be historical and which are not. This is consistent with the approach of the book, as explained in detail above.
Point 4. I should make it clear that I do not intend to offend anybody by any claim I make in my writings. I respect the right of every person to take whatever view they want. It is not my intention to insult or demean anybody or faith in the past or present. But I also have to accept the obvious fact that some beliefs are contradictory and cannot be reconciled with each other. Furthermore, in the same way I do not believe that a reading of history that is different from mine is intrinsically offensive to me, I do not consider my reading of history to be offensive to anybody.
But I also know that offense can be read into things. Let me give a relevant example. The Qur’an claims that all people, including Christians should believe in Muhammad and the Qur’an. Most Christians do not, meaning they do not believe in the message of the Qur’an. This means that they do not believe that the Qur’an is a divine book, which implies that either Muhammad deliberately lied or, at best, was himself deluded. These two conclusions, which mean that Muhammad was a false prophet, are easily seen as offensive by Muslims. You can see then how easy for a Muslim to take offense from the very fact that someone does not believe in the message of the Qur’an. But that should not be the case. If we accept that people have the right to hold different beliefs, then we have to accept that at times these beliefs might contradict and reject each other. If we consider this to be offensive in anyway, then talking about the right to freedom of belief and expression becomes meaningless.
I disagree with the Imam who asked you to leave the mosque because you questioned his belief about the Qur’an, but I equally reject any assumption that a serious work that questions one version of history in favour of another is offensive to those who believe in the former, not least because the former can be equally accused of being offensive! This is particularly so when the Muslim reading of history immensely venerates Jesus, albeit not as God. Can the same be said about the Christian reading of history regarding Prophet Muhammad? I do not think so. Still, no offense should be taken by Muslims.
You likened my approach in the book to the behaviour of that Imam. Unlike the Imam who only made a statement about his faith and refused to discuss it, I have written extensively to show that this statement is not a matter of faith only. I also encourage and respect serious dialogue and debate. I often say that I learn a lot more from those I do not agree with than those I agree with, because challenge and the need to work harder comes from the former not the latter. I hope that publishing your review on my website further confirms that my approach differs completely from the Imam’s. .
There is one last important point I should add. Muslim scholars have always written about Jesus using Islamic sources only. While I write about Jesus from a Qur’anic perspective, my writings are not based on the Qur’an only. The genuinely new contribution I try to make to the literature is bringing in historical facts and sources. My writings attempt to start a study of the historical Jesus from a Qur’anic perspective. The historical Jesus has been studied extensively by Christian and Western scholars, and I try to encourage the development of a similar discipline in Islamic scholarship.
Thank you again for your thoughts about the book and for sharing them with me. I also welcome any further thoughts you may like to share.
Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
The review is copyright by Juan A. Ayala-Carmona
All Rights Reserved