Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
by John Warwick Montgomery
During the early decades of the present century,
Christian apologetics suffered a considerable loss of popularity and prestige.
Reactionary defenders of the faith such as Willam Jennings Bryan (at the Scopes
evolution trial in 1925) disgusted laymen and clergymen alike. The growing
strength of Protestant modernism, with its tolerant attitude toward religious
differences, was heralded by the publication of such works as "Yes But-":
the Bankruptcy of Apologetics by Willard L. Sperry, Dean of the Harvard
Divinity School,1 as well as by the various
volumes of the Laymen's Foreign Missions Inquiry, which attempted to redefine
the goal of missionary activity in terms of cooperative interaction among the
various world religions.2 In spite of
modernism's decreasing influence following World War II, the average American
still seems to accept the following philosophy:
It doesn't. . . make too much difference whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, or, for that matter, Hindu or Mohammedan. They are all different ways to the same goal. Basically they follow the same moral code and the religious uplift is the same. . . Probably the religion of the future will succeed in incorporating the best insights of them all. Christian missionaries, therefore, should not impose their views on others but should rather sit at a round table and pool their views for the good of all. Confucious, Lao-tse, Asoka, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and then finally Jesus! These are the great leaders of mankind.3
Those whose thinking operates on a more logical and less emotional basis have seldom been satisfied with this kind of approach, however. The various religions of the world maintain vital beliefs that are reciprocally contradictory-tenets that are absolutely irreconcilable in many instances. To the Christian, Jesus is "Very God of Very God"; to the Jew or the Muslim, this is blasphemy. To the Christian, human sin was dealt with on the cross by substitutionary atonement: to the Eastern believer in karma and to the adherent of Islam such a concept is not only meaningless, but positively immoral. Obviously, such opposing views as these cannot both be right; both views may be wrong, but both cannot be correct. Since, moreover, eternal salvation (or, at a minimum, earthly happiness) is in most religious systems made contingent upon right belief, the verification of a religion becomes a matter of no little importance. Recognition of this fact in Christian circles appears to be on the upswing again, especially in the face of Marxian attempts to discredit Christian theology. "The problems of the present have moved to a deep level which calls. . . for apologetics. ..; and there are evidences that apologists are recovering their nerve and their freedom to operate, while the self-confidence of those who turned rather to the philosophy of religion is no longer so daunting." 4
The need for a virile Christian apologetic in our day gives good reason for our stepping outside the Christian frame of reference to observe the apologetic approach of a modern adherent of a non-Christian religion. An examination of his arguments will yield valuable information, both directly and indirectly, with regard to what constituies a meaningful and valid religious apologetic. The non-Christian apologist chosen for study here is Muhammad Ali, of Islam's Ahmadiyya movement.
The Man and His Movement
Maulvi, or Maulana, Muhammad Ali,5 M.A. LL.B., has been well termed "a liberally educated, devout Moslem."6 He was born in 1875 and died in 1951,7 and his lifetime devotion to the Islamic cause is accurately reflected in a prolific literary output: Muhammad the Prophet; Early Caliphate; The Babi Religion; Manual of Hadth; New World Order; The Living Thoughts of the Prophet Muhammad; An Urdu Commentary of the Holy Qur' an; An Urdu Commentary of Sohih Bukhari; The Religion of Islam; The Holy Qur' an, Containing the Arabic Text with English Translation and Commentary.8 The latter work is cited by Robert Hume as one of five standard English translations of the entire Koran,9 and is listed as one of the three authoritative English translations of the Koran in C. M. Winchell's basic Guide to Reference Books, seventh edition.10
Muhammad Ali's leadership in the Lahore branch of the Muslim Ahmadiyya movement makes it important to outline briefly the history and aims of that group.11 James Thayer Addison, sometime professor of the history of religion and missions in the Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes of the Ahmadiyya;
It began with the activity of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the village of Qadian, in the Punjab. In 1891 this Sunni Mohammedan declared himself to be . . . the coming Mahdi. Though condemned by the mulluhs as a heretic, he maintained for the next seventeen years a vigorous propaganda in support of his claims. Three years after his death in 1908, his followers were estimated at nearly 50,000. In 1914, the sect split into two divisions, since known as the Qadian group and the Lahore group.. . The Lahore party, more free in its tendencies, is despised by the Qadiani. . . in keeping with their wider ambitions, they refer to their founder not as the Messiah but only as a reformer. Both parties are distinguished for their missionary zeal. Missions of one or of both sects are to be found not only in every province of India, but also in such areas as the Malay States, West Africa, and Palestine, where Moslems live under European control. . . Both wings of the Ahmadiyya are busy in the production of literature and the promotion of reforms, and they offer to the young Moslem today his best chance for fellowship with a community, which, though heterodox, is thoroughly alive and in many directions progressive. The whole movement, it should be added, is markedly and often bitterly anti-Christian.12
Reference to the Ahmadiyya movement as 'heterodox" should not lead us to believe that Muhammad Ali and other members of the Lahore society are presenting a fundamentally unique variety of Islam. The adherents of the Lahore Ahmadiyya "have tended to come steadily closer to orthodoxy."13 Moreover, their "heterodoxy" seems to lie chiefly in their attempt to understand the Koran without the accretions of tradition, and to engage in aggressive missionary activity.14 The Ahmadiyya movement is "the only Moslem group seriously trying to convert Western Christians";15 that this should produce inter-Muslim conflict is understandable when one recalls the historic apathy of Islam to nonviolent propagation of the faith. Consider, for example, the following statements in Douglas C. McMurtrie's widely used history of printing:
Islam, in marked contrast to Buddhism, was uncompromisingly opposed to the reduplication of its sacred writings through the medium of print. The reason for this opposition is not clear, but in all probability it was simply religious conservatism. The Koran had been given to the Moslems in written form, and writing, therefore, was the only means by which it might ever be transmitted. To this day the Koran has never been printed from type in any Mohammedan country; is it always reproduced by lithography.16
The Content of Muhammad Ali's Apologetic
Having obtained an overview of Muhammad Ali and the movement with which he has been identified, let us examine in detail his defense of Islam. Muhammad Ali's two main writings will be utilized in this connection: his edition and translation of the Koran,17 and his systematic presentation of The Religion of Islam.18 One who studies these two volumes discovers that the author's apologetic for Islam has a negative and a positive side. Negatively, Islam's chief rival, Christianity, is criticized; positively, the claim is made that Islam harmonizes with the modern scientific and philosophical Weltanschauung, possesses a divinely inspired scripture, and is experientially self-attesting. Each of these apologetic arguments will now be set forth.
Christianity: a false religion
Samuel M. Zwemer, late missionary to those of the Islamic faith, well characterized the general Ahmadiyya attitude toward Christianity when he wrote:
The old Islam honoured Jesus Christ as a great prophet, and although it denied his deity and atoning death it always acknowledged his sinlessness and virgin birth. The New Islam denies the sinlessness of Jesus, mocks at the virgin birth, and offers proof from the writings of infidels and from modern destructive criticism that the Bible is a tissue of fables and myths. It is painful to read thearticles written on these subjects by men who in some cases are graduates of Christian colleges.19
Both Ahmadiyya groups have rejected the traditional belief (orthodox but not koranic) "which had come into Islam after its expansion, relating to Christ as returning from Heaven to the world in order to subdue antiChrist and bring in a Muslim millennial state of bliss arid righteousness."20 Although Muhammad Ali is by no means as crass in his criticisms of Christianity as some Ahmadiyya writers,21 his position is nevertheless strongly negative toward the New Testament and toward Christian views of Christ. Muhammad Ali maintains that Jesus was sinless, for he was a prophet and all prophets are without sin: but in his moral purity Jesus did not differ at all from Adam or Moses or John the Baptist, who were also prophets (Holy Qur'an, pp. 159-62, 612, 615; Religion of Islam, pp. 232-. 40).. Christian theology has made a grievous error in asserting that Jesus is the unique Son of God (Holy Qur'an, pp. 272-74). The resurrection and ascension of Jesus never took place (he did not actually die as a result of crucifixion, but much later suffered a na:ural death); the Second Coming of Christ is an unwarranted hope (Holy Qur'an, pp. 241-44; Religion of Islam. p. 262). "Recent criticism has shown that the Christians have only followed previous idolatrous nations in deifying a man" (Holy Qur'an, p. 274). He claims that the Christian church has been led to these false beliefs by strict reliance upon the Bible as historically accurate. However, "modem criticism of the Bible, together with the accessibility of ancient manuscripts, has now established the fact that many alterations were made in it. . . - Even the Gospels are admitted to have been altered. The original Gospel of Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found...Many examples of changes made in the text can be quoted. . . . Commenting on. . . Mk. 10:17, Dummelow [The One Bible Commentary (London, Macmillan, 1913) says. . .: 'The author of Matthew . . . altered the text slightly, to prevent the reader from supposing that Christ denied that He was good' (Religion of Islam, pp. 212-44).
Islam: philosophically and scientifically sound
In Muhammad Ali's opinion, Islam, more than any other religion, accords with the dynamic, evolutionary worldview of twentieth-century science and philosophy. He writes:
With the advent of Islam, religion has received new significance. Firstly, it is to be treated not as a dogma, which a man must accept if he will escape everlasting damnation, but as a science based on the universal experience of humanity, it is not this or that nation that becomes the favourite of God and the recipient of Divine revelation; on the contrary, revelation is recognized as a necessary factor in the evolution of man. Hence while in its crudest form it is the universal experience of humanity, in its highest, that of prophetical revelation, it has been a Divine gift bestowed upon all nations of the world. And the idea of the scientific in religion has been further strengthened by presenting its doctrines as principles of action. There is not a single doctrine of religion which is not made the basis of action for the development of man to higher and yet higher stages of life. Secondly, the sphere of religion is not confined to the next world; its primary concern is rather with this life, and that man, through a righteous life here on earth may attain to the consciousness of a higher existence (Religion of Islam. pp. 5-6).
The Koran: divinely inspired
Muhammad Ali is at pains to demonstrate thai the Koran, in its origin, transmission, arrangement, and lofty subject matter, is indeed the final revelation of God to men (Holy Qur'an, Preface, pp. xxviii-xcii; Religion of Islam, pp. 17 - 57). It is asserted that the Koran contains no discrepancies; the theory of abrogation (not entirely dissimilar to the Christian notion of "progressive revelation") is rejected (Religion of Islam, pp 35-44; Holy Qur'ân, pp. lxxv-xcü).
Muhammad Ali's translation of the Koran tries, within the limits of Arabic vocabulary and syntax1 to tone down difficult passages and thus to provide the twentieth century reader with a more scientifically and historically palatable text. For example, Muhammad Ali removes any notion of miracles from the statement of Joseph in Egypt to his brothers as given in Surah 12:93. George Sale's translation has, "Depart ye with this my inner garment, and throw it on my father's face; and he shall recover his sight."22. J. M. Rodwell translates the same verse: "Go ye with this my shirt and throw it on my father's face, and he shall recover his sight"23 Marmaduke Pickthall expresses it thus: "Go with this shirt of mine and lay it on my father's face, he will become (again) a seer."24 However, Muhammad Ali renders the verse, '4Take this my shirt and cast it before my father, he will come to know" (Holy Qur'an, p. 493). Professor Arthur Jeffery is unjust in citing this as evidence that Muhammad Ali's translation is "doctored" and "forced" (because Muhammad Ali goes against the traditional understanding of the passage);25the Arabic word 'basir' can mean either "one who sees things with the eyes" or "one endowed with mental perception, one knowing," as Pickthall's mediating translation indicates. But we do have in Muhammad Ali's version an obvious apologetic attempt to make the Koran relevant to the modern mind. The fulfillment of koranic prophecy is cited by Muhammad Ali as a further proof of the Koran's divine origin. Particular emphasis is placed upon the prophecy of Islam's triumph.
The Holy Qur'ân gives prominence to the great prophecy of the triumph of Islam, and its earlier chapters are full of such prophecies uttered in various forms. Now these chapters were revealed, and these prophecies announced, at a time when the Holy Prophet was quite alone and helpless, beset by enemies on all sides plotting to put an end to his very life. . . . Yet under these circumstances, amid all this despair on every side, we find prophecy after prophecy announced in the surest and most certain terms to the effect that the great forces of opposition should be brought to naught, that the enemies of Islam should be put to shame and perish, that Islam should become the religion of the whole of Arabia, that the empire of Islam should be established and battles be fought in which the Muslims should be victorious and the enemy brought low, that Islam should spread to the farthest corners of the earth and that it should ultimately be triumphant over all religions of the world. . . . Was not all this brought to fulfillment, against all expectations, in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet? (Religion of Islam. pp. 248-50).
Islam: experientially verifiable
Muhammad Ali makes every effort to stress the simplicity of, and the pragmatic values inherent in, the Muslim faith.26
The Islamic beliefs are really axiomatic truths upon which are based the moral and spiritual aspects of the life of man.. .. The precepts of Islam which inculcate duties towards God and duties towards man are based on that deep knowledge of human nature which cannot be possessed but by the Author of that nature. They cover the whole range of the different grades of the development of man, and are thus wonderfully adapted to the requirements of different peoples. In the Holy Qur'ân are found guiding rules for the ordinary man of the world as well as for the philosopher, and for communities in the lowest grade of civilization as well as for the highly civilized nations of the world. Practicability is the keynote of its precepts, and thus the same universality which marks its principles of faith is to be met within its practical ordinances, suiting as they do the requirements of all ages and nations" (Holy Qur'an, p. xiii).
A Critique of Muhammad Ali's Apologetic and its Bearing upon the Christian Defensio Fidei
Muhammad Ali Criticized
Arguments in support of a religious viewpoint normally fall into one of two general categories, the rational or the empirical. A rational apologetic attempts to show that the religious belief is philosophically sound and conforms to the best dictates of reason, while an empirical apologetic tries to prove that the religion harmonizes with factual experience. Empirical arguments can be objective or subjective in nature, depending upon whether harmony with external experience (history, physical and natural Science) or conformity with internal (psychological) experience is stressed.27 The following table summarizes the most common apologetic arguments used to support religious conceptions and classifies these arguments according to their rational or empirical character.
Muhammad Ali's attempt at refuting Christianity does not fit into the table of apologetic arguments at any point. The reason for this is simply that such refutations are not 'apologies" or defenses at all, but are ad hominem arguments of an offensive nature. Even if one were to grant that Muhammad Ali had disproven Christianity, this would not add a grain of evidence in support of Islam, for Islam (and all other religions, for that matter) could still be false. The falsity of one religion, in other words, is not proof of the truth of another. Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyya movements have been almost totally blind to this fact in their propaganda activities.
Strictly speaking, Muhammad Ali does not try to show that Islam is deducible from self-evident a prioris, for he recognizes that the Muslim faith is based on historical revelation. However, as we have seen, he does claim that Islam conforms to the activistic, evolutionary Weltanschauung of modem scientific and cultural philosophy. Unlike the medieval Averroës, who, in his treatise, The Agreement of Religion and Philosophy, asserted that the Aristotelian philosophy of his time could not be reconciled with koranic teaching,28Muhammad Ali affirms that contemporary secular thought and Islamic doctrine blend perfectly. The fallacy in such an argument lies in the fact that the philosophical scene is kaleidoscopic-that the Zeitgeist is never an absolute. The static universe of one era became the relativistic, evolutionary universe of the next; and who is to say what cosmological views future generations will hold? Conformity to current philosophical views (even if granted) is therefore no proof of the validity of a religion. A second rational argument presented by Muhammad Ali is his claim that the Koran is internally consistent-that it contains no internal contradictions. This apologetic is likewise of little consequence, for the self-consistency of a writing does not prove that it is divine revelation. Euclid's Geometry, for example, is not self-contradictory at any point, but no one claims that this work is therefore divinely inspired in some unique sense.
When we consider Muhammad Ali' s objectively empirical defenses of Muslim faith, we find that he employs the first two arguments given in the table above, but not the third one. Miracles, he believes, are next to impossible to prove, and therefore of little attesting value;29moreover, "the Holy Qur'ãn makes it clear that the bringing about of a transformation is the real object for which prophets are raised up, that this object is attained by several means, each of which, therefore, has but a secondary value, and that among these evidences of the truth of the Prophet the miracle occupies not the highest place" (Religion of Islam. p. 243). For Muhammad Ali, the greatest miracle of Islam is the Holy Qur'ãn (ibid. - p. 244), and therefore he is concerned, as we have seen, to show that the Koran is scientifically and historically sound and contains true prophecies. To demonstrate that a writing is accurate in its historic and scientific statements, however, no more proves that it is divinely inspired than when one shows that the volume is internally consistent. Numerous accurate scientific and historical treatises have been written which lay no claim to divine inspiration, and for which no such claim has been made by their readers.
With regard to the evidential value of prophecy, one is on more solid ground, if fulfilled prophecy of sufficient worth can be cited. But the qualification just stated poses a real problem, for many prophecies of the Delphic oracle variety have been made through history. Moreover, the koranic prophecy of Islam's ultimate triumph is of little significance, for though Islam experienced a very rapid early spread, the later history of the religion has been anything but triumphant.30 In 1924, in fact, a member of the Ahmadiyya movement stated in London: "We, the present-day Moslems, have indeed fallen on evil days. Our past glory has forsaken us. Our might, our honour, have deserted us."31
Muhammad Ali's main apologetic thrust is in the area of subjectively empirical argument. "The supreme object before the Prophet is to effect a moral and spiritual transformation; the means adopted are an appeal to the reason-ing faculty, an appeal to the heart of man to convince him that the Divine message is meant for his own uplift, and lessons drawn from previous history showing how the acceptance of truth has always benefited man, and its rejection has worked to his own undoing" (Religion of Islam, p. 243). The difficulty with pragmatic arguments for a religion is that truths do not always work, and beliefs that work are by no means always true. Job's religious beliefs, though presumably true, did not give him uninterrupted peace of mind; and many besides Faust have discovered that the father of lies makes an effective business partner. Subjective attestation for a religion has the engaging advantage of becoming meaningful only if the individual actually attempts to believe in the religion, and then, of course, no further apologetic is necessary. But the intelligent person, faced with several religious options, needs objective, external ground for trying a religion, and he is morally within his rights to refuse to become emotionally involved in a religion without good reasons to do so. Such "good reason" must of course lie in a realm other than the subjectively empirical, if a neat case of circular reasoning is to be avoided.
Lessons for Christian Apologists
The reader has undoubtedly been impressed (as has the writer) with the similarity between many of Muhammad Ali's arguments for Islam and the defenses for the Christian faith presented by not a few Christian theologians. It is safe to say that the type of theologian of whom I speak would have been only too quick to agree with the criticisms of Muhammad Ali set forth above. One wonders, however, if the great truth would have dawned that a fallacious argument is fallacious regardless of who employs it and regardless of the context in which it is used.
Specifically, no religion is deducible from self-evident a prioris, or all men in their right minds would hold the same faith.32 Conformity to the philosophical Zeitgeist is no evidence for the truth of a religion, regardless of what religion it is. Internal consistency and external fitting of the facts do not prove a sacred book to be God's revelation-even if that book be the Bible. The reasonableness of religious doctrines does not prove them true (for God is presumably above reason, since he is the Author of logic), nor does it prove them false (credo quia absurdum is a ridiculous formula, even if reiterated by a modern philosopher of Sørcn Kierkegaard's stature). Pragmatic arguments for a religion are weak and positively misleading-even if Norman Vincent Peale asserts them again in behalf of Christianity. The appeal to "try such-and-such religion and you will find it self- authenticating in your heart of hearts" is the mark of apologetic debility, for such claims can be made by everyone from Muhammad Ali to Father Divine without fear of refutation (there being no possible refutation for individual experience).
It is time that Christian apologists came to realize that a string of individually weak arguments for the gospel does not comprise one strong argument for it. Objective empirical evidence for Jesus Christ and his message is the only truly valid Christian apologetic possible, for it alone is subject to the canons of evidence employed in other fields of endeavor. And what objectively empirical ground for accepting the Christian gospel is there? Muhammad Ali himself states it when he writes,' If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the pillar on which the whole structure of Christianity rests crashes to the ground" (Religion of Islam, p. 241). The kerygma of the early church, as seen in the preaching recorded in the Book of Acts, centers its case squarely and decisively upon the fact of Christ's resurrection, and the apostle Paul states the Christian apologetic in no less definite terms when he writes to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15:1-9, 14):
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that be appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God... . If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:1-4, 6-9. 14).
If the Christian church is indeed on the verge of a revival of apologetic interest, it is hoped that the resurrection of Christ will be made the pivot of that interest so that the errors of Muhammad Ali will not be further duplicated in a Christian framework.33
1. Issued in 1931 by Harper and Brothers, New York.
Taken from Faith Founded on Fact. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishers, copyright 1978. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Thomas Nelson Publishers. You can order Faith Founded on Fact for a total of $17 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.
Management Techniques Incorporated
has provided this article archive expressly for Issues, Etc. The articles in
this archive have been formatted converted for internet use, by Management
Contact MTI webmaster