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Christians in the Koran

In response to:

My Koran Problem from the March 24, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Thanks to Garry Wills for describing so well his problems with reading the Koran in “My Koran Problem” [NYR, March 24]. I share his struggles. But I do not agree with him that Christians and Muslims are on the same page regarding their religious beliefs. That’s because in Sura 4 the Koran says that Jesus never died on the cross for our sins, and that God isn’t triune. And in Sura 2 it says it abrogates or replaces previous revelations. Wills comments on neither of these notorious passages. I wish he would have because his account would have been more compelling if he had.

Reverend Ronald F. Marshall
First Lutheran Church of West Seattle
Seattle, Washington

Garry Wills replies:

The editors tell me that various concerns have been expressed about my Koran article, and that the Reverend Marshall expresses a sample of them with admirable economy, so I have been asked to comment on his request as representative of others’ reactions. He doubts that Christians and Muslims are “on the same page regarding their religious beliefs.” Not on the same page doctrinally, but similar enough to encourage useful and charitable exchanges and prayers. He asks how this can be when Sura 2 of the Koran “abrogates” other religions’ claims. Actually, the Koran often cites Allah as the author of both the Torah and the Gospel, both of which he still affirms. Then what of Sura 2.106, cited by Reverend Marshall? “Any revelation We cause to be superseded [abrogated in many translations] or forgotten, We replace with something better or similar.”

The abrogation (naskh) referred to was not of other religious texts but of earlier verses of the Koran itself that conflict with later verses. Allah says that he has the power to “erase” what he said before to Muhammad (13.39), to “substitute” a different teaching (16.101), or to “take away” what was said before (17.86). Muslim scholars variously count the number of such naskhs in the Koran, running from 5 to 247 or higher. They explain that some truths are universal, but that others address the temporal circumstances of an earlier revelation that are no longer applicable to a later one.

Islam was dealing with a problem in all revealed sacred writings. If the revelations come from God, how can they contradict one another? Some Jews cope with this by distinctions in the Halakha, some Protestants by “dispensationalism,” some Catholics by “development of doctrine.” Like those schools, the naskh teaching is intratestamental, not intertestamental. As Joseph Lumbard says, in the authoritative Study Quran, “The Quran never declares that the covenant as observed by previous religious communities has been abrogated or rendered obsolete.”

Reverend Marshall also says that the status of Jesus is different in the two religions. That is certainly true. He notes that “the Koran says that Jesus never died on the cross for our sins.” Yes, Allah takes Jesus straight into heaven without death (like Elias in 2 Kings 2.11). This is one of the many blessings Jesus gets in the Koran that are not given even to Muhammad. Jesus was born without human father, worked many miracles, and went to heaven without dying (4.157–158)—things not true of Muhammad. In fact, though the Koran expressly says that the Trinity is a heretical departure from the teaching of Jesus, the book comes surprisingly close to the language of the Christian Trinity: Jesus is the Word of Allah (3.45), conceived by the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit in Mary (66.12), and he will come again at the final judgment (3.55–56). He even (as in pseudepigraphal Christian Gospels) imitates the Creator by forming out of mud a bird that comes to life (3.49, 5.110).

The Reverend Marshall seems to believe that Jesus must die “for our sins,” following Anselm’s claim that only Jesus can pay the debt of human sin by his death. But a growing number of Christians agree with Abelard that God could not do what he did not ask of Abraham—kill his own son. It is true that the Koran denies that Jesus was God, as some Christians have done, from the many Arianisers of the past to the Unitarians of our day. But we still call them Christians, as we call believers in the Triune God monotheists.

The point is not that religions agree on all points of doctrine (Christians disagree with Christians on such things, as Muslims disagree with Muslims), but that we can find a love for God being sought in different ways, enough to learn from each other—as Pope Francis says that we can learn from the “spiritual treasures” of devout Muslims’ lives (The Joy of the Gospel, p. 254).