“There is no God but the Lord, and Christ is His son.”
So goes the refrain of St. Mouamet in Agent of Byzantium, Harry Turtledove’s series of short stories imagining a world where Muhammad became a prominent Christian mystic instead of founding Islam. A fake prayer, composed by a Jewish author and placed in the mouth of the Islamic prophet—yet I have always found it moving. When I began reading the Qur’an, I also found it stuck in the back of my mind.
Absolute God but Alien Text
The central thesis of the Qur’an and of Islam is the unique and absolute God-ness of God. That might sound a little funny, but it sums up how every other verse extols that God is great, God is merciful, God knows all, God ordains all that transpires, and so on. One might think this would get tiring, and perhaps it does when you’ve read more than the half of the text I’ve managed, but so far it’s moving, even inspiring.
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy!
Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,
The Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
Master of the Day of Judgment.
It is You we worship, it is You we ask for help.
Guide us to the straight path:
the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.
Thus reads the first surah of the Qur’an, equivalent to a biblical book. When I do apologetics, frequently my job is find excuses to complain, yet here I am without excuse. What attribution to God should I deem objectionable—mercy? Lordship? Judgment? Help? Guidance? Blessing? Wrath? All these I profess with my heart as a Christian, and I am convicted of all that I profess when I read these words.
Many verses have this effect; we all need our reminders that God is supreme, that God is sovereign, that God is in control, and especially that God is merciful. This last theme is constant: wrong-doers are repeatedly urged to repent because God is merciful and will forgive all those who desist from evil. The calls to desist likewise pound against the wayward heart, reminding the reader that God is utterly forgiving and a dread judge; belief in the “Last Day” is a constant rejoinder.
There’s a reason why early Christian critics of Islam considered it a heresy rather than a distinct religion, and why atheists increasingly see us as twin foes of their supposed enlightenment of humanity.
Yet, this is obviously not the Bible. The reader is immediately confronted by this fact with its alien format. The Qur’an is not a collection of coherent books, addressed by different people to different contexts and purposes, ordered by chronology, genre, or theme. No, surahs are ordered by length. The longest come first, regardless of when they were composed, and they wander wildly across subjects. The last several are solitary sentences. The whole package is much shorter than the Bible, being the fruit of one man’s mission.
Other contrasts also rip the reader from what might otherwise be fruitful and convicting meditations on God. The text seems anxious to be believed, but why should we? Because God said so. How shall we know God said so? These verses must be proof enough. Jesus healed hundreds, fed thousands, and rose from the dead, witnessed by his followers, but all Muhammad had to do was recite theological poetry.
Does God Need Footnotes?
That raises another issue: any believing Muslim will tell you that Muhammad did not compose the Qur’an. Where Christians believe the Bible to be written by inspired authors, the Qur’an is addressed by God to Muhammad and his audience; it is a recitation of God’s own direct revelation. When I say the Qur’an has much to commend it, that is an indictment, because “much” is not what one expects from the Lord of Worlds.
When biblical authors exhibit their cultural background, we are not shocked—the Spirit worked through men. When God’s final, dictated revelation to the cosmos is trapped by context, however, you start wondering whether the Highest is above awareness that sand is not available everywhere or that some of the customs undergirding certain passages are unknown beyond Arabia. Surely, when God speaks directly to the human race, he does not need as many footnotes as my edition does!
Worse yet are the blatant historical errors concerning the “People of the Book.” Christians are insistently told to forsake the Trinity because… we are making God the third of three? There are no partners to God? The Qur’an claims to correct Christians while falsely accusing us of tritheism, and then gets confused about who the Trinity is, as 5:116 shows:
When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people,
“Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God?”‘
He will say, ‘May you be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say
If I had said any such thing You would have known it.
You know all that is within me, though I do not know what is within You,
You alone have full knowledge of things unseen—’
The Qur’an further tries to disprove the divinity of Christ and Mary in 5:75 by pointing out that they ate food. They ate food! As a Catholic apologist, I frequently hear accusations of “Mariolatry” and less-coherent arguments about Christology and Mariology, but if this is how God Himself corrects us, I’ll have to be much more patient with my usual interlocuters!
The Qur’an tells Christians repeatedly that we have nothing to fear on Judgment Day if we obey the Gospel… just not the bits that say “and the Word was God,” that Jesus said “before Abraham was, I AM,” etc. Mohammad takes us to a height, shows us all the hedonistic gardens of his paradise, and promises, “all these things will I give you, if only you will deny that Christ is God come in the flesh.”
Titans of Theism Under Siege
Should Christians read the Qur’an? I still say, yes. Not for the sake of their souls—any competent devotional or, you know, the Bible itself far surpasses its merits there—but because the Qur’an demands an answer.
Islam has been the great rival to Christendom for a very long time, the other titan of Theism, but the frontiers are breaking down. Cultures formerly Christian and Islamic alike are eroding from irreligion and under siege from outside proselytization. Western Christians will come into contact with Islam, and we will need to be ready to give an answer for the hope within us.
Familiarity with the Qur’an will be an essential part of the spiritual campaign ahead of us, the new evangelization of Muslims and “Nones” alike. The caricatures and dismissals of past generations no longer suffice. We must understand what goodness, truth, and beauty draws people to the Qur’an, and how the Qur’an ultimately betrays these same things by making God’s throne fragile and His words fallible.
Above all, we must be able to show that our Muhammad was wrong, and Turtledove’s alternate St. Mouamet was right: there is no God but the Lord, and Christ is His son.