Anang G. Alfian | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report
Is the Christianity criticized by the Quran the same as the Christianity embraced by mainstream Christians today? Answering this question, Mun’im Sirry, assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, delivered a presentation titled “Islamic Christology” at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on September 27, 2017. He argued that the Quran develops its own Christianity different from that embraced by mainstream Christians as a kind of polemics that had meaning within the political contexts in which it was revealed. He came up with several points to support this thesis.
First, while mainstream Christians believe in Trinity, what the Quran actually criticizes is three-theism. Surah al-Maidah verse 73 reads, “They have certainly disbelieved who say, ‘‘Allah is the third of three’.” Three-theism, Sirry stated, is not the same as Trinity: the former believes in three Gods, while the latter in one God with three “hypostases”.
Second, the three hypostases referred to in the Quran are not the three believed in by mainstream Christians: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Al-Maidah verse 116 reads, “O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to the people ‘take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?’” This verse seems to address those who believe Jesus’ mother, Mary, as part of three, which is not what mainstream Christians believe.
Third, the Quran (5:72) addresses those saying “God is the Messiah, son of Mary”, a statement that has a different meaning from what mainstream Christians believe, that Jesus is God. These two statements bear two different meanings: the former means God is confined in the person of Jesus, while the latter doesn’t imply that confinement.
Forth, the Quran positions the New Testament as revelation from God that can be paralleled to Moses’ Torah and Muhammad’s Quran. In fact, the books of New Testament were written by Jesus’ disciples or followers of his disciples; and, rather than one book (as always mentioned in the Quran in a singular form: “Injil”), the New Testament consists of four canonical gospels namely those of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as letters and other writings attributed to Jesus’ disciples.
In short, all these point to the conclusion that the Quran actually develops its own Christology.
Sirry further said that these verses depicting a different Christology has becomes a debate among scholars. Jamaluddin al-Qasimi (d. 1914) argues in his commentary (tafsir) of the Qur’an titled Mahasin at-Ta’wil that the Qur’an was actually criticizing a heretical sect of Christianity that existed in the time of Prophet Muhammad. They were called Maryamiyyun (the followers of Mary). This argument was supported British scholar of comparative religion Geoffrey Parrinder (1910-2005). In his book titled Jesus in the Quran (1995), he records the fact that in the 4th-5th century Arabia there was a Christian sect called Collyridianism that worshipped Mary.
Sirry doubts the validity of this Collyridianism thesis since the source of this information comes only from Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, in his Panarion, a compendium of heresies. He also stated that this thesis is based on the assumption that Arabia was both geographically and culturally isolated between two great civilizations, Bizantium and Persia, which implies that Christians of the then Arabia were likely to develop their distinct and heretical type of Christianity. In the narrative of this thesis, Arabia was seen as “motherland of heretics”. However, this thesis has been criticized by more recent scholarship which argues that Arabia was not that isolated as it was part of an important trade route.
Other scholars such as John Wansbrough, given the sophisticated debate the Quran was engaged in, comes up with another theory: the Quran was actually revealed not in Mecca nor Medina but more likely to be in Mesopotamia which witnessed a heated sectarian debate between Jews and Christians. His main argument was that if the Quran was revealed in a pagan environment of Arabia, it would have talked much more about paganism rather than Judaism and Christianity.
However, Sirry argued for a thesis different from those two theories—that the Quran addressed a heretical sect of Christianity in Arabia and that the Quran was revealed in Mesopotamia. He proposed that the Quran comes up with a distorted depiction of Christianity, not because the Quran misunderstand Christianity but because the Quran was engaged in a polemical discussion in which exaggeration was used to win over arguments. He believed that the Quran would say to Christians for instance something like, “Yes, you don’t believe in many gods, but you treat Mary as if she is God.”
During the Q & A session, a participant asked, If the Quran depicts a distorted description of Christianity to polemically win over the arguments, then what is the purpose of that winning over the arguments? Sirry said that the shift from Mecca to Medina demonstrates the polemical situation. It was only in Medina that the words Yahud (Jews) and Nasara (Christians) were used while in Mecca the Quran used the term Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book). Sirry further explained that Muhammad in Mecca was certain that the Jews and the Christians would follow him because their books were revelations from the same source, which turned out not to be the case after Muhammad migrated to Medina. The Jews’ and Christians’ rejection of the Prophet made the Quran involved in polemics in Medina. Yet Sirry said that what he argued is based on a historical approach without intervening theological belief which only believers can approach. For him, scholar’s concern is not to prove that Quran is the truest revelation, but rather to provide possible explanations to a given question.
Another participant asked how we develop interreligious dialogue with these Quranic polemics. Sirry said that often time both scholars and activists believe a constructive dialogue can only develop based on commonalities. In scholarship, he said, the umbrella term “Abrahamic religions” is meant to grasp one of those commonalities. Sirry stated instead that Abraham was in fact a dividing figure: both Jews and Christian claimed he was of their community. Sirry proposed to develop interreligious dialogue by accepting differences rather than imposing the sameness instead.
* Anang G. Alfian is CRCS student of the 2016 batch.
Listen to the audio record of this lecture via Souncloud embedded below: