Evaluating the Debate Between Jay Smith and Shabir Ally

       On the topic:
The Bible or the Quran—Which is the Word of God?

Shabir Ally

Oct. 5, 2014

Is the Bible the Word of God? Is the Quran the Word of God? How can we approach these questions in an objective manner and prevent our own biases from deciding the questions in advance? I argued in the debate that we need to start with neutral criteria based on which to evaluate both books.

The need for criteria

The need for criteria should be evident to everyone. Suppose we are debating whether an object is or is not a fish. It will help to first agree on the essential and exclusive characteristics of fishes. For example, fishes have gills. Now we can look at the object in question and see whether or not it has gills.

What if someone says that fishes stink, and this thing stinks, therefore this thing is a fish? He would be wrong if the thing he is looking at is a rotten egg. The error in his reasoning is that he started with a characteristic which is not exclusive to fish.

Suppose someone argues that fishes stink, and this thing does not stink, therefore this thing is not a fish? He would be wrong if the object he is looking at happens to be a sort of fish that does not stink. The obvious problem in his reasoning here is that he started with a non-essential characteristic of fishes. It is not necessary for all fish to stink.

Moreover, whether or not a thing stinks is subjective. Some things may stink to everyone. Some other things may stink to some people but not to others. It turns out, then, that we may need neutral and objective criteria to decide on questions as simple as the question of whether or not something is a fish.

The criteria for classification are even more necessary when we attempt to classify a book as the Word of God. Hence it is important for Jay and me to start with neutral and objective criteria if we are going to decide fairly on the question of whether or not the Bible and the Quran are divine Scriptures.

It is elementary that whatever criteria we introduce, we should be willing to apply them to both books. For example, if I say that the Bible cannot be the Word of God because it has red letters, this is clearly an arbitrary criterion, and hence unacceptable from the start. More to my point here, however, is that once I have introduced this criterion, I have to apply the same criterion against the Quran as well. What will I say when someone shows me a Quran containing red letters? I cannot reply that this criterion applies to the Bible while the Quran is spared the enquiry. These principles of fairness and balance should be second-nature to Muslims and Christians. Hence it is fair to expect that Jay and I must measure both books against whatever criterion we propose.

Five Criteria

In the debate, I proposed five criteria, drawn from the Bible, for evaluating both books. Here are the criteria together with the locations in the Bible from where each criterion is derived:

  1. The book should be divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21);
  2. The book’s contents should be beneficial for teaching (2 Timothy 3: 16);
  3. The book should not contain a false prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:22);
  4. The book should not invite people to worship a god other than the God of the Israelite forefathers (Deuteronomy 13:3); and
  5. The book should not contain a major internal contradiction (Mark 3:25 and 1 Corinthians 14:33).

How did the two books measure up against these fair criteria? I have shown that the Bible failed on all of these criteria, whereas the Quran passed. Meanwhile, the Bible’s defender abandoned his defense of the Bible and said openly that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God. So, we started out with two books, and our question was, “Which of the two is the Word of God?” After Jay’s declaration that the Bible is not the Word of God, we were down to one book.

It was only in Jay’s closing remarks, when I had no opportunity to respond, that he changed his tune and said that the Bible is “a word of God.” To be sure, he kept holding up the Bible and the Quran to emphasize that it is the Bible that should be followed rather than the Quran. But his earlier declaration that the Bible is not the Word of God essentially was a cop out of any responsibility to defend the Bible.

Jay’s Implicit Criteria

On the other hand, Jay attacked the Quran mainly on two grounds. First, ancient manuscripts of the Quran vary from each other, and also from the 1924 Egyptian edition of the Quran that we now hold in our hands. Second, the Quran contains borrowed tales from other sources.

Here I’ll deal with the second claim first. I mentioned during the debate Sidney Griffith’s view that the Quran was not merely repeating these stories but was using the stories to draw out its own teaching.[1] Moreover, I referred to the view of Fred Donner who said that even if we find the prophet copying from other books this would not count against the belief that the prophet was inspired by God to do so.[2]

In view of my discussion above regarding criteria, however, we can see that Jay’s implicit criterion which he is using to measure the Quran is that if a book copies from other sources then it cannot be an inspired book. Now, if he applies the same criterion to the Bible, then the Bible will fail on this criterion, since it is notorious that the Bible’s 2 Peter and Jude contain material drawn from apocryphal sources. Hence Jay is not using his criteria consistently.

Jay argued that this criterion applies only against the Quran since Muslims believe that the Quran came down from heaven. And, to Jay this means that the Quran cannot contain material that seems to have been copied from books on earth. There are many ways of answering this claim against the Quran, and such answers are already being commonly given by other Muslims in defense of the Quran.

But here I want to draw attention to a major flaw in Jay’s approach. When Jay argues as he does above, he is speaking off topic. The topic is not, “Is the Muslim view of the Quran right or wrong?” The topic is, “The Bible or the Quran—Which is the Word of God?” The difference between the actual topic and Jay’s presumed topic is significant because, logically, it is possible that the Quran is the Word of God, but not in the way in which most Muslims think. Hence Jay has to start with neutral criteria not for assessing whether the specific Muslim idea of the Quran is correct, but whether or not the Quran is the Word of God more generally. In sum, it is not enough for him to argue that the Quran did not come down from heaven. It is necessary for him to show that the Quran does not fit his criteria which he is also willing to apply to the Bible.

The same flaw will now be seen in his first objection to the Quran, his finding that manuscripts vary from each other and from today’s popular Quran. Here too, he is arguing that the Muslim idea that the Quran is eternal and unchanged is wrong. But he excludes the Bible from being measured against this criterion, because Christians do not hold that the Bible is eternal and unchanged. Here too, he is arguing off topic. The topic is not, “Is the Christian idea of the Bible as the Word of God correct; and is the Muslim idea of the Quran as the Word of God correct?” The actual topic is more general than that. To properly address the actual topic, Jay needs to use neutral criteria for a book to be the Word of God and then apply those criteria to both books. Of course if his presumed criterion is that a book cannot be the Word of God if its manuscripts vary from each other and from today’s copies of that book, then the Bible will fail on this criterion.

Define Your Terms!

In a debate, it sometimes becomes necessary for the parties to define the subject they are discussing. It is enough for two parties to have two different views on the same subject. But a failure to define the subject sometimes results in confusion because one party is discussing one subject and the other party is discussing another subject. The fact that they are using the same name for the two subjects gives the impression that they disagree about that subject. But if they take the time to clarify what specifically they are talking about the confusion will be alleviated.

Now let’s clarify two apparently similar concepts of the Quran. For Muslims generally, there is no difference between the Quran promulgated by the Prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace and the Quran we hold in our hands today. But Jay is arguing that there is a difference. So, to avoid prejudging the issue, let’s speak here of two Qurans which may be identical in the final conclusion, but which we treat as separate for the purpose of our discussion. I will thus refer to the Prophet’s Quran and the present Quran as two distinct concepts.

It is clear that usually Muslim apologists will argue that the Prophet’s Quran is miraculous, and that the present Quran is also miraculous by virtue of being identical to the Prophet’s Quran. And now Jay’s challenge to Muslims is to prove that the present Quran is the same as the Prophet’s Quran. Jay’s implicit reasoning here is as follows. If I cannot prove that the present Quran is the same as the Prophet’s Quran, then even if the Prophet’s Quran was miraculous, we do not have that miracle today. In other words, even if the Prophet’s Quran was the Word of God, today’s Quran cannot claim to be the Word of God since it is not an exact copy of the original.

This was Jay’s implicit argument from the beginning to the end of the debate. But in arguing in this way, Jay has missed the essential distinction I have made in the debate. I have taken pains to specify that what I am talking about is what I am calling here the present Quran: the 1924 Egyptian edition which is now everywhere among Muslims. I said this not only once but numerous times throughout the debate. I was not arguing that the present Quran is the Word of God by virtue of its being an identical copy of the Prophet’s Quran. Whether or not it is an identical copy is besides the point that I was arguing. I was arguing that the present Quran is the Word of God by virtue of the evidence of mathematical patterns in the present Quran.

Two Distinct Paradigms

This distinction makes a significant difference. On the standard Muslim presentation, the Muslim has to prove that the present Quran is basically what the Prophet promulgated. In that case, the question being addressed is, “How do we know that the present Quran is miraculous?” And the Muslim answer is that we know this because the present Quran is basically the miraculous Quran promulgated by the Prophet 1,400 years ago. And the Christian debater then asks the Muslim debater to deal with all the manuscript evidence. The onus here is on the Muslim to prove that the present Quran is basically the same as the Prophet’s Quran.

On my presentation, however, the situation is reversed. My argument is not seriously challenged by the manuscript evidence. I argue as follows:

Muslims and Christians agree against Atheists that patterns in nature, especially mathematical patterns, point to a designer—God. Hence if we find mathematical patterns in the present Quran, this would point to a designer. This designer could be either a human or God. But it is not any human, as Jay and I both know. Therefore God is the designer of the present Quran. In short, the present Quran is the inspired Word of God.

Attempts at Falsification

Anyone can attempt to disprove my argument in one of the following two ways. First, one can look back in history along the lines leading to the production of the present Quran to see if someone, somewhere, deliberately and calculatedly created the patterns that we now observe. Since Jay had so much to say about the history of the Quran, during the debate I challenged him to tell us who put these mathematical patterns in the Quran. Was it a caliph? A king? Someone else? Who? Jay did not attempt to name anyone, or even to suggest that someone put these patterns in there deliberately and calculatedly. The reason for Jay’s silence is understandable. Although we do not know everything about the Quran, we know enough about its history to be assured that no human did this. No one meddled with it so as to arrange its letters, words, verses and chapters to form the mathematical patterns which we now discover.

The second way in which anyone can attempt to disprove my argument is to show that the patterns I mentioned are nothing more than mere coincidence. For example, if it can be shown that similar patterns exist in other books, then no special claim can be made for the Quran on the basis of these patterns. I anticipated this objection, and during the debate I mentioned that in the case of one of the patterns, I had checked the results against ten books of the Bible. I checked the five books of the Torah, the Psalms, and the four Gospels. My objective was to see if the mathematical relationship which exists in the Quran between the chapter numbers and the number of verses within those chapters also exists in those books. The result was negative in the case of each of the ten books of the Bible which I examined. This, as I pointed out, does not mean that there is anything wrong with those books, since there is no reason why a book must have such a hidden pattern. But the search supports my conclusion that the pattern which exists in the Quran is unlikely to have arisen by pure chance.

Jay understood this second way of challenging my presentation. During the debate he said that the mathematician Martin Gardner had found that similar patterns exist also in the book Moby Dick. However, I rebutted Jay by saying that Martin Gardner was not speaking of the sort of pattern I presented. Gardner was responding to some other sorts of patterns which some researchers claimed to find in the Bible. Those are the sorts of patterns which Gardner and others have found to exist also in Moby Dick. In sum, Jay did not succeed in challenging my presentation based on this second possible way of disproof.

If I had cited only a few examples showing that things in the Quran are arranged mathematically, it would have been possible for someone to argue that the patterns I cited are not statistically significant. However, I forestalled this objection by citing many examples. Jay remarked that I had spent twenty-five minutes of my presentation dealing the subject. I expressed my doubt that I had spoken on the subject for that length of time. However, let’s suppose that I did. Speaking at a normal rate, I must have presented many examples showing the occurrence of that phenomenon in the Quran. Could Jay speak for just ten minutes, even going slowly, on the mathematical patterns which he found in Moby Dick?

In any case, the numerous examples I cited can be seen from a review of the debate. The two papers I handed out during the debate, and which should be used in conjunction with watching the debate, can now be seen here: http://www.islaminfo.com/3/73/the-number-19-in-the-quran-a-sign-of-the-quran-s-divine-origin and here: http://www.islaminfo.com/3/74/the-quran-as-a-mathematical-miracle.

Moreover, God willing, I will soon publish another paper showing examples of another category of mathematical patterns in the Quran. We will see that this new category intertwines with the other categories outlined in my previous papers. Hence with the introduction of this new category we will see that the mathematical patterns in the Quran interlock in highly complex relationships. Thus the possibility of these interlocking patterns arising by mere coincidence is much more difficult to imagine.

In sum, those are the two ways in which anyone can attempt to disprove my argument based on the mathematical patterns in the Quran. Either they can argue that some human being deliberately and calculatedly put the patterns in the Quran, or they can argue that the examples I cited are not enough to amount to anything more than sheer coincidence.

Why Manuscripts do not Disprove my Claim

Arguing about the manuscripts is not a third way of disproving my argument. However, one can try to tie in the manuscripts with one of the above two ways. The manuscripts would tie in with the first way if one can show evidence from the manuscripts that someone was deliberately and calculatedly putting the patterns in the Quran. Jay did not attempt to show such evidence, and I do not believe that such evidence exists.

Or, the manuscripts would tie in with the second way if someone argues that the patterns I presented are found also in some ancient manuscripts of the Quran which differ from our present Quran. But this would not rebut my presentation, because I do not argue that the present Quran (which I specified above as the 1924 Egyptian edition) is the only acceptable Quran. In other words, let us suppose that similar mathematical patterns can be found in an ancient manuscript of the Quran or in another reading of the Quran. I would argue the case in the same manner as I have done with the present Quran. I would say that the pattern is a sign of the divine origin of the Quran in that manuscript as well, or in that other reading. As I mentioned in the debate, Muslims accept multiple authoritative readings of the Quran.

However, Jay did not tie in his discussion of manuscripts with any of the two possible ways in which one may attempt to dispel my argument. It is clear that his discussion of manuscripts was meant to refute the traditional presentation of the Quran wherein the onus would have been on the Muslim to show that the present Quran is a reproduction of the Prophet’s Quran. In arguing thus about the manuscripts, Jay was not refuting my presentation. He was arguing against some other presentation.

Despite my numerous appeals to Jay and to the audience throughout the debate to understand that I was arguing from evidence that the present Quran is the Word of God, Jay did not get the point. Rather, he kept discussing the manuscripts. His discussion would have been relevant if I was presenting the common argument that the Prophet’s Quran was inspired, and the present Quran is also inspired by virtue of being a reliable copy of the Prophet’s Quran. But that is not what I was arguing. I was not arguing in favour of every aspect of Muslim belief related to the Quran. I kept my focus on what mattered most: my fair set of criteria for judging a book to be the Word of God, and the task of evaluating the Quran and the Bible based on that fair set of criteria.

Red Herring Argument

From the above, it should be clear why I see Jay’s discussion on manuscripts as a red herring in this debate. No one knows how the fallacy of red herring arguments came to be called by that name. But one theory is that when robbers were being chased by cops they would drag a smelly red herring across the path to distract the sniffing dogs. The dogs thus pursued the smelly red herring, and the robbers got away free.

In citing manuscript evidence Jay risked distracting us from what was important in the debate, though I am not suggesting that he deliberately tried to misdirect us. I am saying that Jay simply did not see the logic that followed from my argument. It often happens that when people are accustomed to seeing a thing from one direction they find it difficult to now see it from another direction. It will take time for someone to see the argument from another direction.

Jay has been accustomed to hearing Muslim apologists starting with the claim that the Prophet’s Quran was inspired and then trying to trace the Prophet’s Quran to our present Quran.  I turned the sequence around with good reason. I argued that our present Quran was inspired, as is evident from its newly discovered mathematical patterns. Now our task is to find out the details of how the Quran came to be this way. In this case, we are starting from the vantage point that the Quran we hold in our hands is the Word of God. And we did not simply assume that. Rather, we gave good evidence to support that belief. Though Jay was listening to me, he was not hearing me. He did not realize that the direction of my approach was from the opposite direction to that which he was accustomed to.

The manuscript evidence he discussed needs to be dealt with. But the debate was not primarily about that. A book with an excellent manuscript history is not necessarily the Word of God. Nor is a book with a bad manuscript history necessarily not the Word of God. It is possible that God’s providence ensured that we have his Word with us despite the changing circumstances of history. We can now look at the manuscripts from the vantage point of knowing that God wanted us to have and hold the 1924 Egyptian edition of the Quran. It will take time for Jay to see that, with this new mathematical evidence, a paradigm shift has occurred.

The real question, then, is what evidence is there that the books we now hold in our hands are the Word of God? The topic of our debate was not about who has the better manuscripts. The topic is bigger than that. Thus it is clear that Jay’s discussion of the manuscripts was largely irrelevant to my argument. So, let’s not follow the red herring. Let’s evaluate the two books based on neutral criteria.

What Difference do the Manuscripts Make?

The problem of criteria confronts us here again as we consider Jay’s argument regarding the manuscripts of the Quran. Jay’s argument may be summarized as follows. Christians have nothing to fear from manuscripts of the Bible because Christians do not hold that the Bible is unchanged. Rather, Christians are satisfied that no cardinal doctrine of Christianity is overturned by the discovery of ancient manuscripts. On the other hand, Muslims believe that the Quran is unchanged. Therefore they have to deal with discrepancies in the manuscripts.

It is true that Muslims will have to deal with the manuscripts even though, as I have explained above, the manuscripts were largely irrelevant to our recent debate.  I expect that some Muslim students who are pursuing studies in the manuscripts will soon put out responses to Jay’s specific claims. Here I want to reflect on Jay’s criteria for deciding which book is the Word of God. As I explained above, Jay needs to apply the same criterion to both books. If he allows that the Bible is still the word of God despite changes made to it, provided that no cardinal doctrine rests on the changes, he has to allow the same for the Quran.

To disprove the Quran as the word of God on the basis of the manuscript evidence, therefore, Jay would have to show that the Quran has been changed to the extent that the cardinal doctrines of Islam rest on the changes. But this is not what Jay was arguing. Jay was simply trying to prove that the Muslim belief that the Quran is unchanged is not true. But that is not the same as proving that the Quran is not the Word of God. Theoretically, it is possible that the Quran is mainly the Word of God except for some changes that do not stand as the basis for any cardinal doctrine of Islam.

Now, the cardinal doctrines of Islam are well known. There is no God but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger. Or, we can consider a more detailed list of the pillars of Muslim belief: Belief in God, his angels, his books, his messengers, in the last day and resurrection, and in God’s foreknowledge and control of all affairs while giving humans limited free will. Which of these cardinal doctrines of Islam does the manuscript evidence undermine? Jay could not show that any of these doctrines rests on a change that someone made to the Quran.

Rather, as is well known to students of Quranic manuscripts, the variations which have been found in the manuscripts are mostly minor, and the most major ones reflect basically the same idea expressed in a varied manner.

Who’s Afraid of Manuscripts?

On the other hand, students of the Bible know that in fact the manuscript evidence for the Bible has led to questions about cardinal Christian concepts. Jay mentioned his view that 1 John 5:7 was not original to the Bible. The removal of this verse has an important consequence which Jay simply whitewashed. For three hundred years, Christians read this verse in their King James Bible as saying that there are three that bear record in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and that these three are one. There is no other verse of the Bible with this wording. Now that manuscript evidence has made it necessary for this wording to be removed from the verse, the Bible is left without a verse that specifically says that there are three that bear witness in heaven and that the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are one. This leaves wide open the question of the basis on which Christians can limit the Godhead to three persons.

Therefore, Jay is using two different criteria: a strict criterion applying to the Quran; and a loose criterion applying to the Bible. Moreover, he is trying to deny the obvious fact that the manuscript evidence has necessitated a major correction to the present Bible.

Moreover, Jay showed that he is not willing to remove the forged verse entirely from the Bible. In the debate he expressed his satisfaction that the verse is retained in a footnote for the sake of those who would still like to see it there. What he is referring to is the fact that some Christians are still reading the wording in the footnote and finding solace in the hope that this wording is true. In fact, there are still users of the King James Bible that contains the forged verse. There is even a New King James Version that simply retains the verse as it was since the year 1611. This too is widely used by Christians who find this and other questionable verses too favourable to forego. There are even Christians who insist that the only true Bible is the King James Bible!

To conclude, Jay has a looser criterion for the Bible as the Word of God: The Bible’s status as the Word of God is not affected by manuscript evidence that the only verse therein which explicitly declares the oneness of three persons in heaven has been forged. Meanwhile, in arguing against the Quran by means of citing manuscript evidence, Jay was not refuting the Quran. He was merely attempting to refute the common Muslim belief that the Quran has not been changed in any way. However, it was necessary for Jay to have a single criterion and to apply this equally to both books.

Conclusion

Now what of my five criteria? I have cited mathematical patterns in the Quran as proof that divine providence gave us the Quran as it is in the 1924 Egyptian edition which is now everywhere among Muslims. What evidence is there that the Bible today is the Word of God? Jay did not cite any evidence that the Bible ever was the Word of God. Nor did he respond to my evidence showing that the Bible is not inspired; and that it contains sexually explicit passages; and that it contains a failed prophecy; etc.

I hope that reviewers of the debate will see for themselves that I was working with clear criteria derived from the Bible; that I applied these criteria fairly to both books; and that only the Quran passed these criteria while the Bible failed to meet its own criteria for being the Word of God. On the other hand, Jay did not seem to start with fair and balanced criteria that he was willing to apply to both books. The debate can be viewed here:

http://new.livestream.com/accounts/291710/events/3400440.


[1] Sidney Griffith, The Bible in Arabic (Princeton: Princeton University, 2013) p. 36.

[2] Fred Donner, “The historian, the believer and the Quran,” in New Perspectives on the Quran: the Quran in its historical context 2, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 35.

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