A Response to James White

Shabir Ally

November 19, 2008

In an article today, “Shabir Ally: In Defence of Double Standards”, Dr. James White accuses me not only of using double standards, but of defending such usage. He writes that I constantly depend on the most radical, left-wing scholars whose appellation ‘Christian’ James prefers to place in quotation marks, as if to suggest that they are not really Christian. He correctly reports that in my 1996 debate with Dr. Robert Morey I insisted that he has no right as a Christian to wear two hats, one as a Christian, and another as a modern Western scholar adopted for the purpose of giving a negative verdict on Islam.

But now James finds me guilty of using the same sort of double standards I once condemned. He writes that he did not understand my defence, and the audience did not look like they understood it either. He summarizes my statements in these words:

James is telling me that Muhammad and the Qur’an are wrong. But, I believe in God because I believe in Muhammad and the Qur’an. So, if James is right, then I must become an agnostic if I reject Muhammad and the Qur’an. So, it is fine for me to examine Christianity as an agnostic (i.e., assume the worldview behind naturalistic materialism and the most radical form and redaction critics) because to become a Christian I would have to first become an agnostic.

From my statement, James concludes that I should allow him to speak thus:

For me, James White, to become a Muslim, I would first have to reject the New Testament witness to Jesus. To do so, I would have to adopt the destructive criticisms of naturalistic materialism that assumes, from the start, that since most of what calls itself divine revelation is false, all that claims to be divinely inspired must be merely the thoughts and opinions of men, the result of natural processes, not supernatural ones.

If James were to follow this logic, he feels that he would then be required to reject not only Christianity, but Islam as well.

In response, I have to say that James has misunderstood the basis of modern Christian scholarship on the Bible, and has only partially reported our exchange on the use of two hats.

To begin with, James has shown only a partial understanding of Christian scholarship. This is understandable, as no one knows everything. But I was surprised that James, after citing the Servant passages of Isaiah during his presentations seemed to be hearing of the scholar Duhm for the first time during the cross-examination period. Extensive commentaries on Isaiah usually mention this as the scholar who, about a century ago, first proposed that there are four Servant Songs in Isaiah. While I do not expect James to remember the name of every scholar, I do expect him to be familiar with some of the most significant ideas that hold the key to understanding the biblical passages that form the bedrock of his arguments. Without reading the four Servant Songs in the context of each other one can hardly hope to correctly identify the servant.

It seems that James simply makes a blanket generalization about the scholars I cite without stopping to consider the credentials of these scholars. I cited Bible commentaries such as The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and the Abingdon Bible Commentary. I cited Raymond Brown, William Barclay, John Bowden, and E. P. Sanders. Do all these commentaries and scholars fit the designation James gives them: “the most radical, left-wing scholarship”? Do they deserve for James to question their being Christian?

James expressed his preference for me to cite F. F. Bruce. But it was clear at the time that he was not aware that Bruce also holds positions which, were I to cite, James would reject. On the whole, I find that James is not very familiar with the world of critical scholarship on the Bible. He repeatedly asserts that the basis of this scholarship is a rejection of everything supernatural. He seems unaware of the history of this scholarly enterprise. A Christian believes in supernatural phenomena reported in the Bible with the confidence that the Bible is the Word of God. But several factors have led over the centuries to the dilution of the belief in the Bible as the Word of God. This in turn has led to the rejection of much of the supernatural phenomena described in the Bible. James seems to think that it is the other way around.

There is no doubt that this develops in a spiral. Doubts about the Bible leads to a rejection of the supernatural which then leads to further doubts about the Bible. James is correct in advising Muslims to not depend on those conclusions which are based on a rejection of supernatural phenomena since we also accept such phenomena. In general, when reading the gospels or the rest of the Bible and trying to decide how much of it I may accept as a Muslim I do bear this principle in mind. But this only applies if we are thinking as Muslims. As Muslims we do accept such phenomena. But if we are to imagine ourselves for a moment having rallied to the message of Christian missionaries and having given up our belief in the Quran and in our prophet then we would have no reason to believe in the supernatural.

In the debate that night I argued for a stronger case. I showed that one can adopt two thinking hats following de Bono who, in his book Six Thinking Hats, suggested that we wear different hats to exercise different modes of thinking. My present and default mode of thinking is as a Muslim. But I can imagine myself leaving aside my Muslim presuppositions and adopting a neutral stance. In that case I would have to be convinced from scratch about anything positive regarding Jesus. I would then have to turn to the writings of Christian scholars and others to get my information about Jesus without bringing in my Muslim presuppositions. It seems to me that in that case I would draw the same conclusions I emphasised in the debate. If I think as a Muslim I must believe in Jesus. If I think as a non-Muslim, knowing what I know now of the biblical literature and scholarly commentaries I do not see how I can be convinced of the Christian view regarding Jesus. I have already given the evidence for such a negative conclusion during the debate, and I hesitate to repeat the demonstration here, as it is not my intention to dwell on the negative.

James thinks I should confine myself to reading only the writings of conservative Christians such as Leon Morris. But I do not even in my Islamic studies confine myself to only conservative Muslim writings. I read a wide variety of writings, even those highly critical of Islam, and I then make up my own mind about how to evaluate all the facts presented in all of these writings. So too is my approach to the Christian faith. Hence I remain consistent in my principles.

On the use of two hats for thinking James has cited me only partially. While he correctly cited what I said to Dr. Morey a dozen years ago, he neglected to show that in my debate with James himself I explained in detail why my statements do not imply that Dr. Morey or James for that matter could use the reverse logic James now claims is the outcome of my statements. He may disagree with my explanation, but there is no good reason for him to ignore the explanation and pretend that it does not exist. At this point I must apologise to Dr. Morey for the mention of his name here. My excuse, which I hope he will accept, is that I am simply responding to James.

During the cross examination with James, and in my final statements, I clarified the difference between the position of Dr. Morey and me vis-à-vis the attitude we could take towards changing from one faith to another. The difference is that I do not call on Christians to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ, whereas Christian debaters call on me to abandon my faith in the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. My message to Dr. Morey and James is along these lines: Since you already believe in God, and that God has sent prophets throughout time, you ought to believe also in Muhammad who is a prophet of the same God in whom you have always believed. On the other hand, the message of the Christian Apologists to me is along these lines: Since you believe in both Muhammad and Jesus, why not stop believing in Muhammad and believe only in Jesus?

My answer is that I believe in Jesus because of my belief in Muhammad. If I abandon faith in Muhammad I would have no reason to believe in Jesus. Christian Apologists would then have to show me good reason to believe in Jesus without presupposing my Muslim faith which he is asking me to abandon. He cannot ask me to abandon the faith and also to keep it.

But this does not imply that James could retort the way he does. I do not call on him to abandon his faith in divine revelation. I do not ask him to believe that “all that claims to be divinely inspired must be merely the thoughts and opinions of men, the result of natural processes, and not supernatural ones.” My message to him is that he should continue to believe in Jesus and in God and in divine revelation but to also add Muhammad to his list of recipients of that revelation. What I do call on him to abandon is the accretions of other men which were added to the religion of Jesus thus turning it into another religion. I do call him to the real Jesus of history before the faith about him proclaimed him to be the Divine Son of God. It is my contention that if a Christian comes to the true Jesus he or she will be in a better position to see that Muhammad is a prophet who continued with the message of Jesus just as Jesus continued with the message of the prophets prior to him.

Now we may consider more clearly the two-hat approach for Christians that would mirror my approach described above. One hat for me is my Muslim hat; the other hat is adopted as a theoretical thinking exercise on the assumption that I abandon what James asks me to abandon. Hence I have to imagine myself not believing in Muhammad or the Quran. What do I have left? I do not really know. I can well imagine that I may then continue to believe in God. But my knowledge of God then would be very vague. It is due to the Quranic revelation that I believe in miracles. Without the Quran what would I believe?

I do not recall claiming definitively that I would in that case be an agnostic, though I can imagine this as a possibility for many former Muslims. The mention of agnosticism came out of my cross-examination of James wherein he said, as I recall, that if Christians were to deny the special revelation to which they are privy in the person of Jesus then they would be ignorant of supernatural phenomena. Based on this statement of his I tried very hard and eventually succeeded in getting him to see that many Muslims face a similar choice. If they reject Islam’s core concepts they could very well become agnostics. And then we would have to address them as agnostics.

Hence my two hats are clear: 1. What I am; and 2. What James summons me to be. On the other hand, James is claiming the right, following my logic, to wear these two hats: 1. What he is; and 2. What I am not summoning him to be. It should be clear that he does not follow the logic. I am only calling on him to reject the claims which others made about Jesus—claims which contradict the very teachings of Jesus and the prophets prior to him. I am not calling on him to reject the special revelation that came in the person of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, I am calling on him to appreciate that special revelation even more by shaving off the later accretions which contradict and obscure that revelation. On the other hand, James is in fact asking me to reject the special revelation that came to the prophet Muhammad.

I thought this was made very clear in the debate. I had faulted Dr. Morey not for wearing two thinking hats as I am now doing, but for being two different persons at the same time. It is true that I used the term ‘two hats’ at the time. But the context of what I said, and even my words as cited by James during our debate show that what I blamed him for is not for wearing a second thinking hat as a theoretical thinking exercise, but for being a second person. As a Christian he accepts divine revelation. But in order to justify his rejection of Muhammad he cites the scholars who reject all divine revelation including that which came to Moses and Jesus. This was not done as a theoretical exercise, but as a fact. He was being a Christian and an Atheist at the same time. On the other hand, I repeated throughout the debate that the fact of my person is that I believe in Jesus since I am a Muslim. But on the imaginative stance of having to deny Muhammad and the Quran as James is inviting me to do I would have no reason to believe in Jesus. And, given what I know of biblical criticism, I would have good reason not to believe in him.

If this logic escapes James it is because he does not see the logical moment that comes between the rejection of Muhammad and the acceptance of Christ. Buy rejecting Muhammad a Muslim also, at least for a logical moment, rejects Christ. On the other hand, Muslims do not invite Christians to cease to be Christians but only to be true Christians. As the term ‘Christian’ itself means ‘imitator of Christ’, Muslims are encouraging their Christian friends to become true imitators of Christ. This requires ceasing to be imitators of others who, despite their claims, actually contradicted his teachings. Hence to mirror my two-hat approach to thinking about this, Christians may imagine themselves having rejected Paul, for example. That would put the Christian in a better position to appreciate not only Jesus, but also Muhammad as prophets of God.

In short, a Muslim believes in Muhammad and Jesus. The Christian Apologist thinks that all he has to do is minus Muhammad and Jesus will remain in this equation. But Muslims believe in Jesus because of Muhammad. For Muslims, if Muhammad is not true then another cause will have to be found for believing in Jesus. But the truth of Christ does not depend on Paul. Rather, for Paul to be true Christ has to be true. Paul depends on Christ. Take Paul out and Christ remains. Take Christ out and Paul falls. Muslims are not asking Christians to take Christ out but to put him back in. The difference is logically quite significant between my invitation to James and James’ invitation to me.

James writes that the audience did not seem to understand my argument. Even if this were true, it would hardly constitute an argument against this logic. If anything, James’ argument here constitutes the logical fallacy argumentum ad populum. But I do not believe that the audience failed to understand the point. On the contrary, I recall that my line of questioning to James eventually after much resistance from James evoked an answer which demonstrated the logic in my favour, at which point a member of the audience voiced his relief. Moreover, I should ask how James could divine that the audience failed to get the point. As this was being explained during the cross-examination he was looking at me and I was looking at him. How did he gauge their reaction?

In sum, I find that James’ attempt now to reinforce the point he made repeatedly that night, and which I had deconstructed during the final phase of the debate, fails. I have not proved inconsistent. I have consistently approached the subject as a Muslim with Muslim presuppositions. And I have explained how I would approach the subject if I were to be a non-Muslim. As a Muslim I believe in Jesus. As a non-Muslim I would have to be convinced from scratch to believe in Jesus. The missionary mistake was to think that he could minus Muhammad from the equation of my thinking and leave me with the Muslim conception of Jesus on which he can then add the specific Christian claims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savoir of the World. Without Muhammad I would not be a Muslim, and I would not have a Muslim conception of anything.

Moreover, I have shown that James’ commentary on the debate continues to show what was already evident in the debate. He is not very familiar with critical biblical scholarship. He imagines that this strand of scholarship begins with a rejection of faith whereas it is in fact the errors they have found that have weakened their faith. They began with the traditional Christian faith and began to find compelling reasons for giving up some aspects of that faith. Little by little some of those who held out for a long while, and became known as conservative Christian scholars, find themselves unable to resist the force of the evidence. Hence even conservative Christian scholars such as F. F. Bruce have adopted some of the conclusions of critical scholarship. James continues to recommend such scholars, until he becomes aware of what they have written, as could be the case when I cite them.

James is now without a real argument, and he resorts to emotional pleas instead. To begin with, the title of his commentary is an appeal to emotions, as he associates my name with a defence of double standards. While one may find himself inadvertently or even deliberately using double standards, as we are all human (God save us!), it can hardly be expected that I would defend the use of double standards once this is brought to my attention. His title could have read: “Shabir Ally: On the question of double standards,” if he wished to be more analytical and less emotional. What he could not prove with evidence he states in the title as a given fact.

Moreover, his expression of pity for the poor Muslims who, according to him, are stuck with their false belief does nothing to advance our dialogue, but only invites a similar expression of pity for Christians. Rather than express such exasperation James should try again. I find that I am getting through to Christians, as my arguments are based on authoritative scholarship and sound reasoning. If James is not getting through to Muslims it is probably these two areas of his argumentation that need to be worked on. The emotional nature of his article is evident in his question, “The mythological consistent Muslim. Does such a thing exist?” What is he asking? Is he asking if the consistent Muslim exists, in which case he/she is not mythological? Or is he asking if the consistent Muslim is mythological in which case s/he does not exist? Asking if the mythological exists is really an exercise in confusion and a play on the reader’s emotions.

Finally, something should be said about James’ suggestion that my citation of Christian scholars would invite him to similarly cite scholars like “Wansborough (sic) and Cone (sic) and Cook and Ibn Warraq.” The fallacy of his analogy is evident. Wansborough, Crone and Cook championed a theory that is now largely discredited. Moreover, they are non-Muslims, whereas I was not citing non-Christians in the debate. Ibn Warraq is the pen name for someone who wrote a book entitled, Why I am not a Muslim. Did I cite anyone who wrote anything called, “Why I am not a Christian?”

As for Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, I have little information on him. The Wikipedia article on him notes that he questions the existence not only of Muhammad but also of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Yet James thinks that I am pushing him to adopt the stance of Kalisch. Did I during the debate cite a scholar who expressed doubts about the existence of Jesus?

My hope is that James and I will continue to have debates in the future, and that some of the differences we do have will continue to be ironed out. Such is more likely to be the case if we continue to reflect the mutual respect we have for each other, and if we avoid emotional arguments. James and I have had two very different life experiences. As I said during the cross-examination, I would not blame him for referring to scholars who are critical of Islam, for he would readily find their criticisms of Islam to be compatible with his own rejection of the same. But it is through such dialogues that we get to compare our notes and share in the life experience of each other. This can only lead to a more enriching experience for us both and, I hope, for the folks who observe the interaction.



Shabir Ally

November 19, 2008



I must say from the start that I have a fond memory of my most recent debate with Dr. James White. Certainly I find James to be a generous person, as demonstrated in his lavish gifts to me of valuable Christian literature. I hope that these encounters and the exchanges to follow will continue to foster a friendly relationship between us despite our obvious theological differences.

One of the disappointing features of these debates is the one-sided nature of the aftermath. During the debate itself every effort is made to ensure balance in the presentation of the views from the two sides. Equal time is allotted to the two speakers, and the moderator maintains a neutral position. But after the debate some parties begin to post on the web one-sided commentary and selected materials from the debate with the aim of promoting one side only. I would expect that some serious but unbiased analysis will follow these debates.

My case in point is that James has written an article in which he argues a central point that I feel I had painstakingly deconstructed during the final cross-examination and summarized in my closing remarks. As if to reclaim the deconstructed position, James has posted a portion of the debate in which he had explained his position. To this he has appended his now written response to my deconstruction of that position. But nowhere in his post do I find a careful analysis of what I actually said. He might have done well to post the clips of my comments along with his own and invite me to write a commentary which will be posted along with his. This would reflect true balance—the sort which we tried to maintain in the debate itself.

I realise that this ideal is difficult to maintain. We will each in our own circles find it necessary to offer some comments on how things went. But to continue as if one is offering a final rebuttal after the debate is over strikes me as being oblivious to the need for fairness.

I am sure that James does not mean to be unfair in his treatment of the debate materials. Perhaps this was only an oversight driven by the urge to answer a point he feels he could answer better now in hindsight. But James and I spoke for three hours that night in the double-debate. It is time to hear from others. James has, however, broken the needed silence, and I feel that my response to follow may help him understand the point I made about consistency, double standards, and the wearing various thinking hats.