[This summary of Al-Ghazali’s, A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus (Al-Radd al-Jamil) marks the beginning of a series of responses to Muslim polemics against Christianity written by classical Muslim philosophers like Al-Ghazali, Ibn Tamiyya, and Abu Isa al-Warraq]
Historically, the Islamic view of the Bible has been one of ambivalence. On the hand the Quran affirms that the Torah is a word of God and that the Zabur (Psalms) was given to David. While the Quran is silent about the four gospels, it assumes that there is one Injil that was given through Jesus, “He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel.” (Surah 3:48). On the other hand, the Quran accuses Christians and Jews of being guilty of having distorted and altered Scriptures (tahrif).
Some Jews distort the meaning of [revealed] words: they say, ‘We hear and disobey,’ and ‘Listen,’ [adding the insult] ‘May you not hear,’ and ‘Ra ina [Look at us],’twisting it abusively with their tongues so as to disparage religion. If they had said, ‘We hear and obey,’ ‘Listen,’ and ‘Unzurna [Look at us],’ that would have been better and more proper for them. (Surah 4:46. Abdel Haleem translation).
Messenger, do not be grieved by those who race to surpass one another in disbelief– those who say with their mouths, ‘We believe,’ but have no faith in their hearts, and the Jews who listen eagerly to lies and to those who have not even met you, who distort the meanings of [revealed] words and say [to each other], ‘If you are given this ruling, accept it, but if you are not, then beware! (Surah 5:41)
It should be noted that the accusation of tahrif originally pertained to twisting the meaning of the revealed word rather than to altering and corrupting the Biblical text.
Muslims did not level the charge of corruption of the Biblical text until they became aware of the discipline of historical and textual criticism of the Bible which originated from Germany in the late 19th century. Hence, the focus of early Muslim polemics was to dismiss Christians for betraying the true prophetic teaching of Jesus. In this regard, the polemical tract attributed to Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Al-radd al-jamıl li-ilahiyyat ‘Isa bi-sarıh al-injıl (A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus) represents a significant advance from earlier Muslim polemics as it deliberately appropriates a wide range of biblical writings from the other apostles like Peter, Paul and John in order to challenge the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Specifically, al-Ghazali argues that a proper reading of the relevant Biblical passages would decisively refute the Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. /1/
Al-Ghazali also mounts a philosophical critique of the incarnation of Christ held by three major streams of Christianity during his time: (1) the Jacobites who teach that Christ has only single divine nature (monophysitism), (2) the Melkites who uphold the Chalcedonian Creed and teach Christ to be one Person in two natures, human and divine, and (3) the Nestorians who teach that Christ comprises a divine person and a human person united by a moral will. Al-Ghazali rejects these teachings on grounds that they are inconsistent with the fact that God’s attributes are eternal and unchanging.
Al-Ghazali proceeds to analyse the titles given to Jesus and three passages in the Gospel of John (John 1:1; 1:6-10; 1:14) which Christians use to support the divinity of Jesus. Al-Ghazali rejects the Christian literal interpretation of these verses as they demean God by suggesting that he comes under the limitations of human existence. Al-Ghazali argues that a metaphorical interpretation is necessary so as to avoid demeaning the glory of God. He concludes, “(Christians) have followed a path which has obliged them to talk about the existence of three gods, in the mind and in fact, distinct in their essences and their natures, which is to deny the essence of God, may his name be glorified…This is the meaning indicated in the Noble Book when it says, ‘unbelievers are those who say that God is the third of three.’[Beaumont 171-173]
Al-Ghazali who had earlier deftly applied Aristotelian logic in his debate against ‘liberal’ Muslim philosophers (Mutazilites) then confidently sets out to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christian doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. His disdain for the intellectual superficiality of Christians is evident right from the first paragraph of the book,
I have found the opinions of the Christians related to their doctrines to be weak in construction, lacking in power, and shameful in method. The one who researches them is filled with amazement at intelligent people so inclined to them, and he is unable to achieve his aims with ease as a result of the complexity of them. They only rely on following bare tradition in them, clinging stubbornly to the literal meaning which the earlier Christians gave to them, while Christians of the present day, due to their indolence, do not endeavour to explain their obscure aspects, thinking that this is the divine law which Jesus, on him be peace, gave them. They offer as an excuse for holding to their opinions what is mentioned in texts they take as controlling their thinking, which are not susceptible to metaphorical interpretation. Therefore dissuading them from a literal interpretation is difficult.
In this they are two groups; one group, the larger, is made up of those who do not practise any intellectual disciplines which might enable an observer to see the impossibility of the impossible so that he asserts the impossibility of its existence, the necessity of the necessary so that he denies its non-existence, and the possibility of the possible so that he does not believe that there is no possible necessity for either its existence or non-existence. But pictures have been engraved on their minds since their childhood and their ignorance has persisted until it has become their natural disposition. So healing this group from their malady is difficult.
The other group has a little intelligence and is a little acquainted with intellectual discipline so you will find them turning away from this belief and not tolerating that their thoughts come close to it. Sometimes they rely on the authority of the Philosopher in the question about the union. They elevate the consequences of destroying theories which were approved by evidently rational minds so that they flee from this difficulty to following mere traditions. They believe that the Philosopher had already explained esoteric sciences by demonstrating them with clear proofs, and they think that a philosopher such as this is worthy to be relied on in his teaching and so they blindly follow his opinion about doctrine. For this reason they distance themselves from the question of the union and attach it to the question of the connection between the soul and the body. If these poor people would turn to their intelligence and give up their passion and fanaticism, they would understand that they had departed from the right way and had missed the true path for a number of reasons, as follows: [Beaumont 85-87]
Al-Ghazali argues that these simplistic Christians are guilty of the following intellectual errors:
1) Faulty analogical reasoning. Christians liken the union of the soul and the body with an analogy of the union of the two natures of Christ. An analogy works if there is something common between the two analogical terms. But the essence of God is inconceivable. Neither do we know how the soul and body are connected to be able to serve as an analogy of the union of Christ’s nature.
2) Futile attempt to prove Jesus’s divinity based on his miracles. Al-Ghazali notes that the Old Testament prophets like Moses, Joshua Elijah and Elisha are not ascribed divinity even though they worked miracles. Furthermore, miracles are not essential to validate prophetic authority for prophets who have no mission (those who are not also rasul). Finally, miracles are not sufficient to prove the divinity of Jesus Christ.
3) Misinterpretation of biblical passages. Al-Ghazali argues that the fanaticism and passion of Christians caused them to misread the Bible. For al-Ghazali, the passages in the Gospel of John which clearly teach the humanity of Christ rule out the possibility of attributing the divinity of Jesus in other passages of Scripture.“Nobody should emulate such a person without the support of proofs of his teaching, a person who rejects out of hand the teaching of the legislators [the Arabic text here means “the prophetic or the revealed text”] and who does not accept the literal meaning of his book that shows the humanity of the founder of his divine law, but who rejects any metaphorical interpretation of passages that show divinity, according to what they claim, which is to utterly reject rational thinking. How is this possible? In the gospel are passages that make clear the sheer humanity of Jesus, on him be peace, as well as passages testifying that attributing divinity to him, as they claim, is impossible, and these passages are in the clearest of their gospels, the gospel of John the son of Zebedee.” [Beaumont 95-97]
It remains to be seen whether al-Ghazali’s critique of the divinity of Christ based on his peculiar hermeneutics of Scripture and his logical argument against the divinity of Christ is successful.
Al-Ghazali poured scorn on Christians for their intellectual superficiality. However, Christians welcome the critique by al-Ghazali and other classical Muslim philosophers as a compliment since their critique are based on the premise that Christianity is a belief system that is worthy of refutation. Christians are appreciative of the fact that al-Ghazali has chosen not to skirt around the peripheral issues of Christianity but has mounted a direct attack of its core belief. Indeed, it is in honouring the tradition of intellectual conviviality that Krisis & Praxis would like to return the compliment to al-Ghazali and other classical Muslim philosophers by posting in the future, hermeneutically sound and philosophically cogent responses to their critique of Christianity.
/1/ The authorship of Al-radd al-jamıl li-ilahiyyat ‘Isa bi-sarıh al-injıl (A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus) has been challenged by recent scholars but for the purpose of this post, I shall assume that it is written by al-Ghazali. See, Maha El-Kaisy Friemuth, “Al-Radd Al-Jamil: Ghazali’s or Pseudo-Ghazali’s” in David Thomas, ed., The Bible in Arab Christianity (E.J. Brill, 2007), pp. 275-294. I shall be quoting from Mark Beaumont & Maha El Kaisy-Friemuth, Al-Radd al-Jamil: A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus (E.J. Brill, 2016). Readers may refer a cheaper but clumsy translation published by Razali Nawawi (ABIM, 1983).