White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Quran with Christian Commentary: A Guide to Understanding the Scripture of Islam, by Gordon D. Nickel

Published Thursday, October 15, 2020 By Basil Grafas

This is a major new work and an important aid to Christians, particularly those who minister in Muslim contexts. It is structured as a reference book, a translation of the Quran, along with a useful introduction that is geared for general readers, not only scholars, footnotes that follow the flow of the Quran, a concise bibliography, 20 articles concerning various aspects of the Quran written by contributors, introductions to each sura that, like the articles are offset through shading, and indexes. The layout is attractive, the art and colors harmonized for its Islamic content and its Christian readers. In the main, it succeeds at producing clarity.

Nickel does not accept as a starting point, the Quran’s self-identification as a result of divine revelation. This sets his effort apart from so many 20th and 21st century efforts by non-Muslims, such as Fred Donner, Gabriel Said Reynolds, Sam Solomon, Miroslav Volf, Martin Accad, etc., who often proceed from an acceptance of the received version of the Quran’s divine origin. At the same time, Nickel does not write his book as a polemic commentary. There is an air of scholarly objectivity to his writing. It is fair and careful writing that, nevertheless, avoids being evasive.

This is an important feature of his contribution and gives it a place on a short list of required sources for study. That does not make it superior or inferior to more pointed works. Rather, it makes him required reading that should be consulted alongside of the very different but significant works of Donner, Reynolds, Solomon, Volf, and Accad. A cursory glance at this list of names should jar the reader. Their viewpoints are so very different. What they share is a Christian identity, a commitment to understanding Islam, and scholarship. I do not appreciate all of them equally myself, but I am deeply impressed with Gordon Nickel’s reaching out to scholars such as David Hesselgrave and Martin Accad. That speaks volumes about his own integrity and desire to be able to put forward scholarly interpretation irenically. Lest I be misunderstood, Nickel will fight for a perspective. Yet, he fights for his perspective having already done everything he could to listen to the Quran itself and not simply its spokespersons.

Introduction

The introduction is useful both to novice and more familiar Quranic readers alike. In terms of its text, he informs us that the text that most Muslims use today was the result of a decision made in Egypt in 1924 to adopt a single reading from among many. That is, of course, a revelation. Muslims routinely chide Christians for having so many versions of the Bible. By doing so, they create a false impression that the Bible is forever changing and, thus, not divine. By demonstrating variant Quranic readings, Nickel achieves two things. He levels the playing field and he brings the Quran down to earth.

He adds that his work is largely a product of literary analysis. It is a book. It purports to be a sacred text, but it is not sacred to him. He also manages to fire a shot across the bow of some prominent recent Christian Quranic scholarship. He does that by stating that we show Muslims more respect by interpreting the Quran and Muslim beliefs traditionally, according to Muslim scholars. He also states a scholarly concern, that too many scholars allow their own political sensitivities and, I would add, their own reconsideration of Christianity, to inhibit their objective consideration of Islam. (As usual, Dr. Nickel has a far more gentle way of saying things than I.)

The 21st century has seen a tremendous effort made to harmonize Islam and Christianity in such a way that they, to use the term popularized by Miroslav Volf, “flourish” as communities living in peace. According to Nickel, an exclusivist, peace cannot be achieved by accepting Muslim premises and narrative without becoming a Muslim. Nickel describes himself as forthrightly conservative Christian from within the Mennonite tradition. If the Bible is divine revelation, the Quran cannot be. He does not advocate Christian/Muslim syncretism. That implies something equally important. This work does not interpret Christianity or Islam primarily through the lens of cultural anthropology. He sees it as literature and he interprets it theologically.

The Quran is described as including nine types of literature. These he notes as polemic, narrative, end times, signs, laws, battle scenes, messenger passages, self-referential passages, and passages describing the domestic details of the messenger. We can see overlap with literary genres in the Bible. Nickel also precludes the over-simplification that the Quran is all about jurisprudence. It is, of course, a legal text, but not only so. It has literary forms that transcend that description. In fact, Nickel takes its primary literary genre to be polemic.

He supports this claim in the introduction by comparing its contents to inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock, one of the greatest Muslim fruits of conquest. He describes how the inscriptions at this rising tide of Muslim expansion in 691 A.D. underscore the meaning of the Quran’s call for warfare, and its deep, fundamental theological prohibition of the Trinity or Christ’s crucifixion and Sonship. He also draws the Quran into the wider context of interpreting its significance by reading it along with the life of Muhammad. In other words, Nickel gives us a far more accurate picture of Islam by integrating the Quran with its history and the life of its founder and exemplar. Westerners frequently attempt to define Islam in terms of a single, idiosyncratic reading of the Quran alone. Nickel takes a far more cautious and accurate approach.

He also studies the Quran as a polemical text by constantly cross-referencing Christian and Muslim accounts of theological topics and shared historical figures such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Jesus, etc., demonstrating any overlaps but, more often the differences between the two texts. In doing so, he shows clearly that the Quran never saw itself as a complement to the bible but a corrective and a replacement. The Bible is fundamentally a covenantal document describing a covenantal faith. The Quran proposes itself as an alternate, authentic covenantal text that is fundamentally incompatible with its biblical predecessor. In Christian terms, the Bible is genuine covenantal revelation and the Quran is counterfeit.

Articles and Introductions

The book has 20 large articles written by an array of scholars expert in their given topics. I found results a bit uneven, but that is to be expected in that sort of arrangement. The only one I found a bit wanting was Mark Anderson’s “Allah in the Quran.” While it seemed that he substantially disagreed with the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he could not come out and say it. I have appreciated the careful writing of this volume, but I do think that he beat around the bush a bit too much for me. The book is a corrective to a general lack of clarity with scholarly books that leads to muddy practical applications later. I do think the article could have been a bit more to the point, but most of his facts that deny that premise are accurate.

Many other articles were manifestly clear and helpful. Peter Riddell, for whom I served many years ago as a researcher, wrote on “Salvation in the Quran.” He notes the Quran’s general lack of clarity with regard to what exactly salvation was, though he demonstrated that the emphasis of deliverance was from punishment rather than deliverance to someone or something. This is a key area for Christian missionaries as Islam addresses Paradise but leaves it without the personal presence of Allah. the entire point of heaven is our eternity with God not just the good life.

Ayman Ibrahim and David Cook address violence in the Quran. In “Fighting and Killing in the Quran,” Ibrahim notes the central theme of violence in the text. It specifies whom the believers fight, and despises those who stay home in order to avoid fighting. Ibrahim concludes by stating that while the Quran is not primarily about warring, it is difficult to avoid its continuous call to war. This dovetails into Cook’s “Jihad in the Quran.” Cook is an international expert in the field of jihad. He takes a nuanced look at its meaning in the text. He notes that the root jhd, occurs some 41 times and does not primarily focus on fighting and warfare, but emphasizes struggling with opponents to include oneself. This is oriented toward struggling to enter Paradise along with the rest of the community of believers (the ummah). His last point is critical. He notes that Islam is the only religion at the time to see religious fighting as part of its political theology, leaving the door wide open to conquest and dovetailing into what Ibrahim had said.

Gordon Nickel’s contribution, “The death of Jesus in the Quran,” is a critical topic in a Christian understanding of Islam. He notes the paucity of reference in the Quran to Jesus’s death—only three verses, and only one of which addresses the crucifixion. He also briefly considered the mental maneuvering necessary within Islam to understand the Christian claims. This merges with Nickel’s “Son of God in the Quran.” He summarizes by stating that the Quran makes its strongest efforts to deny the Sonship of Christ. These efforts Nickel describes as primarily theological, revealing the impossibility of Allah to be a Trinity, however much some recent scholars have tried to massage that. This is another key help to Christians understanding that Muslims and Christians cannot possibly worship the same God without Christians denying the Trinity. This contrasts nicely with Nickel’s “Moses in the Quran.” As he notes, in the 6,000 verses in the Quran, more than 500 relate directly to Moses. He is considered in 36 of 114 suras. The contrast between the relative flatness and paucity of references to Jesus (Isa), and the Quran’s denial of his Sonship and the very considerable concentration on Moses also gives us a clear sense of contrast between the significance of law in the Quran and grace in the Bible.

Nickel also contrasts the language of love in the Quran with that of the Bible. These are also fundamental differences between the faith systems. Before noting them, however, it is necessary to say that Muslims often find the Quranic limitations hard to live with and develop their own concepts, whether or not they comply with traditional Islam. Since Christians also go beyond their own revelatory text in the world, the only way to really control the conversation logically is to talk about baselines. Nickel notes that the Quran has Allah loving humans, but that love is only for those who demonstrate goodness and justice. Furthermore, there is no injunction for humans to love either Allah or other people. Allah explicitly does not love the prodigal. That forms a direct contrast to the God of the Bible. I once asked a former Muslim what parts of the Bible had the greatest impact on his conversion. The parable of the Prodigal Son was one of his. Nickel concludes his remarks, noting the fundamental incompatibility between conditional and unconditional love.

Linda Darwish, in her “Women in the Quran,” gave a highly nuanced picture of the sexes in Islam. She demonstrates that the Quran in several places affirms the constitutional equality of men and women in the Quran. I would have appreciated a closer look, however, at how Islam views the fall in the Garden of Eden as primarily the sin of Eve. The consequences of that are far-reaching. She does take care to show the contrast between the general language of equality in the text and the lack of social and legal justice accorded to women in Muslim societies; a fact she attributes to the conservative application of the Quran by conservative male jurists. She also shows that Islam as it has been known has been challenged at points by more “progressive” Islamic scholarship, largely in the West, but also found early support in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Islam.

In toto, these articles help the reader grasp the essences of the Quran and its application to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. At the same time, it addresses challenges to its own traditions without devoting so much time to them that it distorts our understanding of what Islam really is in favor of what it might become or (far worse) what we would wish it could be.

Evaluation and Conclusions

Nickel succeeds in his effort to produce a conservative Christian assessment of the historical, Muslim understanding of the Quran and Islam. He does not slight the Muslim version of the Quran’s origins, but he does not endorse it either. On the other hand, he also does not indulge too much in Christian polemics and recent critical readings of the Quran. It simply was not his purpose in writing. I think he purposed to write in order to lay down a fundamental, reasonable and traditionally Christian baseline for reading the Quran and understanding traditional Islam.

In one sense, his work is a very noteworthy response to a host of more pointed works. Miroslav Volf and his “flourishing” projects, including his Exclusion and Embrace, A Common Word, and Allah all posit a long-range goal of supporting human flourishing. For Volf, that assumes that since Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they may cooperate in human terms to make the world a less fractured, more harmonious place. Even his trinitarian treatment, After Our Likeness, so emphasizes social Trinitarianism that one may see an outline in his overall desire to treat human flourishing as a paramount value.

In these Volf assumes a perspective on religion that sees things primarily from the human and moving to the divine. In other words, we start with what is best from human flourishing rather than starting with the exclusive totality of divine revelation. That is the often invisible fault-line that runs beneath the Christian response to Islam. To see its broad outlines, one should consult the recent works of Christian Smith, to include, What is a Person?, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and A Secular Age.

To Volf’s approach other scholars could be added, Gabriel Said Reynolds and Martin Accad, for example. The point here is that Nickel takes an opposite approach to the Quran on this key point. For that reason, along with others noted above, this is a very important work. At some point after these intellectual skirmishes come the missionary practitioners that derive many of their perspectives from these scholars.

In my experience, missions suffers, less because it does not understand the “other”, in this case Islam, as in its lack of self-reflection. Missions and Christianity on the whole in the West have experienced deep shifts in the last 70 years concerning how it sees itself, how it sees other religions, and how it chooses to engage missions. The changes are profound and, in my opinion, deeply troubling. Nickel understands these shifts well and he serves to found his own work in Christian divine revelation and what Islam offers as its own, fundamentally different and exclusive revelation.

Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.

  • Basil Grafas