Department: Orientation and Facilitation Centre
Course: Comparative religion (مقارنة الادیان)
Date: August 10th 2020
Lesson: Najran Christians and Muslims of Medina – an informed and respectful debate
Shaykh’al-Quran was fond of telling a story, while introducing to his students Surah Al Imran. A couple of converts to Islam came to his Quran daura – study tour of Quran – that took place every year during Ramadan. It was the early 1970s. One of them had asked Shaykh’al-Quran to go into Surah Al Imran in particular detail, since it dealt with Christian beliefs. Armed with this arsenal of answers to Christian dogma, the young convert would be in good stead when debating with Christian theologians.
That young student was me. And yes, Surah Al Imran did go into a lot of detail on the Islamic position vis-a-vis the Christian beliefs, in which I had been reared.
The first part of Surah Al Imran surrounded the visit of a delegation of Christians from Najran, in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula, on the modern border of Saudi Arabia with Yemen. We mentioned in our last dars the impact that this delegation made on the Companions of the Holy Prophet – the size of the delegation, their lavish attire. Beside noblemen, there were also eminent theologians in this delegation. The aim of he delegation – its size, the eminent theologians and nobility comprising it – showed that the aim of this delegation was not simply to make a pact with the Holy Prophet. The Muslims were now the pre-eminent power in the Arabian peninsula. Everyone was coming to make pacts with them. The aim of this delegation was to get to grips with the Muslims on matters of Christian-Muslim dogma.
The madrassa of Panjpir, Swabi, as it was in the days when Shaykh’al-Quran used to teach the Quran there
So according to the dars that Shaykh’al-Quran so diligently gave me that year, what were the key questions – the key points of dispute – between the Muslims and the Christians on matters of dogma? I’ll just give a short summary below:
1. The Christians of Najran claimed that Jesus had been called the son of God in the Injil – the New Testament. So what further proof was needed of his divinity?
Yes, the Muslims said. Jesus the son of Mary may have been given the epithet ’son of God’ in the Injil. If he was, then the word ‘son’ is not to be taken literally. The word is ambiguous. It can mean son, and it can refer also to someone who is dear like a son, for example Jesus – Isa alaihi’s-salam – is dear to God, like a son is dear to a father:
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِنْ عِنْدِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
(آل عمران، ۷)
It is He who has sent down the Book to you. Some of its verses are clear and precise in meaning – they are the basis of the Book – while others are ambiguous. Those with deviation in their hearts pursue the ambiguous, so as to create dissension, by seeking to explain it: but no one knows its meaning except Allah. This who are firmly grounded in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it; it is all from our Lord.’ But only the wise take heed.
(Al Imran, 3:7)
in case of ambiguous words cropping up, one has to look at the rest of the Scriptures, to see what the actual meaning of the word is. For example, if Jesus has been called ‘son’ of God in the Injil, then all mankind have also been called ‘children’ of God, in several places. So is everyone to be considered divine? Obviously not. The use of the word ‘children’ with regard to others, besides specifically Jesus the son of Mary, is alluded to also in the Quran:
وَقَالَتِ الْيَهُودُ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ نَحْنُ أَبْنَاءُ اللَّهِ وَأَحِبَّاؤُهُ ۚ قُلْ فَلِمَ يُعَذِّبُكُمْ بِذُنُوبِكُمْ ۖ بَلْ أَنْتُمْ بَشَرٌ مِمَّنْ خَلَقَ ۚ يَغْفِرُ لِمَنْ يَشَاءُ وَيُعَذِّبُ مَنْ يَشَاءُ ۚ وَلِلَّهِ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا ۖ وَإِلَيْهِ الْمَصِيرُ
The jews and the Christians say, ‘We are the children of God and his beloved ones.’ Say, ’Then why does He punish you for your sins?’ Indeed, you are but human beings among those He created. He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases. The kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and all that is in between them, belong to Allah and all shall return to Him.
2. The Christians of Najran maintained that Jesus was born without a father. That was proof enough for them that his father was God.
The Quran answers this point directly: Allah does not need the normal procreational process in order to create human life. He can create human beings just like that, as He did in the case of Adam alaihi’s-salam:
إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَىٰ عِنْدَاللَّهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَۖ خَلَقَهُ مِنْ تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ قَالَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُوْنَ
(آل عمران، ۵۹)
Jesus in the sight of Allah is like Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, ‘Be!’ And he was.
(Al Imran, 59)
3. Okay, the Christians of Najran said: But what about the miracles that Jesus Christ performed? Surely they are proof enough that he is divine?
One by one, Surah Al Imran mentions the miracles that Isa alaihi’s-salam performed. And one point is repeated again and again. He performed these miracles, not by his own power and accord, bu ‘by the leave of Allah’ – بأذن الله:
وَرَسُولًا إِلَىٰ بَنِيٓ إِسۡرَـٰٓءِيلَ أَنِّي قَدۡ جِئۡتُكُم بِـَٔايَةٖ مِّن رَّبِّكُمۡ أَنِّيٓ أَخۡلُقُ لَكُم مِّنَ ٱلطِّينِ كَهَيۡـَٔةِ ٱلطَّيۡرِ فَأَنفُخُ فِيهِ فَيَكُونُ طَيۡرَۢا بِإِذۡنِ ٱللَّهِۖ وَأُبۡرِئُ ٱلۡأَكۡمَهَ وَٱلۡأَبۡرَصَ وَأُحۡيِ ٱلۡمَوۡتَىٰ بِإِذۡنِ ٱللَّهِۖ
(آل عمران، ۴۹)
He will make him a messenger to the Children of Israel. He will say, ‘I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will make the shape of a bird out of clay for you and then breathe into it and, by Allah’s leave, it will become a living bird. And by the leave of Allah I will heal the blind and the leper and bring the dead to life.
(Al Imran, 3:49)
4. At the end of the debate, the Muslims took the matter one step forward, from munazira to mubahila – from debate to invoking the curse of Allah upon those who might be in the wrong:
فَمَنۡ حَآجَّكَ فِيهِ مِنۢ بَعۡدِ مَاجَآءَكَ مِنَ ٱلۡعِلۡمِ فَقُلۡ تَعَالَوۡاْ نَدۡعُ أَبۡنَآءَنَاوَأَبۡنَآءَكُمۡ وَ نِسَآءَنَا وَنِسَآءَكُمۡ وَ أَنفُسَنَا وَ أَنفُسَكُمۡ ثُمَّ نَبۡتَهِلۡ فَنَجۡعَل لَّعۡنَتَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَى ٱلۡكَٰذِبِينَ
(آل عمران، ۶۱)
And if anyone should argue with you about the truth after the knowledge you have received, say to them, ‘Come, let us gather our sons and your sons, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and then let us pray earnestly and invoke the curse of Allah on the liars.’
(Al Imran, 3:61)
Even in mubahila, there is an element of mutual respect, a feeling that your faith in God is so strong that you will feel nervous to invoke his curse on yourselves and your families, in defence of a creed that you do not feel 100 per cent sure about. And that is how it turned out. The Christians of Najran were not ready to do mubahila.
This feeling of mutual respect carried on into the reign of Umar’al-Farooq. His conquest of Jerusalem marked another stage in Christian-Muslim relations, that we will look at in our next dars, Inshallah.
After that, all being well, we will look at an instance in modern times, when Christian missionaries descended on the Muslims, and the Muslims engaged them in lively debate.