Islam’s Rule of Thumb
Mount Everest is much larger than my thumb. However, I can cover the entire mountain simply by placing my thumb in front of my eye. This is an optical illusion created by my perspective as a viewer. Because my thumb is much closer to me than Mount Everest, I can make it appear as if my thumb is larger. Similarly, the sun and the moon look exactly the same size from earth, but that’s only because we’re much closer to the moon. If we were to travel to the moon, we would be even closer, and it would look much larger than the sun. Yet none of this changes the fact that the sun is millions of times larger than the moon, and that Mount Everest is millions of times larger than my thumb.
Many Muslims are convinced that Islam is supported by a great deal of historical and scientific data. Christians are just as convinced that the evidence, when properly examined, points to Christianity. Muslims and Christians can’t both be right, so it seems that at least one of the groups is seeing something analogous to an optical illusion. Perhaps the evidence for Christianity is really no bigger than my thumb, while the mountain of evidence for Islam stands far off on the horizon. Or perhaps Islam, like the moon, is only able to eclipse the light of Christianity because Muslims see everything from an extremely biased position.
Historically, scores of arguments have been offered in support of Islam and Christianity. With the rise of skepticism in the West, this abundance of arguments has increased as both religious and secular belief systems have competed for the honor of being "The Most Reasonable System." Because there are so many arguments, interested seekers may sometimes get lost in the search, and the task of deciding between two competing systems may appear hopelessly difficult.
One possible way of cutting through this difficulty is to find the most persuasive argument for each of the systems in question and to analyze these arguments carefully. Thus, in order to compare the evidence for Islam and Christianity, our first step could be to examine the strongest argument for Islam, and to compare it with the strongest argument for Christianity. This technique presents us with something of a "showdown" between the world’s two greatest (according to the numbers) religious systems.
Islam’s central apologetic has always been the Qur’an. One of the most popular modern arguments for Qur’anic inspiration is its supposed scientific accuracy. This is a modern argument, however, and it is full of holes. For instance, Muhammad claimed (1) that stars are really missiles used by angels to shoot demons, (2) that human embryos go through a "blood clot" stage, (3) that people used to be 90 feet tall, (4) that the sun sets in a pool of murky water, and (5) that ants can talk. (For more on this topic, see "Talking Ants and Shrinking Humans.") Due to the abundant scientific inaccuracies in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the Muslim argument for scientific precision is unconvincing.
There is another argument for Qur’anic inspiration, however. Muslims sometimes claim that the Qur’an is so masterfully written, so brilliant and awe-inspiring in every detail, that it could only have come from God. Indeed, this argument comes from the Qur’an itself:
And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a chapter like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful.
And this Quran is not such as could be forged by those besides Allah, but it is a verification of that which is before it and a clear explanation of the book, there is no doubt in it, from the Lord of the worlds. Or do they say: He has forged it? Say: Then bring a chapter like this and invite whom you can besides Allah, if you are truthful.
Say: If men and jinn should combine together to bring the like of this Quran, they could not bring the like of it, though some of them were aiders of others.
In other words, if you can’t write something as good as a chapter of the Qur’an, you should quit doubting and accept it as the divine word of Allah. In my opinion, this is Islam’s strongest argument. Many Muslims may disagree, but since this is the argument that Muhammad himself used, Muslims should have great respect for it (i.e. Muslims should respect Muhammad’s reasoning more than their own). Additionally, as we can see from the verses just quoted, this is the argument that Muslims are commanded to use when the validity of Islam is challenged by unbelievers. If we assume that Muhammad was God’s greatest prophet, we can also assume that he knew which argument is Islam’s strongest.
In evaluating arguments it often helps to put them into the appropriate logical form. In the case of Islam (as in the case of Christianity), the central argument can be put into a syllogistic pattern known as modus ponens. When put into this pattern, Islam’s strongest argument becomes the following syllogism:
If unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an, then it must be from God.
Unbelievers can’t produce something equivalent to a chapter of the Qur’an.
Therefore, the Qur’an must be from God.
The syllogistic form of an argument is often helpful in that it allows us to investigate each of the premises individually so that we can know whether the conclusion has truly been established. Applying this method to the Muslim argument, we see just how poor the case for Islam really is. Consider the first premise: "If unbelievers can’t produce something equivalent to a chapter of the Qur’an, then it must be from God." Apparently, the Muslim criterion for determining divine inspiration in a text is the impressiveness of its literary style. Notice that this would be equivalent to saying, "If you can’t produce poems like T.S. Eliot, or plays like Shakespeare, or books like Charles Dickens, then you have to admit that these works come from God." Such a claim seems ludicrous, but this is exactly what Muslims maintain when it comes to the Qur’an.
The first premise of the Muslim argument, then, is false (unless we are open to the idea that all of the world’s great authors and poets received their works from God). There doesn’t seem to be a direct link between literary style and divine origin. Hence, since one of the premises of the Muslim argument is false (or, at the very least, impossible to establish), the entire argument is to be rejected.
The second premise is just as problematic. Premise two states that "Unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an." Many people have never so much as opened a Qur’an, so I will list four consecutive chapters here. (Yes, these chapters are extremely short.)
Surely We have given you Kausar, Therefore pray to your Lord and make a sacrifice. Surely your enemy is the one who shall be without posterity.
Say: O unbelievers! I do not serve that which you serve, Nor do you serve Him Whom I serve: Nor am I going to serve that which you serve, Nor are you going to serve Him Whom I serve: You shall have your religion and I shall have my religion.
When there comes the help of Allah and the victory, And you see men entering the religion of Allah in companies, Then celebrate the praise of your Lord, and ask His forgiveness; surely He is oft-returning (to mercy).
Perdition overtake both hands of Abu Lahab, and he will perish. His wealth and what he earns will not avail him. He shall soon burn in fire that flames, And his wife, the bearer of fuel, Upon her neck a halter of strongly twisted rope.
Here we have four of Muhammad’s Surahs, which, according to the Qur’an, should be far beyond anything else ever written. But is there anything miraculous here? Is there something so incredibly unique in these passages that any reasonable human being will be compelled to acknowledge their supernatural origin? No, there isn’t. These are words that could have been written by just about anyone. In fact, the most unique thing about these passages is that they are extraordinarily unimpressive (considering what is being claimed about them).
Muslims may respond here by arguing that these passages are English translations of the Qur’an, and that the miraculous nature of the Qur’an can only be seen in the original Arabic. However, this forces us to conclude that the Qur’an is only miraculous because of its literary style, not because of its content. The content and meaning of the Qur’an can be translated into other languages; literary style is more difficult to retain in translation. If the Qur’an is only exceptional in its style, and not in its meaning, then we are back to Shakespeare and Dickens. Why aren’t the works of other eloquent writers considered divinely inspired by Muslims?
Another problem with the Muslim response is that numerous works that are both meaningful and eloquent have been translated into English from other languages, and yet they retain these features. Consider the following chapter taken from the Bible. The Apostle Paul says:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Paul’s words are both beautiful and meaningful, even after being translated from the Greek. In fact, one could argue that this passage is superior to the chapters I quoted from the Qur’an, for it is far more meaningful, and it is eloquent even after translation. No Christian apologist would use this as an argument, however, since arguments based on literary style are inherently weak (as we have seen).
Thus, the legitimacy of Islam hangs primarily on a syllogism with two false premises. It is difficult to imagine how people could ever be convinced by such an argument, yet Islam has grown dramatically over the past thirteen centuries and is currently the second largest religion in the world. The largest is Christianity, which is founded on a different argument.
On numerous occasions, Jesus predicted that he would rise from the dead:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life."
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life."
Jesus also predicted his resurrection when his enemies challenged him to provide a sign:
Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
Jesus’ listeners later realized that the temple he spoke of was his body.
Additionally, the Apostle Paul used Jesus’ resurrection as proof of the Christian message. In Acts 17, Paul says that God "has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead." Putting this argument into logical form, we arrive at the following:
If Jesus rose from the dead, then his message was from God.
Jesus rose from the dead.
Therefore, his message was from God.
Whereas Muhammad argued that remarkable literary style is proof of divine inspiration, Jesus and Paul maintained that resurrection is proof of divine inspiration. The truth of the first premise of the Christian argument seems self-evident. One may object by pointing out that Jesus raised people from the dead, and that we don’t conclude that these people had messages from God. But this misses the point. Unlike the other people who were raised from death, Jesus made some extraordinary claims about himself, some of which are even granted by Muslims. Jesus also predicted that he would rise from the dead as proof of his claims, and his prediction came true. So the question for us is: "Would God raise a heretic from the dead?" I think Muslims and Christians would agree that he would not. Thus, if Jesus’ claims weren’t heresy, what were they? They must have been true. The first premise, then, makes sense in light of what we know about God.
This brings us to the second premise: "Jesus rose from the dead." Unlike the first premise, this one isn’t self-evident. Rather, it is a matter of historical investigation. The interesting thing is that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is exceptionally good. When it comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are a number of historical facts, which, when combined, can only be accounted for by Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead. Consider the following list of historical facts compiled by Dr. Gary Habermas:
(1) Jesus died due to the severity of crucifixion and (2) was then buried. (3) His death caused the disciples to lose hope and experience despair. (4) Although not recognized to the same degree as the other findings here, most scholars seem to hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was found empty just a few days later.
Critical scholars even acknowledge that (5) the disciples then had real experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. (6) These experiences transformed the disciples from apprehensive followers who were afraid to identify with Jesus into bold proclaimers of His death and resurrection, even being willing to die for this belief. (7) This resurrection message was central in early Christian preaching and (8) was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus had died shortly before.
Accordingly, (9) the Christian church was established and grew, (10) featuring Sunday as the primary day of worship. (11) James, the skeptical brother of Jesus, was converted when he believed he also saw the resurrected Jesus. (12) Saul of Tarsus, the famous persecutor of the church, became a Christian a couple of years later after an experience that he, similarly, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.
Almost all of the above facts are granted by nearly all scholars, regardless of theological background. Notice that, whereas the Muslim position cannot be reconciled with the facts of history, Christianity fits the facts perfectly. We could explore this issue much more thoroughly, but to do so would be beyond the scope of this article. The point to be made is that, whereas Islam’s best argument is based on two false premises, Christianity’s greatest claim is based on one self-evident premise and another premise that can be investigated historically. This means that we can know by a careful examination of the evidence whether Christianity is true. Yet Islam has absolutely nothing resembling such an argument. Therefore, anyone who is interested in having a system of belief that is supported by the evidence will have to consider Christianity, for the Christian faith, in declaring itself to be founded upon a historical event, has opened itself up for such investigation. Furthermore, those who are looking for a reasonable faith will certainly have to look somewhere besides Islam. Like it or not, Islam doesn’t have a strong argument in its ranks, and will therefore always lose in a showdown with Christianity.
When it comes to evidence, the resurrection of Jesus is the Mount Everest of apologetics. Muslims often ignore this evidence, but only because they are so close to Islam that Christianity seems small by comparison. Muslims are living on the Crescent Moon, and it seems large to them, much larger than the Son of God, whose blinding radiance fills the universe. Nevertheless, this optical illusion caused by Islamic perspective doesn’t change the facts. Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead, proving that the Christian message is true. Sadly, as the evidence for Christianity presses forward, many Muslims are racing away from the truth as quickly as they can. With the Qur’an in their passenger seats, they look at Jesus in their rearview mirrors and think, "Well, he’s not so big." They should be careful, however. OBJECTS IN MIRROR MAY BE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.
Muslim apologists offer several other problematic arguments in defense of Islam. For a response to the Muslim claim that the Bible talks about Muhammad, see “Muhammad in the Bible?” For a response to the argument from the “miraculous” spread of Islam, see “Don’t Lose Your Head!” For a response to Muslim arguments for the moral superiority of Muhammad, see “Islam Beheaded.” For a response to the argument for the preservation of the Qur’an, see “Textual Variants of the Qur’an.”
1 Qur’an 2:23. All Qur’an quotations are taken from The Holy Qur’an, M. H. Shakir, tr. (Elmhurst: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an Inc., 2002).
2 Ibid., 10:36-37.
3 Ibid., 17:88.
4 Modus ponens takes the following form:
If A, then B.
If it’s a cat, then it’s a mammal.
It’s a cat.
Therefore, it’s a mammal.
5 Qur’an, Surah 108.
6 Ibid., Surah 109.
7 Ibid., Surah 110.
8 Ibid., Surah 111.
9 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
10 For more on the supposed miraculous nature of the Qur’an see “Is the Qur’an Miraculous?”
11 Matthew 16:21. All Bible quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
12 Matthew 17:22-23.
13 Matthew 20:17-19.
14 John 2:18-19.
15 See John 2:21-22.
16 Acts 17:31.
17 Muslims grant that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he lived a sinless life, that he performed miracles, and that he was the Messiah.
18 Additionally, while Jesus raised other people from the dead, these weren’t really “resurrections.” A resurrection is a permanent event, in which God supernaturally raises a person for all eternity. In contrast, the people Jesus raised from death returned to their normal lives, later to die again.
19 Habermas, Gary, and Miethe, Terry, Why Believe? God Exists! (Joplin: College Press, 1998), p. 262-263. For a more complete treatment of the resurrection, see Habermas, Gary, and Licona, Michael, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004).