Book Review: The Gentle Answer
to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification
Gordon D Nickel
Bruton Gate, 2014 (2nd ed. 2015)
While the media reminds us daily of the challenge of resurgent Islam — not least to the secular West — as Christians we are reminded that Muslims represent the largest unreached people group - over one and a half billion people. Indonesia, our near neighbour, has over 200 million adherents of Islam.
Despite the awfulness of what has been done to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere, we need to remind ourselves that we have more in common with Muslims than with the secular humanism that is now the dominant worldview of our culture. With Muslims, we believe in one sovereign Creator whose judgement we all face. Muslims too, honour Jesus as the greatest prophet before Muhammed. They believe he was born of a virgin, that he lived a sinless life, and that he will be a key figure in the final judgement.
There are, however, fundamental differences: most obviously in the understanding of the unity of God; in the understanding of the person and work of Jesus; in the diagnosis of the human plight, and, of course, Islam offers no saviour. These differences are rooted in a different understanding of revelation.
That is the issue addressed in Professor Gordon Nickel’s book. Both Christians and Muslims claim their respective holy books to be the Word of God. Muslims believe the text of the Qu’ran was inerrantly received and transmitted. The angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Qu’ran to Muhammed and what was recorded has been perfectly preserved to the present.
However, Muslims deny the reliability of the Bible, firstly because they say human authorship is not compatible with divine inspiration, and secondly because the text has been corrupted in transmission. Worse still, Muslim polemic regularly claims that the text of the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets and the Gospel has been deliberately changed, not least to obscure the identity of God’s final messenger, Muhammed.
This is where Dr. Gordon Nickel comes to our aid with his scholarly The Gentle Answer to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification. Dr Nickel’s book sets out to answer in particular, the fierce accusations found in an influential Arabic work, first published in 1864, namely the Izhar al Haqq (which translates as “Demonstration of Truth”) by Rahmat Allah Kairanwi.
The book, which draws heavily on 19th century liberal biblical scholarship, has continued to provide ammunition for Muslim polemicists, not least in the subcontinent, through its Urdu translation.
In answering the charge that Jews and Christians have falsified the Bible, Dr Nickel makes many helpful points. Firstly, he establishes that the Qu’ran itself makes no such claim. Rather it speaks of the earlier Scriptures with great respect. Secondly, this respect for both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels is echoed by the earliest Muslim commentators. Their criticism is of the Jews of Medina who failed to recognize the Messenger of Islam, despite the promise of his coming.
With regard to the charge of a corrupt transmission of the Biblical text, Dr. Nickel cites the remarkable discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) which shows that the Hebrew Scriptures have been transmitted faithfully since the second century BC. Likewise with regard to the New Testament documents, the abundance of manuscript evidence exceeds anything that Muslims can show for the Qu’ran or for the subsequent biographies of Muhammed.
Moreover, Dr Nickel is able to cite many earlier exegetes of the Qu’ran who spoke frankly of the incompleteness of the Qu’ran and of the lack of unanimity concerning its interpretation. With regard to the reliability of the Qu’ranic text in current use, the scrutiny applied to the Bible’s transmission is avoided.
In the final section of The Gentle Answer, Section 4 (Chs. 19-24), the author deals with the central truths found in the trustworthy Bible, truths which Muslims deny — about Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: the suffering Servant King foreshadowed by the Prophet Isaiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Messianic Son of God, and the promised Holy Spirit. These are the teachings which provide the raw data for the doctrine of the Trinity — one God in three persons.
Much debate between Muslims and Christians has been characterised by fierce hostility, not least from the Muslim side. The Gentle Answer invites Muslims into a mutually respectful conversation based on the contents of Qu’ran and the Bible. I commend to you this scholarly but accessible book as a very useful resource for sharing Christ with Muslims and for answering the objections which are commonly raised. Professor Nickel fulfils his stated aim expressed in 1 Peter 3:15-16:
“In your hearts reverence the Messiah as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in the Messiah may be put to shame.”
Bishop A.H. (Tony) Nichols, WA