Regular readers of this blog may have noticed I have recently had a propensity to discuss medieval Christian apologists. I must confess that I have been intrigued by the subject, and engaged in a little research into the area. While there are overarching themes within their writings that bear similarity to today, those observations must wait until later articles. For now, I wanted to comment on another interesting argument put forward by an early Arab Christian thinker.
One of the earliest apologists who engaged Islam with a systematic approach was Theodore Abu Qurrah. There is some dispute about the particulars of Abu Qurrah’s life. What is known for sure is that he lived in the eighth century, was fluent in Arabic, and resided in Muslim occupied lands during the Abbasid dynasty. Born in Edessa and serving for a time in the Mar Sabas monastery, It is believed that his work was likely the first Christian work to be written in Arabic.
Abu Qurrah’s main thrust was that the use of reason was enough to determine which religion was the correct one. While he has written an entire systematic treatise, one of the more unique analogies had to do with how to identify which view of God was the correct one. Abu Qurrah proposes that a truly wise and just God would send a messenger to humanity to carry His message to us. Of course false messengers would likely arise claiming to be God’s spokesmen as well. The problem for us would be to determine which of the many individuals claiming to be God’s messengers would be the genuine, and which were imposters. In order to do so, Abu Qurrah proposed the following allegory.
A king sent his son on a long journey. The king also sent along a wise physician to be with the son should trouble arise. As it happened, the lad did take ill. When the king heard the news, he sent a courier to the physician with the correct remedy. However, many of the king’s enemies also caught wind of the son’s illness, and sent their own messengers, each with phony remedies. Their intent was to exacerbate the ailment by providing fake medicine. The problem for the wise physician was to ascertain which messenger was the correct one, and which messengers had nefarious intentions. His solution was rather straightforward. He asked each of the envoys to describe the illness in detail for which they had brought the cure. The one who was correctly able to identify the symptoms would be the one who had true knowledge of the original report of the son’s sickness. Abu Qurrah concludes the allegory,
And when among them there was only one description to bear a resemblance to him, the document in which it occurred would be the one in which there was the true description of his illness and the beneficial remedy. [i]
The allegory is rather obvious. The true messenger of God is the one who can accurately describe humanity’s problem that only God can solve. So how does the Qur’an compare to the Bible when laying out our condition before the application of God’s remedy? Jesus says that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5) and that until we are born again of the spirit, we cannot ever enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5-6). The Bible has much more to say about this (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 5:12). According to the Bible, our sickness is unable to be overcome through our own power, that is, the disease of sin is inherent to our being. Islam, on the other hand, states that our problem is just one of weakness or forgetfulness. (Qur’an 39:8;20:115) Islam teaches that we are all born Muslim (Qur’an 30:30), and it is our parents that lead us astray. [ii]
So which is correct? Are we born with propensity to evil or with the true religion of God in our hearts that gets corrupted by others? Perhaps parents can answer this question best. Do parents teach their children to steal toys from other children, or do parents try to teach children to share because their natural tendency is otherwise? Which word does a child learn first, “yours” or “mine”? Do children tend to act selfishly, focusing on their own needs, or do they typically act selflessly, first considering the needs of others before their own?
As the king’s physician, we must honestly diagnose the human heart’s problem in order to recognize whether Jesus or Muhammad brings the right remedy.