Thursday, 26 September 2013

Response to CaptainDisguise's post about verse 4:82

The original article can be accessed here.

Here's Abdel Haleem's translation of verse 4:82 of the Qur'an:

Will they not think about this Qur'an? If it had been from anyone other than God, they would have found much inconsistency in it.

CaptainDisguise (hereafter, CD)'s argument can be summarized thus:

1. 4:82 to claims that any text which is not from God would contain inconsistency or error
2. It is possible to produce non-Divine texts without inconsistencies or error
3. Therefore, 4:82 is wrong.

I have two overlapping responses to this argument, both responses take issue with premise 1 above.

Response 1. The verse's meaning does not have to be restricted to external/internal contradictions alone.

Crucially, CD's argument seems to rest on the assumption that 4:82 is only talking about external contradictions (Qur'an contradicting with extra-Qur'anic facts) and internal (Qur'an containing internal factual inconsistensies) contradictions. Given that rendition of the verse, it's understandable why premise 2 above would be uncontroversial. However, there is no reason to restrict the challenge of 4:82 only to these two classes of inconsistency. Since the Qur'an itself doesn't place any restrictions on what kind of consistency it characterizes that no other text does, it is not improbable that the Qur'an was talking about a different kind of consistency altogether, one that cannot be feasibly achieved by non-Divine means.

As an example, some apologists have argued for a specific type of linguistic consistency that the Qur'an displays which would have been impossible to maintain by a human being. A more precise formulation would look somewhat like this:

4. Were the Qur'an a human product, we would expect the ups and downs of the life of its purported author (Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) to be reflected in its literature.
5. The Qur'an's literature is consistent throughout, and no level of correlation can be established between its themes and the Prophet's life's events.
6. Therefore, the Qur'an is not a human product.

Here's one way how this argument can be tested: isolate the Surahs which were revealed during the periods of the Prophet's life when he experienced extreme grief (through, say, the loss of a loved one). Then see if these Surahs are significantly different from the remainder of the Qur'an (for example, if they are of a gloomier nature). If not, then this makes it less probable that the Qur'an was a human product. With the accumulation of such evidences, one may reach a point where it would be more plausible to conclude that the Qur'an is not a human product that to conclude that it is.

That's just one possible formulation of the challenge of 4:82, doubtless others can be constructed as well. Another example from the top of my head: the Qur'an was equivocating between "consistency" and "perfection of theology". The fact that any non-Divine book will demonstrate a less than perfect theology renders it inconsistent in this sense. The Qur'an, however, contains the perfect theology, and hence it's consistent. One would need a host of other premises to establish this conclusion, however. If either of these two "consistency" arguments are consistent (no pun intended) with 4:82- and CD has given us no reason to think otherwise- then CD's conclusion doesn't follow.

This leads us to my next response.

Response 2. The verse's challenge is only specific to a text produced in the context of the Qur'an

Even if we understand "inconsistencies" to mean external and internal inconsistencies, notice that it's not clear if the verse entails premise 1 i.e. it's impossible for any old non-Divine text to contain inconsistencies. Rather, it's talking about a more precise counterfactual- on the event that this Qur'an was constructed by someone else it would contain inconsistencies- meaning, given the specific contexts of the Qur'an's revelation and given the range of topics it covers- it would be impossible to avoid error. This could be construed as a variant of the popular scientific/historical miracles argument- the author of the Qur'an, if human, simply had no way of knowing some of the things it talks about e.g. future events, Judaeo-Christian narratives, scientific/historical facts, and so on. On such a counterfactual, it would be exceedingly probable that the Qur'an would contain external and internal errors. The fact that it doesn't, tells us the source of this information is Divine.

Now whether the Qur'an is consistent in either of these ways is of course debatable, the way things are looking we would never get to agree on much about religion anyways. But the specific claim of CD- that 4:82 is wrong- doesn't seem to hold water.

Further thoughts

As regards response 1, I don't think we can blame CD that much for construing the verse's interpretation in that restricted way. After all, it was the Muslim apologists themselves who popularized it, without adequately qualifying the nature of the challenge. Many reasons can be given for this. First, one of the problems of current Muslim apologetics is the implicit "Islam is true because Christianity is false" approach. An apologist who works with this assumption in mind would expect all pro-Islamic argument to be judged in contrast to how Christianity has lived up to that challenge. So when the Muslim apologist talks about Qur'an containing no inconsistencies, there are chances that she is expecting you to judge the merit of this claim while keeping in mind that Biblical inerrancy is outdated (at least the more radical versions of it). Seen in that context, the Qur'an's claim of having no inconsistencies does seem impressive- miraculous, even. This, of course, doesn't justify the apologist's position, but that's one psychological explanation of where the Muslim apologist is coming from.

CD also tangentially talks about the Qur'an's ambiguity near the beginning of his post. It's indeed true that the Qur'an- especially when talking about natural phenomenon- almost as a rule of thumb speaks in open, multifaceted language. The Muslims wouldn't say this is a flaw, for a number of reasons. First, these appeals to natural phenomena are meant to be a vehicle of the original message and not the message itself, and hence it's understandable that the Qur'an speaks about them in allusive, non-precise terms. Second, the Qur'an is not a chronicle of scientific or historical facts, rather it's a literary piece, and so it's understandable why a degree of flexibility would characterize it. For example, literature almost invariably appeals to human phenomenology- and Qur'anic passages are no exception; so phenomenological interpretations may be warranted of verses that talk about the motion of the celestial bodies (not implying the literal readings are untrue, however). Third, the openness of the Qur'anic language is consistent with Muslim theology. The Qur'an isn't meant for people of any given time or place, and hence to reach its addressees across space and time and civilization- it may contain multi-layered expressions, the idea being different expressions would appeal to different minds. Muslim apologist Hamza Tzortzis, in his recent essay, defends this understanding of Qur'anic verses that concern natural phenomena.

Bassam Saeh makes the following comments on the Qur'an's open language in his essay:

The Qur’an surpassed the poetry and literary language of the age in which it was revealed. Thus, it brought the Arabs a new language that could respond meaningfully to the changes through time, continuing events, differing personalities and the development of human thought, culture and science and their associated discoveries over the centuries. Therefore, people living in different times, places and surroundings are able to take from the Qur’an whatever they are able to grasp, given their particular cultures, needs, levels of understanding and ways of thought and whatever is suitable for the age and location in which they live. Meanwhile, no conflict arises between the message and overall spirit of the Qur’an and Islam and these people’s levels of understanding, whatever their disparity.
The numerous discoveries being made in the Qur’an’s astonishing compatibility with modern scientific knowledge and its insights into the physical realities of the universe—insights that had remained hidden for long centuries within the recesses of the Qur’an’s open, multifaceted language—are only one fruit of this distinctive linguistic feature of this Book.

So the open language ("spectacular ambiguity", in CD's terms) of the Qur'an isn't necessarily a flaw on its part. However, I would sympathize with CD's view if he meant that Muslims on one hand pose a naive challenge using 4:82, but takes shelter in the Qur'an's ambiguity when any such attempt is made. Given the literary style of the Qur'an, there really isn't much prospect of falsifying Islam based on external or internal contradictions, as I argue here. This also means such a falsification challenge is uninteresting and doesn't help the Muslim apologist's case.

Since no specific interpretation of 4:82 can be given, does it mean the Qur'anic challenge is meaningless?

As I argued above, some interpretations of 4:82 are uninteresting, while some others show promise. As long as an interesting interpretation of 4:82 can be reasonably maintained (in other words, as long as Islam has evidential value), the Qur'anic challenge would persist. The Qur'anic challenge would become meaningless if and only if Islam loses all its evidential value. This is precisely what I argue here and here.

Or we could argue that the specific challenge of 4:82 was only applicable for the Quraysh. But that's no fun.

Update: Someone seems to have already addressed CD's argument here. The brother is making the same argument I did under response #2.

2 comments:

  1. Hello there,

    I thank you for your thought-out response. This is the first response where my argument, at the very least, was captured accurately (more or less).

    I am in the process of updating my argument for a different blog and that is how I came upon your post. I will be sure to link and address your post (or any future ones on the topic) in my updated version.

    I do believe that your 1st counter-argument is erroneous and that the 2nd counter-argument is erroneous and fallacious. However, I do find myself in agreement over some of the larger points made in the 'Further Thoughts' section. I can also appreciate the thought that went into your 1st counter-argument. I will be sure to check out your other posts as well since your approach is rather refreshing.

    If you don't mind, could you change the initial hyperlink to the following address to my post (plus comments) rather than the RationalIslam blog;
    http://captaindisguise.blogspot.com/2013/02/qurans-error-sura-482-if-quran-had-been.html

    Thank you again. I will be sure to inform you when my new post is up on the topic.

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    Replies
    1. Hey there CD (looks like we're in the presence of celebrity!),

      I am grateful for your kind comments, and as requested I changed the hyperlink. I'll definitely check out the updated version of your argument once you share it. I should give you a little warning about my blog though: it's just what the title suggests it is, my thoughts and reflections. As such, the posts may often come out to be incoherent, or multiple posts may be in contradiction with each other. This is because I often revise, revamp, or even completely alter my old views based on new knowledge that I acquire, without giving fair warning to the blog readers (because they don't exist anyways). An example of this would be my views on human evolution, in the older posts I was very enamored by the creation model suggested by the Reasons to Believe ministry (Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross), but after doing more reading of the contemporary evolutionary literature I've changed my views substantially.

      Also, the range of topics I write on is very narrow- arguments for God's existence, evolution, and perhaps reason-revelation reconciliation at times.

      Thanks again for visiting!
      Regards
      Hassan

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