How does the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, compare and contrast with the Bible? What does it teach about sin, salvation, Jesus, and the possibility of knowing God personally? And what can Christians learn by reading the Qur’an about how to better love their Muslim neighbors? In this episode, Sean and Scott tackle these questions and more with Dr. Matthew Bennett.
Matthew Aaron Bennett is an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University. He has more than seventeen years of intercultural ministry experience, including leadership and teaching in majority Muslim contexts. His latest book is The Qur'an and the Christian.
Sean McDowell: How does the Quran, the Muslim Holy Book, compare and contrast with the Bible? What does the Quran teach about sin, salvation, Jesus and the possibility of knowing God personally? And what can we learn by reading the Quran about how to better love our Muslim neighbors? Our guest today, Dr. Matthew Bennett, has written a new book called The Quran and the Christian, he's not only engaged in missions with Muslims, but also has done a lot of academic work and hence we're really excited to get into his book. I'm your host, Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Ray.
Sean McDowell: This is Think Biblically, a podcast brought to you by Talbot School Theology, Biola University. Matthew, let's just jump right in before we get to the book. Where does your heart for Muslims and your interest in Islam come from?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, well first off, just let me say thank you for having me on the program here, it's a real joy and a privilege. But as it comes to thinking about Muslims and where my life intersected with the Islamic world, it really was part of the Lord calling my wife and I to be open to missions and specifically targeting the places where it seems as though the gospel has had the least amount of traction and there's the least amount of access. Which oftentimes does tend to put you right in the center of the Islamic world and so that's where we found ourselves somewhere around 2011.
Scott Rae: So I guess Matthew, tell us a little bit more just specifically as a Christian, how do you approach trying to understand a book like the Quran?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, I think just looking at the world and looking at the huge number of Muslims that are present in the contemporary world, it's important to consider if we're going to be good global neighbors to people from all over the world in a heavily globalized scenario. We really need to understand some of the factors that are shaping a worldview and shaping the way that our neighbors are going to consider what is right, good, true, and admirable. And the Quran stands at the center of the Islamic worldview. It really promotes and shapes not only the concept of God, but even the way that language is used. And so I think as you want to approach your Muslim neighbor out of an effort to share the gospel with them and to get them to understand who Jesus truly is, you have to consider from their perspective where are they starting from. And the Quran gives you a good window into some of those formative, foundational elements of an Islamic worldview.
Scott Rae: Now, Matthew, I noticed your approach though is a little bit different than what we've read from other folks who are trying to do apologetics to Muslims and to Islam. Where I think a lot of the approaches that we see are people who are trying to emphasize the differences in the dichotomies between the Quran and the Bible. But you start in a different place and trying to establish some sort of common ground between things that the Bible and the Quran actually share in common. Why do you take that different approach?
Matthew Bennett: Well, I'd say there's a little bit of a yes and no to that. On one hand, there's a lot of things that as you read through the Quran, or actually more likely as you have an interface with a Muslim neighbor, that you're going to see some similarity of concepts, values, ethics, even characters that are going to share some apparent similarity with one another. And so I think it's right for us to recognize that our Muslim friends are pretty well convinced that we do share that common ground. But I actually think that those places of common ground that present themselves, at least at a superficial level, can be really prime opportunities for us to scratch beneath the surface and expose the fact that, no in fact, there's some significant underlying differences that do stand on different worldview level foundations. And if we're going to love our Muslim neighbors, I think we actually do an injustice to stand on what appears to be common ground when in all reality, the foundation beneath that common ground is pretty hollow. So while I think it's important to call attention to some of those similarities, shared characters, shared ethics, and so forth. I think that the more that you investigate and you ask your Muslim neighbor to extrapolate on who is this Abraham character that so many people say we share? You begin to see, "Oh, there's some significant differences not only in the character, but in what role in the broader story the character plays when he features in Islam versus when he features in the scriptures." And so on one hand, yes, I want to be attentive to those places that are going to present themselves as common ground, but I also don't want to be naively accepting of the fact that a Muslim neighbor is saying, "Oh, we believe in the same thing." I want to press beyond that and get to some gospel opportunities as we expose those differences.
Sean McDowell: We're going to get into some of those similarities and differences in terms of salvation, Jesus, the figure of Abraham, et cetera. But first, I read the Quran probably maybe 10, 12 years ago, and I expected it to be like the Bible, and I got into it and thought, "Whoa, this is very different, especially in terms of the organization and its nature." So as you point out in your book, the first verses of the Quran chronologically given are in Surah Chapter 96, the last are in Surah Chapter five. So what does that tell us about the organization and nature of the Quran?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, it's worth noting that even as we assign what are the first and the last verses, some of that is not something that's self evident in the Quran and its text alone. But rather we're leaning on later Islamic sources to discern, "Hey, which one of these came first?" But the simple fact that tradition identifies the first verses with the last fifth of the book, beginning in Surah 96 rather than something like a Genesis 1:1 that starts off the story for us. That does tell us something about the organization, and that is that it is not interested in presenting a chronological history. It's not interested in sketching God's interactions in specific moments in history that can be mapped onto world events or can be archeologically discerned.` But rather it's presenting a message that has a different purpose than giving us a vision for how life on the horizons of this planet has been intersected by the one who brought this planet into being. It ends up being that as you're picking up the Quran to read it, you're going to encounter much more of a set of principles and instructions, warnings about coming judgment, and illusions to historical events. But really none of the data or details that would help you to situate yourself historically, or chronologically, or within a slowly unraveling narrative.
Scott Rae: So would it be fair to say that it's mostly didactic, mostly direct teaching, commands, warnings? As opposed to narrative stories, parables, anything like we might see in the narrative parts of the scripture?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, there's a lot of direct command, a lot of direct warning, and it's housed in almost a poetic type approach. Most of our Muslim friends are going to reject the label of poetry as a genre of writing. But there are poetic elements in terms of the language that is intentionally a little bit flexible in terms of what it's referring to. There's oftentimes a rhyme to it in the Arabic, anyway. And so there's elements to it that make it really in some ways difficult to discern for somebody who's picking up the Quran and expecting it to read the Bible. However, the things that are clearest are those clear injunctions that are peppered throughout. This is what you are to believe. Believe there is only one God. You should not assign partners to this God. You need to remember the instructions that this God has given to you. You need to submit your will and follow his guidance lest you fall to the judgment that is yet to come. And so it's alterations between commands and warnings. That's the bulk of the Quran.
Sean McDowell: We've got two more questions for you before we jump into some of the specific similarities and differences in the Quran. Maybe share with our audience according to the traditional narrative, how Mohammed received the Quran.
Matthew Bennett: Yeah. So some of the Islamic apologetic framework really rests on the fact that Mohamed was thought to be either illiterate or uneducated, depending on which traditions you follow and that he was somebody who could not have produced the Quran, something of this value and magnitude on his own as a result of this. Therefore, the encounter with this revelation was something that truly had celestial origins. So the traditional account says that Muhammad was known as somebody who would oftentimes retire into the desert in order to fast, and pray, and seek the one true God who he knew to be there. And that somewhere around 610 AD he entered a specific cave in the desert in order to engage in one of these periods of fasting. And at that point, he was encountered by an angelic messenger who choked him and told him to recite. He was confused. This happened three times. He said, "I don't know what to recite." And following that, the pages of the Quran began to be revealed to him via this angelic messenger. He then committed those passages to memory, and then after a little bit of time becoming convinced that this was an encounter with his prophetic calling. He began teaching this to his followers, who then likewise committed its memory and then started writing it down over time on various things that were at hand. Later on then in Islamic history, some say before Muhammad died, others say it was actually after he died, there was a bringing together of all of these materials and a recognition of what composes the Quran that the young Islamic community ratified. As they said, "This is the Quran, this is the order it goes in. These are the verses, and these are the exact words that were delivered to Muhammad orally and which he delivered them to us."
Scott Rae: So Matthew, let me just take this in a little bit different direction here. I suspect some of our listeners might be curious and even a little skeptical about the value of Christians reading the Quran in the first place. We have one of our friends, the late Nabil Koreshi apologist, former Muslim. He came out pretty strongly suggesting that Christians shouldn't read the Quran. How would you respond to that? Then what would you say to the thinking Christian who is seriously wondering, "What is the value for me to read the Quran?"
Matthew Bennett: Yeah. Well, first to anybody who might be inclined to say, "I don't feel good in my conscience about reading this material because I believe this to be of demonic origins." Or something of that nature, I would not encourage anyone to violate their conscience in order to take up the Quran and read. So I want to at least preface my comments with that. At the same time, I think that there's no better way for us to access the formative baseline of our Muslim friends' worldview than to read the text that lies at the center of their understanding of how they know how to relate to God. So for me as a Christian to pick up the Quran and read it, in my mind is an act of demonstrating love to my neighbor to say, "I want to take the time to understand how you see the world, and I want to take up and read this book that is so formative and important to you." So I think just on a very low level, practical level, I think that it's helpful in your conversations with your Muslim friends to have been able to say, "I've read the Quran, I've worked through it." On the other hand though, I think the more important thing, and maybe where Nabil would be warning a Christian picking up the Quran thinking that it's going to be like the Bible. Is that it's going to read almost like reading through the Proverbs and doing so in a way that's translated from seventh century Arabic poetry. It's going to be an agitating process for a Christian to pick up and read, and you're not necessarily going to walk away saying, "Oh, I understand what it means." The thing is, most Muslims don't necessarily read the Quran for that purpose either. They don't have the traditions in Islam of setting up an idyllic scene with a open Quran and a steaming how cup of coffee. And Instagramming it and saying, "This is my quiet time here in the morning." They're reading it because they believe this is the exact word of God given to humanity. And what their task and duty is to commit it to memory and not necessarily to wrestle with its implications. Still, I think the most important reason that I would say Christians should be reading the Quran is that there's so many places where it's going to use language that we need to use in order to clearly and biblically share the gospel. But as we see it in the Quranic context, we're also going to begin discerning the ways that the Quran uses that same language differently than the Bible does. And therefore, we are going to need to do some extra work in explaining the gospel to our Muslim friends because when we use this language, assuming it to be freighted with biblical meaning, it's actually already been freighted with Quranic meaning. And we're going to need to be able to do that work to identify where words don't mean the same thing, even though they're the shared word. In order to make sure that we're clearly communicating the gospel.
Sean McDowell: Well, let's do a little bit of that work right now. I appreciated this line in your book where you said, "The teachings of the Quran cannot be reconciled with a biblical gospel without doing violence to both. So similar words, but very different meaning underneath them." So share with us what does the Quran teach about sin and how we experience forgiveness?
Matthew Bennett: So even going back to the original fall, I think we can see that there's something of a distinct category that Islam has for what sin is, what it has caused, and how it is remedied. There's a section that talks about the fall where Adam and his wife are in a peridiscal garden. There's a tree similar to what we see in Genesis. And Satan character comes along and we're not given many details, but we're told that the Satan causes them to slip from that place to fall basically. God comes into the picture and he directly addresses them saying, "I need you to go down from here to the earth, basically for a time of testing." And Adam and his wife and the Satan character are cast down from a heavenly paradise to an earthly dwelling. Immediately following that fall though, it says that God sent certain words to Adam, Adam received them and repented, and there was a sense of resolution immediately present there. So when our Muslim friends are thinking about sin, they're also coming to the concept of sin with some fundamental differences in terms of their doctrine of God and their doctrine of man. God in Islam is wholly removed, wholly other, wholly transcendent. So the idea that God would have any sort of a meaningful or intimate relationship with his creation, even with his human creatures, is not really something that the Quran is after. Likewise, humanity as creatures are necessarily imperfect, and our imperfect imperfections have manifested from the very beginning as weakness in memory and weakness in will. Therefore, as the Satan character comes along in this garden, causes them to slip, he's basically preying on their weakness of memory. They forget the ways of God and their weakness of will. That they are oftentimes wayward and bent inward on themselves, and so they slip from there. But that's not necessarily something that ruptures a relationship between God and man because frankly, there isn't any relationship apart from the creature as slave, the creator, as master. So that doesn't change anything. And the solution that's offered is not something that requires redemption, or restoration, or a radical removal of sin in its effects. Rather it's a reminder, these certain words come from God, Adam receives them, repents of his own volition and his own capacities, and resolution occurs. And so that's kind of the concept of sin is that it's a mistake, but it's a mistake that's sort of inevitable on the basis of being an imperfect creature. And it's a mistake that doesn't cause any sort of fundamental rupture between a creator and the creation in the way that it does in scripture.
Scott Rae: So let's take this a little bit further then. What does the Quran teach about Jesus?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, so in some ways that previous conversation sets up a little bit of the what does it teach about salvation and what is needed for salvation? And then how does Jesus relate to that? If the human condition is such that sin is largely construed as forgetting God's ways, then the primary need that we have is not a redeemer or a savior, but rather it's a reminder. We need to be reminded and recalled to the ways of God. We need to have our wills bent in submission to the one true way that he's made clear. We need to be guided. The Quran itself actually uses that language to refer to itself. It's a book of reminder and it's a book of guidance. These are common ways that the Quran refers to what it is. So the solution then to the human problem is a reminder, not a savior, which then affects obviously the conception of Jesus within the Quran. Jesus doesn't need to be anything different than any of the prophets that have come before them. In fact, the message of all of the prophets from Adam who's considered a prophet in the Quran, all the way through to Muhammad, is one sustained message that there is only one God. There are no partners or persons assigned to him. And that submission to him and remembering his way is what humans are for. Therefore, in the life that we are given, we are being tested as to whether or not we're going to remember God's way, or we're going to forget. We're going to submit ourselves to him or not. So Jesus comes along and the Quran praises Jesus. He is the second most important prophet in all of his Islam. But they don't have any concept of sin that ruptures a relationship between God and man and needs to be repaired. They simply have a concept of those who need to be informed. So a prophet is sufficient. Jesus then suffices as yet another prophet calling out this same message that's been consistently proclaimed from Adam through to Muhammad. The Jesus character, lots of details in it, but this is actually one that I would say is most crucial for us to identify the differences. Because on one hand, when we're looking for common ground, goodness, what other world religions have a Jesus character that pre presents itself as common ground? This should be really great. Right? But when you look at who Jesus is in the Quran, he's not just a prophet. But he is one who actually is a prophet who says that he's pointing forward to a character who will come and provide the final revelation. A character named Ahmed, another name for Mohammed. Likewise, he avoids the cross in the Quran. The Jews come to crucify him. Traditions, say that he goes into his disciples and he offers them the opportunity to be made to look like him and to be crucified in his place, to have the dignity of dying for their master. One of his disciples is made to look like him and crucified in his place while God assumes Jesus to the heavenly. So that a prophet of God would not have the indignity of being hung naked on a cross. So the Jesus of the Qyran doesn't from the cross proclaim it is finished as he accomplishes salvation, and redemption, and atonement, but instead he avoids the cross completely and points to Muhammad as the one who's coming with what we need. So the Jesus character is actually, this isn't too strong, he's an anti-Christ in many ways-
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Matthew Bennett: In the Quran.
Sean McDowell: ... That's a powerful way to put it. And I think it's really helpful. You walk through figures like Moses and Abraham and Jesus and show how there's some commonality with Judeo-Christian traditions, but a radical reinterpretation in light of Islamic theology. Now, your book is not an apologetics book, but you intersect with certain apologetic questions that I thought was fascinating. For example, you point out how the Quran has significant differences with the biblical text. And one you unpack is the conflation of Miriam Moses's sister, of course, in the Exodus account with Mary, the mother of Jesus in the New Testament. On the surface it seems to get that data wrong. How do Muslim scholars address these kinds of differences?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, so there's a variety of different answers within the Islamic scholarship. Some will say, "Well, the shared names shouldn't be taken to be a conflation of character. Maybe these are characters that have a similar name like Miriam that existed at the same time. And we shouldn't necessarily have to take it as Moses' wife or sister. And so there's some of those approaches. But I think more fundamentally, it's a convention of the way that the Quran is presenting its material that just radically differs from the biblical account. In that it's not intending to give us a chronology. It's actually functioning, maybe I think a good analog for the way that the Quran presents itself is like Jewish midrash. Where there's a linking of otherwise unrelated parts of scripture in order to create a new meaning. So it's not trying to say these things happened in history and it's wrinkling time and bringing things that are otherwise chronologically remote from one another into into relationship. But actually it's saying, "We're going to lift these things from their historical setting, bring them together in a fresh and creative way, and try to give some new teaching from it." In the book, I used the analogy of how different a mosaic is from a jigsaw puzzle, and I kind of said in a situation with a jigsaw puzzle, I recognize the Bible as playing this role, that there's a picture that is being revealed as you bring the pieces into being into relationship with one another that preexist their connection to one another. It's something that's native to the parts that is when it's completed, going to give a display of the picture it was intended to. \So as you place Jesus in the center of the puzzle as the last piece, the whole picture comes into clarity. The Quran, I think, functions less like a jigsaw puzzle and almost more like a mosaic. Where you're taking pieces, maybe pieces of glass that have been broken apart, they've come disconnected from their original condition. And there's some sort of an artist or a compiler who is bringing these otherwise unrelated pieces together and creating a picture from things that the picture that will be produced is not necessarily native to the pieces that you're using. And I think what the Quran is doing oftentimes is it's taking different characters that might illustrate a certain character flaw, or something that's a virtue, and they're bringing them into relationship with one another in order to illustrate something that the Quran then will instruct in a more didactic way. A way to avoid functioning like those who don't believe the unbelievers or to emulate those who have been faithful in their submission to God. And so when we see these apparent chronological inconsistencies, I think that's demanding something of the Quran that the Quran doesn't intend to portray. And if we're going to understand what it intends to say, we need to be less interested in reading it like history and more interested in trying to say, "Why is it bringing these characters into relationship with one another and how does that relate to its instructions.
Scott Rae: So Matthew, let me take you in into my neighborhood for a minute. I've got one of my neighbors lives across the street from me. He's about my age. He's grew up in the Middle East, is Muslim. So as I read your book, I was thinking pretty consistently, "How would I use the Quran to talk to my neighbor across the street about the Gospel of Christ?" And the reason, what was so puzzling to me, is that usually in the way we present the gospel to people, we begin with the idea of having a relationship to God. Which is, from what I understand from reading your book is a non-starter for most Muslims. So the place where we would begin presenting the gospel is almost entirely self defeating. Help our listeners and help me as I engage with my neighbor. Who we have, we have very warm, friendly relationship. But let's say that I take the time and the energy to work through the Quran and understand it. But how should I use that knowledge of the Quran to better engage my neighbor?
Matthew Bennett: Yeah, there's a number of different ways this could go. First off, I'd say on one hand the idea that we were made for a relationship with the one whose image we bear is it's not a categorical expectation that our Muslim friends have. But I wouldn't say it's a non-starter. Because I think that there's a sense in which if we read along with scripture and we believe with Ecclesiastes is that eternity has been placed in our hearts. And that we bear the image of God and that there's something within us that does yearn for that relationship. I would say that the fact that they don't have that concept is actually really advantageous to us. In that we can tease that out, we can press into that and say, "Don't you think that if there is a all wise, all powerful God who created this world, that there would be something that he wants from it? That there would be something in which he's actually meaningfully engaged with it? And that he intends to have more of a relationship with us than just this disimpassioned observer of human activity? And I actually think that provoking that a natural longing that does rest somewhere in their hearts is a helpful thing for us to do in conversation with our Muslim neighbors. Because then when that desire is awakened and that sense of knowing that they really don't have a compelling answer to the question, why does anything exist? If they don't have a God who longs to exist in relationship with it. That I think then you can show, the faith that you're following doesn't have a category for that thing that is deeply seated within your heart. So it's in some sense in that they don't necessarily have a place in the Quran or in Islamic theology, at least Orthodox Islam. Some of the Sufi traditions would have much more of a willingness to say, "Yes, we do have a relationship with God." But Islam doesn't provide a logical or even ritual expectation for how a created thing can commune with the creator. There's another way you ask the question of how do we use the Quran? I'm actually pretty reticent to use the Quran in evangelism. There's been a number of different ways that people have proposed that we can bridge from the Quran and into the scriptures. I think most of the time that's dangerous because in some ways you end up granting the Quran some level of at least provisional authority in bridging that. If you say like, "Oh, the Quran says this, so you should do this." That kind of grants more authority to the Quran than I really want to do. I would say why should a Christian read the Quran in order to share the gospel with their Muslim friends? Would just be to be able to ask some informed questions. To say, "Look, I was reading the Quran. We live in this neighborhood with people like yourself who are Muslims, and I wanted to know a little bit about what you thought." And I kept coming over this passage where it was talking about just ask God for forgiveness and he will grant it. Can you explain to me what's the basis for that forgiveness? Is there anything that I'm missing in this?"In that sense you're reading something that is theirs, you're inviting them to a conversation around central things, but you're not necessarily granting any sense of authority to that. And then you're opening the door later on to be able to say, "Well, can I tell you the relationship between forgiveness and atonement that exists in the Bible? And can I show you some passages where those concepts are there? But they're brought together in a, I think a more beautiful way.
Sean McDowell: Matthew, I took a group of students a few years ago to do outreach to Muslims and we visited some mosques and we had a young Muslim come speak to our group. And one of my students had placed his Bible on the floor, and the Muslim stopped in the middle and said, "Hey, could you pick up that holy book? It does not belong on the floor." And my student looked at me and thought, "Holy cow, this Muslim has more respect for the Bible than I do." So there's a lot to be learned, even though when it's all said and done, like you said, there's similarities on the surfaces here. But there's very deep differences about who God is, the nature of the scriptures, how we know God, sin, biblical characters. In our particular, the person of Jesus. So I would really encourage people to pick up your book. I've, I'm far from an expert in Islamic studies or doing missions work to Muslims. But have read a few dozen books on this, had enough conversations to be dangerous, yet know my limitations. And I found your book really, really helpful that a beginner could get some depth out of it. But I think someone who's done some more study would have some nuances and insights. Even if at the end of the day they may differ about how to use the Quran and share their faith, you lay out your case very well from both research and personal experience. So we want to commend to our listeners the Quran and the Christian by Matthew Bennett. Dr. Matthew Bennett, thanks for joining us today.
Matthew Bennett: Thank you guys. If was super encouraging,
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School Theology at Bola University offering programs in Southern California and now fully online, including our Master's in Christian Apologetics, where I teach now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.