James White and Surah 5, Verse 47: Willful Ignorance or a Severe Memory Lapse?


Bassam Zawadi

James White has a constant habit of appealing to Surah 5, Verse 47, which states:

Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah hath revealed therein.

And then argues based on this verse that the Qur'an is attesting that the gospels in the hands of Christians today are textually pure and uncorrupted.

He predictably put forth this argument in a recent debate in Ireland with Adnan Rashid entitled "Did Jesus & Mohammed Preach the Same Thing?" In his closing statement in reference to Surah 5, Verse 47, he said:

The Quran says in Surah Chapter 5. he's not responded to this. I've noticed this is interesting. I keep raising this up and I don't know if my Muslim friends have an answer for this. But Surah 5 says to the people of the Gospel - the Ahl Al-Injeel - that we are to judge by what is contained therein. (Time Slice: 1:08:44 - 1:09:03)

Notice what James White has said. He said "I don't know if my Muslim friends have an answer for this." Notice that James White did not say:

I don't know if my Muslim friends would ever successfully address this argument.


Time and time again my Muslim friends have failed in addressing this argument effectively.


I've never found a convincing response so far from my Muslim friends when it comes to this verse.

No, rather, James White is giving the impression that Muslims have never even attempted to respond to this argument. This is extremely odd, given that James White has been directly responded to this verse a number of times with no attempt from his end to counter the responses provided to him.

For instance, Shabir Ally and James White had a series of exchanges with each other after their debate in Seattle in 2007 (you could see White's responses to Ally here, here, here, here, here, and here and in turn, Ally's responses over here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). In one of his responses, Shabir Ally said in response to White:

Does the Quran Require Christians to engage in Redaction Criticism?

James finds it incredible that the Quran would tell Christians to judge by the Gospel if indeed the Gospel is corrupted. The verse he refers to is as follows in the Yusuf Ali translation:
Let the people of the Gospel Judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed they are (no better than) those who rebel. (Quran 5:47)

From this verse James argues as follows:
1. This verse approves of the Gospels as they are;
2. Muhammad who authored the Quran did not know the contents of the Gospels to realize that his own teachings contradict the Gospels; and
3. Muslims now seeing the contradiction between the Quran and the Gospels defend their faith by inventing the doctrine of biblical corruption.

In the first place, however, this verse does not approve of the Gospels as they are. It calls on Christians to judge not 'by the Gospels' but 'by what God has revealed in the Gospel'. There is a difference between Gospel and Gospels. One is singular; the other plural. God taught the Gospel to Jesus, and we may presume that this is the Gospel that Jesus preached. Now in the Bible there are four Gospels which contradict each other on essential points. Obviously God did not reveal such contradictory statements in the Gospels.

Second, it is no secret now, nor was it a secret in the time of the Prophet, that the Gospels teach that Jesus is the Son of God. Yet the Quran says that this is an invented claim matching that of those who disbelieved of old:

The Jews call Uzair a son of Allah and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouths; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah's curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the truth! (Quran 9:30)

Hence it is incorrect to say that Muhammad did not realize that the Quran contradicts the Gospels on this point.

Third, Muslims did not need to invent a doctrine of biblical corruption, because the errors in the Bible were already plain for everyone to see. Some early Church Fathers did acknowledge that the Bible contained errors. But later, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible became generally accepted after the Quranic revelation was already established. Therefore at the time of the Quranic revelation it was not necessary to go to great lengths to debunk the doctrine. The Quran mostly took a passive stance of merely correcting the narratives that are known from the Bible. On occasion, however, the Quran does make statements about the invention of scripture such as in the verse already cited, and in 2:79:
Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands and then say: "This is from Allah" to traffic with it for a miserable price! Woe to them for what their hands do write and for the gain they make thereby. (Quran 2:79)

Redaction criticism is of course a highly developed aspect of modern Biblical studies. It would seem ridiculous to assert that the Quran was asking Christians in the seventh century to engage in an activity which will not become known until the twentieth century. But this does not mean that people at the time were naïve. Even at the time people could differentiate between what God revealed in the Scripture and what people invented without sanction from God.

At the time people could see that what Jesus preached was in many respects different from the later claims made about him. It was already obvious that the Gospel of John presented a highly developed Christology, for example, that could not be credited to the historical Jesus. People at the time could ask themselves, even if they did not do so before: Is not everything in the Scripture inspired by God? Why would anyone say, "Judge by what God has revealed therein"?

We should recall that at the time the Canon of the Eastern Syriac Christians was still being worked out. For a long time they had accepted only twenty-two of the now twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament. Hence it would still be fresh in the minds of Christians that the inspiration of Bible is not self-evident, and needs some human judgment to accept or reject certain books.

At the time the Quran did charge believers with the responsibility of verifying news that came to them. Based on this principle Muslims soon developed elaborate measures to sift conflicting claims about what our prophet said, and did. This was their version of Redaction Criticism, even though they did not use this term. There is no reason to suppose that Christians were not capable of doing something similar which would eventually develop into full-blown redaction criticism.

But the fact that the Quran did not require seventh-century Christians to engage in Redaction Criticism with all its modern apparatuses does not mean that the Quran would excuse present-day folks from exercising their mental faculties. The Quran requires us to use our faculty of reason, and God will hold us responsible for that which we are capable. If the tools and thinking were not developed at the time people would not be responsible for applying it, but now that they are available we would be held responsible if we reject their use. (Source)

A few months later, in February 2008, I emailed James White (see the documentation here), guiding him to an article in which I addressed the argument appealing to 5:47:

Second point, is that I notice in your two debates with Shabir Ally that you try to argue that the Qur'an affirms the authenticity of your Bible. I have a whole series of articles that refute that over here http://www.call-to-monotheism.com/does_islam_endorse_the_bible__

However, I believe that you have more specifically referred to verses that speak about the Quran confirming the previous scriptures (addressed here
http://www.call-to-monotheism.com/refuting_the_argument_regarding_the_qur_an_being_a_confirmation_of_the_bible), of the Qur'an asking the Muslims to judge by your scripture (refuted over here http://www.call-to-monotheism.com/refuting_the_argument_regarding_the_qur_an_ordering_the_jews_and_christians_to_judge_by_their_scriptures)and you mentioned the hadith about the Prophet putting the torah on a pillow case and respecting it (addressed here http://www.call-to-monotheism.com/refuting_the_argument_that_the_prophet_claimed_that_the_corrupted_torah_was_revealed_from_god and make sure to see my rebuttal to Shamoun on it as well)

Three years later, in February 2011, during my debate with White entitled Has Islam Misunderstood Christianity? I dedicated a significant portion of my closing statement addressing White's appeal to 5:47:

It's been a tradition for Dr. White to bring up Surah 5:47 in his debates when it says that Christians should judge by the gospel. I want to use this opportunity to clarify what that passage is really saying. Now, Surah 5:47, when it says that Christians should judge by the Gospel needs to be read in its proper context. One needs to understand how the Qur'an uses the word "Gospel" and needs to bear in mind the fact that the early Muslims did not believe or understand the Qur'an to be saying that the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are inspired. One should also read Qur'anic passages such as 2:185 and 5:68, which illustrate that the Qu'ran is to be followed by everyone including Christians. The same verse that is being alluded to - Surah 5:47 - itself continues on to say - he only quoted the first half - it does on to say "whoever does not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors.", which is a general statement that one must judge by all revelation sent down by God, including the Qur'an. If one refers to the understanding of the early Muslims one would observe that the correct understanding of the verses from the Qur'an, which command the Jews and Christians to judge by the Torah and Gospel respectively actually means that they must judge by the Qur'an since this is the only way to really judge by the Torah and Gospel sent to Moses and Jesus peace be upon them both respectively, for those original revelations taught the coming of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) according to Islam. Therefore, to judge by them means that you must accept the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him), which in turn means that you must then accept the Qur'an as the word of God and judge by it. So that is the correct understanding of Surah 5:47. (Time Slice: 2:09:46 - 2:11:30)

And then again a year later, in March 2012, Shabir Ally, in his debate with White Did Jesus Claim Deity, said during his last rebuttal:

I would say that Qur'an 5, verse 47 is not telling Christians that all of the Injeel is preserved and accurate and is the word of God. It says - Walyahkum ahlu al-injeeli bima anzala Allahu feehi - Let the people of the gospel judge by that which God has revealed therein. So it is not all of it, it's what God has revealed therein. Some of its contents are - hudan wa noor - guidance and light. But have you ever read any list of ingredients of the things that you eat? It's not only one thing. So you might say something is in there, but that is not the whole thing. It's got that, plus it's got some other things. So from the Qur'anic perspective, the Injeel does have some truth and guidance from God, but it has other things besides. (Time Slice: 1:23:05 - 1:23:54)

Given that White has been addressed in this passage by more than one person in more than one circumstance, without White ever countering the responses to his argument, what right then would he have in saying:

I don't know if my Muslim friends have an answer for this

Surely, this is a factually incorrect claim. So why did White utter it? Was it due to willful ignorance or a severe lapse in memory? We shall let the readers decide for themselves on that one.


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