In this age of instant bestsellers, it is difficult to comprehend the historical and cosmic scope of this book project. It is the next stage in a discussion that is measured, not in months or years, but in centuries. And the issues involved are as far-reaching as they are timeless.
That is the nature of A Gentle Answer, a book project being undertaken by three writers based in different continents.
The project was initiated by a man identified as “Paul,” a Christian leader from Asia. In his church work, he kept encountering arguments against Christianity being brought by Muslims, and he wanted some help in dealing with them. In the end, a team was formed that includes Gordon Nickel, a Canadian theologian and expert on Islam, and Jay Smith, who debates with Muslims from his base in London, England.
There was a certain similarity to the arguments Paul was encountering, and it became clear that they had a common source in a previous century.
History still matters
In the 19th century, with the encouragement of the British colonial rulers, Christian missionaries had begun evangelizing in India, and had been having some success in converting Muslims in northern India. Among them was a Swiss/German missionary named Karl Gottlieb Pfander. In 1829, Pfander wrote a book titled Mizan ul-Haqq (Balance of Truth), which upheld the authority of the Christian Bible over the Muslim Qur’an.
The book was so effective that Muslim leaders felt they had to answer, and they challenged Pfander to a public debate in Agra, northern India, in 1854. The main Muslim debater, Rahmat Allah Kairanwi, had discovered the writings of 19th-century liberal German theologians and academics, who were arguing that the Bible had been composed of other documents, had been changed over the years and was not historically accurate. He used these writings very effectively in the debate, particularly because Pfander had left Europe before these theologians’ books had been published and was not familiar with them. Kairanwi published his materials from the debate as Izhar ul-Haqq (Demonstration of Truth) in 1864.
Izhar ul-Haqq, became a very influential book and is still very widely used by Muslims to discredit Christianity. In fact, it marked a turning point for the Muslim understanding of Christianity. Instead of believing that the Christian Bible contained some distortions, as Muslims had always said, they now believed that the Christian Bible was totally corrupted and unreliable.
A Gentle Answer
No systematic Christian response to Izhar ul-Haqq has ever been published—until now. A Gentle Answer is intended as a textbook for Christians anywhere in the world who encounter arguments drawn from the 150-year-old Muslim book.
Of the three Christians mainly working on the project, “Paul” brings a practical and pastoral grounding. The issues are of particular importance to him because he is a Christian from a Muslim background.
Paul is a friend of Gordon Nickel, who spent ten years studying and teaching in Pakistan and India. Nickel earned an M.A. in South Asian Islam at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and then a Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. His dissertation, “Narratives of Tampering in the Earliest Commentaries of the Qur’an,” pointed out that early Muslims generally accepted the authority and reliability of the Bible and only thought Jews in the seventh century had “hidden” certain biblical references to Muhammad.
The other scholar involved in the project is Jay Smith, who has become well-known for debating Muslims at Speakers’ Corner in London over the past quarter century. Smith, who is working on a Ph.D. at London School of Theology, leads Hyde Park Christian Fellowship. Among his initiatives is the Pfander Centre, which prepares missionaries for ministry among Muslims, and a collection of videos on YouTube he calls “Pfander Films” – both named after the missionary who started the whole debate almost two centuries ago. Christianity Today profiled Smith’s work a few years ago.
The proposed project will be a lengthy (400-page), four-part book, which is scheduled to be ready for publication by 2014, 150 years after the publication of Izhar ul-Haqq and 160 years after the debate in Agra.
The goal of the first part of the book, based largely on Nickel’s research, is to “level the academic playing field.” Nickel explains that it is inconsistent for Muslim scholars to question the reliability of the Bible on the basis of literary criticism but then insist that the Qu’ran is a divine book and therefore beyond question. He says that if the Qu’ran is subjected to the same historic and scholarly critique that the Bible was subjected to in the 19th century, it raises more questions than are raised about the Bible. In fact, a number of scholars – Muslim, Christian and secular – have already begun studying this question.
Nickel also points out that much has happened in Western scholarship in the past 150 years. The documentary theory of the liberal theologians, that seemed so definitive to Muslims in the 19th century, has not generally found acceptance among Christian scholars. Moreover, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls half a century ago has confirmed that the Bible text has been transmitted without significant distortion over the past 2,000 years.
Love and Respect
This is where the book becomes dangerous, Nickel says. If the book demonstrates that the Bible has not been distorted, then it can also be demonstrated that the Bible does not prophesy about the coming of Muhammad. This will call into question the reliability of the Qu’ran, which claims that the Bible did prophesy of Muhammad, and it will call into question whether Muhammad really is a prophet of God. This is dangerous, Nickel says, because history shows that “the Muslim world will defend Muhammad to the death.”
That is why the project is called A Gentle Answer. The authors are taking their model from Proverbs 15:1 (“A gentle answer turns away wrath”) and 1 Peter 3:15 (“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”). They say they want to enter a dialogue with Muslims based on mutual love and respect.
Ironically, Nickel says, this is more understandable in Muslim countries than in North America. In the post-modern Western world, “North American Christians don’t see such debates as helpful.” North American Christians want to “emphasize similarities” and foster tolerance and relativism in society and avoid divisions in the church. Some even wonder “why we want Muslims to become disciples of Jesus.”
But in Africa and Asia, Nickel says, “questions of truth still matter.” In those places, it would be “disrespectful not to talk about such issues.” He says, “If friends see friends going in the wrong direction, they say something.”
Information about A Gentle Answer is available on the project website, and an opportunity to support Nickel financially is available on another website. Also available on the project website is a download of parts of Margins of the Mizan, a novel written by Nickel and set in Pakistan; it is offered free of charge to supporters of the project. It includes a discussion of Pfander’s book by Muslims and Christians.