Former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi explains how his search for the truth about Jesus in scripture led to his conversion.
Justin Brierley meets the man on an international mission to convince Christians to ‘revert’ to Islam.
Were it not for his lengthy beard and traditional taqiyah skullcap, anyone listening to Shabir Ally could be forgiven for initially mistaking him for a Christian apologist.
With an accent informed by his years living in Canada, Ally speaks eloquently of the reasons why his faith is grounded not just in ritual and belief but in reason and evidence. The precepts of his faith, he says, are ‘quite straightforward and usually have a very rational component in them’. So far, so similar. But Ally is, in fact, one of the world’s foremost apologists for Islam.
Perhaps the similarities with Christian apologists are partly explained by the fact that Ally is a frequent debater with Christian scholars at universities around the world. To a generation of young, mostly male Muslim students, he is the star of interfaith debates that form part of their commitment to Da’wah (Islamic evangelism) on campus. Like any good apologist, Ally is scholarly, winsome and devastatingly effective in debate. Only an opponent experienced in their own scriptures and the Koran would be advised to take him on.
Ally was converted to Islam as a teenager (although Muslims often prefer to use the word ‘revert’ to ‘convert’ as they believe Islam is the ‘natural’ religion). Things began when an imam visited his family’s village and invited them to the mosque.
‘I listened intently to what he had to say. I thought he made sense. The more I learned about Islam the more everything seemed to make sense to me, and it became very much a part of my life.’
Ironically, it was the missionary activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other evangelists regularly knocking at his door that made Ally decide to develop an apologetic strategy of his own.
‘I thought that my faith had something to offer that is better than what they were inviting me towards,’ he says. ‘I felt that as others are actively promoting their faith, I should be very much involved in doing the same for mine.
‘Most Muslims have not thought about the rational component, they have simply ritualistically done what has been prescribed in their faith. When one studies them, one sees that there is reason behind the practices.’
Significantly, it is in the West, rather than the Middle East and Africa, that Ally’s brand of intellectually bold Islamic evangelism is most popular. Facing the same pressures from atheistic and secularist voices as their Christian counterparts, many Muslims have warmed to his approach of dialogue and debate. His influence is evident among the young men engaged in street evangelism in cities around the UK, or who crowd to watch (and take part in) rowdy debates at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.
Underprepared Christians who attempt to engage in debate may be surprised at how well the average Muslim apologist knows the Bible, especially the New Testament. Jesus is an important figure to Muslims as well as to Christians. The main dispute is whether he was simply a prophet or God in the flesh. Consequently, Islamic apologists will frequently enlist critical scholarship that undermines the divine claims of Jesus, making them unlikely bedfellows with certain sceptical and liberal Bible scholars.
THE MORE I LEARNED ABOUT ISLAM THE MORE EVERYTHING SEEMED TO MAKE SENSE TO ME
THE CRUCIFIXION QUESTION
But in one respect, Islamic apologists are in conflict with biblical historians of every stripe. Crucially, the Koran contends that Jesus did not die by crucifixion. Instead, it states in Surah 4:157 that ‘they neither killed him nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them’.
The problem for Islam is that the crucifixion of Christ is one of the most reliably attested facts of the ancient world. Classically, Islamic commentators have justified the koranic version of events by positing that another person, made to look like him, took the place of Jesus. Ally, perhaps mindful of the weight of established evidence, takes a different approach.
‘I have followed the thinking of many who feel that it is not necessary to have the belief that someone else was substituted for Jesus. I distinguish between two meanings of crucifixion. One means simply “to hang on a cross”, but I believe the word crucifixion as used in the Koran means to “kill a person by that means”.
In effect, Ally admits that Jesus was put on the cross, but that he did not die on the cross, and therefore the koranic and biblical accounts are, to some degree, in harmony. He goes on to support his contention, saying: ‘There is a subtext, which points to the fact that Jesus could not be verified to have died on the cross. He may very well have been taken down while still alive.’
Ally points out that Jesus wasn’t on the cross for very long, whereas crucifixion normally took days to kill a man, noting Pilate’s astonishment that Jesus was apparently dead before nightfall. In this respect, Ally subscribes to the ‘swoon’ theory of the crucifixion: that Jesus passed out on the cross, but later revived.
The theory is not uncontroversial even among Muslims, many of whom believe that teaching anything other than the ‘substitution’ model is tantamount to heresy. To non- Muslims, Ally’s theory can come across as a strained attempt to marry the historical evidence for the crucifixion with his belief in the inerrancy of the Koran. Perhaps that is why, in debate with Muslims, many Christian apologists have focused on the case for Christ’s death by crucifixion.
If proving a historical inaccuracy within the Koran exposes a loose thread that threatens to unravel the whole garment, then it’s no surprise that Ally has devoted time to finding a way of answering the objection. In the meantime, anyone seeking a duel with the preeminent Islamic apologist is advised to do their homework in advance.
Shabir Ally is president of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International in Toronto, Canada
THREE THINGS THE KORAN SAYS ABOUT JESUS
1 A virgin birth The Koran affirms that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary in Surah 19, which tells the story of Jesus’ birth. However, there is no mention of Joseph or many other elements of the biblical birth narrative. Instead, the baby Jesus miraculously speaks from the cradle to the adults to whom he is presented.
2 Jesus is a prophet but not the Son of God Numerous titles are given to Jesus in the Koran, including ‘messiah’. He is considered to have been a Muslim prophet because he taught his followers the straight path of godliness. But the Koran explicitly teaches against the Trinity and deity of Christ in Surah 4:171-172.
3 Jesus did not die on the cross Surah 4:157 in the Koran denies that Jesus was killed by crucifixion, but states that it was only ‘made to appear so’. Traditionally, Islamic commentators have taught that he was substituted by someone else; however, some scholars interpret the verse to mean that Jesus was placed on the cross but survived.