al-Radd al-jamīl – A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus Attributed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī

 A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus
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 A Fitting Refutation Of The Divinity Of Jesus 2
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Maha El Kaisy-FriemuthMark Beaumont
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The Context and Authorship of al-Radd al-jamīl

al-Radd al-jamīl li-ilāhiyyat ʿĪsā bi-ṣarīḥ al-Injīl, (A fitting refutation of the divinity of Jesus from the evidence of the gospel) is a long polemical work refuting the Christian concept of the divinity of Jesus Christ and is attributed to the famous eleventh century scholar Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111).

Three versions of this text exist: two are in the Aya Sophia Manuscript Library in Istanbul under the numbers 2246 and 2247, and the third copy is found in the University of Leiden under the classification or828. The two Aya Sophia manuscripts attribute the text to al-Ghazālī, who wrote a significant number of works in philosophy, logic, Islamic jurisprudence, kalām and Sufism.1

In many of his books, al-Ghazālī refers to his other writings and in his work al-Munqidh min al-dalāl he mentions many of his other important works. None of these known works by al-Ghazālī refer to al-Radd al-jamīl, which has led several modern scholars to doubt that al-Ghazālī is the author of the refutation.

The text of al-Radd al-jamīl is a refutation of the divinity of Jesus in three sections: the first is an exegetical study of six Biblical texts. The main argument of the author here is that the criterion for accepting a certain concept is its agreement with the clarity of the intellect, bi-ṣarīḥ al-ʿaql, a sentence repeated very frequently throughout the treatise.

If a text in itself is clear to the intellect then it should not be interpreted, but if it contradicts other texts or it cannot be rationally accepted then these passages must be clarified and considered as metaphors with a symbolic meaning. Following this principle, the author interprets the six Biblical texts in order to refute the concept of the divinity of Jesus. The second section is a refutation of the divinity of Jesus as believed by three Christian sects: the Melkites, the Jacobites and the Nestorians.

 The third sec-tion discusses the titles that Christians attribute to Jesus to support his divine status. The author argues that such titles must be understood metaphorically, and shows that similar titles were also given to other Biblical prophets.

Concerning the context in which the refutation was written, it is generally agreed that al-Radd al-jamīl comes from an Egyptian Coptic milieu, based on external and internal evidence. The external evidence is the fact that al-Radd al-jamīl was first mentioned by the thirteenth century Coptic priest Abū al-Khayr Ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. circa 1270).2

 He quoted parts of al-Radd al-jamīl in his work, Maqāla fī-l-radd ʿalā al-Muslimīn alladhīna yuttahimūn al-Naṣārā bi-l-iʿtiqād bi-thalāthat āliha (Treatise containing a refutation of Muslims who accuse Christians of believing in three gods). But he did not provide any details about al-Radd al-jamīl that might have helped his reader understand the nature of al-Radd al-jamīl as a polemical work.

The internal evidence is, firstly, that the author quotes the Coptic translation of John 1:14 to defend his interpretation of the text, thus appearing to believe that the Gospel was originally written in this language rather than in Greek. Secondly, the author seeks to refute the divinity of Jesus through a discussion of the concept of the union of the divinity and humanity in Jesus, as interpreted by the three main Christian sects. As Gabriel Reynolds rightly maintains, his argument is based on a sound knowledge of the Jacobites and their refutations of the other two sects.3

 Thirdly, his comparison of the relationship between the Father and the Son with the relationship of the soul to the body is taken from the Jacobite explanation of the incarnation and union.4 Since the Egyptian Copts were followers of Jacobite rather than Melkite or Nestorian Christology, this is further support for the view that the author was highly familiar with Jacobite/Coptic writing.

To estimate when al-Radd al-jamīl was written is a difficult task, since it depends on the identity of the author. Those who accept al-Ghazālī as the author agree that it must have been written during his supposed trip to Alexan-dria after his visit to Jerusalem, which is mentioned by some historians. Other scholars date al-Radd al-jamīl to a much later period, up to the lifetime of Ibn al-Ṭayyib. The latter rely on the following arguments:

 the style of writing is not that of al-Ghazālī, the work is not mentioned in any of his authentic works, which do not show the same depth of interest in the Biblical text as al-Radd al-jamīl, the discussion of Christians and Jews in the authentic Ghazalian works differs from that in al-Radd al-jamīl, and the Biblical quotations appear to be from a thirteenth century Arabic translation of the Bible.

Those who accept al-Ghazālī as the author of al-Radd al-jamīl argue that although the writing style of the work differs from that of his known writing, the ideas, concepts and discussion are typical of al-Ghazālī.

The Authorship of al-Radd al-jamīl

In 1932, Louis Massignon discovered two copies of al-Radd al-jamīl in the Aya Sophia library and published an article entitled, ‘Le Christ dans les Evangiles selon al-Ghazālī’ in the Revue des Études Islamiques, in which he gave a good summary of this treatise and argued for its attribution to al-Ghazālī.5 In 1939, Robert Chidiac edited the text of Aya Sophia 2246 and translated it into French. He followed Massignon’s argument concerning authorship, while noting that the text may have been written by a student who had taken notes at al-Ghazālī’s lectures.6

 J.W. Sweetman also gave a detailed summary of al-Radd al-jamīl, with a translation of many passages, in his two-volume work Islam and Chris-tian Theology in 1945.7 He believed that the character and thought world of al-Ghazālī was present in the text: ‘al-Ghazālī’s debate is quite probably not written by his hands, but bearing clear marks of personality and method, and undoubtedly a faithful record of a discussion following his course, in Alexandria, during his visit to that city.’8

Arthur J. Arberry gave an English translation of a part of the text of al-Radd al-jamīl in his Aspects of Islamic Civilization in 1964, and appeared to accept that al-Ghazālī was the author.9 Franz-Elmar Wilms produced a German translation of Chidiac’s Arabic text in 1966, and argued at length for the authorship of al-Ghazālī.10 In 1986, the Egyptian scholar Muḥammad al-Sharqāwī published an edition of the Ara-bic text, defending al-Ghazālī as the author.11

All these scholars accept al-Ghazālī as the author of al-Radd al-jamīl, many of them with the reservation that the text could represent lecture notes taken by one or several of his stu-dents….

al-Radd al-jamīl in the Context of Muslim – Refutations of Christianity

al-Radd al-jamīl comes after several centuries of Muslim refutations of Christianity and repeats themes common to previous treatments of Christian beliefs by Muslim writers.

To make a comparison of the arguments of this Muslim polemicist with those of others who preceded him, it is necessary to reflect on the way he presents them. The six sections of the refutation do not have an obvious coherence, since the writer seems to move abruptly from one topic to another, and then to return to an already discussed theme after a detour. How-ever, a further look shows that he is perhaps attempting to introduce topics that can with profit be discussed in greater detail at later stages in the treatise.

 Two examples are his repeated references to the Christian argument that the union of the soul and body is an analogy for the union of the divinity and human-ity of Jesus, and the way he keeps returning to Christian scripture to refute the divine nature of Jesus. With both topics there is a spiral of intensity of engage-ment with the argument, from the more straightforward in earlier parts of the work to the more complex in later sections. As a result of this intensification of debate as the work progresses, it is best to make comparisons with earlier refutations in the light of the complete presentation of each theme.

The opening section briefly covers three foundational arguments; Christians misguidedly use analogical reasoning to defend the divinity of Jesus, they mistakenly rely on Jesus’ performance of miracles to support his divine nature, and they are selective in their appeal to philosophical thought to undergird their faith. Section two attempts to show that the Christian gospels, and in particular the fourth gospel, provide evidence that Jesus did not claim to be divine.

 Sayings of Jesus that Christians have interpreted as Jesus’ claims to divine status have been misunderstood because they have been taken literally. On the contrary, Jesus spoke in metaphors, but Christians have failed to follow his intention. The third section offers a critique of the way the three main Christian communities understand the union of the divinity and humanity of Jesus. The ‘one nature’ Christology of the Jacobites receives the most detailed criticism for appealing to the union of the soul and the body as analogous to the union of the divinity and humanity of Jesus.

This is a mistaken argument because the union of aspects of the created world cannot be analogous to a union of the created and uncreated in Jesus. The ‘two nature’ Christology of the Melkites is regarded as deficient in logic since they believe that the divine and human natures of Jesus are fully united, yet the divine nature did not suffer death on the cross.

Therefore, the Melkites actually hold to the separation of the two natures. The Nestorian conceptualization of a union of divine and human wills is quickly passed over as being contradicted by the testimony of the gospels that Jesus’ will was not always in conformity to the will of God. The fourth section analyses three titles applied to Jesus by Christians, ‘God’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’. The mistake that Christians make in giving Jesus these titles is that they think of language in too literal a way, failing to make room for symbolism.

 A perusal of the way these terms are actually used in the scriptures of the Christians confirms that a metaphorical interpretation of the titles is intended. Section five studies three passages in the gospel of John that Christians believe clearly teach the divinity of Jesus. The first of these is the prologue of the gospel, John 1:1–14 in which Jesus is identified with the eternal word of God become human. The critique offered is the most detailed of any of the textual interpretations in al-Radd al-jamīl, showing the author’s realisation of the central significance of these verses for Christian faith in the incarnation. The author attempts to show that the word of God is not the pre-incarnate Son of God but is rather the speech of God which Jesus utters.

The second passage is John 8:56–58, where Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham, and which Christians believe is evidence for the pre-existence of Jesus. However, if Abraham could see the future coming of Jesus in his prophetic role then Jesus did not actually exist before Abraham. The third passage is John 14:8–12, in which Jesus proposes that whoever has seen him has seen the Father.

 Christians take this as fact, but they should be reminded that Jesus elsewhere makes a distinction between himself and the Father, so that in this passage he must be referring to the unity of thought and will between himself and the Father. The final, sixth section refutes the appeal of Christians to Jesus being called ‘a word from God’ in the Qurʾān to support his divinity.

A correct reading of the Qurʾān is that God created Jesus through his word without the normal means of a human father, in a similar way that he created Adam without human means.

The following themes emerge from the above outline. Jesus’ miracles do not confirm his divinity. The gospels provide evidence for the fact that Jesus was a messenger sent from God. Passages in the fourth gospel that Christians propose as literal proof for the divinity of Jesus should be interpreted metaphorically. The Jacobite belief that the union of the soul and body is an analogy for the union of the divinity and humanity of Jesus is inappropriate. The Melkite separation of the divine and human natures in Jesus at the point of his death is irrational. The Nestorian conviction that the will of Jesus was united with the..

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