When we consider Christian and Muslim revelation we have to view it in two distinctive ways. In Christian revelation we should always remember that it is a revelation of God Himself, of His nature and His grace. The Christian believes that God has revealed Himself in history and in the Person of Christ, in order to fulfil His gracious purpose of redemption, and that this revelation is recorded in the Bible and continued in the experience of the Church.
On the other hand the Muslim has the words of Allah, supposedly uncorrupted and eternal but they do not think of Allah as revealing or giving Himself rather Allah merely provides dispensations. The Quran states that Allah is as ‘near to man as the jugular vein’ but He is nevertheless unknown, and His books do not reveal Him. Allah does not make a personal self-revealing approach to man, nor does He seek fellowship with man.
The Muslim Conception of God’s Method of Revelation
When viewed from the standpoint of revelation and inspiration the Muslim considers the Bible as being something essentially inferior to the Quran. He considers that the Quran is eternal. According to orthodox theologians, speech (kalam) is one of the eternal attributes of Allah, and as such has no beginning. That being so revelation, or the activity of the speaking of Allah cannot have arisen through a special act of His creative will, but it exists from all eternity. From this it follows that Allah’s book of revelation, the Quran, is uncreated; and this is what the Muslim ordinarily understands by inspired scripture.
How then does Allah present His revelation to man, and what kind of revelation does He provide?
Allah always remains inaccessible, man can know nothing of Allah Himself.
> ““It is not for any mortal that Allah should speak to him except by revelation (wahy), or from behind a veil, or by sending an apostle” (Ash-Shura 42:51).
The Quran itself is an example of Allah’s revelation, communicated in Arabic, through the medium of a prophet. The guidance to each dispensation is written and communicated to men:
> “To every age its book.”
As the ages go by Allah abrogates or confirms His decrees in the form of writings. One hundred and four of these writings have been given to prophets; four in the form of ‘books’ (kutub) and one hundred in the form of ‘leaves’ (suhuf). The four books are the Taurat (Law), the Zabur (Psalms), the Inlil (Gospel) and the Quran which Muslims believe to be the final and most perfect revelation. The Quran is a transcript of the archetypal book kept by Allah:
> “We have made it a Quran in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand. And verily, it is in the Mother of the Book, in Our Presence, high (in dignity), full of wisdom” (Az-Zukhruf 43: 3,4).
Revelation then may be given to man through an angel and the prophets but Allah himself remains inaccessible.
Muslims consider that there are two main ways of revelation.
In theory, it is believed that Allah reveals His truth in two main ways as found in the uses of the term wahi. This word means literally, ‘sending’, ‘writing’, with reference to a divine message communicated to prophets and saints. It takes two forms, wahi matlu and wahi ghair matlu.
1) The former is revelation which is ‘recited’; the latter is conveyed to the heart of prophet or saint; it is not recited. Wahi matlu is the designation reserved for the superior form of communication between Allah and His prophets, and is the ‘recital’, in their hearing, of the words of the message itself. It may be conveyed through a voice that is heard, or an actual messenger, usually the angel Gabriel, who himself appears. The message so conveyed to the prophet must, of necessity, be proclaimed to men. Reference is made in the Quran to this type of revelation:
> “It is not fitting for a man that Allah should speak to him except by inspiration, (wahi) or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a messenger to reveal, with Allah’s permission, what Allah wills” (Ash-Shura 42:51) – This mode is strictly speaking, wahi matlu.
Although dreams and visions are described in the biographies of Muhammad the revelation in the Quran is said to have taken place by audition: > “Move not thy tongue concerning the (Quran) to make haste therewith. It is for Us to collect it and to promulgate it but when We have promulgated it, follow thou its recital” (Al-Qiyamah 75:16-18) Muhammad, it was said, was anxious to immediately repeat the words revealed, but this was met with the rejoinder that he should not make haste, but remain content with what God chooses to reveal to him. In short, all he is asked to do at the time is to listen.
2) A modified and inferior mode of revelation is that known as wahi ghair matlu. In this case no words are usually uttered, but the revelation is ‘cast’, as it were, into the mind of the person inspired, or else comes in a vision. For the most part, it is suddenly communicated; the recipient knows not how, or why or whence. It is the pure gift of Allah, granted for the enlightenment of the particular individual receiving it. In contrast to the superior form of communication this revelation is not for promulgation. Revelation of this subordinate type frequently goes by the name of ilham, lit. ‘Causing to swallow, or gulp down’. It is this type which is associated in Islam with the doctrine of ‘saints’. Because their hearts are pure, it is to them that such knowledge is mostly imparted. Among the Sufis the term in common use for this apprehension of divine truth, is kashf, illumination. But such knowledge needs to be distinguished from mere intellectual knowledge, ‘ilm aqli, for it cannot be acquired by any process of human deduction, nor yet through meditation. It is further believed that all such utterances, proceeding from saint or prophet, are something reflected on their heart from the Preserved Tablet (lauhu’l mahfuz), on which is engraved all that God has decreed for all time. Man’s heart is so equipped, in fact, that the revelation can be disclosed in it as in a mirror. Ordinarily the veil of sense hangs heavily between, but by the wind of God’s favour it may be blown aside and the revelation takes place.
Reviewof the Muslim conception of Revelation
And so it comes about that Muslims believe that the very words now found between the two covers of the Quran revealed in time to Muhammad, have existed and been decreed from eternity; or, more emphatically, that they are the very words of God Himself, albeit in Arabic. Not the ideas alone but the words themselves, their spelling and grammar, are all God’s own and God’s alone. Further, the whole collection of these writings was brought down, in the time of Muhammad, from its place near God’s throne, on lailatu’l qadr, the night of power (Surah 97:1), in the sacred month of Ramadan, to the lowest heaven. There it was stored up until Gabriel began to recite it “piecemeal”, as occasion required, to Muhammad.
Convinced of the unique nature of the Quran, the Muslim seeks to argue for its superiority over the Bible by criticizing the form of the latter. He observes, for instance, that the Quran is homogeneous – every word of it falls within the category of Qal Allahu, “Allah hath said” whereas, on the face of it, the New Testament (at any rate) is not the book Allah gave to Jesus, because he finds there, not what God said to Jesus, but what Matthew, or Mark, or Luke or John has to say about what Jesus did and said, where He went, what people said to Him, and what He replied, what His disciples did, and so forth.
The Christian Conception of God’s Method of Revelation
We are now concerned to enunciate certain principles which, in our belief, underlie all real Revelation and Inspiration. We arrive at these from a consideration of certain facts to which the Scriptures themselves witness.
1. The Bible covers a wide range in time; and during many centuries “the Word of the Lord came” to a variety of people, in a variety of ways. The recipients were men of different temperament, education and outlook. Some were herdsmen, some statesmen, some historians, some mystics, and a few, theologians. Consequently we have in the Bible a varying literature; including law, history, poetry, and philosophy.
2. And, of course, the Bible was written by men; it did not fall from heaven, nor was it transcribed by angels in the sky before being brought to earth. In other words, God condescended to use man for the purpose of revealing His truth to others. Consider some of the implications of this fact:
2a) God used man as man, not as a machine. He revealed His Word, through an inner ear, to the mind of His messenger, who then clothed it in garb of his mother-tongue. For God’s purpose the accent, grammar, or scholarship of the man did not so much matter. What He required in His messenger was the throbbing heart, the flashing eye, the soul burning with devotion to God and man.
2b) Moreover, God chose these men; they were not self-appointed. Far from thinking themselves equal to the task, many of those whom. God called asked Him to release them, from this “burden”, for which they felt themselves mentally and morally inadequate. Such were Moses (Exodus 4:10), Isaiah (Isa 6: 5), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6), and Jonah. God laid hold of these men so that they felt themselves to be under a divine compulsion – “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me”, said the prophet Isaiah; and St. Paul exclaimed, “Woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel!”
2c) Further, God’s Spirit came to these men at various crises in their lives – in joy, in sorrow, in doubt, in despair, in the confidence of faith and in the fierce struggle with temptation; in fact, while His great work of character-building was still in progress within them.
It is clear, therefore, that they were men with like weaknesses and passions as ourselves – imperfect instruments – yet, by “putting words in their mouth”, by “touching their unclean lips”, by “purging away their sin”, by “making His grace abound to them”. God fitted these men for the high task He required of them. In this way He raised them above their fellows in spiritual insight and understanding, in moral character and influence. The Bible repeatedly testifies to the fact that these men became, and were known to be, “men of God.” And just because it was God Himself who was revealing His truth through them, we find that, at times, some of them spoke more than they fully understood, cp. Isaiah, 53.
3. This being the case, it becomes an instructive study to observe in the Bible definite progress in the nature and quality both of the messengers and of the messages proclaimed by them, The earlier revelations are seen to be not so much untrue, as immature. This applies to various social and political laws prescribed in the time of Moses for the people of Israel – they were of temporary value. On the other hand, the obligations attendant upon moral and spiritual laws, wherever found in the Bible, remain, for the simple reason that these are changeless and eternal.
Along with progress we also find variety in the messages revealed by God through the men He inspired. Well-known examples of this may be cited from the New Testament. For instance, we have in the Gospel narratives, four separate, accounts of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. These while agreeing in all essential particulars were obviously meant to appeal to different types of people and, when taken together, supplement and enrich each other. Again, in the writings of the three apostles, Peter, John and Paul, we perceive the work of three different types of mind, each placing on record the truth about Christ as God made it clear to him through his own personal experience. In this case also, we find the epistles of one writer supplementing those of the others.
4. Within these limits, we likewise observe God’s overruling care in the recording, preservation and transmission throughout the centuries, of these ancient Scriptures. In this connection we need to remind ourselves that for this task God used men; not faultless men, much less angels. When, then, our Muslim friends sometimes profess to treat the Bible as unauthentic and un-trustworthy because there occur in the manuscripts in our possession variations in the text, it is well for us, as for them that we frankly face certain facts:
4a) The most conscientious scribe in the world, whether copying from a manuscript before him, or writing at the dictation of another, may blunder, through the mishearing or misreading of a word, clause sentence, as also through omission, addition repetition. Such errors, we freely admit, did occur in the work of copyists of the Biblical manuscripts, and we honestly record and compare all these in whatsoever documents they occur. Far from destroying any, we carefully preserve them in the belief that, by studying all of them, we get steadily nearer to the original text. Even so, there is no discrepancy in any matter of vital importance, nor do we fear that any ancient manuscript that may yet be discovered will upset that conviction.
4b) On the other hand, it is on record that in the very early days of Islam the different manuscripts of the Quran in use in Arabia presented variations of such a nature as to disturb gravely those who believed in the literal and verbal inspiration of the book. The Khalifa ‘Uthman, in 644 A.D., took a most drastic step to remedy this scandal. He appointed a committee consisting of three men of the Qurraish, with Zaid ibn Thabit at their head; and ordered a new edition of the Quran to be made on the basis of the copy compiled by Abu Bakr. He further insisted that if these men differed among themselves on any point, the reading at that place should be in the Qurraishi dialect. When this copy was completed ‘Uthman had all previous copies burnt. That is something the Christian Church has never done.
Conclusion in respect of Biblical Revelation
And now, in conclusion-underlying all that we have been saying about the Bible, its revelation and inspiration, there is to be seen a profound principle. It is that there exists a real kinship between God and man; it is this that makes possible the translation of the eternal thought into the language of time. In other words. God’s revelation is always found to be intimately linked up with man’s experience of Him. This is something that offers striking contrast to the dualism in Islam, which makes Allah to be “altogether other”. Again, observe what is here implied: there can be no divine revelation without the co-operation, in some degree, of the mind of man. Contrary to the expressed statements of some Muslims, we hold that the spirit of inspiration cannot, and does not, function in a vacuum. Moreover, the message that is meaningless for the recipient is also valueless, and it is contrary to reason either that God should stun or overwhelm the mind of the messenger at the time of imparting His revelation, or that the “man should be like one dead” when receiving it. Any communication from God to man must be within the limitation of man’s faculties, because, coming through such a channel, it can the better be received and assimilated by the human minds to which it is proclaimed. Even so, it remains true that whatever deserves the name of revelation is God’s disclosure, not man’s discovery; for it is something outside man’s normal circle of reasoning. And God’s supreme disclosure is the disclosure of Himself in the Man Jesus. While to the Muslim the true revelation is to be found in a book, the Quran, to the Christian it is not ultimately, to be found in the Bible, but in the Person of Christ. Other and earlier channels of God’s revelation in the Bible were imperfect instruments, but Jesus, the Son, is the perfect, final, and adequate expression of the Father.