an interview with Wageeh Mikhail
Rev. Wageeh Mikhail (PhD) is the engagement director of ScholarLeaders International (ScholarLeaders.org). Prior to this role, Dr. Mikhail served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Christianity at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt. He has published and spoken widely on medieval Arab Christianity.
Dr. Mikhail, please tell us a little bit about yourself, your academic interests, and what you are currently working on.
I studied theology at the Cairo Evangelical Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and at Calvin Seminary. I received my PhD from the University of Birmingham in the UK. My passion is to see the gospel reconciled to the Arab culture. That is why I focused throughout my studies on Arab Christian literature written in the Middle Ages. Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle Ages left behind invaluable literature in which they responded to the intellectual questions Muslim polemicists offered against Christianity. This was the first Christian response to Islam in history. Arab Christians offered logical, pastoral, and biblical answers in reverence and respect. Not only did they offer a reason for the hope within, but they also played an indispensable role in building the Arab/Islamic civilization under the Abbasid Dynasty, pioneering the translation movement from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. My passion is to highlight their answers, role, and theology, for I am convinced that the church in the Arab world exists today because of their faithfulness and testimony for which they paid a costly price. I currently serve with ScholarLeaders International, whose mission is to “encourage and enable Christian theological leaders from the Majority World—Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East—for the Global Church.” I lead several projects related to Christianity and Islam.
In recent centuries in the West, much thinking about the doctrine and reliability of Scripture has centered around science. How reliable is the Bible, given the discoveries of modern science? How would you characterize the key issues related to the doctrine of Scripture for Arab Christianity, both historically and more recently?
The theological issues discussed in the Western world are not necessarily of significance to the church in the Muslim world, because Islam raises different questions than those raised by atheism or secularism. The sociopolitical challenges that millions of Christians face in the Muslim world leave them puzzled at the issues discussed in the West. Surely, this is not to dismiss some theological issues discussed in the West. But it is to assert that different contexts demand different answers to different questions. So, for example, Christians in the Muslim world are not so much concerned with science and Scripture, because in a Muslim context the first thing that comes to mind regarding the Bible is the allegation of corruption (Taḥrīf). Muslim polemicists, as early as the eighth century, have been accusing the Jews and the Christians of altering the Scripture. This allegation has some Qur’anic basis (see 2:24; 3:71, 78, 187, 6:91, 7:162).
Let us consider the example of ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī (a ninth-century Arab Christian theologian), who in refuting this allegation imagines a conversation or debate with a Muslim thinker who brings forth this allegation. ‘Ammār begins with the presupposition that the Christian religion has been established through wondrous miracles. There had been no earthly incentive or use of swords. Rather, those who had embraced Christianity had done so by divine compulsion through signs. It followed, then, that the written gospel that had been instrumental in the spread of Christianity was also confirmed on the basis of the same compulsion. This necessitated that the gospel be true and that full trust be given to its content. ‘Ammār agrees with his interlocutor that there are various interpretations of the Christian Scriptures, but he notes that this does not mean that the text has been altered. Rather, the very existence of different interpretations is a strong argument against those who accuse the Scriptures of having been corrupted. For if they had been corrupted, ‘Ammār argues, then it would be natural to expect all interpretations to agree. According to ‘Ammār, even the accusation of falsification is not legitimate. He bases his case on the fact that Christianity was confirmed by divine signs and not by earthly incentives. This strategy was common in Arab Christian apologetics during the ‘Abbasid caliphate.
Another example concerns the Paraclete (παράκλητος), the comforter promised in John 14:16–17. Muslim polemicists have taken this as a reference to Muhammad and argue that this word has been intentionally changed from periklytos (the praised one; i.e., “Ahmad” in Arabic, the name of Prophet Muhammad) to paraklytos (the comforter; i.e., the Holy Spirit). This argument has been proven to be absurd on a logical and a linguistic basis. The pioneer theologian who refuted this allegation was Patriarch Timothy I (AD 728–823), patriarch of the Church of the East, in his dialogue with the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi (AD 745–785). In a two-day meeting with the patriarch, the caliph raises many issues and objections against Christianity. Timothy answers creatively and gently, and he decisively refutes all allegations against Christianity, one of which was the Paraclete argument. Timothy clearly answers:
If Muhammad were the Paraclete, since the Paraclete is the Spirit of God, Muhammad would, therefore, be the Spirit of God; and the Spirit of God being uncircumscribed like God, Muhammad would also be uncircumscribed like God; and he who is uncircumscribed being invisible, Muhammad would also be invisible and without a human body; and he who is without a body being uncomposed, Muhammad would also be uncomposed. Indeed, he who is a spirit has no body, and he who has no body is also invisible, and he who is invisible is also uncircumscribed; but he who is circumscribed is not the Spirit of God, and he who is not the Spirit of God is not the Paraclete. It follows from all this that Muhammad is not the Paraclete. The Paraclete is from heaven and of the nature of the Father, and Muhammad is from the earth and of the nature of Adam. Since heaven is not the same thing as earth, nor is God the Father identical with Adam, the Paraclete is not, therefore, Muhammad. (Mingana, Timothy I)
What can the global church learn from Arab Christianity, particularly in regard to the doctrine of Scripture?
The church in the Arab world has a wealth of knowledge awaiting to be shared with the global church, especially regarding answering questions raised solely by Muslims. Not only does the church in the Arab world have fourteen hundred years of answers to Islamic objections on the credibility of the Bible, but the church in the Arab world has also been specially blessed by having numerous Bible translations that go back to as early as the eighth century. The Arabic Bible has been penetrating the Arab culture due to the incredible work of Arab Christians who worked hard to bring the word of God in the new lingua franca, and in a culture dominated by accusations against the Christian Scripture. Ibn al-ʿAssāl, a Coptic thinker and translator from the thirteenth century, provided a wonderful scholarly Arabic translation of the Gospels. He even created his own textual apparatus symbols, centuries before Western theologians introduced textual criticism!
Yet, it remains that the best gift with which the Arab church has been blessed is the fact that her culture is the same as the Bible. Biblical figures of speeches, parables, and idioms are easily understood by the average Arabic-speaking Christian because they share the same culture. The Bible is a divine text inspired in a Middle Eastern context, part of which is the Arabic-speaking community. The late Professor Kenneth E. Baily, who wrote repeatedly on this point, provides an insider Arabic perspective on the parables of Christ.
In Arabic, there is no single word for “Bible.” Instead, we say “al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas.” This literally reads as “the Holy Book.” The Scriptures in the Arab context have been under attack since the eighth century, and for this exact reason, al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas is so precious. It has been established in the Arab culture because of those who stood firm facing many challenges, and in doing so they paid the ultimate price: their blood. Because of this state of affairs, al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas is not to be taken lightly. It is the word of God that made its way to our culture as early as the Day of the Pentecost (Acts 2: 11).