Nabeel Qureshi vs Shabir Ally: Debate Review – Opening Statement

Recently, Dr Nabeel Qureshi, on behalf of RZIM, debated Dr Shabir Ally, a noted Muslim apologist. They debated the subject of Tawhid or Trinity.

I have been asked by several people to comment on the debate. I am not a scholar of Islam, nor am I a professional debater (or analyst). As such, I want to focus on where I am strong. I will be assessing two aspects of the debate. First, will be Qureshi’s opening argument. Specifically, I want to focus on the doctrine of the Trinity which he puts forward. Did he faithfully and accurately represent the doctrine of the Trinity? Did he clearly present and defend it?

Second, I will be discussing his defense in the cross examination period. Did he sufficiently answer the questions which Ally put forward? Did he adequately defend the faith once delivered to the saints in reference to the Trinity?

The debate is substantial in length, so I will provide time stamps where appropriate.

You can watch the video over at YouTube.

Qureshi’s Opening Statement starts at 8:00

Now, I want to get some things straight. I understand that Qureshi is not a theologian. I understand that this is not his specialty. I understand that the Trinity is complicated and people are bound to make mistakes. However, when you put yourself forward to debate the leading Muslim apologist on the subject… you better have your doctrine straight.

Qureshi’s opening statement was subdivided into two primary sections. The first section was a discussion of the development of the Islamic doctrine of Tawhid. This was, I think, a shrewd tactic in order to head-off various common Islamic objections which he alluded to. I don’t have much to comment on this, however he did make a passing comment that I want to note. He commented that a Turkish scholar noted “that the argument that the Quran is eternal, was borrowed from Christians who believed in the hypostatic union of Jesus… an the Father… and the two natures of Jesus.” (18:30) Now, I’m not sure if this was the Turkish scholar’s mistake, or Qureshi’s (I suspect the later), but the hypostatic union of Jesus is not with the Father. This is a common terminological mistake, but I suspect that it actually represents a deeper flaw in Qureshi’s theology.

I want to spend the bulk of my words here on Qureshi’s presentation of the Trinity. Some of what I’m going to criticize is lack of care in presentation, and others will be more theologically substantive.

He begins his presentation of the doctrine at 19:50

Qureshi does well to begin by affirming monotheism, but his statement goes off the rail as soon as he begins to define what the Trinity is. The definition itself is not bad, but as he explains what that means he runs into problems.

The Trinity is the belief that God is one, only one God, and three in persons.

So far so good.

In other words, one being or one what… there is one what… he is God.

Here starts the slide. As he clarifies, it gets even worse.

What I am, is a human being. What God is, is a divine being.

I have commented in various places in the past that the word being is a terrible word for use in this discussion. In some instances it can refer to what is classically called essence or nature. In other instances it can refer to what is classically called person. In Qureshi’s first use he probably means something similar to essence, but in his clarifying statement he is using it as a synonym for person. By using the analogy of a single human person, he is comparing the singular divine nature to a singular human person and beginning to reveal the all too common pattern of treating the divine nature as though it were a person.

But there are three persons… three ‘whos’. A being is that which makes you what you are, a person is that which makes you who you are.

As we can see, he is back to using being in description of a nature. But this confusion does not bode well for his overall framework.

So what am I? I am a human being. Who am I? I am Nabeel.

Again, back to being as a synonym for person. Confused? Unfortunately… so is Nabeel I think. This actually works perfectly fine if you are talking about a specific person of the Trinity. It does not work in reference to the Trinity as a whole.

In the same way, God is one what and three whos.

The key here, and what most people I interact with on the Trinity miss, is that God is not one what and three whos. If we want to use this vernacular… God is three whos, and those three whos share a single what. That is to say, The divine nature only ever exists as three divine persons, and those three divine persons fully possess and share the divine nature.

After this problematic definition, he asks a question at the 21:25 mark:

Can God come into this world?

When I heard this I immediately shook my head. Why you ask? Well, here is the problem. As established above, Qureshi has a problematic view of God that treats the divine nature as though it were a person. A key proposition in Triadology, is that natures do not act. They do not will, they do not think, they do not do anything. So immediately when we ask the question, if we are not careful, we begin to treat the singular divine nature as though it were a divine person.

Qureshi begins by looking at the Old Testament. He gives several examples of theophanies in the Old Testament to demonstrate that indeed, God can. However, my concerns above are confirmed when he follows up with this question:

Can God be complex?

He remarks that even within Islam, God is complex… but he commits a huge equivocation on the term complex. He uses the word complex to mean complicated. He demonstrates this when he parenthetically says “We can’t understand his nature.” However, he then proceeds to his next explanation to show that what he means by complex is composite or a plural unity. Lets ignore the fact that he has entirely jetisoned the doctrine of divine simplicity at this point…

He explains the use of elohim in Genesis 1. While this isn’t terribly uncommon for a person to do, but the picture he is painting is of a singular God who is a composite of three discrete persons. He goes to great lengths to explain that echad is a word that refers to a collective entity. Examples include a cluster of grapes, a single day made of distinct time periods, and most famously the unity between a man and his wife.

However, here is his mistake. During the course of this explanation he says at 24:37:

If God wants to say ‘I am one and plural’, the word he would use is echad.

Lets take that apart a little bit. Who is speaking in this statement? Who is it that says “I am one and plural”? Remember, natures don’t think, speak, act, or anything. To use Qureshi’s statements above… Whats don’t think, speak, or act. That only leaves whos to say “I am plural.” Which person of the Trinity can say “I am one and plural”? None of them can. This is just more evidence that Qureshi is confused on the doctrine.

Now, just as a picky side note… this is why people who haven’t studied Hebrew shouldn’t use Hebrew to make their argument.

Echad means “one” in an absolute sense in a variety of places… even within Genesis 2 it is used in this way. (twice in 2:11, 2:21). While Yachid can mean anything from lonely to unique. However, the root actually ties back to a verb which means “to unite.” Had Ally been a Jewish scholar who was trained in Hebrew, Qureshi would have utterly been destroyed on this point. It is really only that his opponent was more ignorant than he was on the language that this point was not taken advantage of.

He continues after this to say at 25:20:

So if Yahweh wanted to say ‘I am one and one alone’ he would have used the word yachid. But if he wanted to say ‘I am one and plural in my unity’ he would use the word echad.

Again, I think that Qureshi is falling all overhimself throughout this argument. Is Yahweh a person? Which person? Is Yahweh the Trinity? If so, then is the Trinity a person? Remember, persons speak and act, not natures.

So, we are introduced to a God who can be potentially complex. He refers to himself in the plural.

More of the same. I think I have made the point.

Qureshi then continues on to demonstrate through a variety of texts that there appears to be multiple figures in the Old Testament who operate as discrete agents and persons who are called Yahweh. For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on one that I think he uses in the most problematic way. He says in a number of places that there are two Yahwehs, and tries to tether it to a statement “that we know that there is only one God.”

He then goes on to explain the locus classicus of Trinitarian thought in the Old Testament: Daniel 7 (27:13)

He explains the text in a reasonable fashion, and actually presents a pretty orthodox understanding. (Apart from the fact that he says the word translated in Daniel 7:14 is used over 130 times in the Old Testament, when in fact it is only used 10 times)

Here is where he goes off the rails of his argument again. (27:50)

So it looks like once again we have God the Father, and we have this other kind of… divine being… who is called one who looks like a son of man.

So, the ancient of days in this passage is conceived of as God the Father by Qureshi. But this other divine being is the Son. Wait a second… being? I thought being was the one what of God. This is why the word needs to leave our usage in this discussion. Later Qureshi will identify both of these figures as Yahweh (and in fact two Yahwehs). However, he has gone to great lengths to say that Yahweh refers to himself as both singular and plural… so how is the Father both singular and plural? How is the Son both singular and plural? He goes on to say (28:26)

Here is the point I want to make to you. The earliest Christian records proclaim that that Yahweh came into this earth. It is something he has done before.

What exactly does he mean here? He emphasizes that it is “that Yahweh” (referring to the one coming on the clouds). Is there any other Yahweh? This is the problem. Qureshi, because he has missed the boat entirely on the fact that the divine nature is not a thing in and of itself, but is only a thing in that it exists hypostatically in the three persons, and that it is fully shared by the three persons, has utterly missed the central part of the dogma that secures monotheism. Because he has missed the shared-ness of the divine nature by treating it as a person… he has now started to speak as though there were multiple Yahwehs. Furthermore, it is deeply concerning that Qureshi does not seem to see a problem with arguing that the theophanies of the Old Testament are simply happening again in the incarnation.

This comes to a head as he loops back to this passage as the culmination of his New Testament section. Qureshi does an excellent job showing that Mark is selectively taking episodes from the ministry of Jesus, and recounting them using allusions from Old Testament passages in which Yahweh’s name in the Old Testament passage is replaced with Jesus’s name in the New Testament passage. However, when he gets to Mark 14:62 (in which Christ himself appropriates Daniel 7) he goes off the ledge (29:45).

What does this remind you of? The two verses from the Old Testament where it looked like there are two divine figures, the one sitting at the right hand of the power, co-ruler of the universe… and the one coming on the clouds of heaven, who comes only as God would come, is given only the divine prerogatives of God, and is served and worshiped by all people for all time. Jesus says ‘You remember those passages, which has two Yahwehs… one of them is me.’

Woah… so much going on here. First… Qureshi gets confused on his own passage. The one who is seated at the right hand of the power IS the one who comes in the clouds. The two divine figures are not the one seated at the right hand and the one coming in the clouds. The two divine figures are “the power” and “the one seated at the right hand of the power.” Second… two Yahwehs? He has said multiple times that it appears that there are two Yahwehs and attempted to tether that to a statement that there is only one God… but here, at the culmination of his argument… he actually says that there are two Yahwehs? Earlier he indicated that Yahweh would use echad to say that he is both one and plural? In what way are these two Yahwehs one? In what way are they plural? Neither of the Yahwehs in this explanation could say that they are plural. Both of them are only singular.

There is more to be said, but this has already become very long. I will come back to analyze the cross examination periods in another post, but at this point I think it is safe to say that Dr Qureshi has a lot to learn. I appreciate his desire to reach Muslims, but at this point I don’t think he has an adequate command over the doctrine of the Trinity to be debating these things. It is certainly possible, although I would be surprised, that Qureshi would identify all the same problems I have and would be able to say “I was nervous and misspoke on a number of points.” However, I think it is much more likely that his view of the Trinity is sadly deficient.