‘How can you accept one book of the Bible and reject all the other?’

THIS IS a question I was once asked when I sought to draw attention to the teachings of the Letter of James. This has been my way on various occasions, for historic parallels have been drawn between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam. The question, of course, is a perfectly fair one and it is one which I intend to address here. The truth is that I do not accept this book whilst rejecting all the others. I make reference to it because I find it very interesting, in the same way that other sources interest me, but I do not ‘accept’ it as authentic on its own or in the place of others.

The reason for this lies in the way in which reports are evaluated for authenticity in Muslim tradition. A report concerned with the religion in Islam is always scrutinised for reliability on the basis of two factors: the study of the text itself (matn) and consideration of its chain of narration (isnad). An example of a chain of narration would be me telling something to Katharine, she telling it to Christopher and he telling it to dad; the isnad would then read, ‘It was reported from Christopher from Katharine that Tim said such and such.’ The Muslim methodology regarding the isnad does not end with checking whether there is one or isn’t one, however, as the famous Orientalist, Montgomery Watt, explains:

‘The chains of transmitters were therefore carefully scrutinised to make sure that the persons named could in fact have met one another, that they could be trusted to repeat the story accurately, and that they did not hold any heretical views. This implied extensive biographical studies; and many biographical dictionaries have been preserved giving the basic information about a man’s teachers and pupils, the views of later scholars (on his reliability as a transmitter) and the date of his death.’ What is Islam?, 1968, Longman, Green and Co. Ltd., pp. 124-125

When a Muslim considers the reports presented in the Bible, by contrast, the first thing with which he or she is faced is the absence of a chain of narration. Bernard Lewis (Islam in History, 1993, Open Court Publishing, pp.104-105) writes:

‘From an early date Muslim scholars recognized the danger of false testimony and hence false doctrine, and developed an elaborate science for criticizing tradition. “Traditional science”, as it was called, differed in many respects from modern historical source criticism, and modern scholarship has always disagreed with evaluations of traditional scientists about the authenticity and accuracy of ancient narratives. But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meagre, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islam in volume, variety and analytical depth.’

It would be illogical then for me to accept a book of the Bible as authentic when it does not meet the strict criteria required by Muslims in this regard. The biographical information offered at the beginning of this letter, for example, is severely limited. Reference to this work is, therefore, purely a matter of interest. The Letter of James is not a source of my religion; it is, however, identified as being directed to believers amongst the twelve tribes and therefore presumably its roots lie in early Christianity. In my own study of this religion over the past three or four years, my main interest has been in the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christian communities, as they should, I hypothesise, have been closest to the truth on these matters. As a matter of interest, I feel the Letter of James is very important in this regard.

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