Debate: “What Does it Mean to be Human?” (Steven Martins vs. Shabir Ally)

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a debate that took place between Steven Martins and Shabir Ally on the topic “What Does This Mean to be Human?” As far as I know, this is the first Christian-Muslim debate to focus specifically in on the topic of Anthropology (the doctrine of humanity). For those who are interested, here is the debate video:

It is always a pleasure to listen to Dr. Ally speak in debates and lectures, as he always presents his arguments in an articulate and gentlemanly manner. Likewise, it is great to see Steven Martins develop in his skills as an apologist. To be able to hold one’s own in a debate with Dr. Ally (who is considered one of the best Muslim apologists in the world) requires a good grasp of biblical knowledge, as well as an ability to think quickly on one’s feet. For this reason, I commend Steven for stepping up to the plate.

That being said, there are a few points that I would like to raise regarding the debate and how it went, especially as it pertains to points raised by both debaters.

  • One aspect of the Islamic concept of forgiveness that many Muslims have brought up, and was brought up by Dr. Ally as well in this debate, is the idea that God must honour a person’s choice to forgive or not to forgive someone who has committed a sin against them. God will forgive our sins against our fellow man if our fellow man choooses to forgive our sins as well. The obvious problem with this is that it makes forgiveness contingent upon human beings. Is it truly mercy and grace if whether we get forgiven or not depends upon whether the one we have wronged feels magnanimous or vindictive? If God is truly the compassionate and merciful one (as the first two of the Asma al-Husna would indicate), then God’s mercy should not have to be contingent upon the compassion and mercy of his creations.
  • Dr. Ally makes some confusing statements regarding the Old Testament prophets’ attitudes towards the Temple in Jerusalem. It is difficult to imagine that any of the prophets would have rejected the temple cult in favour of obedience to Torah, when it is that very same Torah that prescribes the sacrifices that are associated with the temple cult. He attempts to use the prophet Jeremiah as an example, but the problem with this is that according to Jeremiah, Yahweh will seek vengeance on those who destroyed his temple (Jeremiah 50:28, 51:11). How could Jeremiah declare that Yahweh will seek vengeance for his temple if he did not regard the temple as part of true worship? This question is never answered.
  • Some of Dr. Ally’s statements regarding the Christian view of eschatology are equally confusing. He asks why, if Jesus had atoned for sin, we still see the effects of sin on this world. The answer, as Steven rightly pointed out, is that the undoing of sin’s effects on this world is gradual, not instantaneous, and will only be completed at the return of Christ. It is from this that we get the discussion about the tension between the “already” and “not yet,” since the eschatological passages that speak of the restoration of all things have both a present and future element to them. Passages that have direct bearing on this teaching include Romans 8:18-25, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Hebrews 2:8 and 10:12-13.
  • On this note, the claim is also made that Paul expected the return of Jesus to take place within his lifetime, and thus had mistaken eschatological expectations. He cites 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as a prooftext for this, but a careful reading of the passage would show that such a notion is unnecessary. Leon Morris, in his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians (TNTC), states the following:

    “Many take the words we are still alive to mean that Paul expected to be alive when the Lord returns. There is nothing unlikely in the idea, but it must be borne in mind that Paul consistently refused to commit himself to dates; indeed, in this very context he writes as though he did not know when it would be (5:1-2); further, he holds that both waking and sleeping are possibilities for him and his converts (5:10). WHile what he says here might fit in with the idea that he thought that he himself would be among those who would survive to that day, it does not establish it (cf. Moore, ‘the certainty of this idea arises more through its frequent assertion than its sound evidence’). The meaning may be given in Lightfoot’s paraphrase: ‘When I say “we,” I mean those who are living, those who survive to that day.’ Paul has a little-noticed habit of classing himself with those of whom he is writing, even in activities in which no-one would expect him to take part, like eating in idol’s temples (1 Cor. 10:22; cf. Rom. 3:5; Gal. 5:26, etc.). ‘Paul did not teach that the Parousia was near; but, like every true Christian, he firmly hoped hat it was so.’ If the words used here be held to prove that Paul expected to be alive at the parousia, then equally other words of his ‘prove’ that he expected to be dead (1 Cor. 6:14, 2 Cor. 4:14; the possibility of his death appears in 2 Cor. 5:9; Phil. 1:21-22, etc.). Those alive when the Lord comes will certainly not (emphatic negative ou mē, found in Paul, outside quotations from LXX, only in 5:3; 1 Cor. 8:13; Gal. 5:16), precede those who have fallen asleep.” (pg. 92)

  • Up to this point, I’ve mainly criticised points made by Dr. Ally. However, to be fair, there were some areas where Steven could have improved his points as well. One error concerns the concept of the Imago Dei in Islam. Steven made the argument that the Qur’an denies the concept of the Imago Dei. Now, the Qur’an isn’t denying the concept per se. It simply omits mention of it. Also, while the Qur’an doesn’t mention the concept of the Imago Dei, there is one hadith that talks about the concept. However, note that the way the concept is explained is different. The Imago Dei in Islam has nothing to do with God communicating any of his attributes to us, but merely refers to the belief that Adam was of an extraordinarily tall stature when he was created. The Imago Dei does not factor in at all in the thinking of Muslim theologians about human nature, and is certainly not the grounds for any intrinsic value in humanity.
  • The other point of criticism I would have has to do with the lack of emphasis on the Total Depravity of humankind. Of course, this is concept is implied in Steven’s statements on the Fall of man, our never-ending propensity towards sin, and need for a sin-bearer. But the point could have been pressed much more firmly. The reason why we can’t simply will ourselves into obedience to God is because our will to do so has been incapacitated from the get go (cf. Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-18, 8:5-8). It is also why Muslims and others who do not accept a Christian worldview do not see how serious their sinful condition is in the sight of a holy God–it is that same depravity that makes us think that our sinfulness is not as serious as it really is (this is the due to an accompanying idea called “the noetic effects of sin”). Only when we view ourselves in light of the doctrine of Total Depravity do all these concepts of that are critical to Christian Soteriology make full sense.

All in all, the debate has been interesting, as it shows how a the respective presuppositions of the Christian and Islamic worldviews can be brought to bear on the human condition, and we see which of those two worldviews can fully account for why our condition is the way it is.