Beyond the Book with Dr. Greenham: “Islam and the Bible”
Chad Burchett | November 27, 2023
The work of translating the Bible is as demanding as it is important and indispensable to the life and mission of the Church. Laboring to ensure the accuracy and reliability of translations is critical because God has chosen to speak to his people through the Bible; because God has given the Bible to lead people to his Son, Jesus Christ; and because the Great Commission calls every Christian to make disciples by teaching others to observe what Jesus has commanded in the Bible.
Motivated by these weighty considerations, Ayman Ibrahim, Bill and Connie Jenkins professor of Islamic studies, and Ant Greenham, retired professor of missions and Islamic studies at Southeastern Seminary, seek to help others assess the accuracy and reliability of Muslim Idiom Translations in their forthcoming book, “Islam and the Bible: Questioning Muslim Idiom Translations.”
Offering a biblical, theological, and methodological assessment of Muslim Idiom Translations, “Islam and the Bible,” is an invaluable resource for missiologists and missiology students as well as translation organizations, missionaries, and translators working in Muslim contexts.
In the following Q&A, Greenham takes time to answer a few questions about this new book:
What is the book about?
We aim to challenge the wisdom of Muslim Idiom Translations (MITs) of the Bible. MITs typically use qur’anic names for biblical characters, remove or alter references to God as Father or Son, and insert Islamic theological terms. This approach effectively begins with Islamic theology (rather than the text of Scripture), assesses Muslim offense, and adapts biblical texts to accommodate these concerns.
Who is the target audience?
We hope to stimulate discussion of the MIT phenomenon throughout the Bible translation community. That community includes Bible translation organizations, individual translators, linguists, mission organizations, missionaries, seminaries, pastors, supporting churches, and individual donors — any of whom may wittingly or unwittingly endorse MITs.
What motivated you to serve as a coeditor of this book?
Dr. Ayman Ibrahim, the volume’s coeditor, asked me to join him as he sought to produce a sequel to our earlier work, Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts. The Lord prompted me to agree. Quite frankly though, a key motivator is our concern that MITs risk compromising the Great Commission.
A key motivator is our concern that MITs risk compromising the Great Commission.
Would you offer a brief history of Muslim Idiom Translations and the debate surrounding them?
In the late twentieth century, teams in major translation organizations typically had wide scope to do as they saw fit as they produced different translations. MITs received mainstream acquiescence or even positive support among Bible translation organizations in this context. In 2012, a network of Christian scholars and ministers known as Biblical Missiology launched a public petition asking Wycliffe, SIL, and Frontiers to retain “Father” and “Son” in the Bible. The petition was eventually signed by over 15,000 people worldwide and the Wycliffe/SIL family of organizations agreed to submit to the recommendations of a panel formed by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) on the issue.
The WEA panel issued its report in 2013, recommending that “when the words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients.” However, this recommendation only applied to products “considered or presented as biblical translations.” There were no guidelines on Father-Son terms in “Scripture-based products.” This means that much of Wycliffe and SIL’s work remains unrestricted in its handling of Father-Son terms. Because SIL does not publicize its translation choices relating to Father-Son terms, and because much of their work involves lesser-known languages, it is difficult to know how often or in what ways SIL translators might push the boundaries.
Why are you and Dr. Ibrahim critical of Muslim Idiom Translations, and how is your critique nuanced from other perspectives in this debate?
First, to clarify, we feature several contributors who favor MITs (and provide brief rejoinders). This is to help readers evaluate the issue and encourage open discussion in the future. Second, our criticism of MITs lies in their open or covert privileging of Islamic theology over specific biblical revelation — which must always be the basis of any sound Christian theology. Third, we seek to challenge MITs without denying the complexities of effectively translating God’s word in differing linguistic and cultural contexts.
What advice would you offer Western Christian missionaries as they work to contextualize the gospel in Muslim contexts? What considerations should take precedence when making translation decisions?
Know the Bible and know the local context — in that order. Put differently, make the Bible your first love, ahead of anthropology — not the other way around. Translation decisions must be driven primarily by understanding the text, as informed by a study of the original languages, solid exegesis, and sound hermeneutics. That understanding must then be reflected in a translation that seeks to accurately convey the meaning intended by the inspired biblical writer. To avoid misunderstanding, it must then be checked using methodologies such as back-translation and consultation with native speakers.
Make the Bible your first love, ahead of anthropology — not the other way around. Translation decisions must be driven primarily by understanding the text.
What are some of the greatest challenges to contextualizing the gospel in Muslim contexts?
The greatest challenge is getting a hearing. Muslims not only believe Christianity is superseded by Islam but also believe it is flat out wrong: Jesus is not the Son of God, he did not die on the cross, the Bible has been changed, and the Trinity is unfathomable. Muslims are quick to “correct” Christians along these lines while showing scant interest in a careful consideration of the evidence. Christians who listen respectfully while they hold uncompromisingly yet winsomely to gospel essentials may be best equipped to navigate this challenge. A related challenge is to communicate gospel truth in a way that points clearly to humanity’s need and God’s provision, without enticing an automatic negative response from a Muslim conversation partner.
How should Christians thoughtfully respond to Muslim neighbors who object that the Bible is inauthentic or always changing as it is retranslated?
This question highlights the dangers of MITs. Muslims typically say the Bible has been changed because that is what they have been told and it is a straightforward way of explaining why the Qur’an is different to the Bible. While this claim (of a changed Bible) is groundless, MITs, which are different to previous translations, inadvertently support such false Muslim assertions. We must be able to demonstrate that current translations accurately reflect the inspired original.
How does this book equip readers to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission?
It restores confidence in orthodox evangelical theology while highlighting some pitfalls of well-intentioned yet dangerous innovations in missiology. Part of the imperative of making disciples is teaching them everything that Jesus commanded. We can only do that if the Bible translations we use are reliable.
Part of the imperative of making disciples is teaching them everything that Jesus commanded. We can only do that if the Bible translations we use are reliable.
How has considering this issue and editing this book shaped you spiritually?
It has confirmed me in my conviction that the Bible, not anthropology, must drive missiology. As I worked carefully through each essay, the authors’ cogent arguments became my own. It was also rewarding to realize that my editing efforts had made a useful product better.
Islam and the Bible: Questioning Muslim Idiom Translations
As early as the seventh century, Christians living and ministering in Muslim contexts adapted their language and public witness to Islamic cultural and religious sensitivities. In Islam and the Bible, editors Ayman S. Ibrahim and Ant B. Greenham invite leading voices, representing a spectrum of approaches, to explore the issues surrounding “Muslim Idiom Translations” of the Bible. This work will be insightful for students, theologians, missiologists, missionaries, and Bible translators seeking wisdom and clarity on gospel contextualization.
December 1, 2023
Paperback, 464 pages