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Muhammad and the Christian Faith

I. Muslim Questions

 

Islam recognizes all prophets. It certainly distinguishes between them, seeing some as more important than others, but it sees them all as bearers of the truth of the one same message. Jesus is one of the prophets.

 

In the same way as Muslims, do you Christians recognize all prophets as such, including Muhammad?

 

II. Muslim Perspectives

 

General

 

The Quran mentions many prophets who were sent by God in the course of history, one after another. Jesus is one of the greatest among them (2:136,253; 3:84; etc.). However, the sequence of prophets reaches its conclusion and fulfilment in Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets (33:40). The Islamic faith consequently recognizes in the revelation of the Quran the criterion of truth in all religious questions.

 

Muslims feel offended when Christians deny to Muhammad the status of a prophet. Furthermore, Muslims feel that by denying the prophethood of Muhammad, whom God himself chose to be the bearer of the Quran for the whole human race, Christians also deny the religious, spiritual and mystical value of Islam, i.e. the living religious practice both of Muslims in general and also of their specific Muslim partners in dialogue. Muslims also experience this rejection as an insult to the person whom they have been taught to respect and love from their earliest childhood. This feeling is often strengthened when the Muslim dialogue partner is familiar with the negative judgements on Muhammad which have a long tradition in Christian literature and theology, where Muhammad is sometimes portrayed as a liar and a deceiver.

 

Detailed

 

From the beginning, the Quran claims to be delivering the same monotheistic message which God had already bestowed upon earlier prophets and which now in the Quran is communicated in clear Arabic language. The Quran mentions many of these prophets by name, the names of most of them being familiar to us from the biblical tradition. After Adam come Enoch (Idr?s), Noah (N?h), Abraham (Ibrah?m), Isaac (Ish?q), Ishmael (Isma??l), Lot (L?t), Jacob (Ya?q?b), Joseph (Y?suf), Jethro (Shu?ayb), Moses (M?s?), Aaron (H?r?n), David (D?w?d), Solomon (Sulaim?n), Elijah (Ily?s), Elisha (Al-y?s?), Jonah (Y?nus), Job (Ayy?b), Zechariah (Zakariyya) and his son John (Yahy?) the Baptist, and Jesus (??s?), the son of Mary. (Mary is not called a prophet in the Quran and is not generally reckoned as such by Muslims, but she is accorded great respect and is indeed the only woman to be named in the Quran.) Apart from Elijah, Elisha, Jonah and Moses (on some occasions), these characters are not normally reckoned as prophets in the Bible. On the other hand, the four major and the twelve minor biblical prophets – apart from Jonah – are not mentioned in the Quran, and Jonah is only mentioned in the context of the story of the great fish that swallowed him. The Quran also names in passing the prophet Dh?lkifl, who has sometimes been identified with Ezekiel. In addition, there are Quranic prophets unknown in the Bible, notably H?d, the prophet of the tribe of ?d, and S?lih, the prophet of the tribe of Tham?d.

 

Three of the Quranic prophets are dealt with in particular detail. They are the central characters in numerous Quranic narratives, which sometimes call to mind biblical passages but also sometimes differ from these considerably.

 

Abraham is ready, in obedience to God, to sacrifice his son, who is not named in the Quran but who all Muslims now believe was Ishmael rather than Isaac, as in the Bible. Abraham greets and welcomes the angels sent to him by God. He is a striking and perfect model of monotheistic faith. He purifies Meccan worship from polytheism and together with his son Ishmael lays the foundation stone of the Kaaba.10 Uniquely among the prophets it is thus Abraham who shapes the prayers and the spirit of the Hajj (the pilgrimage prescribed for Muslims in the Quran).

 

Moses is saved from the waters of the Nile and brought up at the court of Pharaoh. Later, with the help of his brother Aaron, he obtains permission for his people to leave Egypt. After the crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground, on Mount Sinai God speaks to Moses (who is thus known as kal?m All?h) and God entrusts to him the Torah (i.e. the five books of Moses).

 

Jesus is born to the Virgin Mary in a miraculous way (under a palm tree in the desert); he receives from God the Gospel (Inj?l – a single book); preaches monotheism to the Sons of Israel; performs various miracles (for example, giving life to a bird made out of clay, revealing secret thoughts, healing the blind and lepers, raising the dead to life). He is confronted with the hostility of the Jews, who even claim to have crucified him. That, however, is an illusion, because God raised Jesus to himself in heaven before the Jews could carry out their plan. Jesus is alive and will come again at the end of time as a forerunner preparing the way for the Day of Judgement, and proclaiming that Islam is the true religion. During his life he foretells the coming of the last of the prophets, who will bear the name Ahmad (61:6; this name is equivalent to Muhammad). He is Word of God and Spirit of God, but neither Son of God nor God himself.

 

The greatest of all the prophets is Muhammad himself, the Seal of the Prophets. He was born in Mecca 570 years after Christ. When he was forty years old this successful merchant received revelations urging him to go forth as a prophet and to proclaim afresh the will of the one God. His words – understood as direct revelation from the preserved tablet in heaven – were gathered together in the Quran. In 622 Muhammad escaped from the persecution of the Meccans through the Hijra11 to Yathrib (later called Medina). There he became not only a religious but also a political leader, uniting all Muslims in their faith in the one God and bringing them together into one community (Umma), which transcended all tribal divisions and, despite some setbacks, steadily grew in power. Muhammad hoped to win Jews and Christians over to his message, which he saw as fulfilling rather than supplanting their own faith, but this hope was not realized. Matters came to a breaking point and Muhammad changed the direction for prayer from Jerusalem to the Kaaba in Mecca. In 630 Muhammad destroyed the idols, paintings and religious symbols in Mecca, which in 632 was the destination for the great pilgrimage, led by Muhammad himself; this established the tradition of pilgrimages which have taken place annually ever since. Muhammad died in 632. Alongside the Quran, Muhammads life and pattern of behaviour provide a model for Muslims. After the death of his wife Khad?ja, he was married to a number of wives at the same time. According to Islamic tradition, he was illiterate, which serves to emphasize that Muhammad owed his teaching entirely to revelation, without any contribution from himself.

 

It is noteworthy that many of the stories of the prophets in the Quran follow the same outline:

 

  • a prophet is chosen by God from among that prophets own people;
  • the prophet speaks his peoples language;
  • he proclaims that there is only one God (the same message that all the prophets teach);
  • from his people he experiences hostility and is even threatened with death;
  • God saves the one whom he has sent and punishes the unbelieving people.

 

This outline fully corresponds with the experience of Muhammad, which appears to be related to the Quranic accounts of his forerunners among the prophets. Thus the Quranic Jesus, like Muhammad, is a preacher of monotheism and, quite consistently, rejects the idea, put in his mouth by others, that he and his mother are gods beside Allah (5:116-117).

 

In Medina, after the Hijra, Muhammad encountered hostility from the local Jewish tribes and also, to a much smaller extent, from Christians. His message is related to the biblical tradition, but with a rather different emphasis. Muhammad therefore saw himself and his community as the only true followers of Abraham and rejected the claims of Jews and Christians to stand in the tradition of Abraham, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but rather the model champion of monotheism, which Muhammad was now renewing and restoring (2:135,140). Further, Muhammad saw himself as the heir of a genuine prophetic tradition, which in himself, as Seal of the Prophets (33:40), found its high point and its fulfilment. The message entrusted to him, the Quran, was thus the criterion for measuring all previous Holy Scriptures: Torah (Tawr?t), Psalms (Zab?r), Gospel (Inj?l). According to Quranic teaching these Scriptures were incorrectly understood, changed, even corrupted (tahr?f) and no longer exist in their original purity. In consequence, Islam is now the one true, uncorrupted religion.

 

III. Christian Perspectives

 

The divine gift of prophecy is an essential element of the biblical tradition in both Old and New Testaments.12 It reaches its highest point in Christ, who is the Word of God in human form and the prophet par excellence. Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12.2). Prophecy has its continuation in the Church, which remains prophetic to the end of time, not only through the teaching which it carries out but also in the totality of its life as the people of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

 

However, the spirit of prophecy can be active beyond the bounds of the visible Church, as was already the case with holy men and women in the Old Testament such as Melchizedek, Job and the Queen of Sheba. Justin, the 2nd century martyr, discerned in a number of philosophers and Gentile soothsayers (such as the Sibylls) the presence of seeds of the Word.13

 

More recently some theologians have gone even further. For example, during the 2nd Muslim-Christian meeting in Tunis (1979), Claude Geffré (Professor at the Catholic Institute in Paris) publicly expressed his opinion that the revelation that came through Muhammad was a word of God, while Christ, who is more than a prophet, is in himself the Word of God. Subsequently, the theologians belonging to GRIC (Groupe de Recherche Islamo-Chrétien, founded in 1977) acknowledged the presence in the Quran of a word of God, genuine but different… from the Word of God in Jesus Christ. The differences and indeed the contradictions (for example, the Quranic denial of mysteries so central to the Christian faith as the Incarnation and the Trinity) were to be seen as the result of human mediation, the channel through which Gods word must inevitably pass.14

 

Among theologians in other Christian traditions we encounter similar developments. In Kenneth Craggs study Muhammad and the Christian, this Anglican bishop and renowned scholar of Islam invites Christians to acknowledge openly that Muhammad was truly a prophet, while at the same time maintaining that Jesus is more than a prophet.15

 

The 2nd Vatican Council did not make a definitive statement on this matter but it did encourage a transition to a general spirit of openness towards Islam on the part of the Church, without, however, ever mentioning Muhammad by name. It declared that the Church regards Muslims with esteem (this was indeed something new!) and mentions the Islamic doctrines and rites which deserve such esteem, without denying the essential differences. By challenging Christians to esteem Muslims as believers and monotheistic worshippers, the Council implicitly rejects all the polemical and negative assertions of the past about Muhammad.16 For he is the founder of this community and its beautiful pattern (of conduct), as the Quran says (33:21). Whenever meetings with Muslims have occurred, Popes Paul VI (1897-1978) and John Paul II (1920-2005) have furthered this spirit of brotherliness within faith in the one God, most strikingly in John Paul IIs addresses to the Christians of Turkey (Ankara, November 1979) and to young Muslims in Casablancas stadium (17 August 1985), where the Pope spoke of genuine spiritual brotherhood between Christianity and Islam.

 

Regional bishops conferences and theological seminars have made similar statements. For example the 1971 International Theological Conference at Nagpur in India made the general claim that the scriptures and rites of the religions of the world can, to varying degrees, be bearers of divine revelation and paths to salvation. In his address at the opening session of the 2nd Christian-Muslim Congress of Cordoba (March 1977), Cardinal Tarancon, at that time Archbishop of Madrid and Chairman of the Conference of Spanish Bishops, invited Christians to acknowledge the prophetic status of Muhammad, particularly because of his faith in God, his struggle against polytheism and his thirst for righteousness. As early as the 8th century the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy spoke in similar terms in the course of his dialogue in Baghdad with the Caliph al-Mahdi, saying: Muhammad walked in the way of the prophets.

 

Christians have thus been encouraged to acknowledge the religious and ethical values which have been apparent in Muslims from the beginning and remain so today, but without at the same time removing anything essential from their own Christian faith. The way can therefore be open for Christians to recognize in the Quran a word from God and in the mission of Muhammad something prophetic.

 

IV. Christian Responses

 

1. We are convinced that a true dialogue can only take place on the level of true partnership, and that respect for the faith of the other is an essential component of such dialogue. Thus, just as a Christian cannot demand as a prerequisite for true dialogue that a Muslim must first believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so also a Muslim cannot demand of a Christian that he should first believe that Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets and that the Qur'an is the final and definitive criterion for all Scriptures. For this would mean that a Christian would have to become a Muslim before inter-religious dialogue could begin (or vice versa), and indeed that inter-religious dialogue in general could not take place.17

 

2. Christians honour most of the prophets named in the Quran. However, the Bible also knows a wide range of other prophets, among whom some, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are of particular significance. On the other hand, some of the prophets mentioned in the Quran belong exclusively to the Arab tradition and are not mentioned in the Bible. However, beyond questions about how many prophets there were, what they were called, and what exactly they proclaimed, Christians and Muslims are united by a shared belief in the one God who has spoken to the human race, as the 2nd Vatican Council puts it.18 Christians and Muslims therefore base their faith not only on a philosophical approach to the discovery of God, but much more on the word which comes to them from God through the prophets; they receive this word in faith – God from God, so to say – and submit themselves to it (submission being the precise meaning of isl?m, while muslim means one who submits).

 

3. The essential difference between Christianity and Islam is as follows. For the Muslim, prophetic revelation reaches its highest point and its conclusion in Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets; for the Christian, revelation reaches its highest point in Jesus Christ, the Word of God become human, dying on the cross and as risen Lord representing revelation in its fullness (pleroma). One should therefore avoid calling Jesus the Seal of the Prophets as this title has specifically Islamic content and its use would hinder rather than promote inter-religious dialogue.

 

4. However, the fact that the Christian faith recognizes the fullness of revelation in Jesus does not prevent Christians from acknowledging that God has also made himself known to the human race elsewhere, both before and after Jesus. As regards the Quran and Muhammad, it is possible to acknowledge that the Quran contains a word of God, and not only for Muslims but for all people, and so also for me personally. Indeed, in the Qurans powerful proclamation of the one transcendent God I can acknowledge that an essential element of the message of Jesus himself is recalled, and also that I am invited to live in deeper agreement with that message. Giving a believing Christian response to the message proclaimed in the Quran, I thus acknowledge that Muhammad was sent by God to proclaim an essential aspect of the truth, namely the oneness and transcendence of God. This is an enormously significant aspect of the truth, not least in the modern world, with its widespread forgetfulness of God.

 

5. As Christians and Muslims find themselves witnessing together to this foundational truth and joining in shared submission (isl?m) to Gods work – as this has been communicated to us through our respective revelations – and as Christians and Muslims grasp Gods plan and will for the world more deeply and witness to them more effectively, they will themselves become bearers of this prophetic word for our world.

 

Excursus

 

Jacques Jomier OP, a significant Christian theologian and scholar of Islam, offers some noteworthy reflections on the meaning of Muhammad for Christianity.19 At the time of Muhammad, Christianity required a reform, a renewal in the Spirit of Jesus. Jomier thus proposes to speak of Muhammad from a Christian perspective as a reformer, ascribing to him the charisma of a guide réformiste. In contrast, it would be somewhat confusing for Christians to apply to Muhammad the concept of prophet (understood both from the perspective of Christian theology and also with the normative sense that it has for Islam).

 

1. If the concept prophet is understood in an absolute sense, it indicates a person whose words, when he is speaking in the name of God, are all endowed with divine authority and should be universally obeyed. Understood in this sense, the title prophet cannot be ascribed to the founder of Islam by Christians. Christians, as such, cannot obey Muhammad unreservedly; if they did, they would be Muslims. It is not possible for Christians to accept Muhammad as a prophet in the strict sense, i.e. to believe in him and to obey him. Christians can use the title prophet with reference to Muhammad only with certain limitations; in other words, they cannot accept everything that this prophet says, but rather will accept some things and reject others. For Muslims it is clearly objectionable to take such a selective approach to Muhammad, whom they regard as a true prophet, and indeed the last of the true prophets.

 

2. Christians accept as an aspect of the general history narrated by the Bible that the Hebrew prophets, who prepared the way for the coming of Christ, occupy a unique position. Even minor prophets, such as Zephaniah, share in this uniqueness; although they are known as minor prophets, they have their place in the overall sequence of prophets which is part of the Hebrew tradition. They, along with the texts which go back to them, inspire the totality of the faith of the Church. In a religious and theological sense, the title prophet should therefore not be used of Muhammad by Christians; if it is used it would be in a very limited sense which is unacceptable to Muslim faith. So it is preferable for Christians to take a different perspective on Muhammad: acknowledging the truths within the message of Islam; acknowledging and respecting the spiritual path followed by Muslims; and acknowledging that Muhammad was a religious and political genius. We should acknowledge that through God's grace at work within Islam – formed by the Quran and the example of Muhammad – countless believers live out a genuine relationship with God.

 

3. Finally, it is possible to interpret Islam, considered in the context of the history of religions, as an attempt at radical reform of Judaism and Christianity, but so radical as to involve the distorting of the essential aspects of both of these traditions. Roughly speaking – and mutatis mutandis – one might compare Islam (and its prophet Muhammad) with other major reform movements in the course of history. Islam arose in an environment influenced by Judaism and Christianity, but it was a Christianity torn apart by divisions and doctrinal disputes. However, out of the reform of Judaism and Christianity brought about by Muhammad there arose a new and independent movement. This movement cast light on certain aspects of the current forms of Judaism and Christianity, for example the exclusive unity, transcendence and sovereignty of God, and the invitation to all people to receive salvation; but it rejected other, essential elements of these faiths. Could it not be that at that particular time and in that particular context Islam was entrusted with the task of prompting the Church to reform itself? If we can accept this, it need not at all mean, however, that we must deny those truths which did not find their way into Islam.20

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Translator: Revd. Dr. David Marshall

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