A Christian Appreciation of Muhammad
This paper is based on my presentation at the Symposium and Consultation on “Considering the Root Causes of Conflict and the Path to Lasting Peace”, Plenary 1, held in Jerusalem Dec 19th to 23rd 2003 under the auspices of the Inter-religious and International Federation for World Peace and the Inter-religious and International Peace Council. This paper is published in Dialogue and Alliance Vol 17 No 2 Fall/Winter 2003.4
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure for me to speak at this symposium on ways that Christians might appreciate the Prophet Muhammad, since this is a subject on which I have reflected and written for more than two decades. Christians have written extensively on Muhammad – we have writings by Christians from the very earliest period of Christian-Muslim encounter as well as more recent contributions. What has characterised most Christian writing on Muhammad – and for that matter on Islam generally – is a negatively critical appraisal of who he was, especially of his claim to be God’s prophet. On the one hand, Christianity does pose some legitimate theological problems – legitimate, that is, for Christians - when they think about who Muhammad was. On the other hand, political and psychological factors have also influenced what Christians have thought, said and written about Muhammad and these three tend to overlap making it difficult if not impossible to identify them discreetly. What I shall do in this talk is to identify some of these factors, theological, political and psychological, before suggesting ways that Christians might move towards what might be called a Christian appreciation of Muhammad as a genuine apostle of God.
I should make it clear that I do not think that Christians can completely share a Muslim view of Muhammad, while remaining Christian but I do think that it is possible for Christians to draw much closer to a Muslim view than they have usually done. In asserting this, I am one of only a handful of Christian scholars who have pursued this argument. In doing so I have attracted criticism that I am watering down or compromising my faith. My critics tell me that I must decide between loyalty to Jesus and loyalty to Muhammad, since one cannot serve two masters. Either Jesus is for me the way, the truth and the life, or Muhammad’s example is the model I should imitate in order to live my life in harmony with God’s will. The choice, I am told, is simple. Much Christian literature examines Jesus’ claims to be God’s final and complete revelation, and, comparing and contrasting Jesus’ claims with Muhammad’s claim to be the recipient of God’s final message, finds the latter’s claim wanting. This does take us to the heart of the theological problematic in Christian-Muslim relations – despite all that many Christians and many Muslims readily acknowledge as common between them, a rival truth claim lies at the very centre of our encounter. For Christians, Jesus represents the complete, perfect, eternally valid disclosure of God’s will for humanity. For Muslims, the Qur’an is God’s complete, comprehensive and conclusive revelation, and Muhammad who received it is its best interpreter. For Christians, revelation ends with Jesus; for Muslims, it ends with Muhammad, who is the seal of Prophecy. Here we have the theological impasse that has hindered and hampered Christian-Muslim relations from the get-go.
As a Christian whose whole adult career has been devoted to improving Christian-Muslim relations, I have actually felt wrong-footed by the fact that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, which is mandated by the Qur’an itself, while when I turn to comment on Muhammad, I find no explicit guidance in my own scripture. Muslims, for their part, do believe that the Bible predicts Muhammad but it has to be said that Christians regard most of the verses that Muslims apply to Muhammad as pointing to Jesus, or to the Holy Spirit so agreement here is unlikely to emerge very easily. Of course, Muslims also raise critical issues in their discourse with Christians, for example, about the Christian Trinity, and whether we have tampered with our Bible, or not. In fact, Christians have applied biblical texts to Muhammad, and they have done this from the very beginning of their contact with Muslims but these texts have done nothing to encourage a positive view of the prophet of Islam. Seeing Islam as a rival religion – and the emerging Muslim khalifate as a political rival to both the Byzantine East and the Western Holy Roman Empire - verses predicting false prophets, and the rise of the anti-Christ, proved too attractive for Christians to resist applying to Muhammad. He just had to be the antithesis of Jesus, just as Islam had to be the antithesis of Christianity. If Jesus was God’s son, the Prince of Peace, redeemer of the world, Muhammad had to be Satan’s son, or servant, with a sword in one hand, and his false scripture, the ‘qu’ran’ in the other. Christianity led humanity into the Light; Islam took people in the opposite direction. Psychology is obviously at work here. Psychologist Kenneth J Gergen, writing on alterity, argues that as the ‘Other’ is described, and their actions explained, in negative ways, with few if any attempts to listen to their self-descriptions, ‘there is a tendency for accounts of the other to become simplified’(1999 p 140 – 41). The tendency to ‘avoid’ the Other results in an accumulation of negative and unchallenged descriptions so ‘evil’ becomes located in the Other who ‘slowly … takes on the shape of the stupid or villainous’. This is exactly what happened in Christian discourse on Muhammad – the more negative and villainous the description of him became, it was less and less likely that any reference was made to Muslim sources, so that even when these became available to Christian scholars, belief in Muhammad’s satanic inspiration could still survive, as in Sir William Muir’s 1861 Life of Mahomet, regarded by some as a definitive account. Early legends about Muhammad’s body being suspended by a giant magnet over his tomb at Makkah and of birds pecking grain from behind his ear being mistaken for the Angel Gabriel– survived into at least the seventeenth century, when in Protestant literature Muhammad vied with the Pope for the title of anti-Christ. If Muhammad was not to be a divine servant, alternative explanations had to found for his success. A chronicle of Christian calumny against Muhammad can easily cause offence, although it does show how much historical antipathy has to be overcome if Christians are to develop a positive view of Muhammad. In Christian literature, Muhammad was at best sincerely misguided; at worst, he was consciously insincere. Incidents from the biography of Muhammad were selected to support these claims, rarely with any reference to how Muslims themselves understand the texts. Muslim voices were rarely heard – even when Islamic texts were used, Muslim interpretation was systematically excluded from Christian discourse.
Muslims revere the Qu’ran; Christians have tended to ridicule it. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is wholly divine, literally God’s word – Christians have tended to see it as Muhammad’s creation – as a somewhat composite work drawn from earlier Jewish and Christian sources. For Christians, there is in Jesus all that is needed for righteousness; all that is needed to live a life reconciled to God – so any revelation after him is redundant. This makes is very difficult for Christians to find a place for Muhammad, or for the Book he brought, in their worldview. Some argue that there is no need to accommodate Muhammad anyway – since the theological equivalent of Jesus, as God’s Word in Christian thought, in Islam is the Qur’an, not Muhammad. They then go on to declare that as the Qur’an’s claims fail, there is no need to accommodate it either! I do not want to elaborate in detail on this traditional view – anyone interested can peruse the website, www.answering-islam.org for many examples of this, including such ancient texts as the ninth century Apology by al-Kindy, and more recent writings by Sir William Muir, William St-Clair Tisdall, and others.
How then have I and others attempted to move beyond stereotypes, beyond traditionally name calling, beyond how Islamic texts have been interpreted in the past, towards what might be called a Christian appreciation of Muhammad? Allow me to answer this by reading some extracts from a Muslim review of my own writing. On the website, www.islamicperspectives.com, Dr Ahmad Shafaat wrote in May, 2002;
Christian books on Islam and its prophet often have a negative view of both … what is problematic is that Christian writers often apply different criteria for their own traditions than they do to the Muslim traditions …Now at last there have started to appear books where Christian writers talk about both Muhammad and Jesus and use some measure of consistent methodology. Bennett’s two books In Search of Muhammad and In Search of Jesus taken together fall in [this category]. There are many positive things to say about Bennett’s two books … in both books Bennett repeatedly shows concern about how our conclusions are influenced by our assumptions and backgrounds and gives some thought to the ways of avoiding this …Bennett’s approach allows him to treat Islamic traditions and their Muslim interpretation with sensitivity and respect, not often found among Christian writers … Even when he describes at length some very hostile views of Christian writers on Islam and its Prophet he either counters then by Muslim understandings or his own more favourable view.
Least I be accused of blowing my own trumpet, I should add that Dr Shafaat goes on in his 23 page review to make some very critical, though constructive, comments – essentially, he says that I have produced a Jesus who is unrecognisable as the Jesus worshipped in my own church, while on Muhammad I have listened to minority or sectarian Muslim voices. Be that as it may. Personally, I believe that my view of Jesus is an acceptable Christian view and that my attempt to formulate an appreciation of Muhammad is a legitimate theological enterprise. In brief, I want to suggest the following strategy. First, to address the apparently irreconcilable difference between how Christians have seen Muhammad’s life – as a sinner’s guide – and how Muslims see his life, as a noble example, Christians should read such biographies as Martin Lings’ Muhammad, or Karen Armstrong’s. Christians should also give credit to Muslim scholarship of Islamic sources which views many of the incidents so popular among Christian writers as later invention, that is, of failing the strictest tests of authenticity that are applied to the hadith, the accounts of Muhammad’s acts and words. Then, a much more positive view of Muhammad as a goodly, godly man will begin to emerge, replacing the traditional negative view like light shining into a very dark place. Second, Christians will never accept that the Qur’an supersedes the Bible, or Jesus, but they can accept that God still inspires human writers, just as God inspired the New Testament’s writers, such as Paul and John. They can accept that he inspired Michelangelo’s art, St Francis of Assisi’s life and work, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King. Many accept that God inspired Gandhi, even though he was not a Christian. So, why could God not have inspired Muhammad? This does not resolve everything between Muslims and Christians, as Christians may accept the Qur’an as an inspired text but they cannot share Muslim conviction about its completely non-human origin. Yet it does allow for a much more favourable view of both Book and Prophet. Thirdly, if as a Christian I believe that God’s revelation of God’s-self in Jesus is definitive, this does not preclude God from revealing God’s-self elsewhere as well, although such a revelation would have to be consistent with that in Jesus. So, I argue in my writing that Jesus and Muhammad do not rival but complement each other, and that aspects of Muhammad’s sunnah, or example, can supplement what God says to me in Jesus, sometimes providing more substance to Jesus’ ethic. For example, Jesus says ‘love your neighbour’; Muhammad puts flesh to that with detailed guidance of treatment of employees, on wealth distribution, on care for the poor. I am suggesting not that Muhammad’s example can have the same value for Christians as it does for Muslims, as I stated at the outset, but that recognition of its value does not conflict with a primary loyalty to Jesus. Fourthly, a God who loves justice, as affirmed by Bible and Qur’an, might prefer us all to work for justice and for peace instead of arguing about Unity, or Trinity, or the reliability of scriptures. As the Qur’an says, ‘If Allah had so willed, he could have made you one community but his plan is to test you in what he has revealed, so as in a race strive in all virtues (5: 48). Whatever difficulties remain, this verse testifies that God revealed both our paths and that pluralism is part of the divine plan. We who are Christian might consider applying Gamaliel’s advice at Acts 5: 38-9 to Islam, ‘if of God, it will flourish, if of man, it will fail’. Finally, when my Muslim, and for that matter my Jewish friends, tell me that Jesus pointed people to God, not to himself, and suggest that we Christians are wrong to worship Jesus, I should listen, and at least consider whether a Jesus who calls me to do as he did, and to believe in the goodness of God, rather than to worship him, may not be closer to the real Jesus who lies behind the Gospels. Thank you for listening.
Armstrong, Karen (1993) Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Harper, San Francisco
Bennett. Clinton (1998) In Search of Muhammad, London and NY, Continuum
Bennett, Clinton (2001) In Search of Jesus, London and NY, Continuum
Gerger, Kenneth J (1999) An Introduction to Social Constructivism, London, Sage
Al-Kindy (1882) The Apology of Al-Kindy, translated by Sir William Muir, London, SPCK
Lings, Martin (1986) Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, London, Harper Collins
Muir, Sir William (1858-51) Life of Mahomet (4 Volumes), London, Smith and Elder
Muir, Sir William (1878) The Coran. Its composition and teaching; and the testimony it bears to the Holy Scripture, London, S.P.C.K.
St Clair-Tisdall, William (1905) The Historical Sources of the Qur’an, London, S.P.C.K.
© Clinton Bennett 2004