24 September, 2009

Essay - An Essay on Christian-Muslim Relations

“We Muslims recognise Jesus as a prophet, so why don’t Christians recognise Muhammad as a prophet?’ How should Christians respond?

The question posed by this essay finds resonance with the current debate about the importance of dialogue with the Muslim community in the United Kingdom and Western civilisation. The words of St Peter should remind Christians to be prepared to answer a legitimate query such as this: ‘always be ready to make your defence [...] of the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15).
The first part of this paper will briefly examine the concept of prophetism as presented by the Biblical and Qur’anic traditions. It will then turn to consider some of the issues arising from the title question; i.e. the prophetic ministry of Jesus in the Islaminc tradition against its meaning in Christian beliefs. In order to avoid further misunderstandings between the two faith communities it is very important to clarify the differences between the ‘Islamic Jesus’ and the ‘Christian Jesus’ and to examine whether or not Muhammad could be recognised as the Prophet who received the ‘Book with the truth’ (cf. 5:48)[1] from God.
The second part of this essay will focus on some Qur’anic doctrines relating to the Scriptures, Christology and the Trinity. These teachings have been the source of debate between Christians and Muslims since the first decades of the Islamic expansion (mid 7th Cantury). The incompatibility of these doctrines with fundamental Christian beliefs will argue against the acceptance of Muhammad as a prophet.

The role of a prophet
Karl Rahner defines the role of a prophet as a messenger entrusted with a revelation from God and with tasks that might be perceived as revolutionary. He is ‘the bearer of a revelation, [...] the legatus divinus[2]. Prophetism should not be understood as mere foretelling or divination, but as an instrument of divine self-revelation amongst humanity. A strong element of the prophet’s awareness of his own vocation is fundamental in understanding his/her ministry.
Both Muslims and Christians can associate to this basic definition the prophetic figures presented in the Qur’an and the Bible. Moreover, from a simplistic and literal point of view Jesus and Muhammad equally embody the highest possible standards of prophetism. Nevertheless, it seems that however similar the two figures might appear in relation to this minimal definition, the resemblances are very limited.

The ‘Islamic Jesus’ as a prophet
Jesus is acknowledged by the Qur’an as a great prophet. Indeed, he is presented as the greatest of all apart from Muhammad, of whom he is the last forerunner (cf. 4:171 and 5:110). Jesus is born from the Virgin Mary, ‘a saintly woman’ (5:75) and he is the incarnate Word and Spirit of Allah. Furthermore, he is revered as the Messiah. Jesus revealed the Gospel entrusted to him and the actions which characterised his life found no comparison in the Torahic tradition inherited by the Qur’an. The Gospel was a revelation from Allah and people could find in it guidance, light and reminders of the law given through Moses. The fullness of truth was only to be disclosed through Muhammad who is God’s prophet par excellence (5:48), thus making Jesus the second in a threefold, ascending scale of greatness and divine revelation. The Qur’an understands the Gospel as Allah’s own (partial) self-revelation to Israel. Although the message is given to Christ it does not belong to him as Jesus is completely subject to the divine will like the rest of creation. Therefore, it is important to understand that the prophetic ministry of Jesus is the obligatory response God.

The ‘Christian Jesus’ as the prophet
The Bible portrays Jesus as the Messiah, the Word made flesh and the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies of Israel. The Islamic tradition can on the whole agree with this statement. However, there are two important element of Jesus’ ministry constitute a useful theological argument against Qur’anic claims.
i. Jesus is a ‘law giver’ often identified with the new Solomon and the new Moses. This character is particularly relevant in the Gospel according to Matthew where the Evangelist presents the precepts given by Jesus as the fulfilment of the Mosaic Law and the Hebrew tradition (e.g. cf. Mt 5:17). This completion cannot be surpassed by any other prophet whilst the task of helping believers to understand is proper of the Holy Spirit which is to lead into ‘all truth’ (John 12:13).
ii. Jesus is ‘the great prophet and the absolute bringer of salvation[3]. The divine revelation that flows from Jesus is perfect because of the basic nature of his being. He is the incarnate Word of God who speaks to reveal the Father. The Johannine tradition, for instance, is crucial in understanding this point: ‘The Father and I [Jesus] are one’ (John 10:30). Jesus gives the opportunity to the believers of experiencing the presence of God in the life of the Kingdom. Prophecy does not stop after Jesus but it is supposed to point towards the Messiah and encourage people in following Him as they wait for the ‘consummation of history[4].
There are some further fundamental theological differences between the Jesus presented in the Qur’an and the Jesus presented in the Bible. Some of these discrepancies will be examined in the second part of this essay.

Muhammad as a prophet
The core belief of Islam is summed up in the Shahada: ‘There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of God’ (49:19). This is a formula recited by Muslims in the daily call to prayer and it is the first and main ‘pillar’ of Islam[5]. Through repeating the Shahada, faithful Muslims affirm the belief in Muhammad as the greater prophet of Islam, the one who received the full revelation from Allah. The message entrusted to the prophet is the Qur’an itself, the book which God dictated to Muhammad through visions.
The mission of the prophet is to preach a message of good news and warnings (cf. 5:20) and to correct the beliefs of Christians and Jews who are accused of ‘tampering’ (5:41) the Scriptures and exaggerating some ideas. This belief that all the ‘people of the Book’ before Muhammad have misunderstood or corrupted the divine revelation is a strong feature of Islam[6].
Muhammad is the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (39:40). Muslim believe that Moses, Jesus and the other prophets of the Old Testament[7] are just forerunners of Muhammad and their message is only fully understandable when explored in the light of the Qur’an. The sacred text is held with the utmost respect by the Muslim community who doubt about the quality of the divine revelation expressed in the Torah and the Bible. The Qur’an cannot be altered in any way – even translating it is regarded with suspicion as it does not reflect perfectly the nuances of the Arabic language. Allah himself is the guardian of the Qur’an (cf. 15:9).
Muhammad greatness is celebrated in many beliefs about his life and ministry; however, he is not to be worshipped as Christians do with Jesus. Instead, the faithful are called to imitate the ways Muhammad lived out the message of revelation. Guidelines about moral conduct and day-to-day life are thus expounded from the Qur’an, the Hadith and the Sunna. The two latter books contain a record customs, sayings and way of life of the prophet[8] and are regarded as the pinnacle of the Islamic Tradition.
Considering the notions briefly examined above it is possible to formulate a first answer to this essay question.

Acknowledging Muhammad as the prophet in the Christian tradition?
It seems that both the Qur’an and the Bible claim the supremacy of respectively Muhammad and Jesus as the ultimate, insuperable prophet. These claims create a deadlock situation from which it is not possible to escape unless either faith capitulates in favour of the other.
Muhammad cannot be acknowledged as the Prophet by Christians as this would go against the fundamental understanding of Jesus’ prophetic message in the Bible. As we have seen in the paragraph about Jesus in the Christian tradition, the Messiah is recognised as the ‘absolute bringer of salvation’ and this contrasts dramatically with the Islamic understanding of Jesus’ office. There cannot be a prophet greater than Jesus because of the very same nature of Christ, he is the eternal Word of the Father and in him – not just via his ministry – the immediacy of God can be discovered. For instance, the Islamic and Christian narratives of the Incarnation are profoundly different in their respective theologies. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is presented as the ‘Emmanuel’, God-with-us (Mt 1:23) thus affirming the unique economy of salvation revealed in the personhood and office of the Messiah.
From this point of view, to acknowledge Muhammad as the Prophet would equal to commit apostasy and turn away from the immediacy of God as presented by Jesus.
However, there are further considerations to be made. Rahner[9] and other theologians are of the view that prophecy does not cease to exist with the advent of Christ. Indeed, St Paul’s exhorts the Corinthian community to engage in prophecy for the building up and encouragement of others (cf. 1Cor 14:3). On this point it is worth examining whether or not Muhammad could be regarded by Christians as a prophet thus trying to mediate between the Qur’anic and the Biblical prospectives.

Muhammad’s teachings about Jesus and Christianity
The Islamic world often refers to Jews and Christians as ‘the people of the Book’ (e.g. 4:153) and thus elevating them a little from the other World religions. Nevertheless, a mentioned earlier, Muslims hold the belief that the Scriptures as the heart of these two traditions have been corrupted or exaggerated.
Some theological understandings of the Islamic tradition are markedly in contrast with some Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation and the Trinity. Both of them will be taken briefly in consideration here.
a) The Incarnation. Mary is presented by the Qur’an in a very similar way to some strands of Christianity. However, her virginity at the annunciation is a mark of Allah’s power rather than a proof of Jesus’ unique status[10]. Jesus is created in the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb and he is the word and spirit of God. Although, the Messiah has an eschatological role to play and remains in heaven until the Day of Judgment he is not immortal. Both Mary and her Son are the only human beings untouched by the Devil – hence by sin[11].
b) The Trinity. The Qur’an rejects the idea of the Trinity or rather rejects the idea of a sacred Triad. In the 5th sura Jesus is questioned by Allah on why he taught to his followers to worship him and his mother beside the one true God (cf. 5:116). In other places the book denounces the errors of the Christians who supposedly worship two gods – again Jesus and Mary – alongside Allah (cf. 2:120). This error is defined by Muslims as ‘shirk’ or association[12].

Muhammad as a prophet
Prophetism of the Christian era has to be point towards the person and the ministry of Christ. As mentioned earlier the ministry of Christ cannot be surpassed thus every prophecy expressed after His advent should corroborate His message. In the light of this statement and of the inconsistent teachings of the Qur’an in regards of the Christian faith, it would be impossible for Christians to acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet of God.
From literal ad historical viewpoints Muhammad’s teachings seem the product of the cultural environment of 7th century Arabia. His views about the Incarnation of Jesus are inconsistent and not clear, perhaps conditioned by Arianism or Jewish heresies[13] such as the belief in a ‘spirit-filled Messiah’. In rejecting this argument John of Damascus called the Muslim ‘mutilators’ as they acknowledged the Word of God present in Christ, but denied to it divinity or unbegotten-ness. Athanasius employed a similar argument in fighting against the Arian[14].
In the case of the Trinity, Muhammad’s views are merely inconsistent with the reality of Christian beliefs and practice. The Qur’anic argument about the Trinity does not reflect the nature of ‘the Three in One’, but it supposes Christians to believe in the divine status of Mary as well as Jesus.
The message proclaimed by Muhammad is in its larger part inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible and of the Christian tradition. Moreover, the Qur’an denounces the Scriptures as corrupted and the Biblical ministry of Jesus as false. Because of these reasons it is impossible for Christians to regard Muhammad as a prophet.

Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret, Oxford University Press (1956), Oxford
N.J. Dawdood (trans.), The Koran, Penguin Books (1956), Harmondsworth (UK)
Andrew Louth, St John Damascene, Oxford University Press (2002), Oxford
Karl Rahner, Cornelius Ernst and Kevin Smyth (edit), Sacramentum Mundi, Burns & Oates (1970), London
Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press (2004), Oxford
David Waines, An Introduction to Islam, (2nd edit) Cambridge University Press (2003), Cambridge

[1] The number is brackets refer to suras or verses of the Qur’an unless otherwise specified.
[2] Karl Rahner, “Prophetism” in Sacramentum Mundi (1970) 111
[3] Ibid. 112
[4] Ibid.
[5] cf. David Waines (2003) 30.
[6] cf. Ibid. 27
[7] There is no mention of the prophetic writings in the Qur’an in the way the Judeo-Christian tradition would understand them. Instead, Abraham, Noah and Moses are all example of messengers entrusted by Allah with a particular revelation.
[8] cf. David Waines (2003) 23
[9] cf. Karl Rahner, “Prophetism” in Sacramentum Mundi (1970) 112
[10] cf. David Waines (2003) 58
[11] cf. Ibid.
[12] cf. Andrew Louth (2002) 78
[13] cf. Ibid. 79
[14] cf. Ibid. 82

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