Here is the text of a paper I had to write for a class I took this summer through Fuller Seminary on “understanding Islam.” It was a really interesting class, and as you can see from this paper, there was lots of material to wrestle over. The prompt for the paper was “Who is Muhammad according to Islamic sacred text and tradition, and what do I, a Christian, say about him?” I don’t claim deep expertise here, and this is only my student paper, but I hope some readers might find it interesting
I. Who is Muhammad According to Islamic Sacred Text and Tradition?
In Islamic text and tradition, Muhammad is the Prophet of God. (Hillenbrand, p. 38; Esposito, p. 5; Forward, Chapter 2.) As God’s Prophet, Muhammad received and conveyed the Divine revelation of the Qur’an. (Esposito, p. 19.) Muhammad’s teaching and life beyond the text of the Qur’an are also normative for Muslims. The primary sources for Muhammad’s life and significance in Islamic piety are the Qur’an, the hadith (canonical sayings of Muhammad), and the sira (biographical materials about Muhammad). (Hillenbrand, p. 38). The hadith and sira together form the Sunna, the report of Muhammad’s “customary or normative behavior.” (Ibid., p. 39.) In both the Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, the hadith reports play a “legislative” function over many details of daily life. (Ibid.)
The sira includes various miraculous signs that confirm Muhammad’s status as Prophet and place him a line of Prophets running from the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus. These include the foretelling of Muhammad’s coming by Jewish and Christian sources, the literal cleansing of his heart as a child by angels, and the recognition of his Prophetic status by Bahira the Christian monk. (Hillenbrand, p. 43-44.)
A major challenge for any Christian assessment of Muhammad is the Islamic claim that Muhammad not only follows in line with the Hebrew prophets and Jesus but that by his reception and recitation of the Qur’an he acts as God’s messenger (rasul) to correct corruptions that had crept into the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. This includes the claim that Jesus cannot have been the divine Son of God. Moreover, the Qur’an states that Muhammad is “the Seal of the Prophets,” which most Muslims believe means Muhammad is God’s final Prophet. (Ali, Qu’ran, Sira 33:40; Forward, p. 32.)
In addition to his role as Prophet and lawgiver, many Muslims focus on Muhammad’s personal piety and mystical relationship with Allah. Particularly in the Sufi tradition, Muhammad is an exemplar of the mystical path. (Forward, pp. 42-49.; Hillenbrand, Chapter 8.) The figure of Muhammad also plays a vital role in popular religious life and piety. Many Muslim boys are named after the Prophet, and the Prophet’s name and reputation are jealously guarded. (Forward, pp. 49-53.) Some forms of popular piety involve supposed relics of the Prophet, even though orthodox teaching frowns on such practices. (Ibid.) In addition, Muhammad was a political and military leader and serves for Muslims as an example of effective, pious leadership over the Islamic community or umma. (Hillebrand, pp. 45-47.)
With all the status accorded to Muhammad by Muslims, he is not considered in any sense divine. The central Islamic theme of God’s transcendence and unity (tawhid) precludes any notion that Muhammad could be in any sense a divine being. (Hillenbrand, p. 90; Esposito, pp. 24-25.) The first “pillar” (arkan) of Islam, the basic confession of faith (the shahada), asserts that “I testify that there is no god by God. I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (rasul Allah).” (Hillenbrand, p. 89.) The shahada makes clear both Muhammad’s unique role and his absolute distance from God’s own person.
II. What do I, a Christian, Say About Muhammad?
Polemics between Christians and Muslims historically have focused substantially on the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of Jesus (Christology), and the status and role of Muhammad. (Tieszen, p. 249.) These are interrelated themes because the Qur’anic claims of God’s tawhid, in contrast to Christian claims about Jesus’ Divine Sonship, flow from Muhammad’s role as God’s authorized messenger. The question of Muhammad is also vexing for Muslim-Christian relations because of the central importance within Islam – reflected in the shahada – of recognizing Muhammad as God’s messenger. (Cragg, p. 1.)
Many early Christian responses to Muhammad emphasized his alleged sexual immorality and violence. (Marshall, p. 162.) Some early Christian sources attributed Muhammad’s ecstatic prophetic experiences to epilepsy. (Ibid.) Today some Christians adopt the same kind of approach, often with an emphasis on claims that Muhammad’s revelations were the result of demon possession. (Ibid.) This latter approach intensified starting with the first Iraq war and adopted an even more urgent tone after the September 11 attacks, as some influential popular Christian teachers equated the rise of Islam with dire apocalyptic scenarios focused on the nation of Israel. (Hagee.) Pastor John Hagee’s book Jerusalem Countdown, for example, claims that Islamic leaders in Iran will launch a nuclear war against Israel, which will trigger the “Great Tribulation” at the end of history. It includes a chapter on “Unveiling Islam.” (Ibid.) This book was a New York Times bestseller and sold over one million copies. It is only the tip of the iceberg in a vast network of evangelical and other Christian media enterprises that closely links an extreme form of dispensational chiliasm with the threat of Islam.
The narrative offered by Hagee and others of his ilk powerfully combines themes of American exceptionalism, nativism, and presumptive Biblical piety. It is widely influential in popular American evangelical religion. It undoubtedly has played a role in evangelical support for President Donald Trump, and might even directly influence U.S. policy. (Mathias.) It is also exegetically, theologically, and historically unhinged.
Nevertheless, both the historical and contemporary polemic does illustrate some of the difficulty for any Christian perspective on Muhammad. The prompt for this paper asks “What do I, a Christian, Say About Muhammad” (emphasis added). To identify first as “a Christian,” I must make certain claims about Christ that at points will conflict with orthodox Islamic claims about Muhammad. The core of these differences are not only matters of detail, but also may comprise basic differences in theological outlook.
Some of these differences are explored helpfully in Kenneth Cragg’s groundbreaking book Muhammad and the Christian. (Cragg.) Cragg acknowledges that Christians should recognize the value of Muhammad’s call to abandon idolatry. “The Christian has every reason, conceptual, compassionate and contemporary,” Cragg says, “to recognize how vital that call is in the common world, how kin to the Biblical claim, and how relevant to what he believes to be the goal of the Gospel.” (Cragg, p. 150.) And yet, Cragg notes, this recognition “in no way ends our quarrel: it could mean we continue it as a quest.” (Ibid.) For Cragg, the heart of the difference inheres in what he calls the “Gospel’s patterns” of nonviolent redemption. (Ibid.) The Gospel, Cragg says, discloses that God relates to humans “not only in law and education, but in grace and suffering.” (Ibid., p. 158.) Cragg thinks the Islamic emphasis on God’s transcendence limits the Islamic imagination’s frame of reference to the domain of power more than the domain of grace. This means Muhammad was a great teacher of law and morals, but not, from a Christian perspective, a messenger of the deeper truths of grace.
As David Marshall notes, although it seems that Cragg does affirm Muhammad as a prophet (at least with a small “p”), Cragg’s characterization is in fact ambiguous. (Marshall, p. 167.) Reading through all of Cragg’s Muhammad and the Christian, the sense conveyed is one of sympathetic engagement, a degree of perplexity, and some reservation, with a hope that Muslim interlocutors might come to see more of what Christians think about Christ.
Hans Küng’s work on Islam provides an interesting comparison to Cragg’s. (Küng.) Küng notes that, “[i]n the Qur’an Muhammad is presented as a prophet in the strict sense: he is not just a nabi, not just a usual kind of prophet, but a rasul, a messenger of God who – like Moses, David (the Psalms) and Jesus – has brought his people a book.” (Ibid., p. 94.) And yet, Küng suggests, “[a]t the same time the Qur’an emphasis that Muhammad is no more than a prophet, no more than a human being.” (Ibid.) Küng suggests that this emphasis on Muhammad’s humanity, and correspondingly on the absolute ontological distance between God and the Prophet, can help Christians overcome the fear that Muhammad supplants Jesus, even while acknowledging the Islamic claim to Muhammad’s prophetic finality.
In many ways Küng here makes arguments that are similar to Cragg’s, but Küng departs from Cragg in his assessment of Muhammad’s role as a warrior. Cragg sees the violent aspects of Muhammad’s life, compared to the life of Jesus, as a real difference between a faith rooted in law and a faith rooted in grace. Küng, in contrast, portrays Muhammad as a defender of justice for his marginalized community, in line with the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. (Küng, p. 98-100; 119-120.) Küng thinks it is appropriate for Christians to inquire critically into Muhammad’s actions, but he notes that we must remember how we contextualize the actions of our prophets. As Küng asks, “isn’t it perhaps simply a dogmatic prejudice for Christians to recognize Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the extremely violent Elijah as prophets, but not Muhammad?” (Küng, p. 123.)
Küng then, like Cragg, suggests Christians should appreciate the Qur’an’s ethical imperatives and, beyond Cragg, clears away some underbrush concerning comparisons between Muhammad and prophets in the Jewish-Christian pantheon regarding violence. But this does not yet reach the central issue of how Christians, committed to Christ the suffering servant, can appropriate Muhammad, which is really Cragg’s central reservation. Here, Küng makes some moves that distance him further from Cragg.
Küng notes that, in the Qur’an, Jesus (“‘Isa”) is portrayed, like Muhammad, as an entirely human messenger of God. (Küng, p. 489.) But ‘Isa is not just any human: he is also called “the Messiah” (al-masih), “word of God” (kalimah min Allah), “spirit of God” (ruh min Allah), and “servant of God” (‘abd Allah). (Küng, p. 490; Ali, Qur’an, Sura 3:39, 45; 4:171; 19:16-37; 19:88-93; 43:57-65; 3:39.) Yet, as Küng acknowledges, the Qur’an clearly warns against teaching that Jesus is God’s Son or that God is Triune. (Küng, p. 491; cf. Ali, Qur’an, Sura 5:72.) Küng tries to connect these exalted Qur’anic titles for Jesus, together with the Qur’anic rejection of Jesus’ divinity, with contemporary Biblical scholarship about the title “Son of God” in the Gospels. (Küng, pp. 491-493.)
Küng here draws on a strand of historical-critical scholarship, rooted in von Harnack and others, that takes the later Christian creedal Christological formulations as unwelcomed “Hellenistic” or “Greek” glosses on the more reticent original Hebraic understanding of the Gospels. He suggests that, “[a]s a pious Jew, Jesus himself preached strict monotheism. He never called himself God. . . .” (Ibid, p. 492.) In the Gospels, Küng suggests, Jesus is portrayed as God’s messenger and God’s Messiah, but this is short of a clear claim to divinity. This more limited Christology, according to Küng, was adopted by some kinds of “sectarian Jewish Christianity” that persisted from the Apostolic era through the age of creedal orthodoxy, which unnecessarily squelched the “sectarian Jewish Christian” stream of Christianity. (Ibid., p. 496.)
Küng does not argue, like some modern neo-Gnostics, that the only authentic Jesus is one who is reduced to a non-divine soothsayer-prophet. But he suggests that the high Christology of the creeds can exist in dialogue with the lower Christology of the Gospels and that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can then engage in a “trialogue” about God, Jesus, and Muhammad. (Ibid., pp. 501-502.) If it is at least an option for Christian thought that Jesus’ role and mission might be much more ambiguous than the high Christology suggests, then perhaps there is more room for discussion about Jesus and Muhammad among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
There is much to commend in Küng’s approach, but much to criticize. It can be helpful and important to clarify carefully what Christians mean or do not mean by ascribing divinity to Jesus. Orthodox Chalcedonian Christology is nuanced and difficult, offering at best limited analogies drawn from Platonist thought forms (which, contrary to Harnack, are helpful if we recognize their limitations as analogies). Even Christians who want to adhere to a high Christology have to admit that we really have very little idea what “fully God and fully man” means. It is also helpful to engage the full range of Biblical scholarship on the historical setting and claims of the New Testament. Any claim to find an exalted Chalcedonian Christology in Mark’s Gospel, for example, is likely not a fair, critical look at the text. This kind of careful, nuanced scholarship, in conversation with careful, nuanced Jewish and Islamic scholarship on the foundational scriptures of those communities, encourages mutual understanding and perhaps even produces new insights about common themes.
On Biblical scholarship grounds alone, however, Küng’s argument is pinched at best. Scholars such as Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and others, situate Jesus squarely within Second-Temple Judaism without adopting the radical Harnackian thesis that the Gospels never in any way assert Jesus’ divinity. (Bauckham; Hays; Wright.) There is, of course, lively debate over the work of these scholars, but they cannot simply be ignored. Further, Küng’s dismissal of creedal development, consistent with overly reductive forms of historical-critical scholarship, ignores the function of the Bible within the Christian community. The Biblical text never properly stands alone as a merely historical witness to its own setting, but lives and breathes in the life of the Church as it experiences the presence of Christ and the Spirit. (Gorman; Green.) This is also true, of course, for the Hebrew Scriptures within the varieties of Judaism, and, albeit with a different tonality, for the Qur’an within the varieties of Islam.
Beyond the issue of Küng’s selective Biblical scholarship, it does not seem helpful to suggest a fundamental limitation on the central historic Christian confession that Jesus is Lord. Reading Küng charitably, perhaps he suggests only admission of a variety of Christologies that in different ways elucidate the meaning of Jesus’ Lordship. Even so, if we would not ask Muslims simply to abandon their central confession that Muhammad is Allah’s Prophet, we should not ask ourselves to limit our central confession that Jesus is Lord.
Other Christian thinkers, perhaps falling somewhere between Cragg and Küng in the spectrum of “mainstream” contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue, suggest that Christianity and Islam could be understood as differing modes of God’s revelation. (See Beaumont, pp. 157-160.) In this view, Muhammad could be understood as authentically a “Prophet” by Christians, even if perhaps not with the same sense of finality required by Islamic orthodoxy. One of the most interesting thinkers in this vein is David Kerr, who suggests that Muhammad could be conceptualized in a liberation theology framework as a prophet sent particularly to the Arab peoples. (Kerr.) Kerr argues that notions of “prophecy” in Islam and Christianity can be understood as compatible when viewed through liberation theology. (Kerr, p. 166.) If the Hebrew prophets came to liberate the Jewish people, and Jesus continued that mission, extended by St. Paul to the Greek-Gentile world, Muhammad furthers the mission to the Arab peoples.
Since the prompt for this paper uses the personal pronoun “I,” I will break scholarly convention a bit and speak in the first person. Kerr’s proposal is very attractive to me as a legal scholar who is interested in political theology. It offers the benefit of moving the conversation back from the specifics of doctrine to the universal concerns of human beings regardless of creed. This move is consistent with broader conversations about the rule of law and human rights that are so much the focus of “law and religion” scholarship. However, ultimately Kerr’s proposal embodies an eschatological frame that is unsatisfactory to me as a Christian theologian. I appreciate Christian liberation theology, but it can be criticized for rendering the Kingdom of God into an entirely immanent political key that elides anything distinctive about Christ and the future fulfillment of the Kingdom. As John Milbank has noted, particularist conceptions of justice underlie any authentic call for liberation, and those concepts as we usually express them in the West have deep roots in the philosophical tradition running from Greek thought through Christianity. Christianity’s particular frame of reference therefore is implicated by any meaningful discussion of “justice.” (Milbank.) And, in the end, much of liberation theology is inconsistent with what I as a lawyer want to say about the rule of law, particularly to the extent the more radical versions of liberation theology are rooted in Marxism, anarchism or even violence. (See, e.g, Cone.)
In Kerr’s summary of other possible middle ground views, he refers to Orthodox theologian George Khodr, who discusses the presence of the Holy Spirit everywhere in the world. (Kerr, p. 159.) Khodr wrote some of the materials quoted by Kerr in the context of ecumenical dialogue with other Christian churches. Consistent with his Eastern Orthodox perspective, Khodr emphasizes the Eastern view of the filioque and the process of the Spirit and the Son directly from the Father. (Khodr, p. 305-307.) For Khodr, this means the Spirit – and therefore the Father and the Son – are present even where the Church is not fully present. This means that, not only in non-Orthodox Christian communions, but also in Judaism and Islam, the Father and Son also can be present, even if not fully recognized, through the Spirit. Khodr argues that, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all people, so that “[t]he Spirit is present everywhere and fills everything by virtue of an economy distinct from that of the Son.” (Ibid., p. 305.) For Khodr, this means that the Spirit “appears through the scriptures of the non-Christian religions” and that Christians should approach an adherent of another religion “as someone who has something to teach us and something to manifest to us of God.” (Ibid, p. 306.)
I appreciate Khodr’s approach, but I do not want to make the East-West distinction regarding on the filioque is as important as he suggests. If the Church is sent within the economy of the missio Dei, and the Church is the body of Christ, and the Church prays for the salvation of the world, then in and through the presence of the Church’s prayers and emanating from the center of the Church’s Eucharistic practice, Christ is present to the whole world. (See Guder; Newbigin; Milbank.) I do not think a robust Christian response to Muhammad can elide either an essentially “orthodox” Christology or a robust ecclesiology. All of the nodes of Christian theological reasoning hang together and cannot be dramatically sundered without grave damage to the whole web.
At the conclusion of his essay The End of Dialogue, John Milbank suggests that Christian dialogue with other faiths should “pursue further the project of securing harmony through difference and a continuous historical conversation not bound by the modern constraints of dialogue around a neutral common topic.” (Milbank, p. 300.) Within this project, Milbank notes, “we should indeed expect to constantly receive Christ again, from the unique spiritual responses of other cultures.” (Ibid.) This seems to me a sound instinct. It is in fact in returning to a deeply “orthodox” Christology and a truly robust ecclesiology that we can recover the universal vision of the Gospels, of St. Paul, and of the entire New Testament.
We can understand, then, that the truth of Islam does not arise in a vacuum. The truth of Islam is truth about God’s tawhid, about creation, about the value of human life and endeavor, about justice and moral life, because God has sent that truth within the economy of the missio Dei. I would offer a qualified agreement with Kerr that we Christians can affirm Muhammad as a “prophet” sent to the Arab peoples and others within a context that was not prepared to receive Christ in the direct, material presence of the Church. I would go a bit further than I think Cragg does in suggesting more consonance between the redemptive themes in Islam – indeed even the elements of “grace” in Islam – with the Christian Gospel. I can understand Muhammad at least as the Church Fathers understood Plato and other Greek thinkers, as the logos spermatikos, the seeds of the Word. (Justin Martyr, Ch. 10.) But, at the same time, I would not go nearly as far as Küng. The central Christian confession is that Jesus is Lord, and this does mean that at points, at least for the present, Muslims and Christians will need to disagree on at least some of the implications of the Islamic claim that Muhammad is “the Seal of the Prophets.”
Milbank also notes in The End of Dialogue that he does “not pretend that [his] proposal means anything other than continuing the work of conversion.” (Milbank, p. 300.) The title of that essay itself is a play on words: not that dialogue should cease, but that the end, the goal, of dialogue ultimately is conversion. If Milbank here means our own continual conversion, the continual conversion of the Church, as well as the continual conversion of people of other faiths, I agree wholeheartedly. If Milbank’s notion of “conversion” runs only in one direction (I do not think it does, but the traffic for him might be thicker in one direction than another!), then I would strongly demur on that point. I hope we can yet look forward to a day, ultimately an eschatological day but perhaps an eschatological day that breaks into hidden spaces of the present, in which Muslims and Christians can understand each other better under the providential care of the one God – even as, or because, I continue to hope and believe that this will include Muslims better coming to know Jesus in ways that exceed the traditional Islamic understanding of the limits on Jesus’ divinity set by the revelation received by Muhammad and recorded in the Qur’an.
 See Christian Book Expo sales awards, 2008, available at http://christianbookexpo.com/salesawards/.
 I am aware here that I refer to “the West,” which raises numerous questions about dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Space precludes me from dealing with the ways in which I would want to nuance and limit Milbank’s fixation on “the West.” (Milbank deals with this distinction somewhat in the cited essay at pages 294-295.) Nevertheless, Milbank is correct to point out that the values of liberation theology are drawn either from classical liberalism or Marxism (which contends with classical liberalism) and that, therefore, liberation theology exists as a phenomenon in relation to Western modernity, which only exists in historical relation to Christian and Greek thought.
 I do not want to suggest an easy dismissal of liberation theology or of Cone’s work. For a review I wrote on A Black Theology of Liberation, see http://davidopderbeck.com/tgdarkly/2017/08/29/james-cone-a-black-theology-of-liberation/.
 Again, space limits a full consideration of Milbank’s various, often inconsistent, and in recent years increasingly polemical writings on Islam. I appreciate his general instinct that Christian theology and practice should proceed from unapologetically Christian grounds in our consideration of and relations with other faiths. I disagree with some of what he thinks that means, particularly in relation to Islam.
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