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Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars

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Contemporary Christian Evaluations of Muhammad's Prophethood (Part 6)
The question of the status and prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad has been one of the most crucial and controversial issues in the history of Christian-Muslim relations.ReadingIslam presents a series of articles investigating the answers to the following questions: Can Christians acknowledge the prophethood of Muhammad? How have Christian Orientalists been reviewing their ideas about Prophet Muhammad?The articles will discuss those scholars whose views have generated lively debate within Christianity and who have contributed substantially and positively to the developments of Christian-Muslim dialogue. They are Montgomery Watt, Kenneth Cragg, Hans Küng, and David Kerr.
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Christian scholars have tried to deal sincerely and honestly with the question of the status of Muhammad as a prophet.
Christian scholars have tried to deal sincerely and honestly with the question of the status of Muhammad as a prophet.

This series consists of: Introduction, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Clearly, all the preceding scholars have tried to deal sincerely and honestly with the question of the status of Muhammad as a prophet. They all have tried to give theological room for him within the Christian theology of religion. Thus, they included him within the rank of the Old Testament prophets by using the title 'prophet' when referring to him.

In our opinion, this is indeed a very positive development towards Christian acknowledgement of Muhammad's prophethood. But it also raises an interesting and important question about the understanding of the term 'prophet'. For, as is well known, Christians and Muslims understand different things from it.

The French Catholic scholar, Jacques Jomier, states that according to Christians, a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God by Divine authority. For that reason, he says, when a Christian considers someone a prophet, he or she should obey what that prophet said. In this sense, Jomier argues that Christians cannot use the title 'prophet' for Muhammad because "they cannot obey him without reserve".

Furthermore, Jomier clarifies that when Christians use the title 'prophet' for someone, they do not mean that they accept all that he says, but admit some of it, while rejecting other aspects (146–147). The Dutch Protestant theologian, Hendrik Vroom, also says that when the title 'prophet' is used, it means someone who devotes himself to God as a 'man of God', or is understood to refer to someone who bears witness to others of the one God, Creator, and Ruler. Christians can use that title for Muhammad. 

A prophet is a person who experiences the Divine in an original way to himself. He entirely belongs to God and receives revelation from Him.

But when it is used and understood within the context of the Biblical tradition, then they cannot use it for Muhammad (Vroom, 116).

On this point, we remind our readers that although today there are those who are in favor of a new and positive Christian assessment of Prophet Muhammad, they do not want to use the title 'prophet' for Muhammad because of these differences. For example, the Catholic scholars J. Jomier, R. Arnaldez, and the British Methodist scholar Martin Forward maintain the necessity of a more positive Christian assessment of the Prophet Muhammad. In doing so, while Jomier argues that unless Christians re-examine the question of Prophet Muhammad's status positively, it is very difficult "to take a new step" in Christian-Muslim dialogue (140). Forward stresses that "those who seek to cast luster upon their own religion by darkening another do themselves and their faith little honor and less justice" (119).

On the other hand, all of them state that because of the differences between Christians and Muslims in their respective understandings of the term 'prophet', it is better not to use this title for Muhammad (Jomier 146147; Forward 119120; Arnaldez 15). For, as Forward remarks, "Muslims and Christians deceive themselves when they think that, by calling Muhammad a prophet, they mean the same or even a comparable thing" (120).

For these reasons, both Jomier and Forward, unlike Watt, Küng, Cragg, and Kerr, regard Prophet Muhammad as a political and religious genius without assigning him the term 'prophet'. Although these attempts by Jomier and Forward seem an honest Christian response to the question of Muhammad's status, they do not contribute to the understanding of Muhammad's religious and spiritual vision (Armstrong 14).

In his work "Prophecy in Ancient Israel", J. Lindblom elaborates the features of a prophet as follows:

A prophet is a person who experiences the divine in an original way to himself. He entirely belongs to God and receives revelation from Him. His primary duty, first of all, is to listen to God and obey Him and then proclaim His message to others. He develops his personal communion with God by prayer, devotion, and moral submission to His will. In this sense, he differs from a politician, a social reformer, a thinker or even a poet although he often puts his words in a poetical form. (1-2)

Apart from these specialties of a prophet, the Bible itself makes a distinction between true and false prophecy in Deuteronomy 13:1–2 and 18:22, New International Version. In these passages, after expressing that those false prophets urge people to follow gods other than Yahweh, and those whose prophecy is not fulfilled are false prophets (Moyer 1041-1042), it follows that a true prophet is someone who proclaims all God reveals to him. In other words, a true prophet is someone through whose mouth God transmits His Message to humanity. (Vroom 117)

Taking into account the similarities between Muhammad and the Old Testament prophets gives Christians the opportunity to acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet.

In light of the above explanation, we can argue that it is very difficult for a sensible Christian not to use the title 'prophet' for Muhammad. For, when the features of false prophets are compared with the teachings of Muhammad, it will be seen that he had nothing to do with false prophecy. By depending on these explanations of a prophet we can conclude that Watt, Cragg, Küng, and Kerr's acceptance of the title 'prophet' for Muhammad can contribute more to Christian-Muslim understanding than rejection of it. Christians who refuse to use the title 'prophet' for Muhammad offend Muslims, and make it difficult to establish better relations with them.

As for those whose views have been expressed in previous parts of this series, it is obvious that contemporary Christian scholarship has generally attempted to go beyond the polemical tradition by accepting Muhammad as a man of religious genius and the messenger of God who affected the course of human history under the Sovereign Rule of God. Also, when these accounts of contemporary Christian thinkers are compared with the accounts of those who maintained that any theological Christian recognition of Muhammad's prophethood would be impossible, it becomes obvious that more and more leading Christian scholars regard this an issue which deserves serious discussion. (Bijlefeld 20)

But as Antonie Wessels rightly remarks, not all Christians are totally ready to shake off the remnants of the ill-informed medieval distorted images of Muhammad. In this connection, he maintains that "the task of understanding anew what it means in modern times to say that God spoke to or through Muhammad, as we find reflected in the Quran, lies, in my opinion, still ahead." (105)

In short, our examination shows that the phenomenological approach to the question of Muhammad's status can lead Christians to understand the function of Muhammad for Muslims by observing the practical influence of his teachings on his followers, that is, Muslims.

Through this approach, Christians can find the opportunity to compare Muhammad with the Old Testament prophets, in order to observe their similarities before arriving at a decision concerning Prophet Muhammad's status as seen in the arguments of Watt and Küng.

By recognizing Muhammad's prophethood, the following conclusion can be arrived at naturally: Christians concede that Muhammad is not a false prophet as has been claimed by the majority of non-Muslims from the advent of Islam to our modern age. Rather, they admit that he was a genuine prophet who brought God's message to humanity.

Although there are shortcomings in contemporary Christian evaluations of Prophet Muhammad's status, we may easily conclude that whatever Watt, Cragg, Küng, and Kerr mean by the title 'prophet', their acknowledgement of Muhammad as a prophet contributes to the development of contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Works Cited Armstrong, Karen.Muhammad: A Western Attempt to Understand Islam. London: Gollancz Victor Ltd., 1992.

Arnaldez, Roger. Dialogue Islam-Chrétien et Sensibilities Religieuses. Islamochristiana, 1, 1975.

Kerr, David. Christian-Muslim Studies, Islamic Studies, and the Future of Christian-Muslim Encounter. Eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad and W.Z. Haddad, W.Z. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1995.

Forward, Martin. Muhammad: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld, 1997.

Jomier, Jacques. How to Understand Islam. London: SCM, 1989.

Lindblom, J. Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Basil Blackwel, 1962.

Moyer, J.A. "Prophecy, Prophets." New Bible Dictionary. Eds. J.D. Douglas, et al. London: Inter Varsity Fellowship, 1962.

Vroom, Hendrik. No Other Gods: Christian Belief in Dialogue with Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Wessels, Antonie. A Modern Arabic Biography of Muhammad: Islamic Culture. Netherlands: E.J.Brill, 1972.

This article was excerpted from Encounters: Journal of Inter-Cultural Perspectives. Vol. 6, No. 1. Islamic Foundation: March 2000. It is being republished here with kind permission and slight editorial changes.
Mahmut Aydin is an Associate Professor in the History of Religions and Interreligious Dialogue at the Faculty of Theology, Ondokuz Mayýs University, Samsun, Turkey. This article is the revised version of a chapter of the author’s doctoral thesis ‘Modern Western Christian Understanding of Muslims since the Second Vatican Council’ submitted at the University of Birmingham, UK in 1998.

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