David Koch, Doctoral Researcher, University of Paderborn

This is Part 3 of an online book panel on Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy by Anna Bonta Moreland, Associate Professor of Theology at Villanova University. Part 1 and Part 2, with comments from Dr Charles Tieszen, may be found here. A response from Dr Moreland, will follow. Reader comments for this discussion are welcome at Lucy.Schouten@ed.ac.uk.

In her latest book Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy, Dr Anna Moreland introduces a new scientific approach to show how a reappraisal of the prophet Muhammad, through the lenses of medieval and modern Christian tradition, shall open up promising ways for the question of whether and how we can theoretically (re)consider Muhammad a Christian prophet. Dr Moreland is the first scholar in the entire academic circle, who combines different methodological steps to pattern an examination, which allows at least a sensible discussion about how to use the scriptural treasures of Christianity to revive interreligious dialogue when it comes to prophecy. In particular, Dr Moreland states, as one of her main arguments, ‘that the Catholic Church is particularly equipped to engage with Muslims in theological terms and that this will lead to salutary political consequences’. (p. 7) Supported with evidence of her previous studies to formulate this desirable claim, the author uses not only the method of intertextual reading of selected Second Vatican Council documents like e.g. Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium, but also texts from Thomas Aquinas, one of the major Christian scholars in medieval times, to emphasize how the idea of divine prophecy was treated in the past, and how we can benefit from reviving prophecy for our current, challenging times.  

Dr Moreland’s work, which is primarily (but not only) addressed to other Christians, is ‘setting the stage’ with a splendid opening on modern narratives about religion. This first chapter is, from my point of view, one of the most crucial of the whole book, because it enables the reader to discover the current problems that block the fruitful potential of interreligious dialogue. Whether it is Huntington’s ‘clash of cultures’ or the two main narratives – religion as universal norms and religion as irrational form of extremism – every argument shows that our present ‘modern’ mindset is not compatible with the previous status of religion. Furthermore, not even one of the modern narratives gives any space for the spiritual sphere of religion, which, at least on a phenomenological level, is an inseparable part of any religious system, when it comes down to any rational measurement. It is fair to say that our Christian religion, as the main example, has ironically reacted in a counter-productive way in order to prove that it is not irrational. While defending the most fundamental aspects of religious belief, e.g. prophecy, revelation, sin and salvation, the faith was represented in an even more irrational way. Due to the fact that within the framework of rationality, anything which does not follow the new scientific rules since the Enlightenment is considered irrational, the whole action was a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat. Under no circumstances was the Christian faith able to win the game of rationality while playing by the rules of its critics.

Despite Dr Moreland’s fair criticism of those scholars and philosophers who reduced religion to modern categories, in the third chapter of her book, she herself enters the same game by rereading Aquinas through the lens of postmodernism. Therefore, it surprises that Dr Moreland uses Aquinas’ ideas, to revive them uncritically in the light of our time. Due to completely different circumstances between the status of religion in the time of Aquinas and in our current equivalent, it seems, from the perspective of a historian, at least questionable to use Aquinas’ ‘insights’ in this way.

It is important to mention that the author does not stop with a preparation of Aquinas’ thoughts on prophecy for an analogical examination in favour of Muhammad, or with another emphasis of the intrinsic power of possibilities which Vatican II has opened for the interreligious dialogue. To use these possibilities and follow the light of Nostra Aetate, her work underlines the importance of analogical reasoning as a noteworthy method. With the claim that her work “prepares the theological groundwork for an examination of that possibility” (p. 8), Dr Moreland goes into a philological field of research, which might help to overcome terminological disputes. Unfortunately, there is no philological analysis of the term except the medieval definition provided by Aquinas. However, the question arises, what is the gain of knowledge by extending the meaning of a certain religious term like prophecy through the method of analogical reasoning, whose overall outcome seems to tend to unrecognizability for both religions? Speaking with Christian Troll S.J. and Jacque Jomier, who are quoted by Dr Moreland on the impracticality of accepting Muhammad, it must somehow be clear, that Christians and Muslim cannot use the term ‘prophecy’ in the same way, if they really want to stay within the frame of their own tradition.

Dr Moreland follows the intention of contributing a relatively new and open-minded approach to reconsider Muhammad in a constructive way. She is aware of reproaches that this type of examination could be misunderstood as a counter-productive form of syncretism. It is also possible, from a Muslim perspective, to identify her approach as a kind of terminological reduction of prophecy, especially the historical person of Muhammad himself. Muslims would, as she admits, never accept any Christian acceptance of Muhammad, which tries to christianize him or, by taking the benefits, tries to adapt his religious meaning for the sake of our own tradition. This leads to the crucial litmus test in form of the question ‘Why should we even try to think about a possible acceptance of Muhammad, when this approach would neither be accepted by Christians nor by Muslims?’ Another question would be: ‘Is it really helpful for interreligious dialogue to stretch a theological term over the borders of our different traditions until nobody is able to recognize it anymore?’ As a matter of fact, Dr Moreland is aware of these questions, too, but does not give satisfactory answers. The method of analogical reasoning in this particular examination has the somehow bittersweet taste of being a ‘language-game’ while reducing the term of prophecy in a more dangerous than fruitful way.

This is also valid for the chapter of ‘Scriptural Prophets and Muhammad’. It is interesting to know that Aquinas identifies persons like Caiaphas, Balaam and his donkey (‘An angel spoke through Balaam’s donkey – this certainly sounds as if it fits the characteristics of how Thomas has defined prophetic speech’. [p. 77]) also as somehow equipped with prophetic knowledge. Even the Roman soldiers should have acted prophetically at the crucifixion without even knowing what they have done so. To be a prophet and prophesy without being conscious about it, is, to put it mildly, a challenging argument, even when formulated by Aquinas. Why are these ideas are not treated in a more critical way? Not only because it is not very convincing, but also because it opens the doors for nearly everyone, who might have prophesied in the scriptures. However, Dr Moreland makes clear, that she is not applying the full term of prophecy on the mentioned individuals above. In contrast, she is following the approach of Aquinas by dividing the term into different metaphysical layers.

As a Christian, it is without a doubt extremely helpful to read Aquinas in the light of the Second Vatican Council, but as a historian, it seems to be anachronistic to apply his insights on Islamic prophecy. On the one hand, Aquinas can enrich present theological studies with his thoughts as a witness of medieval scholastic theology. But on the other hand, due to platonic elements in Islamic philosophy (e. g. the works of al-Fārābī, al-Kindī or Ibn Sīnā, better known as Avicenna) the metaphysical mindset, even before it comes to the question of prophecy, is somehow problematic. The fact that Aquinas as an Aristotelian himself would never have accepted Muhammad as a Christian prophet (or Islam as a true religion which can also lead to salvation) is an obstacle, which cannot be ignored. On the other hand, the question arises as to why Aquinas is received in such a positive way. Even his ideas on prophecy are human reflections, which should be discussed more critically. Dr Moreland does not ignore Aquinas declinatory attitude, when it comes to the question of whether Muhammad is a real prophet. But nevertheless, she formulates the approach, to use his wisdom, insights and knowledge to turn it against him. To use his medieval insights on prophecy to establish common criteria for the present of how to (re)define the term, or at least, a way of understanding prophets, seems problematic on more than one metaphysical level.

In conclusion, Dr Moreland understands her book as a reply to the invitation of using the possibilities after the Second Vatican Council, which connects her attempt with the studies of Hans Küng, William Montgomery Watt, David Kerr and Kenneth Cragg. In doing so, she has opened a new way of dealing with terminological problems within the framework of interreligious dialogue. However, it lacks a critical position to the ideas of Aquinas, which are accepted in order to read them into the potential of the Second Vatican Council documents. The result is a concept of prophecy, which is not acceptable for both religions. Therefore, it should be reconsidered whether the practice of analogical reasoning is a helpful method, when it is used to turn the scriptures of an author like Thomas Aquinas against his own positions and convictions.