Dr Charles Tieszen, FRHistS

Adjunct Professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary

This year’s online book panel is Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy by Anna Bonta Moreland, Associate Professor of Theology at Villanova University. This book panel begins with comments from Dr Charles Tieszen. Further discussion, including a response from Dr Moreland, will follow on this blog throughout June and into July 2020. Reader comments and contributions to this discussion are welcome and may be directed to Lucy.Schouten@ed.ac.uk.

Anna Moreland’s recent book, Muhammad Reconsidered, joins an ever-growing body of literature devoted to Christian assessments of Muhammad’s function and identity. In it, she proposes that, given the Church’s understanding of prophecy, Christians can view Muhammad as ‘a religious prophet’ (p. 34), a recognition that opens a way for the Qur’an to be taken seriously by Christians as a source of knowledge about God.

Dr Moreland develops her argument through a carefully plotted structure, moving from the general state of Christian views of Islam in the context of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) to sources for reconsidering his prophethood. That she succeeds in offering a proposal derived primarily from Thomas Aquinas, a source especially revered in the Western Christian tradition, makes her book both a unique and very helpful contribution. Further, the book will be of particular interest to Roman Catholic laity, clergy, and scholars as it places the figure of Muhammad in the natural trajectory of texts produced in relation to Vatican II. Given Dr Moreland’s concise and well-presented arguments, the book will also be useful to Christians from other traditions who may not have thought to consider Muhammad and the Qur’an as sources for spiritual wisdom or who might be predisposed to discard Islam and its Prophet out of hand as completely false.

These achievements are noteworthy, but they do not come without certain risks. Helpfully, Dr Moreland is aware of these, admitting that accusations of syncretizing religions, colonizing the Qur’an, and Christianizing Muhammad loom (p. 9). In response, she asks that readers ‘give this book a fair hearing’ since Christianity, under the lens of her reconsideration, shows a ‘theological openness to [Islam]’ that renders ‘a Christian reading of the Qur’an’ possible (ibid.). I began Muhammad Reconsidered with suspicions about colonizing the Qur’an and Christianizing Muhammad nearby but anxious to see how Dr Moreland would overcome them. As a result, I finished the book with a better knowledge of Thomas Aquinas and a better grasp of how analogical reasoning can strengthen discussions Muslims and Christians have when they encounter one another in theological dialogue. I can affirm Dr Moreland’s critiques and admonitions of other scholars like Montgomery Watt, Hans Küng, Kenneth Cragg, David Kerr, Christian Troll, and Jacque Jomier, and I can support her thesis as a way beyond their assessments. Nevertheless, I am left wondering if her proposal, despite its strengths, does not go far enough. As a historian of religious thought among Christians and Muslims and as a Christian practitioner of Muslim-Christian dialogue, I find that my suspicions about colonialist readings of the Qur’an and assessments that effectively Christianize Muhammad are not sufficiently assuaged.

My reservations as a historian lead into my concerns for how Dr Moreland’s proposal will play out in actual Muslim-Christian encounter. To take the historical bit first, then, the questions of how, exactly, Christian’s ought to respond to and consider Muhammad are not new ones. Probably the first surviving written comment comes as early as 636 when Thomas the Presbyter mentioned in a Syriac chronicle that the Romans had done battle with the ‘Arabs of Muhammad’. Thomas was aware, so it would seem, that Muhammad was at least a military leader.[i] Evidence of theological assessments also surface early. In perhaps 660, Sebeos, an Armenian chronicler, acknowledged that Muhammad was a merchant but that he also presented himself as a religious figure who, Sebeos admitted, turned his followers away from idolatry and toward monotheism.[ii] Sometime in the 720s an account of an East Syrian monk reduced Muhammad to a quasi-Christian and a wise monotheist of marginal significance. In every century thereafter we find texts written in a variety of languages by Christians from a variety of traditions who reflect upon on the role of Muhammad and his relevance, or lack thereof, for Christian thought.[iii] Within the last 100 years, the status of Muhammad was even the subject of numerous Muslim-Christian dialogues.[iv]

Bearing this history in mind, I was perplexed when I first read Daniel Madigan, in an otherwise very perceptive and important essay, begin his remarks by asserting that the question of Muhammad for Christians is ‘without doubt the most avoided question in Muslim-Christian relations’.[v] In fact, the question has been all but avoided, except, as perhaps Professor Madigan meant to intimate, in the context pertaining specifically to Vatican II. The relevant texts from the Council, particularly Nostra aetate and Lumen gentium, remain important landmarks for how Christians, especially Roman Catholics, ought to regard Muslims and Muslim beliefs. Even so, they do not, perhaps intentionally (p. 31), address Muhammad. Dr Moreland makes clear that it is this void in Vatican II discussions that she hopes to fill in Muhammad Reconsidered. She also points to Professor Madigan’s assertion as a challenge to which she hopes the book will respond (p. 10). While Dr Moreland succeeds in offering something of substance with which to fill the noted void left by Vatican II regarding Muhammad, one must wonder about the much wider history of Muslim-Christian encounter and whether or not it affects her thesis.

Aside from texts produced in the twentieth century, Dr Moreland makes only a few brief references to the long history of Christian treatments of Muhammad. Most of these appear in endnotes and are relatively generic pointers to other resources. One exception is a note regarding Paul of Antioch, to which I shall return below, and another is a comment she makes regarding Aquinas’ knowledge about Islam. In this latter case, she suggests that since Aquinas worked in a context of crusade, it is understandable that he did not have an affirming estimation of Muhammad. To have offered one would have been ‘countercultural’ and that what Christians have learned about Islam since the medieval period can be likened to advancements in what we now know about biology, astronomy, and history (p. 45). But this is simply untrue. In fact, the sophisticated knowledge that many, though certainly not all, Christians demonstrated about Islam, the Qur’an, and Muslim traditions, knowledge that numerous intellectuals applied to their estimations of Muhammad, is well attested throughout the history of Muslim-Christian encounter (even, in some cases like Paul of Antioch—again, more below—in the context of crusade). Again, one wonders if this historical amnesia about how Christians consistently wrestled with Muhammad in every single century of Muslim-Christian relations imposes upon Dr Moreland’s thesis.

One could, for example, consider the remarks of Patriarch Timothy I (d. 823), now well known to scholars. When asked in the late-eighth century by a Muslim caliph what he had to say about Muhammad, Timothy responded eloquently: ‘Muhammad is worthy of all praise . . . he walked in the path of the prophets, and trod in the track of the lovers of God’.[vi] This view of Muhammad is full of great esteem. As such, it is noteworthy and opens a door for Christian consideration of both Muhammad and the Qur’an. Careful inquiry, however, notes that the Patriarch stopped short of actually calling Muhammad a prophet and took great care to acknowledge only that he acted prophet-like in his preaching of monotheism and proscription of evil. As Timothy commented elsewhere in the account of his conversation, Muhammad only really mimicked in his Arabian context what the Hebrew prophets did in theirs. In Timothy’s estimation, Muhammad’s prophet-like qualities prepared the way for Christ.[vii]

This sounds very much like the ‘prophetic instincts’ Dr Moreland ascribes to Muhammad (e.g., p. 75, 82). These instincts allow the ‘theoretical possibility that Muhammad spoke prophetically’ (p. 115) but stop short of granting him the ‘full office of prophet’ (ibid.). The distinctions, however, between carrying the title of ‘prophet’ and merely existing at the far edge of prophetic experience (p. 66) constitute different matters, but Dr Moreland does not probe the nuances of each category and they are at times seemingly conflated in her book. Would reflection on the wider history of Christian assessments of Muhammad, like that from Patriarch Timothy I, have helped to add needed specificity to the distinctions between being a prophet and merely acting like one?

[i] Robert G. Hoyland, ‘The Earliest Christian Writings on Muhammad: An Appraisal’, Harald Motzki (ed.), Muhammad: The Issue of the Sources (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 279–280.

[ii] Ibid., 283.

[iii] Relatively recent historical overviews of the topic include Minou Reeves, Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making (New York, New York University Press, 2020); Julian Yolles and Jessica Weiss, eds., Medieval Latin Lives of Muhammad (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2018); John Tolan, Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019), the French translation of which is noted by Bonta Moreland (p. 134, note 18; p. 144, note 9); Clinton Bennett, ‘Christian Perceptions of Muhammad’, Douglas Pratt and Charles Tieszen (eds.), Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History, Volume 15: Thematic Essays (600–1600) (Leiden, Brill, 2020); and my forthcoming book, The Christian Encounter with Muhammad: How Theologians Interpreted the Prophet (London, Bloomsbury, 2020).

[iv] See, for example, accounts of dialogues in Richard W. Rousseau, ed., Christianity and Islam: The Struggling Dialogue (Scranton: Ridge Row Press, 1985).

[v] Daniel Madigan, ‘Jesus and Muhammad: The Sufficiency of Prophecy’, Michael Ipgrave (ed.), Bearing the Word: Prophecy in Biblical and Qur’anic Perspective (New York, Church Publishing, 2005), 90.

[vi] See an English translation in Alphonse Mingana, ‘Timothy’s Apology for Christianity’, in Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic and Garshuni, vol. 2 (Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons Limited, 1928), 61–62. See also Samir Khalil Samir, The Patriarch and the Caliph: An Eighth-Century Dialogue between Timothy I and al-Mahdi (Provo: Brigham Young University, 2017).

[vii] See analysis in Samir Khalil Samir, ‘The Prophet Muhammad as Seen by Timothy I and Other Arab Christian Authors’, in D. Thomas (ed.), Syrian Christians under Islam (Leiden, Brill: 2001), 93–96; David Thomas, ‘Cultural and Religious Supremacy in the Fourteenth Century’, Parole de l’Orient 30 (2005), 302–304; Charles Tieszen, ‘“Can You Find Anything Praiseworthy in My Religion?”’, in Douglas Pratt, Jon Hoover, John Davies, and John Chesworth (eds.), The Character of Christian-Muslim Encounter (Leiden, Brill: 2015), 132–136; and my remarks in chapter 3, ‘Muhammad as a Retrograde Moses of Minimal Significance: East-Syrian Christians and Public Discussion with Muslims’, in The Christian Encounter with Muhammad.