Dr Charles Tieszen, FRHistS

Adjunct Professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary

This post is Part 2 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, with comments from Dr Charles Tieszen, may be found here. 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.

To take a second example after Patriarch Timothy I, Paul of Antioch, a thirteenth-century Melkite Bishop of Sidon, argued in his Letter to a Muslim Friend that Muḥammad was a prophet, not one sent to all people, and certainly not to Christians, but to pagan Arabs. In this way, Muhammad was not a universal prophet and his message had limited applicability. Nevertheless, he asserted that Muhammad was sent by God. Dr Moreland offers a quick nod to Paul’s interpretation of Muhammad (p. 134, note 21), but does not mention the implications Paul saw for reading the Qur’an. In Paul’s understanding, if Muhammad could be acknowledged as a prophet, even in a limited way, his message, the Qur’an, could be read by Christians. When they read the Qur’an, it could finally be interpreted correctly, which in turn yielded a message that confirmed Christian truth. In the same century, Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Idris al-Qarafi (d. 1285), an Egyptian Maliki jurist, responded to Paul’s letter. The response, ‘Splendid Replies to Insolent Questions’, is a devastating critique of the Bishop’s reasoning and his assessment of Muhammad. A century later, Paul’s letter was edited by an anonymous Christian and redistributed as The Letter from the People of Cyprus. Though amended and rearranged, the author’s assessment of Muhammad and the Qur’an were much the same as Paul’s and the letter fared similarly when read by Muslims. Two Damascene Muslims, the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and the intellectual Muhammad ibn Abi Talib al-Dimashqi (d. 1327) both wrote treatises in response to The Letter from the People of Cyprus in which they shattered the anonymous author’s argumentation, thoroughly rejected his estimation of Muhammad, and attempted to place the Prophet within a Christian frame of view as a universal prophet with a final revelation that superseded what God previously sent down.[1]

The two Christians’ letters offer a suggestion not unlike Dr Moreland’s: Muhammad is in some ways a prophet and therefore his message can be read by Christians who might find in it, according to their own reading and interpretation, authentic truth. That Muslims would not assent to this is unquestioned but need not detract from the realization that Christians can hear something from Muhammad and his message. That Muslims might deem, as indeed they have done, the inherent logic of such a proposal as inadequate, failing to recognize even a little bit of their Prophet and his message in it, however, might draw the proposal into question and call for greater finesse, something that might have taken place with a longer look at assessments from those like Paul of Antioch and the anonymous editor who followed him. Of course, Dr Moreland’s concern is not the long history of Muslim-Christian encounter, but the gaps left by one particular period within it (i.e., post-Vatican II). Nevertheless, looking further back may help to reshape her thesis in ways that would give it greater strength.

            Besides history, my other concern is a dialogical one. Dr Moreland’s proposal is a convincing argument that changes the way Christians ought to consider Muhammad, which in turn leads to an openness toward the Qur’an. But my struggle has less to do with the affect the proposal can have among Christian readers and more to do with the implications it may have for Muslims. A Christian assessment of Muhammad is an inevitable reduction of his identity and function for Muslims. Dr Moreland acknowledges this, especially in her critique of Christian Troll and Jacque Jomier, and she offers analogical reasoning as a method for perceiving the overlapping spaces where Muhammad can exist between Christians and Muslims. While this can help protect against an imperialist pressing of Christian views upon Muslims (p. 117), it nevertheless seeks to make Christian use of Muhammad. The more use is made of him, the less Muslim he becomes and when he is Christianized in this way, he not only ceases to be recognizable to Muslims but he is ever more removed from a dialogical exchange where he might otherwise exist as a guide alongside whom Christians might learn.

            More acutely, a Christian reading of the Qur’an, especially in the context of so-called ‘private revelation’ (p. 122–132), will, in my mind, inevitably lead to a polite invasion of Muslim space that mines it for its usable resources, discards what cannot or should  not be used, and politely returns to Christian space; in other words, it colonizes the Qur’an. The result is that Christians are effectively isolated from Muslims instead of standing by their side. To say little of the horribly negative repercussions that have come from Christians untrained in how to read and interpret the Qur’an—from such efforts we have assessments of Islam as entirely and irretrievably violent, for example—Christians turning to the Qur’an solely to find in it positive, spiritual truths effectively erase Muslims by ignoring how the Qur’an has been read and interpreted by those who claim it as their own. The true safeguard against this cannot be limited to analogical reasoning (p. 117), but should be an argument that affirms Muhammad’s prophetic instinct as one that can be listened to, as Dr Moreland has done, but also extended to include Muslims who act as hosts and guide their Christian guests in reading their text. To do so will not leave Christians isolated, but include Muslims as partners and fellow pilgrims who can, to use the language of Nostra aetate, ‘promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom’.[2]

[1] For analysis, see the introductory remarks and referenced literature in Rifaat Ebied and David Thomas, eds., Muslim-Christian Polemic during the Crusades: The Letter from the People of Cyprus and Ibn Abi Talib al-Dimashqi’s Response (Leiden: Brill, 2005). My comments on the exchange appear in chapter 8, ‘Muhammad as a Powerless Prophet to the Arabs: Paul of Antioch and Letters Written to Muslims’, in The Christian Encounter with Muhammad.

[2] Nostra aetate, 3.