Dr Anna Bonta Moreland, Associate Professor of Theology, Villanova University

This is Part 4 – the author’s response – to an online book panel on Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are also available on this blog.

The cover of the book Muhammad Reconsidered

I would like to thank both Dr Tieszen and Mr Koch for their insightful reviews of my book Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy.  In writing the book, I could only have hoped to have readers as perceptive and careful as they are. Below, I offer some brief responses to each of them, in the spirit of deep appreciation for their engagement with my work.

Dr Tieszen lodges a methodological and a substantive critique at the argument of the book.  I will take each in turn.

With respect to methodology, he reads the book as an historian of religious thought, and wonders whether a broader scope would have made it a better book.  I am sure that he is right about this.  I am a systematic theologian who chose to dive deeply into the work of Thomas Aquinas and use it as a way to address a particular lacuna in post-Vatican II Catholic thought.  Dr Tieszen suggests that had I taken up the letters of Patriarch Timothy I or Paul of Antioch, for example, I would have been able to strengthen my argument.  In particular, he suggests that I display ‘historical amnesia about how Christians consistently wrestled with Muhammad in every single century of Muslim-Christian relations’.  This is, in my estimation, a happy way of putting the matter (not the bit about amnesia, but rather the bit about consistently wrestling).  I am persuaded by John Tolan’s work that even when Christians were championing Muhammad, they were doing so more to negotiate intra-Christian squabbles than to exhibit any genuine appreciation for the prophet.[1] This historical question is, at least, an unsettled one.  That Dr Tieszen reads the history of Christian interpretations of Islam in a light more favorable than I do is a point of difference.  There is certainly room for disagreement here.  And, in any event, the argument of my book neither rises nor falls upon its resolution.  My argument is not an historical one.  It is a work in creative retrieval of a medieval author for the purposes of engaging a contemporary question in Christian theology.

To the more serious and substantive critique, that my book exhibits a ‘polite invasion of Muslim space’ and that, despite my efforts to the contrary, it ‘colonizes the Qur’an’, I now turn.  I had anticipated this kind of critique when writing the book and thought I had addressed it, especially in the closing chapter.  Let me, perhaps, be clearer here than I was there.  When Muslims appreciate the devotion of Abraham or the virginity of Mary or the prophecy of Jesus, they do so as devout Muslims would.  A Christian entering an interreligious conversation with a Muslim would expect nothing less.  Why, then, would a Christian, in trying to appreciate the prophecy of Muhammad, from deep within the Christian tradition, be accused of ‘colonizing’ him?  History is, of course, riddled with pernicious Christian accounts of Muhammad and the Qur’an.  My work is an invitation to Christians to correct this by taking Muhammad theologically seriously from within the intimacy of our own religious space.  It represents one step – not the whole – of interreligious encounter.  My book expresses how I was changed by the ‘temporary tents of meeting’ of the Scriptural Reasoning movement where I read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an with new friends, changed in such a way that I went back to my own ‘religious library’ and found that it should expand, that within its own tomes there is warrant for such expansion.  During these scriptural reasoning meetings, Muslims were not the hosts.  Neither were the Christians, nor the Jews.  As Dan Madigan puts it so helpfully in another context, God was the host.[2] 

Dr Tieszen concludes by suggesting an alternative model, one that affirms Muhammad’s prophetic instinct but that also extends ‘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’.  I heartily agree with this model and find it curious that Dr Tieszen’s reading of my book leads him to assume I do not.  But in order for Christians not to be ‘isolated’, you have to let us freely live in our particular religious belief.  To do otherwise would be to silence us in the way modern talk about religion has done, as outlined in the first chapter of my book.

I turn now to Mr Koch’s review.  Here we find a different methodological critique, but it comes from the same discipline: history of religion.  Mr Koch is surprised that I read Aquinas ‘uncritically’, given that the status of religion is so different between the Middle Ages and today.  He agrees that ‘as a Christian’ it is helpful to read Aquinas in light of Vatican II but ‘as a historian’ it is anachronistic to apply his insights to Islamic prophecy.  What is a Christian historian to do, in this case?  That my book is not put forth as a work in Christian history should, I would think, give the reader pause.  Instead, I am a Christian systematic theologian who does not adopt Aquinas ‘uncritically’, as the reviewer suggests, but rather who examines his underappreciated use of ‘prophecy’ and applies it in ways he never would.  The reviewer is not convinced by the fact that in Aquinas, one can speak and act prophetically without knowing what one is doing and wonders why I do not treat these ideas in a more critical manner.  I am afraid my answer will not satisfy, as it is because I agree with Aquinas.  I would be happy to engage those who do not agree as I do, but I would need to respond to particular arguments as to where Aquinas’ account of prophecy is lacking.   Mr Koch suggests that the fact that Aquinas would never have accepted Muhammad as a prophet or Islam as a true religion is an obstacle that cannot be ignored.  I have, in fact, not ignored this obstacle in my book.  Here, again, my approach in the book seems not to have satisfied the reviewer.  In order to respond, I would need to hear an argument. 

Mr Koch’s more substantive critique concerns my use of analogical reasoning, which he finds has the ‘bittersweet taste of being a “language-game”’.  He wonders what the gain is of using analogical reasoning to extend a religious term like ‘prophecy’ when the outcome seems to be that the term is rendered unrecognizable in both religions. Mr Koch seems to agree here with the objectors I address in the final chapter of the book, Christian Troll, SJ, and Jacques Jomier, OP.  He claims that ‘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’.  At the end of the book, I argue that Christians should in principle be open to the possibility that Muhammad was a prophet on Christian terms.  The main vein of my argument is composed of the theological reasoning found in the documents of Vatican II married to Aquinas’ account of ‘prophecy’.  I recognize that Muslims will not be satisfied by this account, as Christians aren’t satisfied by a Muslim reverence of Jesus as a prophet.  But I suggest that Christians, at least, should recognize that our own tradition leads us to the possibility of Muhammad’s prophethood.  Had I tried to find some neutral third ground upon which I could construct the meaning of ‘prophecy’, one not recognized by religious believers, I would have invalidated the argument in chapter one on modern religious belief.    

[1] John Tolan, Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today (Princeton University Press, 2019) [originally Mahomet l’européen : histoire des représentations du Prophète en Occident (Albin Michel, 2018)].

[2] Daniel Madigan, ‘Mutual Theological Hospitality: Doing Theology in the Presence of the Other’ in Muslim and Christian Understanding Waleed El-Ansary and David K. Linnan, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 59.