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.
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.
david kerr, as a former director of two highly significant christian-muslim study centers, namely, the center for the study of islam and christian muslim relations in birmingham, england, and the d.b. macdonald center in hartford, usa, and a pioneer of christian-muslim dialogue, has produced three significant essays on prophet muhammad's status from the christian perspective.
in his first essay, "the prophet muhammad: toward a christian assessment", kerr examines the prophethood of muhammad in the light of quranic accounts by putting aside the question of whether christians can acknowledge the quran as the word of god or not. for, according to him, the answer to this question does not change the following facts.
first, he says that prophet muhammad sincerely believed that the quran came to him from god. second, the quran provides us with "an accurate guide to his understanding of his ministry" (25).
in the light of this clarification about his source, kerr explains his approach as follows: "ethically the paper starts from the premise that muhammad was a man of utter spiritual and moral seriousness and sincerity, as muslims themselves believe..." (24).
after this methodological explanation, kerr tries to outline the ministry of the prophet muhammad in the light of quranic accounts and seerah literature. after drawing the similarities between biblical and quranic teachings on ethical issues and peace, he argues that they offer christians "a firm basis for christian interest in muhammad's ministry as part of their dialogue with them" (28).
at the end of the essay, he strongly maintains that he did not want to be involved in making a theological evaluation of muhammad's prophethood in the light of the christian criterion, namely jesus christ. in doing so, it seems he wanted to stay outside "the long tradition of christian polemical writings which have portrayed muhammad as a 'false prophet'" (34). instead, he sought to understand muhammad as he had understood himself in the quran.
in his second essay "the prophet muhammad in christian theological perspective", kerr attempts to make a theological evaluation of muhammad's prophethood. first of all, he repeats the quranic accounts concerning the ministry of muhammad as he did in his previous essay, and highlights the quranic approach to inter-religious dialogue.
he then summarizes the past and present main christian approaches as represented by protestant, catholic, and orthodox scholars to muhammad's prophethood. since we have already discussed most of these above, we will turn to the conclusion where kerr makes his own evaluation in the light of these approaches.
here, kerr argues that as a result of recent developments in christians' relation with people of other faiths in general, and christian-muslim dialogue in particular, the following points become obvious for christians:
(1) god has universally revealed his will to all humankind in order to establish his own kingdom in the world.
(2) this divine revelation has been universally witnessed by various communities and individuals.
(3) in the judeo-christian tradition, the bible provides the interpretation of this revelation through the old testament prophets in the history of israel, and through jesus and the apostolic church in the new testament.
(4) in the gospel of christ, the divine revelation is universally available for humankind.
(5) but, in light of the biblical account that "god has left no people without a witness to his divine revelation", christians, through the universal activity of the holy spirit, can witness the availability of signs of divine revelation.
within the context of these points, kerr arrives at the following conclusion:
mohammad is manifestly such a sign "in the way of the prophets", the quran witnessing the universality of divine revelation, reiterating many of the fundamental perceptions of the bible, and providing as it were a critical commentary on the more dogmatic aspects of particularly new testament belief, and mohammad exemplifying the application of the quranic vision in society. (130)
what kerr indicates by this evaluation is that christians can regard muhammad as a witness to god's universal revelation, which was revealed in jesus christ for all humankind, no more than that. within this context, it can be argued that according to kerr, muhammad could be a prophet who was inspired by the trinitarian god and he is a 'prophetic corrective' for christians as küng stresses (6-21).
in his second essay, "he walked in the path of the prophets: toward christian theological recognition of the prophethood of muhammad", kerr observes some renowned twentieth century christian scholars whose views "create theological space for muhammad as a 'post-christian' prophet within their... theological understanding of the christian tradition".
by following the footsteps of his first essay, he says that his intention was not to develop a proper christian answer to the question of muhammad's prophethood as cragg did, but rather to "confuse christian confessional and ecumenical statements about the theological importance" of it (428).
after highlighting some important aspects of their views, kerr rightly points out that those who use theological christian criteria in their evaluations of muhammad's prophethood "largely fail to address islamic understanding of prophecy and prophethood".
but as has been stated above, he assesses prophet muhammad in light of the christian revelation which was attested to in christ. lastly, he argues that the solution to the question of muhammad's prophethood very much depends on the understanding of islamic revelation anew in the light of modern scientific developments (441).
by this argument, kerr indicates that if muslims re-read the quran whilst taking into account modern scientific methods, as some muslim scholars such as fazlur rahman did, then christians and muslims will be able to reach a mutual understanding about thestatus ofprophet muhammad.
as has been observed so far, kerr outlines his main ideas about whether christians can accept muhammad as a prophet or not at the end of his second essay. here, he follows the main principles of the inclusive christian theology of religions. in doing so, he first took the universality of god's revelation of his word as his starting point.
second, he emphasized the particularity of this divine revelation in jesus christ.
third, he argues that this should not be understood that there will be no sign of this divine revelation after jesus christ.
lastly, he maintains that if christians look for the signs of god's revelation through the power of the holy spirit, they can conclude that "muhammad is manifestly such a sign 'in the way of the prophets'". this theological explanation explicitly indicates that according to kerr, muhammad was not a prophet, but just a sign to the prophets. this clearly contradicts his intention, whereby he wants to understand muhammad as he understood himself.
implications for christian-muslim dialogue
when we think of christian accounts of the status and prophethood of muhammad as a whole, theologically speaking, we may argue that the following points can contribute to the development of christian-muslim understanding.
first, all of them emphasize the necessity for a christian reassessment of the status of prophet muhammad. this whereby a theological space is created for him in the history of prophecy and by rejecting all past distorted images of him.
second, by accepting the quran as the primary source, and early islamic sourcesas reliable and trustworthy for the assessment ofthe life and teachings of prophet muhammad, christians can deal with the question of prophet muhammad more positively as is seen in watt's efforts.
furthermore, our examination shows that a phenomenological approach to the question can lead christians to observe the practical influence of muhammad and his teachings on his followers (muslims). by doing so, they find the opportunity to compare muhammad with the other prophets, especially those of the old testament, who were recognized as prophets by the christians in order to observe their similarities before arriving at a decision concerning the status of prophet muhammad as seen in the works of watt and küng.
third, by taking into account the similarities between muhammad and the old testament prophets, christians are given the opportunity to acknowledge muhammad as a prophet just as they acknowledge the old testament prophets without downgrading their own religious beliefs, that is, by doing this, they are not comparing him with jesus christ.
recognizing the prophethood of muhammad in this way naturally leads to the following conclusion: christians concede that muhammad was not a false prophet as has been claimed by the majority of non-muslims from the advent of islam to our modern age, but rather, a genuine prophet who brought god's message to humanity.
fourth, as küng rightly remarks, christian re-assessments of the status and prophethood of muhammad in the process of christian-muslim dialogue can lead muslims to deal with those quranic verses that concern jesus (111). this by taking into account christian sources, namely the gospels, as is seen in the case of the muslim scholar, muhammad ayoub ("islamic christology" 91–121; "miracle" 221–227; "son" 65–81). this, too, then can create a more positive environment for a better christian-muslim understanding.
fifth, as we have pointed out earlier, those who defend the positive appreciation of the prophethood of muhammad have stimulated official church authorities to break their silence (as is seen in the documents of the second vatican council) by referring to prophet muhammad positively in their official statements such as "guidelines for dialogue between christian and muslims" and the european church statement "witness to god in secular europe".