the question of the status and prophethood of muhammad (peace be upon him) has been one of the most crucial and controversial issues of christian-muslim relations since the advent of islam.
so, in almost every christian-muslim encounter christian acknowledgement of the prophethood of muhammad has been and still is raised. muslims ask, "since we muslims accept jesus (peace be upon him) as a genuine prophet and messenger of god, can you christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuineness of muhammad's prophethood?" (kerr, "theological perspective" 119; "christian assessment" 24–36)
for example, in the eight and ninth centuries, the abbasid caliph, al-mahdi, asked this question to the assyrian patriarch timothy, and timothy answered by saying: "[muhammad] walked in the path of the prophets." (gaudeul 1; 34–36)
many muslims strongly affirm that on almost every occasion the christian response to this muslim demand has been one of the most unsatisfactory encounters between the two faiths. this is because of "the reluctance of christians to recognize the prophethood of muhammad." (khan 188)
from the earliest periods, christian scholars who were in contact with islam and muslims almost totally directed their efforts to rejecting the prophethood of muhammad. they believed that if they could manage to prove that muhammad was not a prophet, but rather a heretic who was instructed by christian monks, and was himself the author of the quran, and if they would discredit his revelation by showing it to have a risen out of the social and political circumstances of a particular place and time, then the whole of islam would collapse.
to achieve this objective, in the medieval period, many western scholars claimed that "muhammad was a cardinal who had failed in the election process to become pontiff and, in revenge, seceded from the church". (daniel 88)
they depicted and described him in the vilest terms, using words such as heretic, impostor, or sensualist to disgrace muhammad in the eyes of christians and also in a sense, muslims too. (daniel 88ff; hourani 12ff; michel 3; drummond 777–801; benaboud 309–326)
this kind of distorted image of the prophet muhammad spread to such an extent that it was preserved and perpetuated in literature such as the divine comedy, where dante consigned him to one of the lowest levels of hell. (miguel 103)
annemaria schimmel comments that this consignation of muhammad to hell reflected the view of the majority of christians who "could not understand how after the rise of christianity another religion could appear in the world" ("veneration" 3–4; "muslim life and thought" 35–61).
in short, during the medieval period, in which islam was regarded as the work of the devil and muhammad as inspired by him, almost every polemical work repeatedly expressed that muhammad was a wicked man who had founded islam with force and spread it with the sword. he was also regarded as an erotic man especially partial to women.
on every level, this image was expounded, and it helped to prove to europeans that muhammad could not be a real prophet, but rather, was a false one. the following observation by montgomery watt clearly shows how the image of muhammad was distorted by western writers. he notes:
none of the great figures of history is so poorly appreciated in the west as muhammad. western writers have mostly been prone to believe the worst of muhammad, and wherever an objectionable interpretation of an act seemed plausible, have tended to accept it as fact. ("mecca " 52)
norman daniel stresses that the hidden agenda behind these polemical works on muhammad was to prove that muhammad was a mere human with no divine intervention in his life and hence, he could not be a prophet. since the recipient of a divine message was considered to be someone totally different, aspects of his life which depicted him as ordinary were further pro ofs of his falsity. (245)
after the second half of the nineteenth century, these kinds of distorted images began to change to more objective and positive ones, with western christian scholars beginning to appreciate muhammad's prophethood and teachings. (kerr, 124)
for example, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, for the first time in the history of western christian accounts about muhammad, thomas carlyle in his famous lecture "the hero as prophet" (1840) openly expressed the sincerity of muhammad and the truthfulness of islam. (53)
despite this welcome development, norman daniel criticized carlyle for not establishing his appreciation of muhammad's sincerity "on any sound theoretical basis." (314)
montgomery watt, in his assessment of carlyle's essay on muhammad, highlights the fact that this was:
…the first strong affirmation in the whole of european literature, medieval and modern, of a belief in the sincerity of muhammad... it is an important step forward in the process of reversing the medieval world-picture of islam as the great enemy, and rehabilitating its founder, muhammad. ("carlyle" 247–255)
just before the opening session of the second vatican council, robin zaehner in his at sundry times (1958) did not hesitate to acknowledge muhammad's prophethood, maintaining that:
…there is no criterion by which the gift of prophecy can be withheld from him unless it is withheld from the hebrew prophets also. the quran is in fact the quintessence of prophecy. in it you have, as in no other book, the sense of an absolutely overwhelming being proclaiming himself to a people that had not known him. (zaehner 27)
however, carlyle's acceptance of muhammad's sincerity and zaehner's acknowledgement of his prophethood should not be understood to mean that western christian scholarship was ready to acknowledge muhammad as a prophet.
the influence of those orientalist scholars who tried to prove that muhammad could not be a prophet was still very effective in the first half of the twentieth century and even in our own times. (bennett 63ff; buaben, "image" 131–167; "scholarship" 30-52)
in the process of christian-muslim dialogue that was of ficially started by the second vatican council, it has been observed that both the roman catholic church and the world council of churches preferred to be silent about the status of the prophet muhammad in their of ficial statements. (aydin, chapters 1-3)
some theologians, however, have urged these of ficial bodies to break this silence for the sake of better and more fruitful relations with muslims. in this respect, the prolific catholic theologian, hans küng, in his comment on the catholic document "nostra aetate" stresses that if the catholic church and all other churches wish to establish a real and fruitful dialogue with muslims, they need to acknowledge the prophethood of muhammad of ficially. (27)
daniel, too, maintains that the way for christians to understand islam correctly can only proceed from their acknowledgement of muhammad's prophethood. he says: "it is essential for christians to see muhammad as a holy figure; to see him, that is, as muslims see him... if they do not do so, they must cut themselves off from muslims." (336)
many christian scholars and theologians have started to raise their voices to highlight the importance of positive appreciation of muhammad for an efficient dialogue with muslims in such christian-muslim meetings.
at the opening speech of the international muslim-christian congress of cordoba, 1977, the cardinal archbishop of madrid urged christians "to forget the past and show respect for the prophet of islam", since according to him, "to insult muhammad... is an offence not only against historical and religious truth, but also against the respect and charity due to muslims."
then he asked:
how it is possible to appreciate islam and muslims without showing appreciation for the prophet of islam and the values he has promoted? not to do this would not only be a lack of respect, to which the council exhorts christians, but also neglect of a religious factor of which account must be taken in theological reflection and religious awareness. (aguilar 165)
in another christian-muslim consultation, convened by the conference of european churches in salzburg , 1984, it was emphasized that "christians respect the prophetic tradition of the old testament. it calls people to repentance in the service of the one god. it is unjust to dismiss muhammad out of hand as a false prophet. christians may recognize muhammad as part of the same prophetic tradition, and in the past some have done so." (conference of european churches, 56)
apart from these positive statements in christian-muslim dialogue meetings, there is also an increasing number of christian thinkers who argue for a positive christian evaluation of the status of muhammad. karen armstrong, lamin sanneh, and martin forward urge non-muslims to see muhammad positively, to take into account how god used him "as a mercy for humankind" to bring peace and civilization to his people, rather than seeing him as the antithesis of religious spirit and as the enemy of decent civilization. (armstrong 44; sanneh, "piety" 48; "significance" 25–29; 36–38; forward 5)
the renowned theologian john macquarrie, in his mediators (1995), includes him among the nine great mediators of "a new or renewed sense of holy being." (130)
william e. phipps too, in his recent work muhammad and jesus (1996), attempts to compare the teachings of jesus and muhammad by regarding them as prophets of the same family.
it is an undeniable fact for christians that the prophet muhammad "for his own part thought himself sincere, and was regarded as sincere" by his followers both in his own day as now. furthermore, we have seen that this kind of positive assessment of the prophet muhammad enabled the following theological questions to be placed on the agenda of christian-muslim dialogue:
can christians acknowledge the prophethood of muhammad?
are they ready to regard muhammad as the prophet of god?
is it possible for christians to consider muhammad as a prophet in the light of their own religious traditions?
in this series of articles, we will mainly concentrate on the answers to these questions using contemporary christian accounts. we will limit ourselves to those scholars whose views contribute to the development of christian-muslim dialogue. in so doing, we have chosen montgomery watt, kenneth cragg, hans küng and david kerr as our major thinkers.
at this point, we reiterate our emphasis that those whose views are examined here cannot be taken as a basis for generalization, but rather as concrete illustrations of the main points.
to be continued …