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- William Montgomery Watt on Prophet Muhammad
William Montgomery Watt on Prophet Muhammad
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. readingislam.com presents a series of articles investigating the answers to the following questions: can christians acknowledge the prophethood of muhammad? are they ready to regard muhammad as a prophet of god? 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. in this part, the author discusses william montgomery watt's view.
by his works on islam, as khurshid ahmad remarks, he has changed the prejudiced attitude of christians to islam to a more objective and sympathetic one. (18)
he is also regarded by both christians and muslims as the most prolific scholar of this century in the field of seerah scholarship because of his acceptance of the quran and the early islamic works as reliable sources for determining the prophet muhammad's status. (welch 15–52)
as regards watt's significance in seerah scholarship, daniel indicates that watt's views on muhammad, although they "do not revolutionize the christian assessment of the prophet, do change the emphasis, so that the reader, through the historico-anthropological approach is drawn into and allowed to some extent to share the muslim awareness of the prophet." (daniel 330-331)
f.e. peters in his recent biography of the prophet notes that:
…undoubtedly montgomery watt's two-volume life of muhammad written at the mid-century has become the standard for students and scholars alike. works of such magnitude and conviction usually signal a pause, the reshaping of a new communis opinio, and such seems to have occurred here: no one has since attempted a like enterprise in english. (xi)
watt has written a great number of books and articles about islam and its phenomenon, namely the islamic revelation, the prophet muhammad, and recently, christian-muslim relations.
but his main views about the status and prophethood of muhammad can be found in his later writings such as islam and christianity today (1983); "muhammad as the founder of islam" (1984); "the nature of prophethood of muhammad" (1987); muhammad's mecca (1988); muslim-christian encounter (1991); "islamic attitude to other religions" (1993).
for this reason, we will mainly concentrate on accounts of these works by highlighting those passages which pertain to our questions. additionally, we will follow the historical order of his writings to see how his views developed in the course of time.
in doing so, we would like first to give his criticism of christians' distorted images of prophet muhammad in order to highlight the starting point of his own arguments concerning our investigation.
in his muhammadat medina (1956), he invites christians to develop an objective view about muhammad, the prophet of islam, because of the close contacts between christians and muslims.
he totally rejects the past allegations made against muhammad, and says that the advocates of those allegations regarded muhammad as an impostor or without thinking about "how god could have allowed a great religion like islam to develop from a basis of lies and deceit." ("at medina" 232)
in another place, he criticizes early christian scholars' views on the issue of muhammad's prophetic vocation by saying that:
in medieval europe there was elaborated the conception of muhammad as a false prophet who merely pretended to receive messages from god; and this and other falsifications of the medieval war propaganda are only slowly being expunged from the mind of europe and christendom. ("bell's introduction" 17)
watt points out that in the understanding of muhammad's prophetic experience,
western writers have mostly been prone to believe the worst of muhammad, and where an objectionable interpretation of an act seemed plausible have tended it as fact.
he argues that this plausibility in itself is not sufficient criteria to judge a particular case and, hence, it is important that solid, sound evidence needs to be presented as the basis for assessing muhammad's prophethood.
thus, not merely must we credit muhammad with essential honesty and integrity of purpose, if we are to understand him at all; if we are to correct the errors we have inherited from the past, we must in every particular case hold firmly to the belief in his sincerity until the opposite is conclusively proved. ("at mecca" 233)
watt urges christians to try to understand some events surrounding the prophet muhammad within the context of his own circumstances, without judging them according to their own circumstances.
in this connection, he states that christians accused muhammad of treachery and lustfulness because of events such as the violation of the sacred month and his marriage to the divorced wife of his adopted son without thinking about the circumstances of his time.
he argues that if those christians carefully scrutinized early islamic sources, they would easily find out that they judge muhammad's actions without taking into consideration any moral criticism of his contemporaries. ("prophet and statesman" 233)
he also criticizes the theory that muhammad was a "pathological case" (archer 9ff). he states that none of the medical symptoms associated with this condition were present in muhammad.
further, he argues that even if it were the case "the argument would be completely unsound and based on mere ignorance and prejudice; such physical concomitants neither validate or invalidate religious experience". ("at mecca" 57)
we may conclude watt's criticism by pointing out that those past negative views of western christians depend very much on certain traditions which might not enjoy any certainty at all, instead of on the quran and the early islamic sources. on this issue, watt declares that:
it is incredible that a person subject to epilepsy, or hysteria, or even ungovernable fits of emotion, could have been the active leader of military expeditions, or the cool far-seeing guide of city-state and a growing religious community; but all this we know muhammad to have been. in such questions the principle of the historian should be to depend mainly on the qur'an and accept tradition only in so far as it is in harmony with the results of qur'anic study. ("bell's introduction" 18)
thereafter, watt begins his own assessment of the status and prophethood of muhammad by pointing out the necessity of making a theological evaluation of his prophetic vocation. he insists that "so far muhammad has been described from the point of view of the historian. yet as the founder of a world religion he also demands a theological judgement." ("prophet and statesman" 237-238)
then, he starts his theological appreciation by defining prophethood as follows:
prophets... share in (what may be called) 'creative imagination'. they proclaim ideas connected with what is deepest and most central in human experience, with special reference to the particular needs of their day and generation. the mark of the great prophet is the profound attraction of his ideas for those to whom they are addressed. ("prophet and statesman" 238)
in another work, truth in religions, watt depicts a prophet "as a religious leader who brings truth in a form suited to the needs of his society and age" (149). as we will see, his evaluation of the muhammad's prophethood appears to conform with this definition.
furthermore, in his essay "thoughts on muslim-christian dialogue", he notes the differences between christian and muslim understanding of the term 'prophet'. here, watt indicates that the main specialties of the old testament prophets were to be involved in their contemporary public events, and to foretell the future.
according to modern, historically-minded christians, he argues, the main duty of the prophet is not to foretell the future but to transmit and proclaim god's message to his own people. (34-35)
within the context of these understandings of the term 'prophet', watt, towards the end of his muhammad, prophet and statesman, asks "was muhammad a prophet?", and answers it by pointing out that:
he was a man in whom creative imagination worked at deep levels and produced ideas relevant to the central questions of human existence, so that his religion has had a widespread appeal, not only in his own age but in succeeding centuries. not all the ideas he proclaimed are true and sound but god's grace has been enabled to provide millions of men with a better religion than they had before they testified that there is no god but god and that muhammad is his messenger. (240)
in his essay "thoughts on muslim-christian dialogue", watt argues that it would be very difficult for christians to regard muhammad as a prophet. for, according to him, if christians did, perhaps muslims would draw the conclusion that christians considered muhammad as a prophet in the islamic sense whereby muhammad is understood as "a mere instrument for transmitting to his fellow-men the actual speech of god without his personality entering into the transaction in any way." (36)
in his islam and christianity today, he develops his views about the status of the prophet muhammad in the light of the observable fruits of muhammad's teaching on his followers. in this connection, he argues that christians should accept the fact that on the basis of the revelation which came to muhammad:
a religious community developed, claiming to serve god, numbering some thousands in muhammad's lifetime, and now having several hundred million members. the quality of life in this community has been on the whole satisfactory for the saintliness of life, and countless ordinary people have been enabled to live decent and moderately happy lives in difficult circumstances. these points lead to the conclusion that the view of reality presented in the quran is true and from god, and that therefore muhammad is a genuine prophet. (60-61)
in his essay "muhammad as the founder of islam", watt explains what he means by the phase "genuine prophet" as follows:
muhammad was a genuine prophet in the sense that god used him to communicate truth about himself to human beings; but this assertion has to be qualified by holding also that prophets can make mistakes of a sort, as the old testament prophets haggai and zechariah did when they thought that prince zerubbabel was the messiah. (249)
he also describes prophet muhammad as one used by god to found a religion, part of his duty being "to challenge christians to more profound reflection on some of their basic beliefs." (249)
following on from such positive statements about prophet muhammad, watt announces his own understanding of muhammad's status and prophethood at the beginning of his muhammad's mecca — history in the qur'an as follows:
personally i am convinced that muhammad was sincere in believing that what came to him as revelation (al-wahy ) was not the product of conscious thought on his part. i consider that muhammad was truly a prophet, and think that we christians should admit this on the basis of the christian principle that ''by their fruits you will know them'', since through the centuries islam has produced many upright and saintly people. if he is a prophet, too, then in accordance with the christian doctrine that the holy spirit spoke by the prophets, the qur'an may be accepted as of divine origin. (1)
in his essay "islamic attitude to other religions", he attempts to make this personal statement as a general christian account not to offend muslims in the process of interreligious dialogue. he says christians "must accept muhammad as a prophet who was similar to the old testament prophets." (245)
in another recent work, muslim-christian encounter: perceptions and misconceptions, watt emphasizes that in the process of christian-muslim dialogue it is very important that christians should reject the distortions of the medieval image of islam and should develop a positive appreciation of its values.
this involves accepting muhammad as a religious leader through whom god has worked, and that is "tantamount to holding that he is in some sense a prophet." and he adds "such a view does not contradict any central christian belief", since "christians do not believe that all muhammad's revelations from god were infallible, even though they allow that much of divine truth was revealed to him." (148)
in one of his essays, "ultimate vision and ultimate reality", watt concedes that although in his academic life he always defends the view that the quran was not prophet muhammad's own product but something that came to him beyond himself, he nonetheless hesitates to speak of muhammad as a prophet from fear that "muslims would have taken this to mean that everything in the qur'an was finally and absolutely true" which he did not acknowledge as so.
but just prior to this, as we have observed above, he says he admitted muhammad as a prophet like the old testament prophets who came to ''bring the knowledge of god to people without such knowledge''. (280-288)
further, he clarifies what he means when he recognizes muhammad as a prophet like those of the old testament in his religious truth for our time as follows:
muhammad was a prophet comparable to the old testament prophets, though his function was somewhat different. the latter were primarily critics of deviations from an existing religion, whereas he had to bring knowledge of god and of his commands to a people without any such knowledge. in this respect muhammad's role and station more closely resembled that of moses in that through each of them a form of the divine law was communicated to their people. (80)
as has been observed so far, watt made a number of bold statements towards acknowledging the prophethood of muhammad. within this context, when we think of his views as a whole, we can draw two ambiguous and two significant points from them. first of all, we will highlight the ambiguous.
first, while he is making one of his bold statements about the prophethood of muhammad, watt underlines that he is "convinced that muhammad was sincere in believing that what came to him [was] revelation." in our opinion, this statement should be understood in the light of watt's understanding of the status of the quran.
though watt conceded that prophet muhammad did not produce the quran consciously, however, he argued that something of him entered into the process of revelation. so, from this understanding, we could argue that what watt is convinced of is not that muhammad actually received revelation from god, but that he sincerely believed that he received revelation.
this naturally leads us to draw the conclusion that although muhammad believed that he received revelation from god, in reality he might not have. in our opinion, this point needs more clarification from watt, himself, for the sake of better christian-muslim understanding.
second, as a corollary to this negative implication, watt, by taking the christian doctrine that the holy spirit spoke by the prophets, implies that prophet muhammad was inspired in the same way, and also by the trinitarian god. by doing this, it seems that watt downgrades the value of prophet muhammad, not only in the eyes of non-muslims but muslims as well. for it may reduce the status of muhammad to those people who are guided by the holy spirit such as gospel writers, christian saints or holy people of other religious traditions.
apart from these ambiguities, there are also two very significant points in watt's thoughts on the prophet muhammad. the first whereby watt urges christians to test the lives of those who follow prophet muhammad in the light of the christian criterion that "by their fruits you will know them" before deciding whether muhammad could be a prophet or not.
broadly speaking, although watt's criterion can contribute to positive christian appreciation of the prophethood of muhammad, it might also be used as a negative evaluation by christians. for, watt does not explain what those fruits are.
second, by comparing prophet muhammad to the old testament prophets watt, like küng as we will see later, arrives at the conclusion that he was a prophet similar to those of the old testament. although this is a good starting point for positive christian assessment of prophet muhammad, it seems that it reduces his value in the eyes of his followers.
in our opinion, watt makes the connection between muhammad and moses in order to avoid this implication. however, even after considering these ambiguities and significances, as muslims we must concede that, in western christian scholarship watt's position represents a great shift forward from the distorted medieval images of prophet muhammad to the positive evaluation of his status.
in doing so, watt has already paved the way through which christians can obtain a complimentary view about prophet muhammad and be able to evaluate his status as the prophet "in a more positive light than hitherto." (forward 107)
to be continued…