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Kenneth Cragg on Muhammad's Prophethood

7699 2010/03/01 2024/06/13
Article translated to : Español
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 kenneth cragg's view.

kenneth cragg, as an anglican bishop and missionary to islam, is regarded as one of the key figures in the twentieth-century christian thinking about islam and christian-muslim relations.

his books and essays cover many areas in the broad fields of islamic studies, christian-muslim relations, and inter-faith dialogue. within this context, he has published a great number of books and essays on the christian understanding of islam and its basic phenomenon, such as the quran and prophet muhammad (peace be upon him).

although his first major treatment of prophet muhammad is recorded in his book, the call of the minaret, his muhammad and the christian has particular significance for our concern here because it was published as a christian response to the muslim question: "why do christians not acknowledge the prophethood of muhammad when muslims show such great respect to jesus?"

due to this specific purpose behind cragg's work, we will concentrate mainly on its account of the same while also examining cragg's own views on prophet muhammad's status.

the significance of cragg's views is that, as a committed christian and an islamicist, he takes the muslim demand seriously and tries to answer it sincerely within the context of his own religious tradition. in this connection, his book, muhammad and the christian, can be regarded by muslims as "judicious, gentle, and positive in its use of information. its criticism of islam is honest, and ostensibly caring in tone." (khan 189)

before starting to analyze muhammad and the christian, we would like to observe briefly, how he treats the phenomenon ofmuhammad in the call of the minaret.

here, cragg portrays prophet muhammad as a man of "a sure monotheism and a prophetic mission," in which a divine relationship of revelation, through a scripture, created a community of faith (75).

then, after asking by which criteria the prophethood of muhammad is to be evaluated by christians, cragg enumerates the following:

is it by those of arabian paganism which would show mohammad to be a great reformer? or by those of early islamic development which would show mohammad to be one of the rarest potentialities in human history? or by those of the classical hebrew prophets which would show in mohammad a strange and yet unmistakable shift in the whole concept and expression of prophethood? or by those of the hills of the galilee and judea where there are criteria of almost insupportable contrast. (91)

he himself subscribed to the last criterion in answering the question "how should prophethood proceed?", and made the following contrast:

the mohammedan decision here is formative of all else in islam. it was a decision for community, for resistance, for external victory, for pacification and rule. the decision of the cross — no less conscious, no less formative, no less inclusive — was the contrary decision. (93)

here, cragg's main criterion for the assessment of the phenomenon of muhammad is a christian one, and is in the direct comparison with christ as portrayed in the gospels.

one of the most interesting points in cragg's treatment of the phenomenon of muhammad in the call of minaret is that he used the title 'prophet' almost synonymously with the name of muhammad.

our examination of related passages, however, demonstrates that he did not use this title to give official status to muhammad as a prophet. instead, he might have used it because he was accustomed to calling him prophet while living among muslims in the middle-east. (69ff)

when we turn to muhammad and the christian, we realize cragg changes the approach we observed above. at the outset of this work, he explains his new thinking by indicating that the elements of other religions should be evaluated within their own historical context and not from one's own religious tradition and standpoint.

he says:

religions, they will say are specifics best left to their differing histories and their segregated faith systems, hopefully practicing tolerance but never venturing to translate their own ethos into the idiom of another. on this view, it will be either naive or hopeless to think that muhammad is assessable in terms proper to the buddha or that the prophet of the quran can rightly be aligned with jesus of the gospels...therefore it is wisdom to leave the several faiths to their own world-views, their historical matrix and their characteristic mood and mind. one should not look to their contemporary societies for any common reaction to the present world. their futures must be conceded to be as separate as their pasts. (2)

by such a statement, cragg seems to move away from assessing the phenomenon of muhammad in the light of christian teaching to an assessment in the light of the quran's own teaching. one of the reasons behind this shift could be that some of his christian colleagues charged him with christianizing islam.

after this methodological statement, cragg begins to respond to the muslim question by considering western historical studies relating to muhammad. he gives an analysis of him and his role as a prophet as it is presented in the quran. he also considers muslim thought on muhammad and his prophethood in the muslim tradition from the time of the prophet to our own day. it is not possible to discuss the significant points of this long survey here but we will limit our focus to the status and prophethood of muhammad.

as regards the muslim demand for acknowledgement of muhammad's prophethood by christians in the process of christian-muslim dialogue, cragg states that a vital part of the christian's response to this demand concerns muhammad's inner experience. he points out that:

the ultimate area of christian response, given an honest reckoning with all the foregoing, will be the content of the quran itself. indeed, the question of a christian acknowledgement of muhammad resolves itself into that, a christian response to the islamic scripture. it is safe to say that muhammad himself would not have it otherwise. nor could any faithful muslim. (6)

then he maintains that within this context a christian can consider muhammad as "the prophet of the quran" (91). as abrahim h. khan remarks, cragg's strategy in assessing the prophethood of muhammad within the context of the quran can imply that his study of the significance of muhammad for christians is "intellectually respectable", because by doing so he may mean that "muhammad's role in the quran is authentic prophet" (khan 190).

in this connection, cragg points out that:

the christian conscience must develop a faithful appreciation of the quran and thereby participate with muslims in muhammad within that community of truth as to god and man, creation and nature, law and mercy, which they afford. (140-141)

further, it seems that considering muhammad as 'the prophet of the

quran' allows cragg and other like-minded christians to affirm that in his role as the human channel through whom the quran was revealed muhammad was a genuine prophet of god.  

after acknowledging muhammad as 'the prophet of the quran', cragg tries to tie this recognition with the christian tradition by arguing that this "must entail a christian concern for a larger, more loving, comprehension of divine transcendence and, as its sphere, a deeper estimate of human nature and its answer in that which is 'more than prophecy'." he then adds that acknowledgement should not mean that:

the holy trinity, the divinity of jesus, the meaning of the cross, the mystery of the eucharist, the integrity of the four gospels, the doctrine of the holy spirit, and many contingent matters, are not vital. but it means that they are better left latent here, within the positive and often common themes of islamic faith and devotion. (139)

as has been observed so far, cragg insists that a christian acknowledgement of the muhammad's prophethood must hinge on biblical grounds. and within this, he evaluates the teaching of the prophet muhammad as follows:

in the broadest terms it means the rule of god, the reality of divine power, wisdom, mercy and justice. it means the strong permeation of the human scene with a consciousness of god, his claim, his creating, his sustaining, his ordaining. that awareness by which islam lives is sure enough to contain all those issues which the christian must be minded to join when he studies the predicates of his new testament theology. (145)

from this passage, we may conclude that cragg is extremely careful and cautious in his assessment of the muhammad's prophethood within the context of quranic teaching, this presumably so as not to underestimate, theologically, his own dogmatic position. for example,

while he acknowledges muhammad as "the prophet of the quran", he interprets the finality of muhammad not in time but with respect to place and locale so as not to compromise the christian belief of the finality of christ. (92)

he reflects this position in a number of places throughout his book. the following passages can be given as examples:

for the christian the pattern of muhammad's sirah will always be in conflict with the power and perspective of the cross. (52)

one cannot assess the latter only in terms of the preferability of monotheist faith to pagan idolatry, without regard to questions about jesus and the cross. (93)

the gospel presents what we must call a divine 'indicative', an initiative of self-disclosure on god's part by which his relation to our human situation is not only in law and education, but in grace and suffering. christians therefore believe that they have to 'let god be god' in just those initiatives which islam excludes... (158)

by these statements, cragg explicitly argues that god's sovereignty is fully vindicated not in terms of an islamic understanding of prophecy but in the sonship of christ which is designated by "those measures of grace and love, of sin and redemption, which are distinctive to the gospel" (141).

he also makes the connection between the quranic statement about the blessing of the prophet with new testament statements about the divine sonship of jesus christ (54-65).

it seems that he uses this connection to demonstrate that the prophet muhammad in one sense 'incarnated' the reality of god's message to humankind whereby he asks: "are we not then warranted in saying that the prophet of islam's very stature argues the sort of divine commitment to the human situation and its righting which the christian sees implemented in jesus as the christ." (127)

in our opinion, cragg's attempt is repugnant to islam, since "it runs against the grain of basic quranic teaching, which is that only a being who is completely human can provide effective guidance to humankind." (khan 196)

further, khan maintains that an understanding of the prophet muhammad's position "from the perspective of a theology that implies that incarnation, atonement and redemption, and that endorses jesus christ as the standard of faith" distorts his image in the eyes of muslims.

also, to see muhammad as a witness "to the human situation implemented in jesus christ" is to underestimate muhammad's being as rasul allah or messenger of god. (khan 196)

jane i. smith, stresses that by trying "to balance christology with the muslim sense of prophecy", cragg "moves onto potentially dangerous ground." (smith 75)

in his investigation of the status and prophethood of muhammad, cragg used jesus christ as a decisive criterion by which he indicated that the human condition needs more than prophethood to meet its deepest needs. he concludes his investigation by arguing that "if, restoring jesus' principle, we question or regret the caesar in muhammad, it will only be for the sake, in their quranic form, of those same 'things of god', which move us to acknowledge him."(159)

this conclusion leads him to argue that the "whole logic of muhammad's career is that the verbal deliverance of prophetic truth fails of satisfaction and must therefore pass to the post-hijrah invocation of power." (155)

by doing so, cragg acknowledges that muhammad might have been a prophet but jesus christ was more than a prophet. for, according to cragg, muhammad as a prophet testified to "the sort of divine commitment to the human situation and its righting which the christian sees implemented in jesus as the christ." (127)

as has been observed, cragg develops his views as a response to a consistent muslim call for christian acknowledgement of muhammad's prophethood in the process of christian-muslim encounters. he expresses this point in the preface to muhammad and the christian:

it is the aim of this study to offer at least one christian's view of a resolution of the problem, a resolution which, no more than tentative, remains loyal to christian criteria while outlining a positive response to muhammad. (ix)

within this context, it seems that all his thoughts on this issue can be regarded as guiding principles which show christians how they might respond to the muslim demand by holding christ as a decisive and normative criterion for the salvation of humankind.

in the light of our examination of cragg's views on the status and prophethood of muhammad, we may draw the following conclusions:

first, cragg regards muhammad as a prophet of god and the human channel through whom the quran was transmitted for those who had no scripture. however, while doing this, cragg places muhammad's significance into the pattern of an old testament prophet whose ultimate objective points beyond himself to the life and ministry of jesus christ.

chronologically speaking, we may ask how this is possible when muhammad came six centuries after jesus. this question is answered by cragg with an appeal to geography. thus, the arabian peninsula at the time of muhammad is considered by cragg to have been in an old testament state of affairs. he says: "for places can be 'contemporary' in time and in no way 'contemporary' in character." (92)

second, from the muslim point of view cragg's generous suggestion that christians should regard muhammad as 'the prophet of the quran' is not as generous as he thinks. for, muslims do not recognize muhammad only as 'the prophet of the quran' but as rasul allah, the messenger of god.

according to this belief, muhammad is not just a prophet for the arabs, but a prophet with a universal message for all human beings. hence, cragg's recognition of muhammad as 'the prophet of the quran' is for muslims nothing less than a betrayal of their faith.

third, although cragg examines the question of muhammad's prophethood in a scholarly way, in the light of quranic accounts, it seems that his final verdict is "no longer from a scholarly position but a theological-apologetic one, intended to safeguard the kerygmatic core of the christian faith, and simultaneously to appease muslims." (khan 192)

in short, we may conclude that, it is indeed a positive development towards christian-muslim dialogue for a committed christian scholar to respond so positively to the muslim demand that in the dialogue process the christian partner should respect muhammad as a prophet within the context of his own religious tradition.

by doing so, cragg has shown that the christian partner can acknowledge muhammad as 'a prophet of the quran' by safeguarding his/her own christian beliefs. cragg's views can also be regarded as extremely helpful for those who fear that to adopt a positive attitude toward prophet muhammad can cause problems for their own beliefs.

to be continued…






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