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 discussthose 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 discusseshans küng's view.
hansküng, as an ecumenical catholic theologian, began his scholarly life by dealing with problematic issues within christianity. but in the courseof time, he became interested in contemporary common issues not only for christians, but also for people of other faiths.
according to w. g. jeanrond's classification of küng's theological development, his reflection on theological method and the discourse between christianity and world religions began in the early1980's in order to promote inter-religious dialogue (105).
in this context, he published his major workchristianity and world religions: paths of dialogue with islam,hinduism, and buddhismin1984.
in each part of this book, first of all, he pays attention to scholarly accounts of islam, hinduism, and buddhism, and then provides a detailed critical response to each one as a christian theologian.
as a scholar interested in world religions, küng has tried to understand them anew as a christian theologian and to create a positive environment for christians to relate to adherents of those religions. in so doing, he studies the status of prophet muhammad (peace be upon him) from the christian perspective in a number of his writings, namely:christianity and the world religions, christianity and world religions: the dialogue with islam, and muhammad: a prophet?.
we will examine küng's views on the status and prophethood of muhammad in light of these accounts.
as a leading catholic theologian, küng, with special reference tonostra aetate,openly and boldly invited the members of the catholic church to officially acknowledge muhammad's prophethood if they wanted to establish better relations with muslims. in this connection, küng underlines:
the same church must, in my opinion, also respect that the one whose name is absent from the same declaration out of embarrassment, although he and he alone led muslims to pray to this one god, so that once again through him, muhammad, the prophet, this god 'has spoken to mankind'. ("world religions" 129)
later on, too, he notes the necessity of acknowledging muhammad's prophethood by all christians in the process of christian-muslim dialogue by maintaining that:
the christian who wishes to engage in dialogue with the muslims acknowledges from the outset his or her own conviction of faith that for him or her jesus is the christ and so is normative and definitive, but he or she also takes very seriously the function of muhammad as an authentic prophet. ("ecumenical"124)
in our opinion, because of these two bold statements, küng's views deserve to be taken seriously. not least because his remarks that in our pluralistic age in which more and more people from different religious traditions are living and working together, it is no longer possible for christians to accept the distorted medieval images of prophet muhammad such as false, lying pseudo prophet, a fortune teller, and a magician.
on the contrary, he stresses the need to develop a new and positive christian understanding of muhammad. to do this, he says it is necessary first of all to take into consideration the historical context of muhammad's prophethood and his message within the stream of the religious history of all humanity.
from this methodological perspective, he remarks:
muhammad is discontinuity in person, an ultimately irreducible figure, who cannot be simply derived from what preceded him, but stands radically apart from it as he, with the quran, established permanent new stands. ("world religions" 25)
from this passage, davidkerrrightly concludes that küng takes the discontinuity as
küng draws attention to the similarities between muhammad's prophethood and the prophetsof israel in order to expose the significance of muhammad for christians
an essential element for his evaluation of the originality of muhammad's prophethood (kerr437).by using this exposition, küng advocates that "muhammad and the quran represent a decisive break, a departure from the past, a shift toward a new future"("world religions"25).
also, küng argues that there is no one more worthy of being called a prophet than muhammad in the whole of religious history, and this is because of his claim that he was no more than a prophet, who came to warn people. he says "when the history of religions speaks of "theprophet"tout court, of a man who claimed to bethatbut absolutely nothing more, then there can be no doubt that this is muhammad"(25).
küng draws attention to the similarities between muhammad's prophethood and the prophets of israel in order to expose the significance of muhammad for christians. he says that like the old testament prophets, muhammad based his work not on any office given to him by the community (or its authorities) but on a special, personal relationship with god.
muhammad was a strong-willed character, who saw himself as wholly penetrated by his divine vocation, totally taken up by god's claim on him, exclusively absorbed by his mission. muhammad spoke out amid a religious and social crisis.
with his passionate piety and his revolutionary preaching, he stood up against the wealthy ruling class and the tradition of which it was the guardian. muhammad, who usually calls himself a 'warner', wished to be nothing but god's mouthpiece and to proclaim god's word, not his own.
muhammad tirelessly glorified the one god, who tolerates no other gods before him and who is, at the same time, the kindly creator and merciful judge.
muhammad insisted upon unconditional obedience, devotion, and 'submission' to this one god. he called for every kind of gratitude toward god and of generosity toward human beings. muhammad linked his monotheism to a humanism, connecting faith in the one god and his judgment to the demand for social justice; judgment and redemption, threats against the unjust, who go to hell, and promises to the just, who are gathered into god's paradise(25–26).
here, küng explains the status of prophet muhammad to christians by presenting three important steps for them to determine that self same status. first, it is necessary for them to take into account the specialties of muhammad's teaching. second, to compare them with the teachings of previous prophets i.e. old testament prophets, in order to observe their similarities. and lastly to make their decisions about his status by considering those similarities.
küng continues to draw attention to the similarities of the teachings of the biblical prophets and muhammad by urging christians to read the quran and the bible, especially the old testament, to find answers to the following questions:
do not these three semitic religions — judaism, christianity and islam — have the same origin? does not one and the same god speak loudly and clearly in these religions? does not the old testament's 'thus says the lord' correspond to the quran's 'say', as the old testament's 'go and tell' matches the quran's 'take you stand and warn'. (26)
he says that if christians do this, it is impossible for them to answer these questions negatively. thus, he concludes that "it is only dogmatic prejudice when we [christians] recognize amos and hosea, isaiah and jeremiah, as prophets, but not muhammad"(26).
like watt, küng urges christians to take into account the effect of muhammad's teaching on his followers in seventh-century arabia. he says by following that message, those people
were lifted to the heights of monotheism from the very worldly polytheism of the old arabian tribal religion. taken as a whole, they received from muhammad, or rather from the quran, a boundless supply of inspiration, courage, and strength to make a new departure in religion, toward greater truth and deeper knowledge, a breakthrough that vitalized and renewed their traditional religion. islam, in short, was a great help in their life. (27)
küng also reminds christians of the following facts when dealing with the questions
küng argues that like the old testament prophets, muhammad, too, deserves to be called 'prophet' by christians
about prophet muhammad. he says it is well known today that one fifth of the world's population "are all marked by the exacting power of a faith that, more than practically any other, has shaped its followers into a uniform type"; and those people, muslims, share a "feeling for the fundamental equality of all human beings before god, and international brotherhood that has managed to overcome barriers between the races" (26-27).
these quotations from küng imply that the right way for christian appreciation of prophet muhammad is to take into account the observable benefits of his message on his followers. in other words, according to küng, it is necessary to move away from theology to the practical effects of the message on the life of its followers in order to reach a right conclusion about that faith. by implying this, it seems that küng adopts a similar approach to both smith and montgomery watt.
finally, küng moves to outline the theological meaning of this recognition of prophet muhammad for christians. he begins by showing that in the new testament there are statements which indicate that after jesus there is the possibility of authentic future prophets. but, küng restricts their mission to witnessing jesus and his message by making it comprehensible for every age and every situation (27–28).
within this context, in the last stage of his examination of the status and prophethood of muhammad, küng regards muhammad "as a witness for jesus — a jesus who could have been understood not by hellenistic gentile christians, but by jesus' first disciples, who were jews, because, with this jesus tradition, muhammad reminds the jews that jesus fits into the continuity of jewish salvation history"(126).
and he emphasizes that "this muhammad" can be a "prophetic corrective" and
küng tries to reassess the status and prophethood of muhammad in the light of modern day developments in christian-muslim relations.
"prophetic warner" for christians in order to inform them that the one incomparable god has to stand in the absolute center of faith; that associating with him any other gods or goddesses is out of the question; that faith and life, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, belong together everywhere, including politics (129).
in one of his papers which was delivered at edinburgh theological club, küng maintains that "i can, as a christian be convinced that if i have chosen ... jesus as the christ for my life and death, then along with him i have chosen his follower muhammad, insofar as he appeals to one and the same god and to jesus" (watt 84).
as we have observed above, as an ecumenical catholic theologian and leading defender of inter-religious dialogue, küng tries to reassess the status and prophethood of muhammad in the light of modern day developments in christian-muslim relations. by doing this, he examines the issue from both practical and theological perspectives.
in view of our examination of his standpoint within the context of these two perspectives, we may draw the following conclusions. first, according to küng, all christians, both officially and individually, need to make some correction in their approaches to prophet muhammad's status in the process of christian-muslim dialogue so that their views will not offend muslims.
second, while doing this, it is necessary to take into account the similarities between prophet muhammad and the old testament prophets, and the observable fruits of his teaching on muslims. in this issue, küng argues that like the old testament prophets, muhammad, too, deserves to be called 'prophet' by christians.
from the muslim understanding of prophethood, there is no problem in küng's argument, since according to islamic teaching there is no difference between prophets(al-baqarah 2:285).
however, from the christian point of view his argument needs further clarification to avoid ambiguity. for, what muslims understand by this term differs from what christians understand.
third, from a theological perspective, according to küng, the new testament allows the continuation of prophecy after jesus christ as long as they witness to him in every age and in every situation.
therefore, küng acknowledges muhammad's prophethood by seeing him "as a witness for jesus" not as understood by hellenistic gentile christians but by his first disciples and also as a "prophetic corrective" for christians. in our opinion, there are two significant implications of these arguments.
the first is that christians may have an opportunity to revise their own understanding of jesus by taking into account jewish christians understanding of jesus, since according to küng there is a great similarity between the quranic and jewish christians approach to jesus("religious situation"105(ff)).
the second is that being a "prophetic corrective" for christians seems to be compatible with the prophet's teaching as long as this is understood as just one of his duties among others.
for example, in the quran, christians are invited to give up their extreme views about jesus not his teaching. although these are positive implications, when muhammad and jesus are compared, küng always seems to make muhammad inferior to jesus.
there is another negative implication here for the development of christian-muslim understanding. if the mission of prophet muhammad is restricted to witnessing to jesus in order to make him intelligible for every age and every situation, then there is no difference between prophet muhammad and the gospel authors and even church authorities and missionaries. this certainly reduces the value of prophet muhammad not only in the eyes of non-muslims but also muslims.