Rays of truth in Christian-Muslim discourse
A tutor in Islamic Studies reflects on the parallels and distinctions which characterise contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue.
It’s the year 610 C.E. and a forty-year-old Arab man is on an isolated retreat in a mountain cave on the outskirts of Mecca in the south-east Arabian Peninsula. He would often retreat for days at a time to meditate. This retreat, however, would be different. According to tradition, an angel appeared and pressed hard against him asking him three times to ‘read’. To each exhortation, the man replied that he did know how to read. After the third time the angel command him to recite ‘in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), has created man from a clot. Recite! And your Lord is the Most Generous’.
This message is often identified as constituting the first revealed verse of the Qur’an (Q96:1-5) and its recipient, Muhammad, was left startled and frightened by the encounter. He immediately fled the mountain and recounted the experience to his wife, Khadijah. She advised him to seek the counsel of her paternal cousin; a Christian man named Waraqa, who instantly confirmed that it was a message from God and lamented the fact that he was an old man and would likely not live to the day when Muhammad’s own people would drive him out; Waraqa said that anyone who came with a message similar to what Muhammad had received had always been treated with hostility by his people. This statement identifies a familiar prophetic trope within the Jewish and Christian traditions and identifies Muhammad as one on the path to prophethood. As Muhammad’s prophetic career progressed and his monotheistic preaching began to challenge the polytheistic values of Mecca, he too was eventually driven out from Mecca by his community.
This exchange, whether actual or a literary construct, is often pointed to as one of the first encounters of Christian-Muslim relations. Since that time some 1400 years have elapsed, and Christian-Muslim relations must be understood within the ebbs and flows of its particular historical and cultural situatedness. To not do this is to engage in anachronistic readings of history and to project the present, with all its concerns and assumptions, onto a time and place which had very different concerns and assumptions. That said, this exchange contains within it themes and motifs that have echoed throughout the centuries.
Waraqa’s response to Muhammad’s experience was to affirm that this was the same message that had been given to other prophets and that Muhammad, like them, could expect to be driven out of his own town. This recognition contains an important fulcrum of Muslim theology (kalam) and jurisprudence. Namely, the idea of multiple messengers and prophets who are sent to all the nations out of God’s love and mercy with a view to ensuring no one is left without divine guidance: ‘…for We assuredly sent amongst every people a messenger, (with the Command), “ Serve Allah, and eschew evil…”’ (Q16:36).
Within Muslim tradition this has translated itself into the idea that throughout history there have been some 124,000 prophets (or nabi) and approximately 313 messengers (or rasul). All messengers are prophets but not all prophets are messengers. Messengers come with a book (kitab) whereas prophets do not; they come with a verbal exhortation to righteousness and a return to submission to God’s will. Nonetheless, both have their origin and purpose in communicating (or reminding) their interlocutors of the divine word and divine will.
The question, from a Muslim perspective, is the extent to which those recipients of divine message have faithfully preserved the message and adhered to it. Or, has the divine message become corrupted over time, either intentionally or unintentionally, by humankind? The Qur’an describes Muhammad as someone who has been sent to ‘remind’ humanity of that which had been forgotten – submission and reverence to the Creator, not the created. Muhammad, however, is considered to be last of these Messengers of God – the ‘seal of prophets’.
Theology & political rights
Such theological positions, which recognise a shared origin of divine message and, by extension, a revealed truth in other religions (however corrupted), are evidenced by the Qur’anic and theological category of ahl al-kitab (the people of the book). And while this category is often popularly limited to Jews and Christians, it is important to note that with some 313 messengers throughout history, the ‘people of the book’ casts a much wider net. Moreover, the theological category of ‘the people of the book’ translates into the political category of ‘the protected people’ (ahl al-dimma).
The ‘protected people’ were guaranteed certain political rights within the Muslim empire(s) in exchange for paying the jizya – a religious tax from which the Muslim population was exempt. In exchange for paying this tax, the ‘protected people’ were guaranteed a certain level of religious and political freedom, the protection of Muslim armies from outside aggressors, and were exempt from military service. The tax was less than what some seventh century Christians communities (for example, in North Africa) were paying to Constantinople to help cover military costs against the Persians. While Christians were guaranteed certain rights, it was not a form of equality that we perhaps recognise today. There were restrictions which varied from place to place, including prohibitions on wearing fine cloth, restrictions in relation to processions and the ringing of church bells, and – the key condition – one should not blaspheme Muhammad or Islam. Nonetheless, such social contracts enabled Christian communities to exist as largely self-governing entities under Muslim rule.
One of the best-known social contracts is the covenant that, according to tradition, Muhammad himself established with St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. The terms of this covenant, are noted to apply to all who ‘…profess the Christian religion in East and East, near and far, whether they are Arabs or non-Arabs, unknown or known…’ (Morrow 2013: 211). Such terms include:
‘A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower, nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no church or chapel shall be destroyed, nor shall the property of their churches be used for the building of mosques or house for the Muslims. Whoever offends against this rule forfeits God’s protection and is insubordinate to his Messenger’. (Morrow 2013: 211)
‘If a Christian woman enters a Muslim household, she shall be received with kindness, and she shall be given the opportunity to pray in her church; there shall be no dispute between her and a man who loves her religion…[Christians] shall be assisted in the improvement of their churches and religious dwellings; thus they will be aided in their faith and kept true to their allegiance’. (Morrow 2013: 212)
‘A ray of that Truth which enlightens all men’
On Monday 13th June 1960 the Jewish French historian and teacher Jules Isaac had a meeting with Pope John XXIII. Isaac was 83 and had lost his wife and daughter to the concentration camps. He noted similarities between some of the anti-Semitism he had experienced and some of the teachings of the Church; his 600 page book, Jesus and Israel, drew attention to ‘…certain stylistic tendencies in the Gospels…[which inspire]…horror and contempt of the Jewish people as a whole…’ (Isaac 1948: 71).
Isaac presented Pope John XIII with a memorandum and file for the reform of teaching, preaching, and catechesis for the purpose of expressing the roots of anti-Semitism. This memorandum formed the basis of the draft Vatican II document De Judaeis (‘On the Jews’) which, after many drafts, developed into Nostra Aetate (‘A Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christians’).
In relation to Islam, Nostra Aetate astutely confirms those tenets of Muslim belief that accord with Christian belief while simultaneously not commenting on the veracity of those beliefs. And while Muhammad is not mentioned, it does call on all to work sincerely for mutual understanding, social justice, and peace. Nostra Aetate must be viewed in its wider Vatican II context, which acknowledged that due to the fact that Christ died for all people, ‘…we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery…’ (Gaudium et Spes 1:32) and that ‘…the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims…’ (Lumen Gentium 2:126).
Such statements do not, however, give carte blanche for the unthinking acceptance of the veracity of the Muslim claim of revelation. Rather, Vatican II equally stressed that the deepest truth about God shines out in Christ, ‘…who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation…’ (Dei Verbum 2) and, importantly for Christian-Muslim dialogue, that the ‘Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Dei Verbum 4, emphasis my own). Both statements emphasise that revelation stops with Christ and that we await no new public revelation.
So while Vatican II acknowledged those aspects of Muslim belief and practice that align with Christian belief and practice, the Church is still quite clear that Christ is the sum and benchmark of revealed truth. How does this relate to Muhammad as Prophet and the Muslim claim to be a revealed religion? Is it possible to have prophecy after Christ? Yes: the New Testament itself bears witness to the gift of prophecy. Is Muhammad a prophet? Prophets exhort people to repent of their sins and worship the one true God but prophets after Christ should bear testimony to truth. That truth, within the Church’s purview, is Christ. Prophets after Christ should therefore bear testimony to Christ. Is Muhammad a prophet? Well, he did exhort people to repent and worship one God and transformed the Arabian Peninsula from being heavily polytheistic to being monotheistic. He also bore testimony to Jesus – not as Christ – but as ‘Son of Mary’, not ‘Son of God’. In such a way Christian-Muslim relations are often characterised by such interesting parallels and yet, such interesting distinctions. The question of Muhammad as a prophet of revealed truth – much like, perhaps, the question of the incarnation or trinity for Muslims – is arguably one of the most intransigent areas of Christian-Muslim discourse.
That said, Vatican II marked a sizeable shift in emphasis in the Church’s official position on Islam. Following some 1400 years of (mostly) negative perceptions of Islam, the Church now: ‘…regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men…’ (Nostra Aetate 2). Defining the nature and extent of those rays of truth is part of the task, and challenge, of contemporary Christian-Muslim engagement.
Dr Anthony Allison is Tutor in Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow