The Challenge Of Muhammad

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Today’s letter from Muslim academics invites Christians to question some long-held myths and discover our similarities.

Today’s letter from 138 Muslim scholars and academics around the world, addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders is an invitation “to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions” and emphasises the common teachings of Islam and Christianity.

This initiative comes just over a year after Pope Benedict made a controversial speech at a German university in which he quoted a 14th century Christian emperor referring to the Prophet Muhammad as bringing only “evil and inhuman” things.

Can today’s call contribute towards helping improve relations between Muslims and Christians or does it merely consist of tired “platitudes” as the commentator Simon Jenkins asserted on the Today programme this morning?

In truth, Muhammad has presented a major challenge to Christian thinking ever since he began preaching the faith of Islam in the early seventh century. Muhammad saw himself as the last in a long line of prophets sent by God and reaffirming the essential teachings of Judaism and Christianity and indeed, Islam’s insistence on the oneness of God, the accountability on the day of judgement, abstinence from alcohol and gambling, the duty of care towards one’s parents, family and neighbours, were not easy to portray as the mutterings of the anti-Christ.

In his book, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, the Oxford scholar, Sir Richard W Southern, noted that:

The existence of Islam was the most far-reaching problem in medieval Christendom. It was a problem at every level of experience. As a practical problem it called for action and for discrimination between the competing possibilities of Crusade, conversion, coexistence, and commercial exchange. As a theological problem it called persistently for some answer to the mystery of its existence: what was its providential role in history – was it a symptom of the world’s last days or a stage in the Christian development; a heresy, a schism, or a new religion; a work of man or devil; an obscene parody of Christianity, or a system of thought that deserved to be treated with respect?

Well, we know what path history then took. Muhammad was portrayed in Europe as an imposter, a scheming cardinal who founded his own religion after failing to become the Pope. The Muslim prohibition on eating the pig was because at his death Muhammad was eaten by swine. To Martin Luther, Muhammad was second in wickedness only to the Pope (who was, of course, the real anti-Christ).

Since the middle of the 19th century, there has been a gradual reappraisal of the role of Muhammad and Islam by many western scholars. The Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, led the way:

Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Imposter, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only.’

Today, there is a far wider recognition that Muhammad’s role was similar to that of the biblical prophet Moses who united the Israelite tribes, except that Muhammad saw himself as being sent as a messenger to all of humanity, not just to one ethnic group.

Still, though the appreciation of Muhammad’s role has improved – except in the most bigoted quarters – the key to improving relations between Muslims and Christians, I believe, lies in a another passage from today’s letter:

As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them – so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.

It is a passage worth pondering over at a time when the propaganda machinery of the warmongers can be heard gearing up yet again, this time to prepare the western public for an attack on Iran.