The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): A mercy to mankindby Martin ForwardAurora University's Wackerlin Center for Faith and Action
I’m going to assume that most people here are Muslims, and that the rest of us have come to celebrate this event with you. My first, happiest and most important task is to wish you blessings and peace on this auspicious occasion. Ever since the seventh century of the Islamic calendar, which is the thirteenth century of the Christian, the Mawlid al-Nabi has been celebrated by most Muslims, and I’m delighted to share your celebrations with you today. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has been a mercy to humankind, and deserves our respect and esteem, and even our love. Incidentally, please forgive me if in future I don’t say ‘Peace be upon him’ or its Arabic original Salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam after naming one of God’s messengers. I mean no disrespect by this, but am simply following academic convention. And an academic is what I am.
You’ve done me a great honor by asking me to speak to you today. For I’m a Christian, not a Muslim; and the history between our great religions has often been unhappy, even violent. One of the great sadnesses of my Muslim friends, often expressed to me, is that whereas Muslims honor the Prophet Jesus, Christians have mostly failed to say anything positive about the Prophet Muhammad at all. Indeed, during the European Middle Ages, scurrilous and slanderous charges were laid against him. I won’t specify any of them, though they’re easy to look up and ponder. They don’t show my Christian tradition in an admirable light, and would only cause offence and gloom at this happy event.
I allude to them only in order to illustrate my conviction that Christians need to come to a positive assessment of the achievements of the great Arabian Prophet. If they can do so, it’ll be a small way of repenting their past slanders about him, and of acknowledging the positive achievements of Islam in human history.
Let me tell you some stories about my own interest in Islam, so that you can see why, as a Christian, I feel strongly that my co-religionists should learn to appreciate your religion and its final Prophet.
When I was around ten years old, I lived in Aden, then a British colony at the heel of the Arabian peninsular. My father was a member of the Royal Air Force, and he’d been there before, during World War 2 and again just after that conflagration. When he brought his family there, from 1961-63, we met some of the Arab and Indian Muslim friends he’d made there on previous visits. One of them asked us all to dinner and, to me, it proved an unforgettable experience. After dinner, my father’s friend excused himself and said his evening prayers nearby, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I’d been brought up as a Christian. My family went to church, occasionally. But this was the first time I was aware of prayer not just as a private preoccupation but as a public activity: as important, more important, than hospitality and other good things. That event made me ponder the religion of Islam that my father’s friend followed. Ever since then, I’ve felt unable to dismiss Islam as a false religion with no merit in it at all. That man was warm and gracious, made so by the faith that he followed and practiced. To deny this would be pointless, churlish and untruthful.
Years later, I went to India and worked in Hyderabad for the Henry Martyn Institute, a Christian center for the study of Islam. My teacher of quranic Arabic, Hayath Khan, was a lovely old man, imam of a mosque on the outskirts of the city. He became very fond of me, as I of him, and he was deeply troubled why I, who knew so much about Islam, nevertheless remained a Christian. He worried lest, on the Day of Judgment, I would be among the losers. I’ll come back to that point later. I myself was captivated by his devotion to God and His Prophet. Every time he recited from the Holy Qur’an verses about the mercies of God or told me stories about the life of the Prophet, tears would flow down his cheeks and into his white beard. He invited me to his family’s celebrations on the occasion of Bakr Eid, where a goat was slaughtered and shared with other members of the local community, and where I was made more than welcome. He took me to shrines at the tombs of local Muslim saints, explaining to me that some Muslims forbade this practice but that others drew comfort and inspiration from it. Another Muslim friend from Indian days was Sabiha Latifi. She was a frail woman, who worried about my health, not hers. She often fed me, gave me a wonderful recipe for Lentil curry and, if she had a fault at all, it was an overwhelming love for chocolate. In later years, whenever I visited India from England, I had to bring lots of chocolate for her and hope that it wouldn’t melt under the glare of the Indian sun and of customs’ officials. I called her ummi: mother. Sabiha was a saintly woman, whom I mourned greatly when she died. I remember talking with her about the Prophet Muhammad and, when she spoke of him, she seemed lit up from within by joy and hope and love.
I learned to speak Urdu whilst in India, badly. Some years later, I tried to improve it by going to a teacher, Mohammed Alam. He became one of my dearest friends. He’s a Pakistani Muslim who immigrated to England as a young man and settled in the city of Leicester, where I then lived and where he was leader of a Punjabi welfare group. His family and mine became fast friends. He once told me of a dream he had where, as he lay dying, I was there to whisper the name of God into his ear. We often talked about religion and about the follies and stupidities of many religious leaders in both our faiths. We would talk of the Prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and how their teaching has often been misrepresented, distorted and used for acts of violence instead of deeds of peace, as much by insiders as by outsiders. Religions, including our own religions of Islam and Christianity, can be poison or medicine, depending on how they’re used. Alam and I could be honest with each other about our beliefs and our religion, as friends should, not needing to justify our religion by pretending that it’s wholly good and perfect as humans have practiced it.
Of course, I’m not alone in being a Christian who has appreciated Islam. Over the last two centuries, there’ve been many Christians who’ve not been blind to Islam’s historical, political and religious achievements, nor to the Prophet Muhammad’s power over the hearts and minds of Muslims. There are lots of stories of friendships between Christians and Muslims. For example, Constance Padwick was a Christian missionary in Cairo, Palestine and Sudan from 1923 to 1957, who wrote a wonderful book called Muslim Devotions. Her deep Christian faith did not cause her to slander Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, she wrote appreciatively about Islam’s great spiritual heritage. She was one of a number of western scholars (including Louis Massignon, Kenneth Cragg and many others) who, although they remained Christians, had Muslim friends and tried to find a positive and approving and grateful way of understanding Islam and its great Prophet.
One such eminent Christian is William Montgomery Watt, still alive in his 97th year and Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University, Scotland. His books have done much to emphasize the Prophet’s commitment to social justice; Watt has described him as being like an Old Testament prophet, who came to restore fair dealing and belief in one God to the Arabs, for whom these were or had become irrelevant concepts. This would not be a sufficiently high estimate of his worth for most Muslims, but it’s a start. Frankly, it’s hard for Christians to say affirmative things about a religion like Islam that postdates their own, which they are brought up to believe contains all things necessary for salvation. And it’s difficult for Muslims to face the fact that Christians aren’t persuaded by the view that Christianity is only a stop on the way to Islam, the final religion. But we should try to understand each other’s dilemma, and try to find some ways to affirm the hope and the goodness we find in each other’s faith. In truth, Muslims are never going to agree to central Christian teaching about Jesus, and Christians are never going to accept all that Muslims claim for Muhammad. But we can talk together in friendship, respect and affection, agreeing where we can, and disagreeing where we must in faith, and hope and love. In such a context, puzzlement and even anger can be expressed in healthy and respectful, not insolent and destructive ways.
Still, as Muslims you might ask why these remarkable Christian scholars of Islam remained Christians. Or why do I? If great intellectuals like them, or workaday ones like me, have read about Islam, studied the life of the Prophet Muhammad, talked with Muslim friends: why haven’t we had the good sense to convert to Islam? Or, since many Muslims believe that Islam is the original religion, why don’t I and others revert to the primordial faith of humankind?
Well, there are no doubt sociological and psychological reasons for this: the pressures of culture reinforced by the earliest stories we are told, no doubt make it difficult for most of us to convert. Relatively few individuals do, in reality, transfer from one religion to another because they are absolutely convinced that they are moving from darkness to light, from falsehood to the clear truth. There are usually other factors in play when individuals make that decision to convert. And often it’s not an individual choice at all, but a communal act of groups of people, pressured to do so or fleeing an oppressive faith. Most people stay in the religion of their birth. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it usual.
It’s hard to transfer from one faith to another unless you are really convinced that you should. Some people go there, though most do not. But it’s not just sociology, psychology or other such factors that keep us moored to our original religious shores. Nor is it wickedness, or blindness, or apathy. Religions are cultural systems that reinforce value and values, that empower and challenge us. At their best, each one does that, a truth that can be proved by observing the life of others and in our own life-experiences. Our religion is a part of our identity. For most of us, changing our religion would be denying who we are and what we’ve become. So we stay put: as Christians, or Muslims, or whatever we are.
Moreover, many of us grow to love what we’ve learned and experienced. Like many Christians, I remain Christian because of Jesus the Christ. As I read the pages of the New Testament, I love the stories he tells and I’m enthralled by his message that God’s kingdom of love is open to all, not just to a social or a moral elite. I believe that his death showed the depth of God’s commitment to the world he made and the people in it, and the fact that God raised him from the dead illustrates God’s capacity to transform darkness into light, despair into hope, and death into life. Muslims and Christians don’t believe the same things about Jesus. For Muslims he’s a prophet, but for Christians he’s more than a prophet, embodying the heart, the mind and the purpose of God. That’s what Good Friday and Easter, which we have just celebrated, mean to Christians.
Because of my commitment to Jesus, I can readily appreciate the commitment of Muslims to the Prophet Muhammad, and so I too can be angered by attempts by outsiders to mock him; attempts such as the recent cartoon controversy in Denmark and elsewhere. Our religious leaders, especially the human founders under God of our religions, should challenge us by their wisdom and insight and revelatory power. We should not challenge their importance by demeaning them, and reducing them to our own level of sin and folly. If outsiders have a problem with the actions of some Muslims, then they should challenge those Muslims and their understanding of what God and His Prophet demand of them. You and I can be mocked, and we should learn to deal with it. We might have questions about the life and teachings of God’s messengers, and some things about them may puzzle us. But to mock them is to mock God. Actually, I’m sure that God can cope with our ridicule, but that’s not the point. It’s we who are wounded and debased by it, not God.
Earlier, I noted that many of my Muslim friends are saddened, even shocked and offended, by the unwillingness of Christians to honor the Prophet Muhammad in any significant way. I should tell you that a similar sadness touches Christians who listen to Muslim teaching about central Christian beliefs. Perhaps not enough Muslims are aware of the offence caused to Christians by some Muslim teaching about Jesus. Most educated Christians find many Islamic descriptions of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be a caricature. We do not believe in three gods but in one God, revealed in different ways. If Christians trouble Muslims by not having any assessment of the Prophet Muhammad at all, then Muslims trouble Christians by having views of Jesus that, from a Christian perspective, are inadequate to his meaning.
How can we deal with this difference between us? Well, we can adapt the attitude of my old friend Hayath Khan, who liked me but sincerely believed that there was no eternal hope for me because of my unwillingness to embrace Islam. Some of you here tonight may hold a similar view, and I must respect it as a deep-rooted and long tradition, but not the only one, in Islam. If you hold it, I hope you are as warm and loving as he was, despite this rather austere, exclusive and bleak view. I also need to tell you that there are a pile of Christians out there who feel much the same about Muslims who, in their opinion, have seriously erred in not accepting Jesus as their savior. But their’s is no more the only Christian view than Hayath Khan’s is the only Muslim one.
Friendship can break through distrust and antagonism to find points of agreement: that hospitality is good and mirrors the generosity of God; that God does speak to us his will and his love; and so on. We can meet in the cave of the heart. The mystical experience is common to both religions, though frowned upon by some Muslims and some Christians; foolishly, in my opinion, for these experiences teach us that the membrane between this world and the next is very thin, that people and places and things and religions can point beyond themselves to the truth of God, who is pure love, for you and for me and for all.
When, instead, we meet at the level of scripture, doctrine and religious law, differences can be emphasized to the exclusion of our shared faith in the God of Adam and Eve and of Abraham and Hagar.
We sometimes confuse the words ‘religion’ and ‘faith’, using them interchangeably. So: when we refer to the Christian faith, we mean Christianity; or by writing or speaking of the Muslim faith, we signify Islam. It’s convenient to do this. I do it myself. Nevertheless, religion and faith are not the same. Faith is a response to this world’s mystery. It’s a way of indicating our trust that there is more to life than meets the eye, that this world is the creation of a good God who seeks us out to follow him. Faith is an attitude of life, offering us hope. Religions provide the structure that we all need to help us channel our faith so as to understand and obey God. Religions are nouns: they are full of things (scripture, beliefs, codes of conduct, stories, and many other things) that help us express our faith. At its best, faith is an adjective: something that helps us to discern and describe and live by the power of what is really real.
When I read about the religion of Islam, I recognize that it’s not my home. Its stories have not shaped by life; nor can I share, even though I can admire, the beliefs about the Holy Qur’an that Muslims hold; and its theological and philosophical debates are not quite the same as those held within my own religion of Christianity. I can admire and even to some extent understand and appreciate another religion like Islam, but I don’t feel at home there.
But not only can I admire, understand and appreciate another’s faith; I can also inhabit it, or at least elements of it. When I read or hear of the Prophet Muhammad’s passion that God should be God, and that people should recognize him for who the merciful one who deals mercifully that he is; or of the Prophet’s emphasis upon social justice; or of his desire to reconcile conflicting groups, so that war and violence should only be a last resort: then my heart is filled with joy. I can share that faith in the goodness of God, and I can hope that Christians and Muslims and other people of goodwill will work together to mend the world. When I hear Muslim friends speak words of hope for a better world for all, where God’s name is invoked as a blessing, when they act (as most do) in ways that are good and holy and life-giving, and when they testify that all this is made clear for them through the life and witness of God’s Holy Prophet Muhammad, then I too can bear witness to the faith that Muhammad is a mercy to mankind.