Prophet or messiah, the figure of Jesus serves as both the bridge and the barrier between Christianity and Islam. In this accessible and thoughtful book, Muslim scholar and popular commentator Mona Siddiqui takes her reader on a personal, theological journey exploring the centrality of Jesus in Christian-Muslim relations. Christian and Muslim scholars have used Jesus and Christological themes for polemical and dialogical conversations from the earliest days to modern times. The author concludes with her own reflections on the cross and its possible meaning in her Muslim faith.
Through a careful analysis of selected works by major Christian and Muslim theologians during the formative, medieval, and modern periods of both religions, Siddiqui focuses on themes including revelation, prophecy, salvation, redemption, sin, eschatology, law, and love. How did some doctrines become the defining characteristics of one faith and not the other? What is the nature of the theological chasm between Christianity and Islam? With a nuanced and carefully considered analysis of critical doctrines the author provides a refreshingly honest counterpoint to contemporary polemical arguments and makes a compelling contribution to reasoned interfaith conversation.
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About the Author
Mona Siddiqui is professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at the Divinity School, Edinburgh University. She lives in Glasgow.
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Christians, Muslims, and Jesus
By Mona Siddiqui
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Mona Siddiqui
All rights reserved.
The End of Prophecy
In Islam, prophecy and scripture are inextricably tied to divine communication, so that it is principally through Muhammad and the Qur'an that Muslims come to see God as a moral and eschatological reality. There is an understanding that throughout history God sends and humanity receives different forms of God's communication. It is in this receiving that humankind understands something of God, a God who both hides and reveals himself. Scripture is given first and written second. By contrast, scripture and prophecy play a secondary role in Christianity in the sense that through Jesus Christ, God no longer offers us a prophetic message pointing to an eschatological reality, but rather offers himself; the Incarnation is central to Christian theology. All of God's past wagers on previous prophets and messages culminate in this final act of his self-giving in the hope that 'they all shall know me' (Jeremiah 31:31).
Christianity did not begin as a bookish religion. The earliest written text about Jesus is Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, but there is no evidence that Paul ever met Jesus. The identities of the authors of the Gospels are unknown. Yet, while the authors of the Gospels probably did not think of themselves as writing scripture, their works cannot be regarded merely as human transcripts of what Jesus said and did. The Gospels' genre is analogous to ancient biographies, but they are more than biographies; they are also kerygma. If the life and message of Jesus is contained in the Gospels, the Gospels were written as testimonies to an event. Much of the Christian language about God affirms Jesus as God in self-revelation, and much of the Muslim language about God seeks exception to that Christian claim by Islam's particular insistence on divine unity and uniqueness which is perceived mainly through scripture. Islam makes reference to Christianity in various ways, but it lays emphasis on scripture and prophecy as defining modes of God's revelation. In this chapter I will reflect on how prophecy and divinity speak to us in both Christianity and Islam, but also on how the finality of prophecy means different things in both religions.
When I was growing up, my parents told us stories of the prophets as a way of conveying and elaborating the sacred tales contained in the Qur'an. It was a way of explaining how God connects to human beings and how these stories always point to a presence and power beyond us. In later years I discovered that many of the prophets, including the great prophets of Israel, had scant mention in the Qur'an. The actual stories with the romantic amplification of the Qur'anic material were largely from the Qisas al-anbiya', the particular genre of literature known as the 'Stories of the Prophets'. These were the embellished and intriguing narratives of the lives of prophetic figures who appeared in the Qur'an, prominent characters who coincided almost entirely with the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition. These prophetic tales fall in the category of hagiographical anthologies or 'collected lives'. The events in their lives always contained a moral dimension and the themes covered in this literary genre began with creation, recounted the lives of the various prophets, and concluded with the life and messengership of Muhammad. The way in which these stories were told lifted the prophets and men of wisdom out of their historical time and into a universal time. In other words, these stories were not simply tales of ancient wisdom but contained a deeper essence and truth, a higher reality which made them relevant for all time. In a religious sense, this linear chronology formed a prehistory to Muhammad's own prophecy and mission. While there are several collections of the Qisas al-anbiya', one of the most significant collections was written by Abu Ishaq al-Tha'labi (d.1035). In it al-Tha'labi explains how God had five reasons to reveal to Muhammad the stories of the prophets who preceded him. Each of the five reasons explains at least one passage from the Qur'an which confirms what has been stated. The following example taken from Brinner's translation clarifies al-Tha'labi's method:
The fifth that he told him, the stories of the preceding prophets and saints to keep their memory and legacy alive, so that those who do well in keeping the saints' memory alive assure themselves thereby a speedy reward in this world, in order that the saints' good renown and legacy may remain forever, just as Abraham, the friend of God, desired the preservation of his good reputation and said, 'And let me have a good report with posterity' (Q26:84). For men are tales – it is said that no man dies but mention of him revives him.
Recounting such tales did indeed make the prophetic messages meaningful in some way as well as bringing into a sharper focus the numerous Qur'anic passages which mention human prophecy as God's chosen method of conveying his divine message in the course of history. There is no real philosophy or theory of prophethood in the Qur'an, except that God's prophets and messengers are a sign of his mercy (rahma) and the stories of previous prophets are mentioned as part of God's revelatory scheme:
To every people was sent a messenger (Q10:47).
We have sent you inspiration as we sent it to Noah and the messengers after him. We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David we gave the Psalms (Q4:163).
Indeed, the Qur'an contains many allusions to the prophets and messengers of the past and the fate of the communities who rejected the truths brought by God's chosen men. The didactic function of these prophecy (nubuwwa) narratives means that they can be seen as 'homilies on religious history' and their function is not just to relate the past but to warn the believers of the future.
In Islamic thought, revelation is to be understood as a process of God communicating in the concreteness of events, re-igniting in people a new awareness of themselves and their relation to the world. In Islam, God has done this throughout history by sending messengers from Adam to Muhammad who all bring the same primordial truth anchored in the heart of humanity, the oneness of God and human obligation to worship God. The messages come through prophets and messengers, some receiving revelation through scripture, while others are somehow inspired. What the Qur'an conveys is the sense of an overriding continuity found in the repeated mention of the names of Old Testament prophets. But the Qur'an does not quote earlier scripture directly, even though Biblical resonances are to be found in the text. The concept of prophecy is shared between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though each has accorded prophecy varying time, significance and purpose. Jewish tradition regarded prophecy as the gift of the holy spirit (ruah nebû'â). Moses was perhaps the first to define the phenomenon of a prophet as one who claims to speak with divine authority, although it can be traced much further back in the history of God's people. If a prophet was bringing the actual words of God to a people, to ignore the message was tantamount to ignoring God himself. Such a position of authority had to be tested and false prophets were condemned, as in the words, 'A prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death' (Deuteronomy 18:20). Graham Houston writes that the story of Elijah illustrates how man could be truly 'a man of God' and that Elijah acted as a bridge between the Mosaic tradition and the writings of the prophets recorded in the major and minor prophets. He states, 'The major (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the minor (such as Amos and Micah) were united in the conviction that they brought the word of the Lord to their people.' This prophetic tradition is characterized by a claim to absolute verbal authority and an official sanction of divine communication in antiquity. Prophecy confirmed God's presence with his people. After Malachi (c.400 BC), the voice of authoritative prophecy was stilled. In speaking of the end of prophecy, Frederick Greenspahn wrote:
The pseudonymity of intertestamental apocalyptic suggests that claims of direct revelation were by that time no longer credible, and indeed the biblical canon includes no prophetic works ascribed to figures who lived later than Malachi. This conforms to the rabbinic tradition that the holy spirit withdrew from Israel after the death of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Several texts from the intertestamental period also allude to an absence of prophecy, occasioning various theories about the circumstances and causes of its coming to an end.
Old Testament prophets spoke for the Lord. 'Thus speaks the Lord,' they said, and their mouths were filled with the Word of God. They were inspired by God's presence as their response to some event, and the history of the religious community that was thus established has verified that response in the only possible and only appropriate way: in the religious life of the community which that Word established:
The Prophet's Word, the Word of God, is also the Word of the people who accept it. They became and have remained, however inconstantly, the 'people of the Word.' God is in his Word, and his Word is in his people. It is this fact, for instance, which explains the Protestant Reformers' concern with the Word, both as a written testament and as the Spirit which, in the presence of faith, that testament contains. God is both the form and the content of his people's experience when they keep his Word, and that experience (so deeply mythopoeic) includes their whole world and their own persons. In the biblical sense of prophecy, a prophet is anyone in whom some event is suddenly revealed as 'a mighty act of God,' and who announces the presence of the Lord in that event. The event is now taken as a sign of God, and, accordingly, he comes to live in it as its fundamental meaning. His presence embraces both the sign and the prophet who takes up the sign in its sacred significance. Man and God are joined sacramentally in the sign.
The prophecy of the Old Testament prophets was not just preaching but also proclamation. This proclamation announces the end of this age, and the call to repentance is God's very last offer. The prophetic gift was seen more and more as an eschatological phenomenon which would become a reality again only at the end of days, and then in a particular way. Oscar Cullmann's analysis of prophecy explains how John the Baptist was seen as a living prophet like ancient prophets, so that we find in Luke 3:2, 'The word of God came to John'. But John was considered as an eschatological event as well, the Prophet of the end time. In the Synoptic Gospels, although John nowhere gives an explanation of his own person, he is either the forerunner of God or the forerunner of the Messiah.
In Islamic theology, Jesus is the only prophet and messenger of end times, but he is also one of the twenty-five mentioned by name in the Qur'an. The Qur'an speaks of prophets and messengers as being those people whom God has elected for his divine purpose. Prophecy allows God to remain veiled and there is no suggestion in the Qur'an that God wishes to reveal of himself just yet. Prophets guarantee interpretation of revelation and that God's message will be understood. It is generally accepted that not every prophet is a messenger, but every messenger is a prophet, though Hud and Salih are spoken of as 'sent' but not prophets. In this prophetic chronology Muhammad became the seal of the prophets or the final messenger for Muslims, but even in this particular doctrine of prophethood his message is essentially the same as that of his predecessors. Once distilled to its fundamentals, the message is of the oneness, mercy and sovereignty of God. Thus, despite the unique place of Muhammad in Muslim piety and veneration, Muhammad's prophecy in the Qur'an lies in the wider context and mission of previous prophecies. He is asked the same questions previous prophets were asked about God, and he is challenged and rejected by those who refuse to believe in the truth of his prophetic status and the truth of his words.
The Qur'an does not itself contain any distinct doctrine of prophecy, except to distinguish prophecy (nubuwwa) from revelation (wahy). But the phenomenon of revelation and its reception by a human soul and the 'office' of prophethood were themes explored by the Muslim philosophers centuries after Muhammad's death. Philosophical ideas about Muhammad's prophecy culminated at the beginning of the eleventh century in the prophetology of Ibn Sina, who developed a systematic explanation of the nature of Muhammad's prophecy and saw Muhammad as the most perfect of all prophets. Unlike his predecessor al-Farb (870–950/951), who never explicitly refers to the prophet of Islam, Ibn Sina states that Muhammad had fulfilled all a prophet should do as a lawgiver and in what he should convey in his revelation to create the most benefits for God's creation. As Frank Griffel writes, 'In his psychology and his prophetology, Ibn Sina gives a distinctly Islamic expression to a theory that has its earliest roots in the works of Aristotle'. Griffel states:
Prophecy in Ibn Sina consists of three elements: strong imaginative revelation, intellectual revelation, and a powerful practical faculty of the soul. Revelation of the kind received by Muhammad requires the utmost degree of all these three properties. The true prophet, for Ibn Sina, is a philosopher. He may not have devoted much to learning, but his power of intuition puts his theoretical insight at par with the most advanced among the philosophers. Both of them achieve conjunction with the active intellect. Yet where the philosopher may teach his insights only to those who practise philosophy, the prophet can convey them in figurative language and thus make them accessible to all people.
Although it is not within the scope of this work to analyse at any length the philosophical arguments on prophecy, it is important to single out the contribution of the foremost theologian-jurist of the medieval Islamic world, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111). Al-Ghazali rejected the view that prophets teach only the masses and that philosophers are in no need of divine revelation. The benefits of prophets go well beyond their political activities and bringing laws, but rather 'the prophet's revelations are full of original information that human beings cannot acquire through the practice of reason'. In his book Prophecy in Islam, Fazlur Rahman writes of al-Ghazali's work Ma'arij al-Quds:
Prophecy is a divine favour and gift which cannot be acquired by effort – although effort and acquisition are necessary to prepare the soul for the reception of revelation by acts of worship accompanied by exercise in thinking and by pure sincere deeds. Thus prophecy is neither a pure chance (without a natural desert) so that every creeping shuffling creature may be its recipient, nor is it attained by pure effort so that everyone who thinks may have it.... Just as humanity is not acquired by individual humans nor angelness by members of the 'species' 'angel', but their actions which flow from their specific natures will depend on their effort and choice ... so prophecy which is the specific nature of the prophets is not acquired by them but their actions which flow from their specific form depend on their acquisition and choice in order to prepare themselves for revelation.
Furthermore, there developed a particular doctrine that came to be associated with prophets which is protection from falling into sin or making mistakes. This came to be known as the doctrine of 'isma, though it cannot be said even of Muhammad that impeccability or sinlessness of the prophets is a doctrine supported by the Qur'an. Yet in trying to address the question of how human prophets could receive divine revelation, Muslim theologians wrestled with the notion of human sin and fallibility. By the time of Al-Ash'ari (tenth century), it became orthodox dogma that after assuming office it is not possible for prophets to commit any deadly or even minor sins.
The Qur'an speaks of 'taking a covenant' with five particular prophets, Muhammad, Noah, Moses, Abraham and Jesus, as if the relationship of prophet to God is a long-term integrated project. Wadad Kadi talks of prophecy as an institution where all prophets are united through embodying wisdom and scripture:
Whereas wisdom can be considered a characterization of the prophets and/or scripture, scripture must indicate an additional physical form in which prophecy is expressed, thus adding a dimension to its physical embodiment.
The Qur'an is concerned with both individual prophets and the nature of prophecy in the dialectic between human reception and divine message. In that sense Muhammad is the same as previous prophets. He can only speak of that which is part of God's plan and only reveal that which God wishes him to reveal. His task was to reveal the new truth, but not to contest the old truths nor to distinguish between the messengers who preceded him:
The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord and so have the believers. All of them believe in God, his angels, his books and his messengers, saying, 'We make no distinction between any of his messengers', and they say, 'We hear and obey and we seek your forgiveness, O Lord, for to you is the final destination' (Q2:285).
Excerpted from Christians, Muslims, and Jesus by Mona Siddiqui. Copyright © 2013 by Mona Siddiqui. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 The End of Prophecy 6
2 God as One: Early Debates 60
3 Scholastic, Medieval and Poetic Debates 97
4 Reflections on Mary 149
5 Monotheism and the Dialectics of Love and Law 171
6 Conclusion: Reflections on the Cross 224