An Excerpt from “Muhammad Reconsidered” by Anna Bonta Moreland

Anna Bonta Moreland’s new study, Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy, has been called “an illuminating and powerfully argued book [that] is essential reading for anyone concerned about how Catholic Christians should engage with their Muslim neighbors,” by Alasdair MacIntyre. The book is not only a constructive contribution to Catholic theology but also has enormous potential to help scholars reframe and comprehend Christian-Muslim relations.

From Chapter One, “Setting the Stage”

Instead of shoehorning Islam into modern fabrications of “religion,” fruitful dialogue could emerge if we read Muslim religious claims through Christian theological traditions rather than in spite of them. Pierre Manent persuasively argues in Beyond Radical Secularism (2016) that Europeans (in his case, his fellow French citizens) are ill prepared both to incorporate Muslims into their political community and to understand Islam. This is due not only to prejudices and widespread ignorance about Islam, even though plenty of both abound. This limitation also results from Europeans’ having lost touch with their own Christian roots, whose laicité vocabulary is ill equipped to engage Muslims in serious terms. Manent suggests toward the end of his book that the Catholic Church is poised to work as a mediator between the secular West and Islam: “Given the spiritual fragmentation that affects the Western world, [the Catholic Church] is the fixed point that is concerned to relate itself intelligently to all the other points and to which the other points can try to relate.” 

An interpretation of Islam from within the Catholic tradition in particular offers an appreciation of one tradition from within the heart of another. Catholic interpretations of Islam have been riddled, of course, with dangerous medieval caricatures and violent polemic that continue into the present.  This theological tradition offers rich resources we can use to obtain a fresh understanding of Islam. The Catholic tradition offers intellectual resources and institutional networks to serve as mediator between Islam and the secular West since it has achieved a differentiation of the sacred from the secular that acknowledges the distinctiveness of the political realm without yielding to the thinness of the secular myth. It shares a guarded openness to the political liberalism of the West while remaining grounded in a religious worldview that is aligned in many ways with the Islamic tradition. Many Catholics still inhabit Charles Taylor’s “enchanted world,” despite living and working in modern cities and exhibiting many aspects of the “buffered self.” The Church has been understood to be late in embracing the modern world. But, as Ulrich Lehner persuasively argues in his The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (2016), “It was Catholicism that, at least during the first few decades of the eighteenth century, was able to interact productively with Enlightenment thought. Only the anti-clerical and anti-Christian attacks of Enlighteners—and especially the terror of the French Revolution—put a stop to this conversation.”19 To be sure, that engagement did not translate into an uncritical embrace of Enlightenment liberalism, but it did bear fruit in an openness to religious freedom and democratic forms of government during Vatican II. It is the argument of this book that the Catholic Church is particularly equipped to engage with Muslims in theological terms and that this will lead to salutary political consequences.

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Let me clarify, however, what I do and do not mean by entertaining this question. I do not suggest that Muhammad was a Christian prophet who misunderstood his message. Nor do I suggest that Christians can adopt an Islamic theology of prophecy and accept the fundamental Islamic interpretation of Muhammad and his prophetic identity. Rather, with Thomas Aquinas, I will point to prophets in the He brew Scriptures who are drawn from “the nations,” such as Job or Balaam, to argue for a Christian understanding of prophecy that reaches beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel and the Church. Christians draw different messages from Hebrew prophets than Jews do, just as they draw different messages from Muhammad than Muslims do. The Christian claim about Balaam’s prophecy is both distinct and related to the Jewish claim; the argument of this book is that a similar pattern emerges between Christian and Islamic accounts of Muhammad’s prophecy. In short, Christians have solid internal theological warrants for exploring the possibility that Muhammad was a religious prophet. What Christians mean by this will differ in fundamental ways from what Muslims proclaim in their profession of faith, or the Shahada (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”).

But the Christian claim provides a new avenue to consider the invitation in Nostra Aetate to appreciate what is “true and holy” in Islam. At the same time, it provides a bridge of understanding and, importantly, a locus of good theological disagreement between Christians and Muslims, based upon a clarification of their different senses of prophecy. Such a disagreement, from a place of reverence, mutual understanding, and illumination, provides an alternative to the incommensurable “clash of civilizations” model without erasing the particular theological identities of Christianity or Islam.