Monday, March 30, 2015

A Response to “Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets?” by Talman (IJFM 2014)

IJFM<br />                          31_4I consider this a must read for those who are interested in an evangelical theology of Islam: Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets? by Harley Talman. 

The article does an admirable job of nuancing the view of Mohammed between the (unfortunate) binary poles of 1. false prophet/evil leader and 2. final authoritative prophet of the One True God whose message supersedes and replaces all previous revelations. [In my experience, I have noted 8 ways that Mohammed has been called a prophet- see this post: Was Mohammed a prophet?]

Talman’s proposal is to allow for a positive prophetic role for Mohammed- claiming that Mohammed was “messenger” of God does not contradict biblical authority or our testimony of the Lordship of Christ. In acknowledging Mohammed as a prophet, Talman enlarges the role that general revelation plays for unbelievers and expands (reclaims?) the understanding of prophethood. Such a view of Mohammed, however, does not declare him to be as great as Moses; what it does is (according to Talman) enhance our potential for dialogue and evangelism among Muslims.

The article was very insightful and greatly enriches our understanding of “The Prophet” of Islam. Martin Accad discusses more the benefits of the article in his response. I’m not aiming for this to be only a critical post, but I don’t want to repeat what has already been said by Accad. In any case, here are some of my hesitations and questions:

1. Consistency in our Appraisals of the Emergence of Christianity and Islam

Like Talman and many others, I have serious doubts concerning the historicity of the traditional Islamic narratives of Mohammed.

Talman presents an image of Mohammed as a leader of an ecumenical movement (IMO with acute political aspirations) who sought to draw different religious sects together as “Believers” under the banner of the God of Abraham. It was Mohammed's followers who, generations later, drew a sharp, pejorative distinction between the new “Muslim” community of Islam and other religions as they began to venerate Mohammed and claim the previous Books were corrupted.

While I think this understanding of the emergence of Islam best matches the historical record, I am mindful of scholars who do the exact same thing with the emergence of Christianity. For instance see this quote from Talman (pg. 171):

Much of what is considered today as representing “orthodox” Islam likely represents an understanding that developed two or three centuries after Muhammad. The most widely accepted version of Muhammad, based upon Islamic tradition, is dubious.

Now, reread that quote and replace “Islam/Islamic” with “Christian” and “Muhammed” with “Jesus” … Sound familiar? The Jesus Seminar and Bart Ehrman come to mind. In light of this, I think our development of a theology of Islam needs to be robust in it’s critique of the primary sources. Would these same scholars of the emergence of Islam do the same thing with the same methods when applied to the early Jesus community? This is a foundational issue that needs a lot of work.

2. A Missiology of Mohammed and Mohammedolatry

Missiologically, I deeply appreciate what Talman is doing because it actually addresses Mohammed. Too much missiology tries to either ignore or demonize Mohammed; both are neither fair nor realistic. However, it strikes me as a tad ironic that the only way to allow for the “prophethood” of Mohammed is to deny the traditional Muslim understanding of said “prophethood.”

Practically speaking, in building friendships with Muslims, how easy would this conversation go? For so many who follow Mohammed, it is either all or nothing. While I think Talman’s theology could have warrant among some types of Muslims/MBBs, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Instead of saying that Mohammed is in some way a prophet, wouldn’t it just be enough to agree that he was a skilled leader and wise politician who also happened to say some true and beautiful things? Do I have to go so far as to say he was a prophet in order to build relationships of trust and have meaningful dialogue? Perhaps this is true with some very traditional Muslims, but certainly not with all (in my experience).

Another issue to consider is the common practice of Mohammedolatry- where the Prophet is not only revered, but actually worshipped. I believe that there are indeed many Muslims who have formed idolatrous spiritual bonds by actually placing their ultimate faith allegiance in Mohammed’s intercession. In this same edition of IJFM, Pennington (From Prophethood to the Gospel: Talking to Folk Muslims about Jesus) touches on this issue: “the logic of salvation has everything to do with one’s relation to the Prophet Muhammad” (p. 198).

We need to take these spiritual realities seriously. The Bible deals with idolatry in various ways, but what are the consequences of Talman’s theology of prophethood with Muslims who are close to Mohammedolatry or the prophetological concept of salvation?

3. Prophethood as a Spiritual Gift for New Covenant, Regenerate Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ

While Talman starts from general revelation in this discussion (bottom-up?), I would like to start from the perspective of the New Covenant (top-down?).  This is how I think prophets in the kingdom of Jesus operate today, as I have said previously:

Some regenerate, new covenant believers are gifted by the Lord Jesus Christ as prophets (Eph. 4:11). In the New Testament, prophesy is a gift that some believers are given by the Lord Jesus for the edification of the church that will be effective until Christ returns (1 Cor. 12-14). Prophecy in this sense is not authoritative or equal to Scripture (Acts 21:4; 21:10-11; 1 Thess. 5:20-21; 1 Cor. 14:29).  “The essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus” (Rev. 19:10 NLT).  In John’s thought, Jesus is the conquering, crucified lamb, King of kings, Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14), incarnate God-man in the flesh (John 1:1, 14) sent to save people from their sins (John 1:29), usher in the new rule of His kingdom (John 18:36; Rev. 1:6), and raise victoriously over death as the Messiah to commission His disciples to continue His mission of the forgiveness of sins (John 20) and the transformation of lives and communities.

Talman aptly demonstrates how other theologians have argued for a broader understanding of prophethood than I articulated above, so I tread very lightly here. Of course Mohammed operated in a kind of OT, pre-Pentecost type of a setting. But, as we all agree, Mohammed did not seek to advance the Kingdom of Jesus into the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula by making disciples who were zealous for the transformation of lives and communities!

Is it therefor appropriate to compare Mohammed with an OT prophet, even though he lived in the New Covenant “era”? Talman does explain the different types of prophets, but I wish there was a deeper treatment of the New Covenant as it relates to New Testament prophecy in Christ-exalting ministry. What we are left with instead is a kind of lowest common denominator type of reasoning where Mohammed plays a vague and shallow prophetic role.

By contrast, the deeper, Gospel-centered prophetic role of advancing the rule of King Jesus as savior of all peoples is obviously lacking in Mohammed’s career.  In my opinion, the Qur’anic Jesus, while wonderful and mysterious, is still irrelevant and anemic, all things considered. As as shrewd politician, was Mohammed simply trying to win over more Christians into his ecumenical political movement?

While it is definitely true that many Muslims are influenced to embrace biblical faith by the Qur’an, as Talman notes, it is not therefore corollary that MBBs continue to see it as a source of divine authority in their growth in Christ (more on this later). For many MBBs, the Qur’an points to the Bible. All truth is indeed God’s truth, but only the Bible (with the HS) has the power to transform. I’m sure Talman would agree. 

However, sometimes I feel this deeper aspect of New Covenant prophethood can easily become obscured in this complex discussion. But at least this is a discussion that avoids simplistic and binary solutions! Yet I am still nervous about extending the limits of general revelation and prophecy in the manner Talman does, because it seems to me then that practically anyone who says something nice about Jesus and the Bible can be considered a prophet.

So, was Mohammed a prophet? At the least, I think we can say there are other ways to view Mohammed other than as a false prophet- and that is the strength of this article. Despite my reservations, I commend Talman’s article to you as a fine piece of missiology, theology, and scholarship. As Martin Accad shows in his response to Talman, we are moving towards a more helpful evangelical theology of Islam, and that is reason to keep moving this conversation forward.