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Gabriel Said Reynolds

Muhammad Through Christian Eyes

Demonic charlatan or moral exemplar? The church's mixed response to Islam's prophet.

Those who have discovered C.S. Lewis's enchanted universe of Narnia might recollect its terrible Empire of the South: Calormen. There, beyond the Great Desert, dwell a "wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel" people, who pray to Tash, a bloodthirsty god. Tash, "the inexorable, the irresistible," is represented on Earth by the cruel Calormene ruler, the Tisroc, who once ordered the death of a cook for his indigestion. While not deified, the Tisroc is so revered by the Calormenes that a mention of his name is never heard without the added: "May he live forever."

Like so many Narnian figures, the Tisroc is not Lewis's invention but a parody. For the Tisroc is part Ottoman sultan and part Muhammad, "blessings and peace be upon him," the prophet of Allah, "the Merciful, the Benevolent." He is but one representation in the colorful corpus of Christian writings on Muhammad, the prophet who has intrigued and terrified the West since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Western Christian writers have repeatedly redrawn his figure, now as a demoniac, then as a bloodthirsty, sex-crazed barbarian or as a noble rationalist.

Indeed, Muhammad is one of those figures whose legend has grown so greatly that his historical person seems entirely overshadowed. Partly as a consequence of this, Christian scholars today seem utterly at odds with one another over who this man was and how we should regard him, while the vast majority of Christians are almost entirely ignorant about Muhammad, his life and teachings. At a time when a deeper understanding of the world's one billion Muslims has taken on a new urgency, it is no sensationalism, I believe, to maintain that it behooves every Christian today to encounter for himself the man regarded by Muslims as the final prophet of God, Chief of the Messengers.

Medieval Depictions:
"This Machomet, this cursid
fals man … "

Muhammad first appears in the Western canon from the pen of an intriguing ninth-century activist, Eulogius of Cordova. Eulogius lived under Islamic rule in Spain, where he took a leading role in inflaming Christian insurrection. This was done, remarkably, not by taking up arms but rather through a movement of voluntary martyrdom. One of the ways to carry out such a plan was to openly insult Muhammad, a crime invariably punishable by death. For this reason Eulogius's Liber Apologeticus Martyrum includes polemic against the Muslim prophet.

Much of the literature of the next several centuries, through the Crusading period, is likewise polemical. Characteristic of this period is the letter from Peter the Venerable (of Cluny) to Bernard of Clairvaux "on the false prophet Muhammad." Elsewhere in his writings, Peter addresses Muhammad in the first person: "Shall I believe that you were a true prophet of God? Truly I would be more foolish than an ass."1

A similar hostility is seen under a much different guise in a curious lyrical novel written by Alexandre du Pont in 1258, The Romance of Muhammad.2 Du Pont composed his work in Old French and not in Latin, thus clearly intending it for popular consumption. At the time of his writing, news had recently arrived of Louis IX's disastrous crusade to Egypt, and the Franciscans and Dominicans were opening missions in Islamic lands. In the Romance, du Pont seeks to secure his Christian readers in their faith, despite their military losses to Islam and the tales of its opulence that the Crusaders brought back with them. This he does by showing Muhammad to be nothing but a Christian heretic who, with diabolical aid and ceaseless treachery, planted his perverted faith among the barbaric Arabs. In du Pont's account, Muhammad is also aided by a renegade Christian hermit, who helps convince Muhammad's wife, Khadija, that her husband's epileptic seizures are in fact a sign of divine visitations. Du Pont's Muhammad is brutal as well, ordering his followers to convert all people to Islam through warfare, and to "hand over straightway to be tortured; Those who are unwilling, in spite of force; Or other means, to adhere to it."

But another remarkable work in Old French, almost contemporary to du Pont's Romance, offers a sharp contrast to this critical portrait of Muhammad. In fact the Book of Muhammad's Ladder (also extant in a Latin version, which appeared anonymously in 1264) is derived from Islamic accounts and told from a Muslim point of view.3

Muhammad's Ladder tells the story of the Prophet's night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence his ascent to God's throne. Here Muhammad speaks in the first person of his journey on the fabulous mount al-BurÂq and his face-to-face encounter with God. Upon reaching the highest heaven, having passed the prophet Jesus in the first heaven, Muhammad relates:

When I, Muhammad, saw that I was alone, since Gabriel had left me, I took strength and courage in love of God. … When I came near [the Throne], I heard a voice say to me: "Approach me, my friend Muhammad. … Know, Muhammad, that I consider you the most honored of all the messengers and the highest of all the creatures and angels and men and demons which I made."

It should be noted, however, the translator of the Book of Muhammad's Ladder justifies his presentation of Islamic material by noting that readers will recognize Muhammad as a fraud when they "become acquainted with the errors and unbelievable things that he recounts in this book."

Scholars such as Miguel Asin Palacios and Maria Rosa Menocal have maintained that Dante Alighieri composed his Divine Comedy as a Christian imitation of and response to this very work. Muhammad, of course, finds an unhappy place in the first part of Dante's brilliant poem. In the bowels of hell Muhammad suffers with his cousin and son-in-law Ali, both "cleft in the face from chin to forelock," a fitting punishment, in Dante's view, for those who cleft Holy Mother Church with their heretical teachings.

Muhammad's earliest appearance in English literature is hardly more elevated. In his historical poem, Fall of Princes (1438), John Lydgate includes a chapter "Off Machomet the fals prophete." In Lydgate's account "this Machomet, this cursid fals man," was neither prophet nor monotheist, but "he koude riht weel flatre and lie" (he could flatter and lie well). Lydgate repeats many of the same accusations that appear in earlier polemics; again Muhammad is an epileptic who beguiled his followers with chicanery while privately engaging in debauchery. This was his ultimate doom, for he "Lik a glotoun deied in dronkenesse … Fill [fell] in a podel, deuoured among swyn [swine]."

Yet even as Lydgate retailed such crude stuff, Christians were beginning to study Islam firsthand. The impetus came with the rise of the Franciscan and Dominican missions to the Islamic world. St. Francis Assisi visited the court of the Egyptian Sultan; Raymond Lull was martyred in North Africa. The effect of this new movement is evident in the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, who was in contact with Dominican missionaries in Syria, but its fruition would not be seen until the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment Depictions: "The creed
of Mahomet is free from suspicion or
ambiguity … "

In Enlightenment writings, Muhammad is depicted not only with reasonable accuracy but also with surprising favor—in part because many leading Enlightenment figures sought alternatives to orthodox Christianity. At the outset of the eighteenth century, Leibniz, in his Theodizee (1710), praised Muhammad for preaching a "natural" religion. In 1756, Voltaire published his massive Essai sur les moeurs, which includes a chapter "de l'Arabie et de Mahomet."

Muhammad, according to Voltaire, possessed a "lively and strong intellect … [and] a penetrating and authoritative demeanor." Having seen the ignorance of the Arabs, he determined to set himself up as a prophet and do away with the paganism, Judaism, and aberrant Christian sects that flourished in Arabia. Like all enthusiasts, Muhammad was so taken by his ideas, which he took up in good faith, that he deceived himself as he deceived those around him. Yet, having risen to power through his sagacity and military prowess, he died a noble death. In fact, Voltaire directly confronts the polemic of his predecessors: his Muhammad is a wise man, an accomplished poet, a brilliant general, and a remarkable visionary.

The historian Edward Gibbon followed Voltaire's lead in biographical writing on Muhammad. Gibbon speaks at length of the "genius of the Arabian prophet" in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87). He is glowing in his praise for Muhammad's "commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eye, his gracious smile, his flowing beard." Gibbon, in his comely English, describes Muhammad's just character and brilliant charisma: "His memory was capacious and retentive, his wit easy and social, his imagination sublime, his judgment clear, rapid, and decisive." Gibbon's Muhammad is not a prophet but rather a rationalist (like Gibbon himself!) who "beholds, with pity and indignation, the degeneracy of the times; and resolves to unite, under one God and one king, the invincible spirit and primitive virtues of the Arabs." In fact, Gibbon contends, Muhammad's rationalism permeates Islamic doctrine and scripture, in favorable contrast to Christianity: "The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God."

The Muhammad of Modern History: "That is not the work of a traitor or a lecher … "

By the end of the nineteenth century, German authors such as Gustav Weil and Julius Wellhausen had begun a systematic investigation of Islamic historical writing on Muhammad. The quest for the historical Muhammad was on—an endeavor that was colored by the religious biases of the scholars, despite their pretensions of impartiality. Foremost among them was a Belgian Jesuit, Henri Lammens, whose writings on the personal life of Muhammad still enrage many Muslims. Lammens, an indefatigable researcher and elegant writer (who quotes from classical Arabic poets and Victor Hugo alike), describes Islam's "lascivious" prophet as few since have dared to do. In his FÂtima et les filles de Mahomet (1912), Lammens describes Muhammad the "Prophet-King" and his rapacious appetite for meat, perfumes, and girls. While he does not hesitate to shed a kind light on Muhammad's familial life (such as his love for his daughters and grandchildren), Lammens also shows an unflinching willingness to bring to light controversial material. Unlike many others, Lammens does not pass over the less flattering sayings attributed to Muhammad, such as "Woman is a calamity," or "Beware of women, for Hell is filled with them!"

The Christian reader will get a much different perspective from Lammens's contemporary, the Swedish bishop Tor Andrae. In his Muhammad: Man and His Faith (1930), Andrae seeks to locate the genesis of Muhammad's religious ideas in the Eastern Christianity that surrounded the Arabian peninsula. He goes so far as to posit a hypothetical encounter that Muhammad might have had with a traveling Nestorian preacher. This encounter, Andrae suggests, led Muhammad to imitate monks, as seen in his practice of taking a month each year to conduct a retreat in the mountains outside Mecca. Andrae combines a great familiarity with the Syriac church and an interest in the psychology of religion to paint a unique portrait of Muhammad, a man with "deep earnestness, the keen expectation of future life [and] contrition and trembling before the Day of Judgment." Like Lammens, Andrae does not refrain from pointing out what he sees as the moral failures of Muhammad, but he does so with the aim of understanding. What is more, Andrae involves his own faith in his judgment: "But if we would be fair to him we must not forget that, consciously or unconsciously, we Christians are inclined to compare Muhammad with the unsurpassed and exalted figure whom we meet in the Gospels. … And when it is measured by such a standard, what personality is not found wanting?"

More recent historical scholarship, even by clergymen, is largely void of such confessional commentary, in part out of concern for Muslim sensibilities. Such is the case with W. Montgomery Watt, an Anglican priest, whose Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956) together make up the most comprehensive modern biography. Rather than seeking Jewish and Christian influences on the prophet, Watt focuses his attention on the social milieu of seventh-century Arabia. His Muhammad is a social and political reformer deeply moved by the economic crises of his day, which led to the neglect of the poor and the oppression of weaker tribes. Following the Islamic sources at each step, Watt traces the entangled tribal relationships of Mecca and Medina to show the brilliance of Muhammad's statesmanship. Moreover, Watt vigorously defends the moral character of the Prophet against the traditional charges of insincerity, treachery, and sensuality: "[He] established a religious and social framework for the life of a sixth of the human race today. That is not the work of a traitor or a lecher."

Watt's irenic approach and his trust in the Islamic historical sources has by and large set the standard for more recent historical biographies of Muhammad. Ironically, while many scholars have treated the gospel narratives with great skepticism in their furious search for the historical Jesus, their counterparts have become increasingly respectful of the Islamic canon and its portrayal of the Prophet. Frank Peters, a former Jesuit and professor emeritus at New York University, has made this irony quite clear in his essay, "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad."4 Peters laments that, while scholarship on Jesus has constantly broadened its perspectives, scholars in Islamic studies are still "riveted on Muhammad and what is imagined to have been his own immediate milieu." In his own biography of the Prophet, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (1994), Peters seeks to dispel both traditional Islamic and modern scholarly myths about Muhammad. Thus he denies the Islamic and scholarly presumption that the Prophet's Mecca was an important trading center and suggests that Muhammad borrowed religious notions from the Jews of Medina, after all.

The Muhammad of Faith: " I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known … "

The rancorous debate on the Muhammad of history continues to rage. Meanwhile, a separate tradition of Christian scholarship has long sought the Muhammad of faith. In 1853, when Sir Richard Burton secretly performed the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, incognito as a Persian nobleman, he was impressed by the Muslims' reverence for Muhammad. They approached the Prophet's tomb, Burton wrote, "with awe, and fear, and love."5 Later Christians have likewise sought to capture the Muhammad of piety, including the aforementioned Tor Andrae in his remarkable Die Person Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben seiner Gemeinde (1917).

Here, Andrae describes the immense adoration that surrounds Muhammad, who in the Qur'an appears only as an imperfect servant of a perfect master. It was through the Islamic community's devotion, as another scholar has commented, that Muhammad "went on to become the Holy Prophet whose intercession had sovereign authority before God, 'the best of creatures,' endowed with charisma [and] supernatural powers."6 Andrae's work examines the legends of Muhammad's miracles, the doctrine of his sinlessness, and the cult that surrounds him. For Andrae, the veneration of Muhammad as an intercessor has had a transforming effect on the legalistic core of Islam; the prophet is supremely an agent of divine mercy: "Above all, at that terrible moment when men are gathered for judgment, the prophet is the only one who will dare to step before Him." Andrae astutely observes that it is here, in the religious experiences and emotions of believers, that real dialogue can take place between Christians and Muslims.

More than six decades later, Andrae's approach was explicitly taken up by a German Catholic, Annemarie Schimmel, in her Und Muhammad ist sein Prophet (1981; translated as And Muhammad Is His Messenger, 1985). Schimmel is at her best when depicting the Muhammad of Islamic mysticism and mystical poetry. She colorfully relates the many virtues and charisms attributed by Muslims to the Prophet, who did not cast a shadow and whose drops of sweat bloomed into roses. Elsewhere she relates Muhammad's status as "Chief of the Messengers," the one who combines the love of Jesus with the justice of Moses; the one who spoke directly to God on the heavenly throne, while Moses fainted at the Burning Bush. Schimmel is especially interested in the Sufi doctrine of the light of Muhammad, the pre-existing principle through which the world was created. Sufis, she notes, often attribute to the prophet a saying elsewhere considered as God's: "I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known; therefore I created the world."

Schimmel's scholarship has undoubtedly helped Christians better understand the immense emotions of the devout Muslim's relationship to Muhammad. As another scholar pointed out, "Muslims will allow attacks on Allah; there are atheists and atheistic publications, and rationalistic societies; but to disparage Muhammad will provoke from even the most 'liberal' sections of the community a fanaticism of blazing vehemence."7

Meanwhile, other Christian scholars have considered the question of the Christian's relationship to Muhammad. Among evangelical scholars, this has been the source of no small controversy. At one extreme, Anis Shorrosh, in his Islam Revealed (1988), depicts Muhammad as a violent and selfish powermonger whom Christians should openly disdain. At the other extreme, Robert Owen (in an unpublished paper presented at a 1987 international missions conference) has suggested that Muhammad should be recognized as a messenger of God.

Somewhere between these extremes (and much more persuasive) is Phil Parshall, who in The Cross and the Crescent (1989) and Inside the Community: Understanding Muslims Through Their Traditions (1994) pays particular attention to the cultural context of Muhammad. Still more eloquent is Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican priest and scholar of Islam, who in his Muhammad and the Christian (1984) addresses the difficult issues that have led to so much polemicizing. While irenic in his approach, Cragg does not shy away from honest answers, maintaining that "an Islam that has no mind to privatize its relevance has no warrant to immunize its claims."

Most admirably, Cragg speaks candidly and even imploringly to the reader, for he has clearly put his heart and soul (and life's work) into this project. Ultimately Cragg teaches us that, while Christians may not completely reconcile themselves with the figure of Muhammad, they will be moved by this encounter to reexamine their own relationship with the God who moved Muhammad so powerfully. Certainly I, as a student of Islam, have fallen more deeply in love with the Lord whose most powerful expression was clothed in weakness.

—This is the first article in a two-part series. Next issue: The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature.

Gabriel Reynolds is a doctoral candidate in Islamic studies at Yale University.

Petrus Venerabilis, Schriftum zum Islam, edited by R. Glei, 1985.

Li romans de Mahon, edited and translated by Reginald Hyatte, 1997.

Le livre de l'eschiele Mahomet, edited and translated by Reginald Hyatte, 1997.

International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 23 (1991), pp. 291-313.

Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah, 1893.

M. Rodinson, "A Critical Survey of Modern Studies on Muhammad," Studies on Islam 1981, pp. 23-85.

W.C. Smith, Modern Islam in India, 1946.

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