a community of lovers
We’re so pleased to share the first of two pieces focusing on our chosen theme for Rumi’s Urs this year, Receiving Spirit: Mary & Muhammad. First, Julian Bond on a Christian’s relationship with Muhammad.
The title is startling enough, I haven’t come across it in any of the Christian writings I have seen about Islam. I’m sure others must have written on this, perhaps I will find out later. I’m also sure that people generally wouldn’t expect a Christian to have a relationship with Muhammad.
So, what is my relationship with the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wasallam, peace be upon him)? I can’t begin this without talking about Jesus first. If I could meet one person who lived long ago it would be Jesus, what was he like as a real person before people started writing stories about him (the Gospels are neither history nor biography)? If I could meet a second person from the past it would be Muhammad.
I am fascinated by Muhammad, he has such a key role in Islam, not just as its ‘founder’ but as ‘bearer of the Word’ (theotokos in the Christian tradition). On top of this, through the Sunnah, he provides the role model for nearly 2 billion Muslims. I am interested in him because he has to be ‘a good thing’, there are so many good things in Islam that we must acknowledge and thank him for that, while bemoaning that, as in the case of Jesus, his followers do not always live up to the best of his message.
Having a positive perspective on Muhammad should, I would argue, be at the forefront of Christian interaction with Muslims, after all Christians hope, or even assume, that others will have an appreciation of Jesus, even those who have issues with ‘Christianity’. So what’s so difficult about Muhammad? Or to put it another way, to illustrate the point, what’s so difficult about Islam? We are well aware of the ways in which people relate to or have preconceptions about Islam, for many people meeting real-life Muslims almost instantly shatters negative misconceptions. It is the same with Muhammad when we hear what Muslims, rather than their detractors, say about him.
Looking at Muhammad from a Muslim perspective, Christians need to face up to this observation from the late Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican expert on Islam:
There is an issue that disturbs Muslims more than any other in their approach to Christians. It is the silence and reserve of Christians regarding Muhammad.
[p. ix, ‘Muhammad’]
I remember several years ago talking to my friend and colleague Dr Ataullah Siddiqui as I began my work on promoting good Christian-Muslim interaction. One of the issues that he flagged up as a critical in current Christian-Muslim relations was negative Christian attitudes to the Prophet Muhammad. When I wrote up my notes of the meeting, including Ataullah’s references to offensive remarks about Muhammad, I added ‘pbuh’ (see above) to distance myself from the accusations. My Christian colleagues pointed out that it was unwise for a Christian to do this as it might lead to concern that I was giving inappropriate status to Muhammad or even that I had converted. Then and now I believe that these are risks that are worth taking, moving away from old habits, barriers and negative perceptions.
Certainly I never had the conversation with Christian friends about how Muslims might feel about Christians not showing respect to Muhammad. Very few people were, or are, prepared to be that reflective, even though it was a key ‘fatwa’ of Jesus Christ – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Some people are prepared to allow others to be disrespectful of their beliefs so that they can be disrespectful of the beliefs of others. Of course not too many people go as far as this but for those who have some commitment to a two way street in dialogue some entry level respect (from my standpoint) is going too far, derailed by theology.
Some years ago, just before Eid I spent nearly two days on i’tikaf at my friend Musharraf Hussain’s masjid in Nottingham. After lengthy prayers and recitations which went on into the middle of the night, there was a time of singing and praise of Muhammad. It was very moving to be in the middle of a tight circle of men singing so devoutly of their love for Muhammad and praise to God for sending him. This is what I think of when anyone asks me about Muhammad. In an uncompromising monotheistic tradition this is how the spiritual descendants of Muhammad feel about him, they are not his followers because he is not Messiah or Lord (names which apply to Jesus and God in the Islamic tradition, and also in Christianity) but he inspires this deep love and devotion. As a friend of Muslims I am also a friend of Muhammad.
In another year I visited the masjid again, in the closing hours of Ramadan. I explained that I would soon be giving a talk on the Prophet Muhammad and described the difficulties with Muhammad from some Christian perspectives. It was good to be back in the masjid to share with friends as I started to move out into new dialogue territory, which has ultimately led me to this point.
In closing I will highlight some examples of the attractive character of the Prophet Muhammad:
These are exactly the prophetic characteristics that need to be remembered and recaptured in difficult times when people spread negativity about Muhammad and those who are the inheritors of his message.
~ Julian Bond
Part 2/2: Fatimah Ashrif on Mary to follow next week.
Don’t miss our celebrations for Rumi’s Urs in Bradford and London – book your tickets!