Mar 05, 2021
Anna Bonta Moreland’s book, Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), grew out of the perplexing problem of how she, a committed Christian, could remain faithful to her own religion while teaching the sacred texts of other religions in a way that respected them as living faith traditions. Her conversation with editor-in-chief Hamza Yusuf about her book has been edited for length and clarity.
Hamza Yusuf: Your book, despite its brevity—it’s just slightly over 130 pages—is actually a very dense book, and I am used to reading dense books. But there’s a very subtle argument that you’re putting forward. And it’s obviously an incredibly complicated topic, because we have fourteen hundred years of Christian-Muslim engagement, sometimes violent, as in the Crusades and also the Muslim assaults on places like France and Vienna. But other times it’s a far different story, as during the period of conviviality that occurred in Spain between the eighth and fifteenth centuries CE. Many people are unaware, for example, of the extraordinary experiences during the Crusader occupation of Palestine, where there was actually significant Muslim-Christian interaction. And then there’s another Eastern Christian story, which is told by Professor Michael Penn from Stanford in his extraordinary books [Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians in the Early Muslim World and When Christians First Met Muslims: A Source Book of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam]. What compelled you to work in this area, given the vast area of Catholic theology that I’m sure you’ve been engaged in for a large part of your life?
Anna Bonta Moreland: I’m a Catholic theologian, not a scholar of the Qur’an. I was not trained even in comparative theology, but fifteen years ago I began teaching a course on Aquinas, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Maimonides, a sort of medieval model for interreligious dialogue. Over that time, theological and philosophical questions started to bubble up to the surface. So, I began to write in order to try to answer questions, for myself, basically, that were sort of pedagogical, methodological, and also just personal to me. I had begun to teach the Qur’an in a Catholic university context, and I wanted to understand what I was doing. I wanted to be sure that what I was doing was faithful to my own religious tradition, because I do believe in the universal significance of Jesus Christ. So, how can I teach these different traditions—Islam and Judaism—in a way that respects the fact that they’re living traditions, and that these texts are sacred for people? I didn’t want to take a “sociology of religion” perspective.
And at the same time, I began to be involved in the Scriptural Reasoning movement, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims come together, reading the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Qur’an around a particular theme, without having to represent their own tradition but with vulnerability and openness. So that personal practice, a religious practice, also began to shape me, and I went back to my own tradition to ask the question, “If I’m encountering the Qur’an as a sacred text, am I becoming a Muslim?” That was a pretty personal question for me. And, “How do I teach this text in a Catholic university context?”
“I think that in the next stage of interreligious encounter and dialogue, there’s a lot of fruit to be had with members of different religious traditions examining each other from the heart of one tradition to the heart of the other tradition, bypassing the secular West’s neutralizing program.”
So I went back and found resources deep within my own tradition that helped me answer those questions, and I found that the question that frames my book is: “What can Catholics make of the prophecy of Muhammad?” To answer this question, I marry documents from Vatican II [the Second Vatican Council]—a meeting of twenty-five hundred Catholic bishops from 1963 to 1965, which contained groundbreaking claims about the overlapping web of beliefs between Catholics and Muslims—to a recovery of Thomas Aquinas’s medieval Christian account of what prophecy means. I build the theoretical openness for the possibility that Muhammad could be a prophet for Christians. So, it’s a pretty traditional argument—I use very traditional Catholic sources—and yet I end up at a place that’s not at all traditional, if that makes any sense.
HY: No, it makes perfect sense, and I think that’s what fascinated me most. I want to quote something, and then you can maybe talk a little bit about this. Because a lot of Muslims aren’t aware of Nostra aetate [“In Our Time”] and of some of the other radical changes that Vatican II initiated from the traditional “no salvation outside the Church” approach of the premodern Church. So, the Nostra aetate affirms about Muslims that “they adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”
That’s a pretty bold statement, I think, from the Church, especially at the time. But there have been critiques of that, and maybe you could address that a little bit.
ABM: Yes. So, there are definitely critiques of both Nostra aetate and Lumen gentium [“The Light of the Nations”], which is a companion document, on the groundbreaking claims that Catholics made about Muslims. But the two words that do not occur in those documents are “Muhammad” and “Qur’an.” So it’s pretty astonishing for the Catholic Church to proclaim this overlapping web of beliefs—for instance, that there are six attributes of God that Catholics and Muslims share or that, according to Lumen gentium, the two traditions adore the one God together and share some pretty radical religious claims—and yet to be completely silent on the founder of Islam, to be completely silent on the document that’s revealed by God to Muslims.
I will give the bishops in the early 1960s a little bit of slack—they were operating from a hermeneutic of consent, so the bishops were very careful about the language that they used. They didn’t want to put in language that they couldn’t get a majority vote for. Each word in that section you read was discussed at length and argued over at length, so I guess I will admit that it was a compromise document of sorts.
HY: There’s a very interesting book by the Reverend Robert Hammond called The Philosophy of Al-Farabi and Its Influence on Medieval Theology. He goes into great detail and shows passages from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and then passages written three hundred years previously by Al-Farabi that are almost identical. I’ll just quote what Rev. Hammond says about his book: “My efforts will have been amply rewarded if this book enables the reader to find through its pages two facts. First, that Al-Farabi was well-acquainted with Greek philosophy—so well-acquainted, in fact, that he was able through diligent study to perfect some of its old theories and work out new ones. Second, that the schoolmen, Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas and others, borrowed from him a great amount of material which hitherto has been regarded by many as a product of their speculation, while in reality it is not. In justice to Al-Farabi and other Arabian thinkers, we should candidly admit that Christian philosophy owes a great deal to them.”
And I think, to buttress your argument, it has to be fascinating, to people that are fair, to see the influence that Avicenna had, that Averroes had, that Al-Farabi had, even Al-Ghazali, on some of the most foundational texts of Catholic theology. And I can’t imagine how one can’t see that. And you quote the verse more than once in the book, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and these are certainly the fruits of Islamic civilization that I think were eaten and digested by some of the great schoolmen of the Catholic tradition.
ABM: I agree 1,000 percent. Even the translations of some of Aristotle’s works into the Latin world, of course, came through the Arabic, so the cross-pollination of these traditions has been true for centuries, no doubt about it.
HY: And I think it’s also arguable that in the early period, Christian tradition, mainly from some of the great Syriac scholars who were translating the Hellenistic works into Arabic, had a massive influence on the Muslim world, an influence that I think many Muslims are unaware of. We tend to see Islam as the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and yet there is a vast tradition. And what fascinates me, and I think what’s important about your work, is that you’re really bringing us into the next stage of a serious engagement. And for me, at the metaphysical level, when we get into the Catholic tradition and the Islamic tradition, the dovetailing that starts happening is amazing. I find it tragic that there’s not more interaction and understanding, especially amongst Catholic laypeople. And obviously, there are historical reasons for that; there’s also, I think, a fear. And you address this towards the end of the book, where for us to stay true within our respective circles of commitment, the Venn diagram becomes very difficult.
ABM: That’s right. I would add another element that I talked about in chapter 1 of my book, which is that I think, tragically, so much interreligious encounter gets mediated through the secular West, such that those of us committed to our own religious traditions, in order to enter any kind of interreligious dialogue, have to neutralize our heart-held beliefs and universal claims. And I think that in the next stage of interreligious encounter and dialogue, there’s a lot of fruit to be had with members of different religious traditions examining each other from the heart of one tradition to the heart of the other tradition, bypassing the secular West’s neutralizing program.
HY: Right. I think the biggest barrier for Christianity with Islam is the time factor, because it’s a post-Christian declaration of revelation. That, I think, is the greatest obstacle. I think that if Islam had been prior to Christianity, they would have had no difficulty in recognizing it. And Hans Küng, I think, admits that quite clearly in his book. He argues that it’s largely prejudice that prevents us from seeing a clearly prophetic character in the Prophet Muhammad s that is so similar to the Old Testament prophets.
And for me, one of the most difficult things I find about so many Christians (and you certainly are not in this category by any stretch), including some Catholics, is the idea that Muslims somehow worship another god. Jewish theologians certainly have criticisms of Islam, but traditional Jewish theology did recognize the divine agency in the religion. I think that’s an argument that you’re making in your book. But there are many Christians that truly believe that Islam is a kind of anti-Christic phenomenon, that it’s a force of the devil.
And these are the things that I think make it most difficult, especially in America, in a multicultural society where you have all these different religions. And so, how can we better address that on both sides? On the Muslim side, we have our offensive proselytizers as well. So, on both sides, we have a real problem of communicating. And this is especially problematic in a time when atheism is on the rise and organized religion is really denigrated and frowned upon—it’s especially problematic at a time when I think believers, especially of the Abrahamic faith, should have a much greater understanding of one another’s faith.
ABM: For sure. I think, unfortunately, at least in Christianity and in Catholicism, we are not raising our children with an understanding of our own faith, much less anybody else’s faith. So the catechetical challenges that we face in our own communities are pretty severe. And that’s why this course I teach is so funny—students take it because they know that they’re ignorant about Islam and want to learn about Islam, but they don’t realize that they’re also ignorant about Christianity. So they end up learning a lot about Christianity while they’re taking a course that they think is really about Islam.
So I think education, and the work that you’re doing already, is an indispensable piece of this puzzle that we have to do together. And as you say, we are on the side of the angels. Given the rise of secularism, those of us who believe deeply in our own, especially Abrahamic, faith, need to unite. I am very persuaded by Jon Levenson’s work, though, at Harvard, that we also don’t want to fall into the modernist trap of...
ABM: ...lumping Abrahamic religions together, right? I just want to raise that as a caution.
HY: From your own book, I tended to side with Troll1 amongst the arguments. I like Watt,2 Cragg,3 and others, and I think they’re all very sincere people, very serious in their attempts, but they did fall into a kind of Californian approach, which I think you’re definitely avoiding, and I certainly commend you on that. I would argue that we have to recognize the differences [among our different faiths], and they are fundamental. I really love Dorothy Sayers.
ABM: I do too.
HY: Yeah, she's great. And I’m talking about her theology, not about her mystery stories.
ABM: Right. I’ve tried her mysteries too.
HY: I read a book she wrote called Creed or Chaos?, which was a very convincing argument that we can’t reduce religion to Boy Scout ethics.… [She argues] that ethics is important, but a person does not have to be religious to be good ethically or morally—Stoic ethics are good too! But creed matters. And at that fundamental level of creed, Islam negates two of the most important elements of Christianity, which are the Trinity and the salvific sacrifice of Christ on the cross. And that is an immense, really an insurmountable, barrier, I think.
“Given the rise of secularism, those of us who believe deeply in our own, especially Abrahamic, faith, need to unite.… We also don’t want to fall into the modernist trap of lumping Abrahamic religions together.”
And I think the Germans have done remarkable work in really recognizing that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was not ignorant of Christianity, and that the Christianity that is addressed in the Qur’an is the Syriac Christianity that existed in that area. And I think the Germans have shown that one of the problems with the orthodox and Catholic attitudes about the understanding of Christianity that’s presented in the Qur’an is not recognizing the Syriac Christianity that existed in the Middle East.
But the other thing I think is really important is to recognize, as Hans Küng says, that the historical parallels between Christianity and Islam are inescapable. In his book, he quotes Adolf Schlatter, one of the great German scholars of this period, when they were looking at the origins of the religions. Schlatter wrote a book called The Evolution of Jewish Christianity into Islam. He, and Adolf von Harnack before him, saw Islam as the next phase of Jewish Christianity.
These are the two areas where I’d really like to see more Christian-Muslim engagement. First in the understanding of the Jewish Christianity that reemerges in the seventh century—hence St. John of Damascus’s idea that this is really a schism. And then second, the areas where both traditions enrich each other. One is where the Christians enriched early Muslim tradition—and continue to do so, to be honest with you. For instance, I benefited from your work, which is written by a Christian theologian. And one of my favorite writers is Josef Pieper; I’ve benefited immensely from his work.
So, I think your challenge, which I got from this book, is that Christians do have a resource in looking at Islam in a more charitable light.
Anna Bonta Moreland’s book can be purchased from the Zaytuna College Bookstore.