Ever since I first began to study Islam and issues in the Muslim-Christian relationship, I wanted a book that would explain clearly what Muslims believe about certain specific topics, contrasted clearly with what Christians believe. I found that book in The Prophet and the Messiah by Chawkat Moucarry. Moucarry is an Arab Christian who earned his doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Sorbonne in Paris. Throughout this book, his knowledge of Islam’s greatest theologians and writers is clearly illustrated. What follows is a brief summary with some observations and questions about the book.
Foundations of Moucarry’s Approach
Moucarry identifies from the very beginning some clear foundations for his approach in writing this comparative study of Islam and Christianity. First, he wants Christians and Muslims to dialogue. Whereas the history of Muslim-Christian relations has more often than not been full of polemics and conflicts, he argues that what is necessary is a genuine desire to know and understand what the other side says, particularly within the context of loving relationships. Secondly, he argues that such a dialogue is not incompatible with apologetics and mission–from both sides. At root, both Islam and Christianity are missionary religions:
Dialogue and mission are not to be seen as opposing concepts, but quite the reverse. Mission carried out without a dialogical approach is irrelevant, patronizing, and perhaps harmful; dialogue without a missionary perspective is an academic exercise, likely to be superficial and complacent. (20)
Thirdly, Moucarry’s methodology is one not of describing the (often imperfect) Muslim and Christian communities but rather going to the sacred Scriptures of each religion in order to address central issues of faith. Obviously, he does this via the insights of theologians–both Christian and Muslim–but his primary methodology is to examine the authoritative texts of both religion.
Structure of the Book
Moucarry approaches the key issues dividing Christians and Muslims in a systematic way. He first examines the role of and teachings about the Scriptures in both religions, then moves to specific key doctrines. He follows this with an examination of Christian and Muslim teachings on the identity of Jesus and the key events of his life and then moving on to a discussion of views on Muhammad. The final, shorter section of the book deals with contemporary issues of concern for both Muslims and Christians.
Part One: The Scriptures
Moucarry first discusses how Christians and Muslims view revelation from God. He illustrates how the Islamic view of Scripture is quite different than that of the Christian view (particularly in how God’s Word comes through men). Of particular importance in this section is his familiarity with the varying ways in which Muslims view the Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments). Drawing from these different Muslim views, he then makes a strong case that the Scriptures have not been textually corrupted and can be trusted to be God’s word now. All I can really say about this section is that it was perhaps the most helpful and insightful exposition of how one ought approach the issue of the Scriptures in any Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Part Two: Key Doctrines
With a brief discussion of transcendence and immanence, Moucarry highlights the essential differences between Christians and Muslims on how they view God’s greatness. Considering that in Muslim countries one hears the cry الله اكبر/allahu akbar (God is great) multiple times daily, any discussion of Islam and Christianity must grapple with what that means in both religions. He then moves on to a discussion of sin and salvation–dealing with original sin, atonement, and faith, from both Muslim and Christian perspectives. Obviously, this is the heart of the issue that divides Muslims and Christians. If one does not view sin as the Bible teaches, then one will not see the necessity of viewing God as Savior, and so it at this point that Moucarry pleads for clarity and precision in discussing these issues. Moving on from the issue of salvation, he addresses a topic that, in my own limited experience, is not discussed as much (at least directly) in conversations between Muslims and Christians: the kingdom of God. Looking at how we view the connection between religion and politics, personal life, and social relationships, he explores the Islamic and Christian teachings on how the kingdom of God is expressed in these areas.
Part Three: Jesus Christ
In this section, Moucarry tackles two questions that are obviously essential to any Muslim-Christian dialogue: (1) Who is Jesus? (2) Did Jesus die on the cross? What is particularly helpful about his discussion of these issues is his thorough acquaintance with the different approaches that Muslims take on them. Muslims are not entirely agreed upon the latter question in particular, and so while carefully explaining their views, he also makes a compelling case for the biblical record on Jesus’ identity and the major events of his life.
Part Four: Muhammad
If Christians insist on carefully identifying who Jesus is, then Muslims insist just as strongly on carefully identifying who Muhammad was. The central Muslim confession (الشهادة/al-shahada) is “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet” (لا اله الا الله واهده و محمد رسول الله/la ilah ila allah wahdahu wa muhammad rasul allah). So the most basic Islamic confession concerns the identity of Muhammad. Moucarry explains the different types of proofs that Muslims put forward for Muhammad’s prophethood, all of which are helpful to know and understand when talking with Muslims. Moucarry argues that the ultimate test for his prophethood ought to be the content of his message rather than claims of miracles. And he clearly states that Christians cannot, without denying their own faith, affirm the second part of the shahada (that Muhammad is God’s prophet). However, he also argues that Christians ought to respect him as Muslims’ revered prophet, rather than constantly seeking to denigrate his name and record.
In this section, Moucarry deals with the question of revelation in Islam–that is, whether or not there is actual revelation from God contained within Islam. Discussing the distinction between general and special revelation, he says this:
Thus the Qur’an is influenced by both general and special revelation, which means that Islam is neither a biblical religion nor a religion entirely independent of the biblical tradition. (268)
I wish that this section had been more expanded, because Moucarry moves from the inclusion of some elements of special and general revelation in Islam to this conclusion:
The reality of God’s general revelation and common grace on the one hand, and the consonance of Islamic monotheism with God’s special revelation in the Bible on the other, mean that God-fearing Muslims worship the true God even if they do not know him in the fullness of his revelation in Jesus Christ. (269)
While this issue is still one that I am processing, I felt that Moucarry did not adequately make his case for this position. Of course, this is an ongoing discussion within the Christian community (see the ETS videos where John Piper, Al Mohler, Joseph Cummings, and others discuss this issue). However, regardless of whether or not one finally agrees with Moucarry’s conclusion, the discussion of general and special revelation in relationship to non-Christian religions is one that needs to take place.
Part Five: Contemporary Issues
In this section, Moucarry addresses two contemporary issues: (1) The question of the land of Palestine in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and (2) the place of Muslim immigrants in Western countries. I won’t rehearse his arguments, but he strongly argues for the rights of the Palestinians in the land and that Christians should repudiate Zionist ideology. He also suggests that Christians and the West should be very concerned to support and encourage Muslim immigrants. However, he does also suggest that Muslim immigrants need to evaluate how they interact with Western culture while they live within it.
Appendix A: Muslim Theologians and Mystics
This appendix was incredibly helpful. Going through some of the most important Muslim theologians and mystics since Muhammad’s death, Moucarry briefly describes their main distinctives, particularly when it comes to distinguishing the Ash’arite school from the Mu’tazilite school. I cannot recommend this appendix enough–I wish I had read it years ago.
Many of my thoughts as I read the book came out in the above summary, but let me offer just a few summary observations:
(1) Moucarry provides an example of a Christian who has done the hard work of really understanding Muslim positions on key differences. His book delves into the Muslim views of these issues far better than any other book I have come across. It is only an introduction, but it provides much impetus for further study.
(2) As I mentioned above, I do not think that Moucarry adequately addressed the issue of whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. However, I do believe that he has identified some of the key theological concepts that are necessary in order to analyze the question: general revelation, special revelation, and common grace. I would humbly suggest that he has not grappled fully with the role of sin (particularly the noetic effects of sin) as it relates to human use of general and special revelation.
(3) Moucarry’s attitude is one that I and all Christians would do well to imitate. He looks for the best in Muslims and their views, while still holding to the absolute Lordship and supremacy of Christ in all things. While one might not agree with all of his conclusions, surely his book provides an excellent model for how to go about Muslim-Christian dialogue.