For almost a millennium and a half, Muslims (and almost exclusively Muslims) have said yes. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and polytheists said no. This was a sharp enough distinction that saying “Muhammad was God’s messenger” (i.e. prophet) was the defining act of converting to Islam. That assertion is the second half of the Shahada (the Testimony), the first half of which (“There is no god but God”) is shared with Christians and Jews, and even some Zoroastrians. The second half of the Shahada is distinctively Muslim, and it is the assertion that Muhammad was a prophet.
But I recently came across a Christian missiologist who argues that we Christians should re-think our negative answer. Writing under what is apparently a pseudonym, “Harley Talman” has proposed that a Christian committed to the sole efficacy of Jesus Christ for salvation can cautiously and conditionally affirm that Muhammad may have been an actual prophet. Unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial and has occasioned rebuttals. My goal in this post is simply to lay out a brief consideration on the subject.
First it is necessary to understand Talman’s position more exactly. He explicitly denies that Islam could be “an alternative way of salvation apart from personal faith in Christ” (171). He also says that Islam has not historically led people to accept Christianity (171). With these important concessions, Talman asserts that the traditional Islamic view of Muhammad is probably wrong (171), and that the traditional Muslim view of Islam itself does not accurately represent Muhammad’s message (172-3). So, his final answer is that IF Muslims are wrong about Muhammad (and have been since the earliest Muslim writings other than the Qur’an), then Christians might be able to include Muhammad among the prophets. He advances this answer with the stated goal (186) “to enable Christians to show Muslims more respect in regard to Muhammad. I also desire to see a lowering of the level of consternation against disciples of Jesus who think positively about Muhammad.”
Others have criticized Talman’s use of scripture and theology. I think there are also fatal flaws to his argument in his haphazard treatment of Islam and the Qur’an, which I will address in a separate post. Here I merely wish to point out that this Talman seems to wish to have his cake and eat it too. According to his argument, Christians recognizing “positive prophetic possibilities” for Muhammad might help them explain Christianity to Muslims. But Christians can only do so if Muslims are wrong about Muhammad himself, in which case he ceases to be a useful point of contextualization. Either Muhammad was a (mediocre, at best) prophet from a Christian perspective, but misunderstood by the Islamic tradition, or the figure of Muhammad can help Muslims understand Christianity, but not both. If Talman is right, his argument is useless for his purpose.
Even apart from any logical flaws in its argument, after all, the goal of this article (in a missiology journal) is to help people think about how better to explain Christianity to Muslims. I think this article will not reach succeed at that goal, because its conclusion is too technical a construct based on using common words in their uncommon senses. Most Christians and Muslims would take an assertion such as “Muhammad was actually a prophet” as an endorsement of the Islam which people today widely suppose that he preached. Furthermore, since the word “Islam” is not really a proper name but simply means “submission” (i.e. to God in this case), if one wished to say that Muhammad did not preach Islam, that would mean that Muhammad instead preached rebellion against God. Many Christians believe this, but that is not what Talman is arguing. Talman is arguing instead that Muhammad preached submission to God (“Islam”!), but that the meaning of Islam changed later. It may be possible to make more hay with the assertion that what a particular Muslim has so far considered Islam is not in fact “submission to God,” but this is tricky and requires a very close relationship to detangle the multiple threads of any given Muslim’s definition of what Islam consists of.
In a sense, though I think his argument is wrong, whether Talman is right about Muhammad does not much matter. With people who share our commitments to the deity of Christ and his unique efficacy for salvation, and who understand that we are not questioning those commitments, it is possible to have an idle conversation about whether Muhammad might fit in somewhere. Today’s form of Islam certainly cannot, with its anti-Trinitarian emphasis, but – who knows? – perhaps Muhammad’s version of Islam was later corrupted, or perhaps Muhammad had nothing to do with the Islam (as long as we are entertaining historically unverifiable hypotheses). Such discussions are idle, but within an agreed framework of the gospel, harmless enough.
But the goal of missions is communication. And successful communication requires understanding how what you say will be (mis-)understood. In discussing Christianity with Muslims today, as well as discussing Islam with almost all Christians, we must bear in mind that almost everyone regards Muhammad as having preached what we see today labeled Islam. The Muhammad of Islamic belief is, I suspect, not the Muhammad of history, but unlike Jesus, Muhammad is dead and cannot speak for himself. God will judge him justly and accurately; our responsibility is for the people we see in front of us, and whether we are unintentionally encouraging them in a misunderstanding. I think Talman’s message will not soften Muslims’ views on Christianity, but will instead affirm them in their false (anti-Trinitarian) belief and allegiance to the Muhammad whom they believe taught the religion they have always known. If anything, I expect Talman’s argument to harden Muslim attitudes against Christians who “ought to have recognized” Muhammad as a prophet and chose not to. Therefore the argument, even if (as I doubt) it is technically correct, is rhetorically self-defeating. I suspect, that is, that Talman’s argument is not a help to missions to Muslims, but a barrier.