Of course many religions do not have prophets in the strictest sense. Hindus have their gurus and sadhus, the Chinese their sages, Buddhists their masters — but they do not have prophets, as do Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There is no doubt that if anyone in the whole of religious history is termed the prophet, because he claimed to be just that, but in no way more than that, it was Muhammad. But may a Christian assert that Muhammad was a prophet? Christians, if they pause to survey the situation, must admit the following (especially in light of the Hebrew Bible):
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad did not function by reason of an office assigned to him by the community (or its authorities), but by reason of a special personal relationship with God.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad was a person of strong will who felt himself fully imbued with a godly calling, fully consumed, exclusively appointed to his task.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad spoke to the heart of a religious and social crisis, and with his passionate piety and revolutionary proclamation he opposed the wealthy ruling class and the tradition it was trying to preserve.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad, who mostly called himself the “Warner”, sought to be nothing but the verbal instrument of God and to proclaim not his own, but God’s word.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad untiringly proclaimed the one God who tolerates no other gods and who is at the same time the good Creator and merciful Judge.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad required, as a response to this one God, unconditional obedience, devotion, submission, which is the literal meaning of word Islam: everything that includes gratitude to God and generosity toward fellow human beings.
- Like the prophets of Israel, Muhammad combined monotheism with humanism or human values, belief in the one God and God’s judgment with a call to social justice, and a threat to the unjust, who go to hell, with promises to the just, who are gathered into God’s paradise.
Whoever reads the Bible — at least the Hebrew Bible — together with the Qur’an will be led to ponder whether the three Semitic religions of revelation-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-and especially the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, could have the same foundation. Is it not one and the same God who speaks so clearly in both? Does not the “Thus says the Lord” of the Hebrew Bible correspond to the “Speak” of the Qur’an, and the “Go and proclaim” of the Hebrew Bible to the “Stand up and warn” of the Qur’an? In truth, even the millions of Arab-speaking Christians have no other word for God than “Allah”.
Might it not therefore be purely dogmatic prejudice that recognizes Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as prophets, but not Muhammad? Whatever one may have against Muhammad from the standpoint of Western Christian morality (armed violence, polygamy, a sensual lifestyle for males), the following facts are indisputable:
- Today there are almost eight hundred million persons in the huge area between Morocco to the west and Bangladesh to the east, between the steppes of central Asia to the North and the Island world of Indonesia to the south, who are stamped with the compelling power of a faith that, like virtually no other faith, has molded into a universal type those who confess it.
- All those persons are linked by a simple confession of faith (There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet), linked by five basic obligations, and linked by thorough submission to the will of God, whose unchangeable decision, even when it brings suffering, is to be accepted.
- Among all the Islamic peoples there has remained a sense of fundamental equality before God of an international solidarity that is basically capable of overcoming race (Arabs and non-Arabs) and even the castes of India.
I am convinced that, despite all the renewed fears of Islam, there is a growing conviction among Christians that, in the light of Muhammad’s place in world history, we must correct our attitude toward Islam. The “scourge of exclusiveness”, arising from Christian dogmatic impatience and intolerance, condemned by the British historian Arnold Toynbee, must be abandoned. Regarding the figure of the prophet, I believe the following must be admitted:
- Arabians in the seventh century rightly listened to and followed the voice of Muhammad.
- In comparison to the very worldly polytheism of the old Arabian tribal religions before Muhammad, the religion of the people was raised to a completely new level, that of a purified monotheism.
- The first Muslims received from Muhammad — or, better still, from the Qur’an — endless inspiration, courage, and strength for a new religious start: a start toward greater truth and deeper understanding, toward a breakthrough in the revitalizing and renewal of traditional religion.
In truth, Muhammad was and is for persons in the Arabian world, and for many others, the religious reformer, lawgiver, and leader; the prophet per se. Basically Muhammad, who never claimed to be anything more than a human being, is more to those who follow him than a prophet is to us: he is a model for the mode of life that Islam strives to be. If the Catholic Church, according to the Vatican II “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions”, “regards with esteem the Muslims”, then the same church must also respect the one whose name is embarrassingly absent from the same declaration, although he and he alone led the Muslims to pray to this one God, for through him this God “has spoken to humanity”: Muhammad the prophet. But does not such an acknowledgment have very grave consequences, especially for the message he proclaimed, the teachings set down in the Qur’an?
I think for the peoples of Arabia Muhammad’s prophecy led to tremendous progress. Whatever we Christians do with this fact, we must affirm that he acted as a prophet and that he was a prophet. I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion that on their way of salvation, Muslims follow a prophet who is decisive for them.