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A review of:
Clinton Bennett, In Search of Muhammad and In Search of Jesus

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(May, 2002)



Christian books on Islam and its Prophet often have a negative view of both. At least for me this by itself is no problem, and I suspect also for many other Muslims. We can all expect that some non-Muslims would have some negative views of Islam out of ignorance, prejudice or some other better reason. What is problematic is that books by Christian writers often apply different criteria for their own traditions than they do to the Muslim traditions to arrive at their views. For example, Muir rejected Muslim traditions about the miracles of the Prophet of Islam as fabrications but accepts without question the biblical stories of miracles as literally true records of what actually happened (Life of Mahomet, p. 117). Had he applied his logic consistently to both traditions he would have either rejected miracles in both traditions or admitted the possibility of their historicity in both traditions. Muir wrote his book in 1894, but double standards of critical scrutiny continued for a long time. 

Now at last there have started to appear books where Christian writers talk about both Muhammad and Jesus and use some measure of consistent methodology. An earlier attempt was by William E. Phipps, Muhammad and Jesus: A Comparison of the Prophets and Their Teachings. (See next chapter). Bennett’s two books In Search of Muhammad (henceforth abbreviated as M) and In Search of Jesus (henceforth abbreviated as J) taken together fall in the same category. 

There are many positive things to say about Bennett’s two books. Thus in both books Bennett repeatedly shows concern about how our conclusions are influenced by our assumptions and backgrounds and gives some thought to the ways of avoiding that influence. He guides himself by the concept of reflexivity introduced by Meadows. “Reflexivity is ‘continued self-reflection and analyses’ which aims to make ‘explicit those subjective structures which implicitly condition all our understandings of the world’ [Meadows]. When such reflection is included in an account, readers can follow and evaluate the writer’s interpretive process for themselves. This is the style which I have chosen for this book. My world-view is Christian …” (M, 11). Bennett tries to maintain throughout his two books the transparency that he promises here. 

In his book on the Prophet Muhammad, Bennett defines his approach in terms of Edward Said’s criticism of Orientalism and Cantwell Smith’s way of avoiding that type of criticism. This leads to the principle that one should understand religions and their founding figures in the light of how their followers view them. “I first encountered Smith’s dictum, that the aim of an outside scholar writing about Islam is to elicit Muslim approval, towards the very beginning of my study of Islam, and have tried ever since to make it my motto. 

All in all, Bennett’s approach allows him to treat Islamic traditions and their Muslim interpretations with sensitivity and respect, not often found among Christian writings on Islam. Even when he describes at length some very hostile views of Christian writers on Islam and its Prophet he either counters them by Muslim understanding or his own more favorable view. 

This, however, should not prevent us from a critical look at his work, especially since he himself invites the readers to “follow and evaluate the writer’s interpretive process for themselves”. In what follows I present my evaluation of Bennett’s “interpretive process”.

 

SEARCH HAMPERED BY THEOLOGICAL CONCERNS

 

A distinction has often been made between Jesus of history and Jesus of faith. Christian authors carry this distinction also to Muhammad. This is quite justified, since for every person and even every object a distinction needs to be made between what people say or believe about the person/object and the real person/object. This means that figures like Muhammad and Jesus are to be examined at three levels: 

  1. What did they say and do? This requires examination of the sources and development of sound criteria to identify any reliable information found in those sources.

  2. What do their words and actions reveal about them, about their character, about their religious claims, and about the validity of those claims?

  3. What do people believe about them and about their religious role? This is important because the role that they will play in history depends on what people think about them. 

Bennett would have succeeded much better in his search for Muhammad and Jesus if he had limited himself to examining the two religious figures at one or more of the above-mentioned three levels as objectively as he could. But instead, in case of the Prophet Muhammad, he consciously chose to combine his search with a need to fit Islam into his Christian outlook. “Because I am a Christian (and theologically trained), I have also tried to understand how Islam can fit into my Christian world-view.” (p. 11-12). Elsewhere Bennett speaks of the tension he feels between his Christian faith and his encounter with Islam. “I hope that this book, which wrestles with the tension between my Christian faith and my encounter with Islam, will be read as an open-ended search for theological possibilities … I fear that I may sometimes have fallen into a gulf – between my personal faith on one side, and my desire to respond to Islam on the other! However, if God's nature is made known to us through the biblical record, then it is right for us to inquire whether God is speaking to us through what we encounter in other world-views – as long as this does not contradict what we know of God in Christ, who is the touchstone for all Christians" (M, p. viii; my emphasis). “Similarly, while I regard God’s disclosure of God’s self through Christ as definitive, this does not mean that no other definitive revelations exist elsewhere. What it does mean is that any truth that is of God or from God will match the revelation of God that has come to us in Jesus” (J, p. conclusion 4, again my emphasis). In my view, this has hampered Bennett’s ability to properly assess evidence about the Prophet Muhammad when it calls into question what “we know of God in Christ, who is the touchstone for all Christians” or when it does not “match the revelation of God that has come to us in Jesus”. It is to Bennett’s credit that he is aware that his attempt to fit Islam into his world-view “is not unproblematical” (M, p. 12), although “not unproblematical” probably underestimates the consequences of his choice. 

As in case of Muhammad, so also in case of Jesus Bennett’s search is seriously hampered by theology. His Christian view of Jesus seems to come before he has actually done the search. The reader does not get the impression that the author searched for Jesus and then found what he believes about him. Rather, his view of Jesus is accepted as a given while the search is going on as a separate activity. He himself says that much: “Have I found Jesus? In one sense, as a professing Christian I could claim to have ‘found’ him before I started my quest.” (J, p.18, of conclusion my numbering). It is interesting that Bennett does not see this as problematic but states this as a claim to be almost proud of. Yet from a scholarly point of view there is nothing worse than finding the object of one’s search before the search is even begun. 

Bennett’s Jesus is recognizable as the traditional Jesus professed in his church, although he has somewhat different emphases. For example, the emphasis that he puts on Jesus as a “liberator” (J, ) is not so strong in traditional Christianity. Also, Bennett sees in the cross not an instrument of salvation but a symbol of liberation. Finally, although he accepts Jesus as one of three divine persons in a Trinity, he often dilutes the traditional understanding of Jesus’ divinity. Thus he says: “For me, there was a merging of the human with the divine, and vice versa, in Christ, which means that it makes sense for me to call him ‘God’; whether Jesus was always God, or was ‘adopted’, or became God through his own God-consciousness, or exactly how his identification with God happened, I do not know.” (M, 234). This departs from the traditional Christian view, which sees Jesus, following the fourth gospel, as a pre-existent being and an incarnation of the logos (word) that was from the beginning divine. 

Again Bennett says: “Was Jesus God, as Paul believed? Or was Paul wrong, as Muslims and Jews argue, to present Jesus as mediating God rather than as merely pointing to God like a prophet?” Notice the confusion here: the original question is “was Jesus God?” and then the question becomes whether Jesus was mediator between God and humanity. Elsewhere Bennett speaks of Jesus as “a link between humanity and God”. Clearly being God is not the same as being a mediator or link between God and human beings. The religious traditions of the world are full of minor deities mediating between humanity and a higher God without being identical with that higher God. But Bennett has reinterpreted the traditional Christian dogma about the divinity of Jesus as saying that Jesus was a mediator between God and human beings. To be sure, the role of Jesus as a mediator is a traditional element in Christianity but Jesus’ identification with God is not understood in the doctrine of Trinity only in terms of that mediating role. Incidentally, unless one interprets “Jesus was God” to mean – in my view wrongly – that “Jesus was a mediator between God and humanity”, it is wrong to say that Paul held this belief. Paul clearly regards Jesus subordinate to God. His highest estimation of Jesus is probably reflected in 1 Cor 28:5-6, 15:24-28, where he says that unlike the pagans who have many gods and many lords, Christians have only “one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ”. God is the creator and Lord is only his instrument of creation. Jesus is also only an instrument of God when in the end of times of he subjugates everything to him and brings his enemies under his feet. For, after performing this role, which is assigned to him by God, Jesus will also be totally subject to God so that “God may be all in all”. In 1 Cor 3:23 Paul says: “all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God”. This puts Christ in the same relationship with God, as Christians with Christ. This is stated again in 1 Cor 11:3: “Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ”. Thus, in the view of Paul, Jesus Christ is distinguished from the one and only God and is subordinate and inferior to him.

 

FAILURE TO GIVE PROPER WEIGHT TO VARIOUS VOICES

 

Another factor that hampers Bennett’s search is his failure to properly assess the various voices that he heard. Every voice is no doubt important but clearly everything that 1.4 billion Muslims and an equal number of Christians say does not make an equal contribution to the definition of Islam or Christianity. Some voices within each tradition may even represent what the tradition is not. A searcher who wants to understand a tradition or a historical or religious personality needs, like a good detective, not only to pay attention to everything he sees or hears but also to have an ear and an eye for those facts that bring him closer to the object of his search instead of leading him away from it. It is true that it is not always possible to determine what defines a tradition, but one thing is clear: if in a tradition there are some ideas and practices that can be traced back with continuity to the original founding source, they must be respected. In case of Islam there are such ideas and practices. These must be made an essential part of our definition of Islam, especially since an overwhelming majority of Muslims in every generation have accepted the principle that what can be traced back to the Prophet with continuity is an integral part of Islam. 

I will discuss below two examples to illustrate Bennett’s failure to properly assess the weight of various voices. First example is provided by the following statement: 

“Muslims have sometimes come very close to speaking of Muhammad in similar terms, although they criticize Christians for turning Jesus the prophet into Christ the God. Yet when Muslims reflect on Muhammad’s indispensability within Islam, might they not gain an appreciation of what Christians really mean when they speak about Jesus as their link with God? Muhammad remains [for Muslims] the best interpreter of the Qur`an; the shahada (declaration of faith) links Muhammad with God so intimately that it is difficult for many Muslims to think of God without also thinking of God’s messenger. The God language that Christians use of Jesus expresses faith in him as the one who links humanity and God” (J, p 7 conclusion). 

Here Bennett fails to make the important and necessary distinction between, on the one hand, tendencies found among some Muslim individuals and sects representing a minority and, on the other hand, the teaching of the Qur`an and Hadith and the continuous opinion of creditable scholars of Islam throughout the centuries down to the present times. In these latter sources there is nothing that can justify Bennett’s claim that “Muslims have sometimes come close to speaking of Muhammad” comparable to the Christian identification of Christ with God. His statement is apparently based, on the one hand, on his diluting of the traditional Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, to which a reference has already been made, and on the other hand, on his conversations with some members of a Sufi sect in Islam, e.g. the conversation in which: “Another student expressed the view that Muhammad is ‘slightly below Allah’ and can more or less do what Allah, who said to him, ‘You are my equal’, can do.” (M, 202) Nothing in the Qur`an and authentic Hadith and the continuous Muslim scholarly opinion justifies the view expressed here. Bennett himself adds that “I cannot locate this hadith” where God allegedly says to Muhammad “You are my equal”. Also, note that despite the words “you are my equal”, Muhammad is described as “below Allah” even if with the qualification “slightly”. Even so, a majority of Muslims, especially those well informed about the Qur`an and authentic Hadith will regard the sort of glorification of Muhammad found here as an error. Bennett seems to think that if some Muslims commit an error, then all Muslims loose the right to criticize similar error in other religious groups. 

It seems that a theological concern – to support his belief in Trinity – has interfered with Bennett’s search to such an extent that he ignores some of the principles that he has himself set out for the study of Islam. One such principle is provided by Smith, who stated that anything said by a non-Muslim scholar about Islam is only “valid” if “it can be acknowledged by that religion’s believers” (M, 6). A vast majority of Muslims will not acknowledge as Islam the views that Bennett has attributed to Muslims in the above quotation. 

For example, his statement, “it is difficult for many Muslims to think of God without also thinking of God’s messenger” is not quite true unless “many” excludes all those who credibly speak for Islam including the Prophet himself and his companions. The Qur`an clearly prepares the Muslims to think of God without thinking of the Prophet. Thus it says: 

“And Muhammad is but a messenger. Other messengers have already passed away before him. If then he dies or he is killed, will you turn back upon your heals (from the way of God)? And whoever turns back upon his heels, he will not do any harm to God whatsoever. But (know that) God will reward the grateful” (3:144). 

Indeed, according to a tradition very widely quoted among Muslims, when the Prophet died, some people felt completely lost. At that time Abu Bakr, who later became the first khalifah, stood up and said: “If anyone worships Muhammad, then Muhammad is dead; but if anyone worships God, then God is alive and ever living”. Then he recited the above verse from the Qur`an. (Ibn Ishaq as quoted by Ibn Hisham). At a practical level living a life of relationship with God does mean to follow the Messenger. But there is a clear distinction between the guide and him to whom he guides. 

It is also important to note that in case of Christianity the position that Jesus is God, although not continuously traceable back to the original source (Jesus and his eyewitness disciples), at one point became an official and mainstream position. This must be compared with similar mainstream position in Islam and not with fringe individual positions. 

The fact that some Muslims exaggerate in the glorification of Muhammad is only proof that the tendency for such exaggeration is very widespread, so much so that even when the founding figure is saying repeatedly and in the clearest terms that he is no more than human, some of his followers still attempt to raise him almost to the level of God. This can help us understand how in Christianity Jesus became God. Much of New Testament was written in pagan environment outside Palestine for Gentile churches whose members were of pagan background. The natural tendency to glorify the founder therefore must have been very strong, considering that in paganism men and women with any kind of extraordinary qualities such as beauty or intelligence or physical strength could be regarded as gods and goddesses. The reason that in case of Jesus the tendency to deify the founder succeeded to the point of becoming a mainstream position while this did not happen in case of Muhammad is that Jesus’ own teachings, that were strictly monotheistic, did not exert as much influence in Christianity as Muhammad’s did in Islam. Moreover, Jesus addressed people who were already monotheists and therefore did not explicitly stress monotheism. In contrast, a major part of Muhammad’s preaching was addressed to the Arab pagans and therefore he gave a clear and forceful expression to the monotheistic position. 

Second example showing that Bennett does not properly assess the weight of every voice that he has heard is provided by the central place he gives to Salman Rushdie’s voice. The conclusion of any book is one of its most important parts. Bennett devotes 20 of 40 pages of the conclusion of his book on Muhammad to Salman Rushdie’s fiction, not to talk of other references to him throughout the book. Salman Rushdie who has declared himself as non-Muslim has hardly said anything that is not found in the hostile Christian literature on Islam and its Prophet. As Minou Reeves writes in Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-Making: "The whole amalgam of myths that had been conjured up in Europe from the Middle Ages by bellicose crusaders, by generations of churchmen fearful of a threatening and all-powerful Islam, by reforming men of the Christian Church, by flamboyant writers of the Renaissance, by champions of Reason in the Enlightenment, by writers, poets and painters intoxicated by the imagined charms of the exotic Orient, by serious biographers unable to shake off their own Christian view of the world, all flash by, all are echoed in this provocative work: the Venerable Bede, John of Damascus, Paul Alvarus, William Langland, William Dunbar, Higden, Mandeville, Dante, Lydgate, Rabelais, Marlowe, Luther, Prideaux, Pitts, Abbe de Vertot, Voltaire, Hugo, Diderot, Gibbon, Muir, Byron, Shelley, Southey, Delacroix, Thackeray, the spirit of their words is revived in Rushdie's pages. It is truly Mahound re-born.” Bennett has already reviewed some of the hostile Christian writers in this list in Part Two of his book on Muhammad. In view of this, it is hard to understand how he can bring us closer to finding Muhammad by giving an extensive place to Rushdie’s voice in the conclusion of the book.

 

A RELATIVISTIC AND INDIVIDUALISTIC/CORPORATE CONCEPT OF TRUTH

 

One of the important determinants of how a writer handles his material is how he or she views truth. Bennett’s concept of truth is relativistic and somewhat corporate. In his view there is no objective basis to assess the correctness of a position. Referring to a statement by a Muslim that the important thing for a scholar is to be led by his expertise to “a fairer assessment of the Prophet” Bennett objects: “The problem I have with this statement, however, is this: what objective, neutral criterion is there with which to judge the fairness of any assessment if, as I suspect, all our assumptions (insider and outsider) involve interpretations based on the theoretical stances we adopt?” (M, 133).  In the absence of any objective basis to assess a position, truth becomes what an individual accepts (individualist concept) or a group accepts (corporate concept). Also, what various individuals or groups say may be equally valid (relativistic concept). Bennett is inclined towards an individualistic concept of truth but because of his background as churchman and missionary, he has not completely freed himself from a corporate concept of truth. Hence he sticks to traditional beliefs of his church albeit in a modified form. 

In his book on Jesus he presents the reader with a bewildering variety of conflicting views of Jesus by serious scholars and by ordinary people. Any one who believes in the possibility of objectively arriving at some sound judgments would have given up his traditional views in the face of this evidence or at least would have been much more reserved in expressing them. But such is not the case with Bennett. His relativistic concept of truth allows him to triumphantly trumpet his own Jesus image in the face of a variety of other challenging images without even feeling the need to support his image. For example, he claims: “ultimately, I see the Trinity as the key to decoding the universe” (M, p. 11). He does not provide any support for this statement, something that is needed in view of the fact that throughout the centuries Christians and non-Christians have argued whether this doctrine does justice to the evidence of the Gospels, much less decodes the whole universe. 

The view that there is no objective basis to judge the validity of a position is often expressed but is rarely maintained with consistency. It is therefore not surprising that in his book on Jesus Bennett does establish a criterion to adjudicate between conflicting images of Jesus. “I think a modicum of resemblance between a Jesus image and what can be said with some confidence about the Jesus of the Gospels ought to be expected. None the less, in offering even the following minimalist image of Jesus, I am aware that there is nothing like a consensus on what the first-century Jew called Jesus was really like” (J, conclusion 8). Bennett then proceeds to give this “historically sustainable, minimalist Jesus image”: “Jesus opposed all forms of oppression. Jesus opposed the elitism of his day. Jesus affirmed the value, worth and dignity of all people. Jesus turned many social norms upside-down. He had little regard for wealth, for power, for privilege. He was above all for the ‘amme ha-arets, the common people. Any follower of Jesus who has wealth, power or a position of privilege stands on shaky ground. … Jesus, I believe, was ‘liberated’ from social conventions, from conforming to the expectations of the world, from what it expected him to do.   … The above checklist can, I believe, be used to test the legitimacy of any Jesus image.” He later actually applies the criterion, for example, to the “black Jesus” promoted by, e.g., James H. Cone in A Black Theology of Liberation. “Does Cone’s black Jesus pass my test? Yes, a Jesus who liberates the oppressed, who is ‘for the poor against the rich, for the weak against the strong’ is my type of Jesus” if it is also inclusive. (J, 9 conclusion). Since even on his minimalist Jesus image Bennett cannot expect anything like a consensus, therefore “in the end, though, since the texts we possess are open to a multiplicity of interpretations, I must concede everyone’s freedom to construct their own Jesus image. At the same time, I claim a right to offer my critique of any Jesus image, based on my reading of Jesus’ life” (J, 10 conclusion). 

Bennett’s relativistic concept of truth may well have been as much a response to his experience with Christianity as with other religions. In the face of extreme uncertainty about who Jesus was and the resulting equally extreme multiplicity of images about him, a Christian has four choices: 

  1. Not to profess validity of any Jesus image, which amounts to abandoning Christianity.

  2. Choose one image and declare it as the only valid one.

  3. Give validity to all Jesus images that conform to a very minimalist criterion.

  4. Give validity to all Jesus images. 

Bennett, like many modern well-informed Christians, has chosen the third option. But since even a minimalist criterion is uncertain and subject to disagreement a Christian who chooses the third option will tend to move to a very thoroughgoing relativism and pluralism (fourth option). The only thing that seems to be preventing Bennett from moving to the fourth option is that as a churchman and a missionary he cannot completely ignore the traditional views professed in his church.

 

INCLUSIVENESS

 

A relativistic concept of truth can lead either to pluralism or inclusiveness in the following sense: we may either accept diverse points of view and simply let them be (pluralism) or try to include them under the umbrella of some very general and minimalist ideas (inclusiveness). In Bennett’s books ‘inclusiveness’ is a constant impulse. There is acceptance of other religions but there is also a desire to bring them within a Christian point view. 

In earlier times the Christian missions proceeded, as they still do in many cases, from an exclusivist understanding and so their attitude to followers of other religions was something like this: you are in darkness and condemned to death or hell. We bring you light and salvation. Bennett and some other Christian writers have adopted a very inclusive approach. This, however, does not mean that Bennett the Christian missionary has abandoned the hope to conquer the world for Christ. It means that the concept of conquest is changed. Conquest no longer means conversion of all people. Rather, it means that followers of all religions continue to follow their traditions while making some place for a divine Christ in their religions. This is what Bennett means by “reconciliation of all things in Christ” and Christ being “all things to all people” (J, ). He tells us: “Paul wrote, ‘For, God was pleased to have God’s fullness (pleroma) dwell in Christ Jesus and through Christ to reconcile all things to God’s self, whether things on earth or things on heaven, making peace (eirene) through the blood of Christ’ (Colossians 1:19-20). Of course, the blood language here will not be my first choice, yet I share Paul’s hope, Paul’s dream and his certainty.” (J,). From other parts of Paul’s letters we see that his “hope” and “dream” includes subjugation of all things to Christ (1 Cor 15:25; 2 Thess 1:5-12). 

Compared to exclusiveness, inclusiveness is probably preferable. But if exaggerated, inclusiveness can also lead to error. If exclusiveness leads to making the distinction between truth and falsehood too sharp or absolute, inclusiveness can lead to making that distinction too blurred. Both exclusiveness and inclusiveness can lead to distortion of one’s own tradition as well as those of others. The “exclusivist” will distort his tradition to fit it in his own image of what absolute truth is and distort others’ traditions to show them to be false and evil, as many Christian writers have done in case of Islam in the past and still do. The “inclusivist” will also distort but for the opposite purpose of showing the maximum compatibility of the two traditions. 

Of course, “inclusivists” could argue that they are not blurring the distinction between truth and falsehood, because objectively there is no such distinction. Truth is relative and everyone has his own truth, which is as valid as the truth of some one else. The problem is that this position is never really maintained in a consistent way. Bennett not only sets, as mentioned above, some criteria to adjudicate between various Jesus images held by people, but also uses throughout his books rational and historical agreements to favor some views over others. Such use of historical and rational arguments implies that some distinction between truth and falsehood can be made on objective grounds.

 

HISTORICAL MUHAMMAD AND JESUS NOT GIVEN THEIR DUE

 

Bennett does not give due weight to the voice of the historical Muhammad and historical Jesus. This is how he seems to be able to maintain, on the one hand, his traditional Christian views and, on the other hand, an inclusive attitude towards Islam and other religions. Not letting the historical Jesus duly speak for himself allows Bennett to hold his traditional Christian views and not letting the historical Muhammad duly speak for himself then allows him to find a place for the Prophet of Islam in his Christian worldview. 

Bennett is very clear of his lack of interest in the historical Jesus: “I am interested in exploring who Jesus is for those people and communities who possess images of him, both inside and outside the Christian religions. What do Muslims believe about Jesus? Who is Jesus for Hindus? … I am interested in contemporary perceptions (in the Jesus of faith) rather than in the quest of the historical Jesus.” (J, 10). “My book … is not,” Bennett states, quoting Charlotte Allen, “an ‘attempt to offer a theory of who the historical Jesus was, or whether he actually said or did those things attributed to him in the Gospels [but to explore] the way in which the image of Jesus has functioned as a vehicle for some of the best and worse ideas  ..’” (J, p. 13). 

This at least partly proceeds from his personal faith “as a Christian”: “Jesus for me is alive and well, and continues to speak to me and to millions of my brothers and sisters in today’s world. This means that, for me, the locus of revelation is the living Christ, not texts that purport to tell the story of his earthly life. Thus I believe it is not scripture or texts that determine who Jesus is but Jesus who determines my reading of the texts” (J, p.16). Bennett is partly aware that this is problematic from a scientific point of view: “Of course, this claim is of a religious nature and cannot be scientifically tested.” But what he seems not to realize is that it is also problematic from a religious point of view. Suppose it is the case that there never was an empty tomb and Jesus never rose from the dead, as is suggested by many reputable scholars. That would make the “living Jesus” who determines the meaning of the texts for Bennett no more than a figment of the imagination. Thus the question whether Jesus ever rose from the dead is unavoidable even from a religious point of view and this question forces us to examine the historical evidence about Jesus. Of course, Jesus can be justifiably viewed as living in the sense that he is present in the memory and devotions of many millions, a sense in which every religious teacher with a continuous following such as Buddha and Muhammad are also living. But this is not what Bennett means. Immediately after talking about living Jesus he talks of encountering him. “Incidentally, it is not only devout Christians who speak of visions or dreams of Jesus or of encountering him, but people whose faith is less than certain or even non-existent.” (J, p. 17). 

Another illustration of why historical Jesus is of paramount importance is provided by the belief in Jesus as God. Suppose that historical research proved that Jesus never thought of himself anything other than a human being. This must oblige Christians to abandon their traditional belief in Jesus’ divinity. Some Christians might say that even Jesus would be wrong if he thought himself simply as a man, that it is possible that Jesus himself was not aware of his divine nature, and that the knowledge of this “fact” was gradually revealed to the world by the Holy Spirit after him. Most Christians, however, will not go that far. They will either insist that Jesus himself taught his divinity or they will be willing to abandon that belief if they admitted that he imparted no such teaching. 

That there is religious need to ground beliefs about Jesus on what he and his eyewitness disciples said and believed is taught even by Jesus, according to the Gospels. In Matthew 16:13-20 (and par.) Jesus asks the disciples “what do people say that I am?” After receiving an answer, he asks “What do you say that I am?” Jesus then approves what the disciples thought about him as against what the people say about him. Bennett’s book is about “what people say that Jesus is” He does not duly concern himself with what the disciples and Jesus say. 

In early Christianity Paul similarly used the concept of living Jesus to ignore or suppress the voices of historical Jesus and his eyewitness disciples. In the briefest of terms Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to him or that God revealed his son to him and then on that basis he gave himself the liberty to ignore for the most part what the historical Jesus said or what his eyewitness disciples were saying just as he was preaching to the Gentiles outside Palestine. 

But Christian religion as a whole could not really ignore the traditions about the historical Jesus and had to produce the gospels. Even Paul sometimes felt that it is more advantageous to appeal to the authority of received traditions, as in 1 Cor 15:1-3, than to the living Jesus. Subsequent generations of Christians likewise have had an ambivalent attitude towards the Gospel traditions. They fall back to the concept of the living Jesus when the historical evidence about Jesus does not fit with what they believe about him, but turn to the Gospel traditions to substantiate some of their other beliefs. Because of the same ambiguity Bennett is also concerned to establish some continuity between the historical Jesus and the voice of the living Jesus. He first establishes continuity between the historical Jesus and the Gospel tradition: “I am more inclined than many contemporary scholars to see a high degree of resemblance between the Jesus who really was and the Jesus of the four Gospels.” (J, p.16). Then there is some continuity between the voice of the living Jesus and the Gospels in that Bennett guides himself by what he reads in the Gospel texts in the light of what he hears from the living Jesus. But in reality these links are very weak. Paul and the evangelists took considerable liberty in interpreting what they received from the earliest Palestinian Jesus tradition and later Christians, including Bennett, take considerable liberty in interpreting Paul and the Gospels. 

Thus Bennett rejects the redemptive value of the cross, so forcefully taught by the Pauline epistles in the New Testament. “I do not feel bound by Paul’s articulation of who Jesus was, though I honour it as the work of a profound and inspired theological pioneer. For me, Jesus’ death is a meaningful symbol of his willingness to resist powers of oppression, but I am not convinced that my salvation derives from the cross. Nor am I convinced that God planned the crucifixion.” (J, p. conclusion 6). His reasons for disregarding a major part of the NT this time is not an appeal to the living Jesus, but to a historical argument: “However, what the primitive Church did, what Paul did in his writing, was to reflect on what had happened in Jesus, and to express this ‘truth’, this ‘experience’, in available language, terms and metaphors. Paul especially was eager to share with Gentiles what he had experienced. He therefore began the business of translating Hebrew ideas into Greek. He was indeed concerned with faith in Jesus Christ, through whom he enjoyed a new being (a life of fellowship with God), rather than with details of Jesus’ public ministry. Others were more qualified to write the Gospels than Paul; his task was theoretical reconstruction.” This raises two questions that Bennett seems not to have examined: 1) How could Paul “experience what happened in Jesus” without proper contact with the historical Jesus? 2) According to Bennett, Paul’s “theoretical construction,” which is claimed by Paul to be based on some kind of contact with the living Jesus (Gal 1:12), was wrong in a very fundamental way in suggesting that a Christian’s salvation is derived from the cross. How then can the voice of the living Jesus as heard by any one be ever trusted? 

In case of the Prophet Muhammad also Bennett’s emphasis is on what people say that he is and not on what Muhammad and his eyewitness companions say that he is. “This is exactly what this book aims to achieve - an understanding of what Muhammad means to those for whom he is Prophet, and of what he might, can or does not mean for those for whom he is not a Prophet ... but my fundamental aim is to hear Muslim voices. When I examine textual and historical material, my aim is both to uncover voices which can be found within the texts, and to listen to other Muslim voices which have commented on and interpreted these texts." (p. 6). With Cantwell Smith’s dictum as his motto, Bennett has attempted "1) to see what Muslims see in Islam; 2) to understand why others have seen Islam differently, and last but not least, 3) to ask whether what any body sees in Islam can be justified, given the texts, voices and data which are available to us." (p. 11). Here search for “Muhammad” has become search for “Islam”. For Bennett “Muhammad” seems to include all the developments within Islam throughout the centuries. This would explain why in Bennett’s book certain issues within Islam, not directly relevant to a study of Muhammad, have been discussed at length. In item 3) “to ask whether what any body sees in Islam can be justified, given the texts, voices and data which are available to us” there is apparently some concern with the historical Muhammad but as he himself says his “fundamental aim” remains to hear Muslim voices. Elsewhere he explicitly states that the “application to sacred history of historiographical tools of critical analysis may treat the material in a manner which believers consider disrespectful, inappropriate or ill-founded. … However, recognizing the theological nature of much of the material, I try to avoid using interpretive tools drawn exclusively from secular historiography” (M, 13). Here Bennett’s motives may be noble but they are misguided. It is not disrespectful to write historiography and most Muslims will not be offended by it if they knew that the writer is objective and has made his or her best effort to arrive at the truth, even if his or her version of the truth differs from theirs. 

Bennett’s lack of interest in the historical Muhammad is further clear from the fact that Part One of his first book is seemingly about Muhammad of History, but he does not really go too far beyond sources and their criticism as is clear from the titles of the two chapters of this part: 

  1. Muhammad of History: the Primary Sources

  2. The Sources: a Critical Evaluation 

In the remaining two parts of the book he turns his attention to non-Muslim “lives of Muhammad” and the significance of Muhammad for Muslim “life and thought”. 

To search Muhammad or Jesus primarily in the views expressed by later generations of believers and non-believers is like trying to know the moon through the various pictures that people have constructed in their minds about it. One would have hoped that after about 5000 years of science humanity would have finally learnt that the best way to know an object is to focus one’s observation on it. 

The degree to which we are interested in the historical Muhammad and the historical Jesus is directly related to the degree to which we allow Muhammad and Jesus to speak for themselves. In my view it is vitally important that we allow the two religious figures to speak for themselves as far as possible. Let us put our trust in them. For, they can unite humanity. This is why God sent them; to reconcile human beings to God and to one another and to thus lead them to their salvation.

 

DEVALUATION OF THE QUR`AN AS A SOURCE OF INFORMATION ABOUT MUHAMMAD

 

Bennett more or less excludes the Qur`an as a source of information about the Prophet Muhammad. “The Qur`an does not, as it were, tell Muhammad’s story – we cannot deduce from it when he was born or when he began to preach.” (M, 19). But search for Muhammad, and by the same token, for Jesus is much more than search for dates for some events. It is primarily a search for his character, personality, achievements, and role in history. How many of our friends and colleagues we know well but we do not know their date of birth or the date when they started their jobs. 

Regardless of whether one accepts the Qur`an as the word of God or not, it is the most important and reliable source of information about Muhammad. If the Qur`an is accepted as word of God, then we have in it God’s witness to the character, achievements and function of the Prophet Muhammad in history. And if the Qur`an is not accepted as the word of God, it still demands careful examination, for what comes out of the mouth of a man is often infinitely more revealing than information about his date of birth. 

If we cannot reconstruct the life and character of the Prophet from the Qur`an, it is more because of a lack of our historical skills than a lack of information in the Qur`an. Given proper skills a lot can be recovered from a very small number of simple facts. What is above all most important in historical reconstruction is not the quantity of information but its reliability. Even if we know a relatively few facts with certainty, we can construct a great deal by logical deduction using other known facts. Only a few bones led competent scientists to reconstruct dinosaurs and their reconstruction was confirmed by many subsequent discoveries. 

In devaluing the Qur`an as a source of information about Muhammad Bennett is not only influenced by non-Muslims such as Peters who says: “The Qur`an  … is of no use whatsoever as an independent source of constructing the life of Muhammad” (M, 18); but also by many Muslim scholars such as Nasr who states: “Without Hadith much of the Qur`an would be a closed book” (M. 41). But the truth is that without the Qur`an much of the Hadith will be useless. Take one of the examples given by Bennett. Qur`an 9:40 states: “If you will not aid him, God did aid him when the disbelievers expelled him as one of the two, when they were in the cave and he says to his companion, ‘Do not grieve, surely God is with us, …”  Bennett then quotes from Martin Ling a report that is meant to “explain” the incident referred to in the verse cited. But when we go from Martin Ling to the original sources we find that the incident is narrated in many different ways, which could cast some doubt about the reliability of the reports concerning it. The allusion in the Qur`an assures us that behind these reports there is a historical event. And the Qur`an even allows us to reconstruct its main outline, as follows: 

The pagans expelled the Prophet. This forced him to take refuge in a cave with one of his followers. They faced there a situation of danger, which grieved the Prophet’s companion. The Prophet assured him that God was with them. 

Given the assurance that the incident is historical and the above outline provided by the Qur`an, details given in the Sirah and Hadith become useful. We can critically examine them and further enrich our knowledge of the incident. 

It is often the case that the details provided by Sirah and Hadith become most useful when the Qur`an provides some outline of the events concerned. When the Qur`an is silent about an event Sirah and Hadith usually leave us nowhere. This can be illustrated by the question of dates of the Prophet’s birth and the start of his mission. As already noted the Qur`an does not provide any information about these dates, but Sirah and Hadith do. However, as Bennett notes, quoting al-Biruni (d. 1048 CE), “there was ‘such a divergence of opinion’ about ‘the time of the birth of the Prophet’ and ‘when he was entrusted with his divine mission’ that neither could become ‘the basis of something which must be agreed upon universally’.” That is, despite Sirah and Hadith we still do not know the date the Prophet was born and the date he started his mission!!!

 

ON SIRAH AND HADITH

 

After devaluing the Qur`an, Bennett naturally makes the Sirah and Hadith as the primary source of information about Muhammad. So how does he evaluate these sources? 

It is universally agreed that many reports were fabricated deliberately or distorted through unconscious errors. Early realization of this fact led Muslims to develop a science to separate reliable material from the unreliable. The question is to what extent the material that gained wide acceptance after this screening process is reliable. Bennett very rightly rejects the views of such writers as Crone, Cook, Wansbrough, and Schacht who consider extant Sirah and Hadith material largely the product of distortion and fabrication. But Bennett is mistaken in his conservative position, which sees in the extant Sirah and Hadith literature substantially reliable material. “My personal view is that it is comparatively easy to subtract from the collections hadith which extol or condemn certain groups or individuals, without compromising the value of much of legal and historical material, just as the subtraction of many miracle hadith leaves the outline of Muhammad’s life similarly unimpaired.” (M, 63). The criterion given here for separating the reliable from the unreliable is simplistic. If certain types of ahadith are declared as flawed then we cannot be confident that other types of ahadith were immune to the influence of those factors that produced those flawed ahadith. In view of this, there is no short cut to looking at ahadith individually and carefully and then assessing their authenticity on a case-by-case basis. One cannot simply classify ahadith on the basis of contents and declare some classes as reliable and others as unreliable. Incidentally, Bennett’s conservative position on Sirah and Hadith is consistent with his conservative position on the Gospels, which he regards as substantially historical.

 

SOME ESTABLISHED FACTS NOT FULLY FACED

 

There are some facts, established beyond any reasonable doubt by the Qur`an, Sirah and Hadith, that are so significant that we cannot but put a great deal of focus on them. One is that Muhammad stood up among his people alone (or almost alone) and within a couple of decades won their hearts and minds and launched a world religion and civilization. The second is that he claimed to be the messenger of God for all humanity and for all times. 

Another most remarkable fact about Muhammad is that in the Qur`an we are directly in touch with the result of what is claimed to be an experience with the divine, sustained over more than two decades. Moreover, the claim is made by the very person who is undergoing the experience and not just by others who come later. This means that those who want to learn more about experience with the divine have in Muhammad and the Qur`an a solid basis for examination. The full force of this observation can be appreciated by a comparison with Christianity. 

In the Christian tradition, with one exception, we cannot find any event that was the result of a claimed experience with the divine or the supernatural and for which the claim can be reliably taken back to the person who is involved in the experience. Thus Jesus himself is said to be the incarnation of the divine but this claim cannot be reliably taken back to Jesus himself. The Holy Spirit is said to inspire the Gospels but the Gospel writers themselves do not make any such claim. Jesus is said to perform miracles but none of them is established by the first-hand testimony of those who were directly involved in them. The same is true about the crucifixion, empty tomb, and resurrection of Jesus. In many cases eyewitnesses are present but there is no claim that the reports are coming directly from any of those eyewitnesses. In some cases, the reports actually exclude the presence of witnesses. For example, none of the disciples or evangelists is present during the trial of Jesus and during Jesus’ prayer in agony at Gethsemaine all the potential eyewitnesses are fast asleep. 

The one exception to the rule is Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to him. We can reliably take 1 Corinthians and Galatians to Paul and in these letters we can read Paul claiming that Jesus appeared to him or that God revealed his son to him. Such first hand testimonies are extremely valuable. They challenge us to make a judgment about them. Both Muslims and Christians have to decide whether they can accept Muhammad’s claim that the Qur`anic words were formed in his heart by God and Paul’s claim that Jesus appeared to him. And our decision must be based on some consistent approach. 

I think on the basis of Paul’s first hand testimony we can accept that he did have a vision of Jesus. But how this vision provided justification for what he started to preach a few years later is hardly clear. Paul’s preaching is based on the vicarious death of Jesus, his subsequent resurrection, and his messiahship. These beliefs are not presented by him as in any way substantiated on the basis of his vision of Jesus. What he says about the vision does not lead in any way to this set of beliefs. Indeed, Paul says that these beliefs were received by him from others and then delivered by him to his own followers (1 Cor 15). Significantly, he does not tell us from whom he received the traditions about Jesus’ death and resurrection and his messiahship. During his appearance to Paul, Jesus does not reveal anything to Paul in his first-hand accounts. Paul’s very brief references to his vision of Jesus can be understood in terms of visions of the dead or missing persons that are frequently reported by many people. From such a vision it is often not possible to derive any particular beliefs about the person who is reported to appear, unless these beliefs already existed prior to appearances. This is shown by the fact that different persons who reportedly are experienced in visions have different beliefs connected with them. Thus Mary the mother of Jesus also has been reported to appear to believers, but from these appearances we cannot deduce that she died for our sins and rose again on the third day. Only in Acts the appearance of Jesus to Paul is accompanied with some instruction and revelation. But this instruction or revelation is still not about the crucial Christian beliefs. Moreover, Acts’ three accounts of this appearance not only do not constitute first-hand testimony but also are contradictory and thus subject to doubt. 

Hence we can conclude that the most basic Christian beliefs are not based on any experience with the divine that can be established by a reliable first hand testimony of those directly involved in that experience. 

Now any search for Muhammad must attempt a satisfactory explanation of the above mentioned, well established facts. We must explain Muhammad’s sustained claim that he received the Qur`an from God. We must also explain his almost superhuman strength and success. 

Scholars of varied background have recognized almost universally this much: Muhammad was moved by something extraordinary. Some Christians recognize this by attributing his ministry to the devil, that is, to a supernatural being; others such as Watt, by recognizing in him a true prophet of God, a different type of supernatural being. Muslims of course also believe that he was a true Prophet of God in a sense much higher than the Christian concept of a “prophet”. Atheistic position finds expression by Rodinson, a Marxist from a Jewish family. “Rodinson recognizes what he calls a ‘power’ in Muhammad, ‘which, with help of circumstances [made] him one of the rare men who have turned the world upside down.’ On the one hand, says Rodinson, the atheist must conclude that the extra-human origin of such a power remains unproven; yet on the other, he ‘may be forced to admit that it may be rooted in function of human mind that we do not yet understand’” (M, 39). 

Although Bennett here and there mentions views of other scholars concerning the power in Muhammad, he himself does not grapple with the crucial questions that it raises. This is a weakness in a book that attempts to search for Muhammad.

 

TWO VOICES

 

Commenting on Tor Andrae’s writings on Islam and the Prophet, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthal, a British Muslim who has also translated the Qur`an, wrote that Andrae speaks with “two voices”, “one suave and juridical, the other harsh and fanatical” (M, 127). The two voices are not unique to Andrae: we can find them in many other Christian writers. They may also be identified as a scholarly voice and a Christian voice. It is not simply that one voice usually evaluates Muhammad positively while the other judges him harshly. This is not inherently wrong: one can have a favorable view of some aspects of a personality and a negative view of others. But what one notices in Christian writings on Muhammad is that the positive and negative statements do not seem to proceed from one coherent point of view. One particularly clear example of this is provided by Le Compte de Boulainvilliers who in book published in 1731 says that Muhammad had “the best of intentions in trying to render to God his true glory” and yet at other places in the same book refers to the Prophet of Islam as “the impostor” (M, p. 95). As we approach the present time, the second voice tends to become, in most authors, less and less harsh and fanatical but the two voices remain. 

In case of Bennett also the two voices are audible, especially in the concluding chapter of his book on Muhammad where he searches for a place for Muhammad within his Christian worldview. One voice proceeds from scholarly study and reflection on Islam and other religions and is very inclusive and pluralist. The second voice expresses his Christian views and maintains certain exclusive claims on behalf of Christ. Since these latter claims are never put on the table for real scrutiny the two voices remain oddly disconnected in that they do not proceed from any coherent point of view in an understandable way. The only way one can give some coherence to the two views is that since truth is relative the exclusive and inclusive points of view can both be right!

 

THE PLACE OF MUHAMMAD IN CHRISTIANITY

 

Bennett’s first book is as much a search for a place for Muhammad in the writer’s Christian worldview as it is a search for Muhammad in his own right. So what place does Bennett give to Muhammad in his Christianity? 

Prior to the second half of the twentieth century the mainline Christian position was that there is no salvation and divine revelation outside the Church. This indeed is the natural position to which most of the Bible itself leads. Apart from some isolated passages here and there the main thrust of the Biblical tradition is that revelation and salvation started by being available universally but then became more and more narrowly channeled, first through the Jews and then to a single individual – Jesus. Thus anyone who wants to be faithful to the Biblical and church tradition will maintain this exclusivist position and indeed many Christians still do. But contact with non-Christian religions and communities and critical studies of the Biblical and church traditions have inclined many to find ways to “accommodate” other religions. At the same time the older belief in the centrality of the Jewish people and Christ in the process of revelation and salvation persists. This has led to the idea of Christ acting anonymously through other religions: There is light of revelation and possibility of salvation in other religions but its source is Christ even though other religions did not know this! In this way the supremacy of Christ and hence of Christianity is maintained. One may say that other religions are in this way spiritually colonized. Christ moves into the sacred space of other religions and becomes their Lord and God. He is given the credit for what is good in other religions, that is, what is in line with Christianity. As for those elements in other religions that are opposed to Christianity, they may be tolerated, since for many Christians the specific teachings of Christianity are becoming less and less important any way. What is most important for most Christians is that the supremacy of Christ, whoever he is, may be established over other religions. Moreover, it is hoped that once other religions accept the supremacy of Christ they may also start bringing their beliefs and practices more in line with Christianity just as colonization of various countries by Europeans led those countries to adopt many of the European ways. 

The idea that whatever is good in other religions is the work of Christ acting anonymously is also used to give some recognition to Islam and its Prophet. Some scholars give this idea a more specific form by regarding Muhammad as a prophet like one of the Old Testament prophets. What makes this position acceptable to some Christians is that in Christianity Old Testament prophets have also been deprived of their independence in that their main function has been reduced to prophesying and preparing for the advent of Christ. Also, they are viewed as capable of all kinds of imperfections and mistakes, even in their inspired words. 

We may point out that granting the Prophet of Islam a status like that of the Old Testament prophets, although it may appear to be gracious, is highly problematic. Why would God send a lower form of revelation after the ultimate form of revelation through Jesus Christ? Which Old Testament prophet has been followed to the extent that Muhammad is followed? And was not the main function of the Old Testament prophets to look forward to the coming of the crucified Son of God, considering that their writings are seen by Christian writers, from the four canonical gospels to the present day writings, as full of prophecies about him? Then how is it that God sends a prophet after Christ, one of whose missions is to warn those who say that God has taken a son (18:4), who teaches that Jesus himself was no more than a prophet like other prophets sent to the children of Israel (3:59, 5:72, 5:75 etc), rejects not only his divinity but also a mediating role for him (39:3-4) and categorically denies that Jesus was crucified (4:157)? One could appeal here to the imperfections and errors that prophets could allegedly make in their inspired words. But can we attribute error to such categorical and repeated statements of someone who is saying loud and clear that every word in the book he has brought is nothing but the word of God and still believe him to be a prophet? Muhammad in any case was instructed by God to condemn the practice of picking and choosing from the book of God: “Do you believe in part of the book and disbelieve in part thereof? What then is the reward of those who do this save ignominy in this world? And on the day of resurrection they will be consigned to the severest punishment. For, God is not unaware of what you do.” (2:85). 

Yet such problems are not likely to daunt most scholars. Christians want to find a place for Muhammad in their worldview for one or more of the following three reasons: 1) to address some troubling questions that Christian theology raises about the nature of revelation and salvation in the face of some undeniable truth and goodness in other religious traditions; 2) to address questions proceeding from universal and rational grounds; 3) to bring Muslims and Christians closer together. For most Christian writers the first two reasons apply. This means that they are not interested in how the Prophet himself and his followers view his role and what his actual position and function in the past history has been. The discussion about the place of Muhammad from this perspective is not about Muhammad but about Christianity. 

As for Bennett, like many other sensitive traditional Christian writers, he is also torn between a desire to grant validity to other religions and a desire to maintain Christ’s unique position. This gives rise to the two voices to which I alluded earlier. At times he appears to give independent value to other religions. “My view that Jesus is paradigmatic, a definitive expression of God’s will to humanity and a link between humanity and God, leaves open … the possibility that the same paradigm has been expressed elsewhere.” (J, con6). But then he adds statements that subordinate other religions to Jesus. “Whatever names these other expressions are known by, to adapt the Gita, are merely alternative names for Jesus.” (J. 7). I doubt whether Bennett will accept that Jesus is an alternative name for Rama or Krishna. Here we have the same idea of the Anonymous Christ in a somewhat new form. 

Bennett’s books show a similar tension between the two desires in connection with Islam and Muhammad. Following Kung, he is willing to accept Muhammad as a “prophetic corrective” for Christians (M, 236), e.g. through “many safeguards against the misuse of power” that his sunnah provided (M, 237). He is also willing to accept that “the Qur`an was communicated by God through Muhammad” (M, 236). More importantly, at times he seems to concede that God was acting in Muhammad independently of Christ. “As I look at the life of Muhammad, I see a life which, although Christians have contrasted negatively with Christ’s, can be interpreted as complementary; Christ said ‘Render to Caesar’ but did not give us instructions on how Caesar ought to spend the tax to which he is entitled. Muhammad’s sunnah can help to supply some detail here …” (M, p. 236). “My own view is that such a stark choice [Muhammad or Jesus] may not be necessary. Rather, we may choose to see Muhammad as ‘supreme exemplar and source of guidance’ in some areas of human life, Christ as supreme in others” (M, 229). But then we read him say: “To say that aspects of Muhammad’s sunnah have a validity for me which equals Christ’s teaching is to say no more than that these aspects are wholly consistent with what I know of God in Christ; they do not contradict, but are consonant, with that revelation. … Saying that God speaks to us through other religions is not the same as saying that he ‘saves’ through them. … Personally, I believe that all salvation is mediated through Christ …” (M, 238; my emphasis). Bennett then concludes with a statement about Muhammad that could be said about any leading figure in human history: “For me, Muhammad’s sunnah contains much that is worth putting into practice” (M, 243). 

There is some indication that Bennett felt some pressure from his peers to downgrade his estimate of Muhammad. Thus he tells us that when he described Muhammad and Jesus as two complementary figures: “I was rebuked by some Christian friends: either I recognize Christ as my absolute Master or I am guilty of compromise. I have thought long and hard about this and disagree. However, I think that my position needs clarification. What I want to argue is that, Christ is indeed supreme exemplar …” (p. 229). 

Although Bennett did not want a stark choice between Muhammad and Jesus, he finally could not avoid making a choice and, as one could have easily expected, his choice was Jesus. The question is whether the choice is based on criteria consistently applied to the two figures. There is little doubt that in many ways Bennett is very consistent in the treatment of the two religious figures. In both books he brings together varied views from both insiders and outsiders, including some negative views. Yet as noted above there is a fundamental unevenness. In case of Jesus he holds certain beliefs that he takes for granted and that he never puts on the table for examination. These beliefs, which are based primarily on what “Jesus speaks” to him and not on any objective evidence – objectivity being a doubtful concept for Bennett any way -- are then used as criteria for judging Muhammad. Given this mindset Muhammad’s claims were bound to be ignored or rejected from the word go. 

But there is another reason that Bennett could not find a proper place in his Christian worldview: Muhammad really has no place in traditional Christianity which stresses the cross and divinity of Jesus, unless Christians first recreate Muhammad in their own image. The Qur`anic rejection of these beliefs is so categorical that no honest Muslim or honest Christian can accommodate both Muhammad as a true prophet of God and Jesus as God and crucified Saviour, although there are some Christians and Muslims who have tried to achieve this impossible feat by exegetical gymnastics. 

Muhammad was not only instructed by God to reject the above-mentioned Christian dogmas but was also told to rise as the divinely appointed leader of all humanity till the end of time, although this leadership is not in rivalry to other religious figures (2:285) but is inclusive of them (42:13, 10;37, 6:92 etc). This role of leadership cannot be subordinated in any way to Christ. At the same time, traditional Christianity will not be satisfied with any role of Muhammad that is not subordinate to Christ. In the face of this the best thing the Christians and Muslims can do is to follow what they honestly believe are the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad respectively and live in peace with each other in a relationship that includes dialogue and discussion on some matters and cooperation on others. 

I conclude this review by this thought: As far as historical Muhammad and Jesus are concerned, the real choice is not who among them is the leader and guide of humanity, but between a life with God and a life without God. Once the choice for a life with God has been made, the various messengers of God are not seen as rivals but as guides for the same path. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad would be loath to accept the other as leader if such was God’s will. For, both teach radical submission to the will of God. And both were, of course, spiritually developed to the point that they had no ego problems. In the Qur`an Muhammad and the community of followers together declare: “We discriminate not between any of his Messengers” (2:285, 3:84). In another verse the Prophet is asked by God to say: “If the Most Gracious One had a son I would be the first to worship” (48:81). Likewise, Jesus was a man of humility. It is reported in the gospels that when addressed as “Good Teacher”, he reacted: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:17 and par.). He referred to himself as “son of man,” not as the title of the apocalyptic figure of the Book of Daniel to whom the dominion of the world is given but as an expression to refer to oneself in a self-effacing way. One of the few historically established facts about Jesus is that he submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist, which was for the forgiveness of sins. He probably regarded John the Baptist as equal or superior to himself. Consequently, he would have no problem accepting the leadership of Muhammad, if God appointed Muhammad as the messenger of God for all humanity. Muslim traditions, which state explicitly that upon his return Jesus will operate under the shari‘ah of Muhammad and that he will pray behind the Muslim imam of the time, may not be authentic but are not off the mark as far as the humble attitude of the historical Jesus is concerned.

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