Mary and Muhammad: Bearers of the Word

Daniel A. Madigan SJ

The mother of Jesus is often appealed to in even the most half-hearted attempts to approach Muslim-Christian relations in a positive manner. Whatever may divide us when it comes to the doctrine of God, we have at least a common belief in the virginal conception of Jesus and the sinlessness of both Jesus and Mary. 

More than that, we both have a long tradition of piety associated with her. From the Christian side a good deal is made of the fact that Muslims in Asia or the Middle East visit Marian shrines in greater numbers sometimes than the Christians. Moreover, the presence in the Qur'ân of Mary as virgin mother of Jesus is invoked by Muslims as one of the many proofs of its genuineness and bona fides.

At a gathering of Italian Jesuits, a Muslim professor who had been invited to speak about the experience of minority religious traditions in Italy, made so bold as to say he thought Muslims had a more genuine devotion to Mary than Catholics.

His point was not so much that Italians are lacking in their display of devotedness to the Madonna - never let it be said! - but rather that Christian devotion to Mary is, to Muslim eyes, associating other beings with God. There are always the insistent warnings against taking her or her son as objects of worship apart from the one God.

It has long seemed to me that the customarily accepted framework of theological dialogue or dispute frustrates its own purpose. Muslims understandably and justifiably bring to the discussion a Qur'anic framework-a matrix of prophets and books that may be represented (in abbreviated fashion, at least) thus:

SCRIPTURES Torah  Gospel (Injîl) Qur'ân
PROPHETS Moses Jesus Muhammad

The Qur'ân speaks of Christians and Jews as People of the Scripture and recognizes that these scriptures that define us have a common source in the one God. This appears to offer an important point of contact and to most Christians, even to many theologians, seems a reasonable enough framework from within which to begin.

If the dialogue partners are in a disputatious mood, this schema will all too often lead to a game of 'Our prophet's better than your prophet; our book's better than your book'.

If the interlocutors are in a more positive mood, the Christian party may sometimes have, at least in the back of her mind, a bargain like: 'I would be prepared to lower my claims about Jesus to something nearer your claims for Muhammad, if you would just lower your claims about the Qur'ân and treat it the way we treat the gospels'.

This trade-off might be thought of as a 'lowered' Christology in exchange for a 'lowered' Qur'ân-ology, or what we could call a Jesus-Seminar approach to Christ in return for a trenchantly historical-critical approach to the Qur'ân.

Even with good will, but with less preparedness on either side to compromise important aspects of faith, this framework almost invariably ends up bogging us down.Christian orthodoxy is not prepared to acknowledge Jesus as simply a prophet. Nor is Muslim orthodoxy prepared to grant that the Qur'ân is as human a document as any of the gospels seems to be. Little progress is made.

Perhaps the trade-off we just described will give us the clue to what the fundamental problem might be. In our respective views of the other there seems to be one element out of proportion. For Muslims, Jesus bulks too large in the scheme of things and for Christians the position of the Qur'ân appears exaggerated. In order to explain to each other why each of us has placed the importance we have on those figures, the more appropriate parallel to use is between the Qur'ân and Jesus, rather than between Muhammad and Jesus or between the Gospel and the Qur'ân.

 

The author is an Australian Jesuit who is president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Gregorian University in Rome

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The above is extracted from a much longer article in the current issue of the Australasian Catholic Record. ACR has a long tradition of publishing articles by Australian writers in the areas of religion, church history, theology, ethics, and current issues.  Each issue is usually devoted to a theme, but also includes broader ranging articles, reflections on the Sunday readings, and book reviews.  It is available by subscription at $50 per year, for issues appearing in January, April, July and October.  Single issues are available at $15 each.  To order a subscription or single issue please contact the Manager (gkelly@cis.catholic.edu.au).

- received by CathNews 19/12/03