Was Muhammad a Christian?

Foundations of Islam
April 2, 1999

Benjamin Walker intends to offer "an account of the many contributions made to the religion of Islam by non-Muslim peoples". He examines Islam with prejudicial rigour, and there are absurdities too.

Walker argues that Islam is not a radical departure from Arab paganism and that where it does depart it is merely Christianity and Judaism repackaged. Muhammad, he says, was no iconoclast: he never depaganised the Hajj (pilgrimage) ceremony. There is still the pagan fetish of the stone retained in the Islamic ritual. But surely, though retained, it is Islamicised. Then the accusation descends into sensationalism: the border of the cube, housing the black stone, is intended to resemble a vulva. Muhammad himself is accused of committing shirk , the uniquely unforgivable heresy of associating partners with God.

Islam is, writes Walker, quoting Edward Gibbon, "one eternal truth and one necessary fiction". The fiction here is Muhammad, dismissed by Walker as "an ambitious and designing Arab sheikh". Islam, then, is at best Judaism for the Arabs. If so, Christianity is merely Judaism for the Gentiles. The only originality in Christianity is original sin. Such polemical witticisms are cheap, half-true, and plentiful.

St Paul never wrote an epistle to the Arabians. Walker speculates that had there been a flourishing Christian church in Arabia, Muhammad could have been appointed a bishop and thus pacified. Muhammad had Christian relatives and even a Christian concubine. Despite this, Walker thinks that Muhammad misunderstood Christianity. But that is a pardonable failing given the Byzantine complexity of Christian dogma. Nonetheless, Walker thinks that Muhammad was a kind of Christian: the Muslim invocation "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate" is a hidden reference to three gods, a kind of Trinity. The case for a Christian approval of Islam need not be supported from such an untenable position.

Islam is to be judged on the merit of its religious and moral principles, not on the basis of its alleged conformity with Jewish and Christian beliefs; a prophet's character can be assessed by any standards, not just those of his own time or creed. Walker dismisses Muhammad as a megalomaniac - as if he were alone in that state of grace. Why must we indulge this love of sectarian controversy for its own sake?

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Foundations of Islam: The Making of a World Faith

Author - Benjamin Walker
ISBN - 0 7206 1038 9
Publisher - Peter Owen
Price - £30.00
Pages - 376

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