Book Review – The Prophet and the Messiah by Chawkat Moucarry

The Prophet and the Messiah - MoucarrySummary

In The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam & Christianity Chawkat Moucarry seeks to present a comparative examination of Christianity and Islam’s major claims and differences. He organizes his presentation according to four topics, which focus on both religions’ major truth-claims and illuminate the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam. These topics are (1) the sacred scriptures, (2) key doctrines, (3) Jesus, his person and his work, and (4) Muhammad’s prophethood. Moucarry begins his work by presenting some introductory remarks about engaging in mutual dialogue. And finally, he closes by addressing some contemporary concerns.

As Moucarry begins his comparative presentation, he begins where both religions do—their sacred scriptures. Both religions claim to have received special revelation from God. However, regarding the nature, content, and method of that revelation, Islam and Christianity differ.

Islam teaches that Muhammad, God’s final and ultimate prophet, received revelations from God that were eventually compiled into what is now the Qur’an. Islam essentially holds to a dictation view of this revelation, such that Muhammad is not an agent of revelation but is merely the messenger of that revelation (“Qur’an” literally refers to that which was recited). The Qur’an is God’s word, and no one else’s. In contrast is the Christian view of divine revelation. Christians believe that God supernaturally worked through the human authors of scripture such that the Bible is both entirely God’s word yet entirely man’s as well. Hence the Bible shows the marks of these human’s personalities, background, experiences, and situations, etc. The Qur’an is God’s revelation, i.e., revelation from God. But because God is transcendent, it cannot and does not reveal God himself. In contrast, the Bible is the revelation of God, i.e., his self-disclosure. God, although transcendent, condescends and accommodates. The Qur’an, originally given in Arabic, is fundamentally Arabic, i.e., Arabic-Qur’an. As such, any translation of the Qur’an is technically not the Qur’an, but at best a paraphrase. In contrast is the Christian view of scripture, which affirms the validity of Bible translations as nonetheless God’s very word.

Moucarry spends quite a bit of time addressing Islam’s claims that the Christian scriptures have been falsified, i.e., changed or corrupted. He responds to this charge in four ways. First, he argues that the Qur’an actually does not teach this, contrary to popular Islamic interpretation. Second, he argues that the falsification of scripture would be incompatible with the character of God who is truthful, trustworthy, and reliable. Third, he points out that when the Biblical manuscripts are examined, no evidence of falsification exists. And, fourth, the falsification theory simply does not make sense. “The widespread propagation of the Scriptures made it highly unlikely that anyone could have tampered with them. Any attempt was not only doomed to failure for practical reasons, but bound to be discovered and disowned” (74). Further, why would “the people of the Book” (an Qur’anic expression for Christians and Jews) falsify the very scriptures they value so highly?

Regarding key doctrines, Moucarry addresses difference concerning the concept of God, the human dilemma, the resolution of that dilemma, and God’s kingdom. For brevity’s sake, attention will be given specifically to the meaning of ‘salvation.’ In Islam, man’s fundamental problem could be described as ignorance. Man does not know God’s will (i.e., God’s law) in order that he may do it. In great contrast is Christianity, which claims that man’s fundamental problem is not ignorance of the law, but inability to perform it. “Our problem is not so much that we do not know God’s will, but that we do not want to obey it or are not able to do so” (41). Behind this difference is an even more fundamental disagreement. In Islam mankind is born in a state of moral purity and man’s actions do not altar his condition. In other words, man is not in need of ‘salvation,’ some sort of rescuing. Thus ‘salvation’ in Islam is a positive verdict at the Last Judgment. And although faith, repentance, Muhammad’s intercession, and God’s sovereignty are all involved, ‘salvation’ in Islam is largely bond up with one’s good works outweighing one’s bad. In Christianity, however, mankind is born utterly sinful and in a desperately hopeless situation. Thus, Jesus, God become man, accomplished salvation by taking man’s punishment upon Himself. Islam finds this idea absurd—How can one suffer the punishment for others? That would make God unjust, so Islam claims. On other hand, Christianity responds with its own critique of Islam’s view of ‘salvation’—Is God not unjust if he forgives unpunished sin, showing mercy at the expense of his justice?

In the next two sections Moucarry tackle’s Christianity and Islam’s view of Jesus and Muhammed. Although Christianity and Islam share much in common with regards to their view of Jesus, they have incredibly significant differences that are at the heart of the Christian faith. Moucarry handles various Biblical and Qur’anic texts that relate to the Christian claims of Jesus’ divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection. Islam of course denies these claims for (1) God is one in essence and person and (2) God would never have allowed his prophet, Jesus, to be crucified. At this point Moucarry employs an interesting apologetic (as he does elsewhere). Rather than admitting an obvious incongruency between the Bible and the Qur’an at these points, he attempts to demonstrate how the Qur’an can be interpreted in such a way that is compatible with these Christian claims.

In addressing the claim of Muhammad’s prophethood, Moucarry presents and dissects the various arguments presented by the Islamic community. These proposed validations are (1) the miracle of the Qur’an, i.e., its divine literary quality in light of Muhammad’s illiteracy, (2) Muhammad’s other miracles, (3) the perfect, moderate nature of Islamic law in contrast to the Torah and Gospel’s law, (4) Muhammad and Islam’s political success, and (5) the prophecy of Islam in the Christian scriptures (Sura 7:157; 61:6; cf. Deut 18:18; Isa 42:1-9; Jn 14-16). Exegeting key Qur’anic texts, Moucarry argues that unmi in Sura 7:157-158 does not mean illiterate (from unmiyya) but gentile (from unma). He demonstrates that Deut 18:18 and Isa 42:1-9 refer to Jesus and John 14-16 speaks of the Holy Spirit. And finally, drawing on the teaching of Deut 13:1-4, Moucarry argues that signs and prophecy in and of themselves are not validation of genuine prophethood. The content of a supposed prophet’s message is the decisive issue. And although the Qur’an claims to be in continuity with the Torah and Gospel, its message is incompatible with both. Therefore, Muhammad is an illegitimate prophet.

Response

Moucarry attempts to present a comparative study of Christianity and Islam with a specific focus on their significant differences and disagreements. In the course of this presentation, he seeks to argue in favor of Christianity’s truth-claims. He accomplishes this goal rather well. This work is informative, interestingly, and well written.

One note of criticism— I found myself dissatisfied with one element of his apologetic method. He often tried to verify Christian beliefs from the Qur’an, almost as if he was attempting to make the distance between adherence to the Qur’an and Christian faith shorter and conversion that much easier. I tend to think many Muslim’s will find this approach unconvincing if not even dishonest. It seems better to recognize unapologetically the incongruency between the Qur’an and Bible and then use such incongruency to undermine Islam’s claim that the Qur’an is in continuity with the Christian scriptures.

Nonetheless, generally speaking, the way Moucarry approaches Islam as a Christian is instructive and provides a needed challenge to more prevalent approaches within Christianity. Contrary to some who see the only path to tolerance as mutual ignorance or a lack of any interaction, Moucarry argues that mutual dialogue between Christians and Muslims is not only possible but also helpful and needful. Granted, given religious beliefs, the Christian and Muslim’s engagement in this dialogue is necessarily biased; neutrality is impossible. But this does not disqualify treating the other side with fairness and representing it accurately. Sure, given the exclusivist nature of Christianity and Islam, convicted Christians and Muslims cannot neatly partition off apologetics from such interaction. But this does not necessarily preclude genuine dialogue. Seeing that both religions are missionary religions, inevitably dialogue will involve the desire to convert the other. But, again, tolerance can yet be preserved. As Moucarry says, “True tolerance is to accept the other, not by ignoring the distance between us, but by measuring that distance accurately and by recognizing that whoever wants to cross over has the right and freedom to do so” (20).

Honest dialogue therefore means, for instance, not comparing the worst manifestations (distortions?) of either Islam or Christianity with the best examples of the other (e.g., Islamic terrorism). Neither should one compare the ideals of one religion with the actual existence of the other. And when engaging with the sacred scriptures of each respective religion, although recognizing the potential diversity of legitimate interpretations, one should engage with each religion’s best interpretive efforts and avoid imposing straw-man interpretations (e.g., common myths about jihad).

When Moucarry asks the question, Is there truth or revelation in Islam? he is on the right track, although his question is quite uncommon among evangelicals. Rather than having a purely negative approach to Islam (or other religions by extension), Moucarry suggests we engage other religions more honestly, with integrity. Specifically, because Islam was formed after the reception of the Christian scriptures and was not only influenced by this divine revelation but accepts these scriptures (at least in some sense), Christians should not be surprised that Islam gets a lot of things right. As is true with other religions (although Islam has this particular ‘advantage’), there is truth in Islam. As Christians we recognize that all of mankind has access to God’s general revelation. We also believe than mankind bears God’s image, and as such has a ‘sense of the divine’ (John Calvin). So, we should not be surprised when we find truth in other religions. Therefore, although we reject Islam as being a false religion, unapologetically affirm that salvation is exclusively found in faith in Christ, and acknowledge the incompatible claims of Christianity and Islam, we can nonetheless engage with Islam in such a way that is honest to what it really claims to be and takes seriously the truth that it genuinely possesses.

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