Q & R: Mohammed

Here’s the Q:

‘m currently reading your book and intro to the spiritual practices series called “Finding Our Way Again”. I have become extremely interested in the ancient practices of the church and was very excited to read your book. While I don’t always agree which you, I have benefited and been challenged by your books, thoughts, and insights in the past. While reading this particular book I came across a paragraph that sort of caught me off guard, maybe even concerned me, I was wondering if you could offer me some clarity and explain a little more of what you mean. In one particular paragraph you state that ‘Muhammad, like Moses and Jesus’ had an experience with God.’ Do you believe that Muhammad actually had an experience with God? If so, what are the implications of this train of thought? There is much more I would like to ask, but really it is difficult until I understand what you mean by the above statement. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question. May you be blessed.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for your note. I feel that Finding Our Way Again has a lot to offer. For some reason, it and the series it introduces haven’t gotten as much attention as I had expected and hoped, so I’m glad you’ve read the book and found it helpful.
Your question deserves a whole book in response, and not just a brief blog post. (Fortunately, that book has been written – see below.)
Before proceeding, it’s a good idea to include the actual quote in context. It differs a bit from what you quoted:

We can date Abraham’s birth about 2000 BC, in modern-day Iraq, near present-day Nasarif. Like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and like us, Abraham was raised in a pluralistic, polytheistic world. During his lifetime, he lived side-by-side with others who honored many different gods and practiced many different religions. And during his lifetime, Abraham—like Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—had an encounter with God that distinguished him from his contemporaries and propelled him into a mission, introducing a new way of life that changed the world.

It’s important to note that the paragraph is primarily about Abraham, not Muhammad. If you’re not comfortable saying that Muhammad had an experience of God, you could substitute “claimed to have an encounter with God” for “had an encounter with God.” That’s fine with me, and I can see how it would be more acceptable to many of my fellow Christians.
There are many reasons – theological and otherwise – I could write that paragraph as I did. I am a committed Christian, and as such, I am passionately, deeply, and uniquely committed to Jesus and eternally grateful for the blessings I have received through Christ. But the Bible doesn’t say that only Christians are surrounded by the presence, Spirit, glory, and light of God … nor does it say that only Christians are capable of an experience with God. I believe that every human being is surrounded by the presence of God and the Spirit of God (as Psalm 139 says). I believe that every person is confronted on every side by God’s character and glory, revealed in creation (as Psalm 8 and Romans 1 say). Some real measure of God’s law is evident within every heart (as Romans 2 says). Every person is inescapably bound to the image of God, which is written into his or her own identity as a human being (as Genesis 1 makes clear). Perhaps most amazingly, according to John 1, every person is touched by the light of Christ. So I believe that the encounters with God are ubiquitous and practically unavoidable (although they can be overlooked, ignored, suppressed, and explained away). The question for me isn’t why encounters with God happen for some people, but rather why more people aren’t awake to the ones that already surround them.
In this light, the story of Mohammed is considerably more complex and interesting than most Christians know. When we allow ourselves to slip into an “us-versus-them” narrative with Muslims (or Jews, or atheists, or anyone else), I think we stop seeing things that need to be seen. Just as many Muslims have been terribly misinformed about Christian faith, many Christians have been terribly misinformed about Islam. (Of course, many Christians are terribly misinformed about Christian faith and Muslims about Islam too!)
If you’d like to gain a more in-depth understanding of Islam, I highly recommend you don’t depend on unsympathetic sources to tell it to you. (You wouldn’t want others to be informed about Christian faith solely by reading Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell, so the Golden Rule would suggest you don’t get all your information about Islam solely from anti-Muslim sources.) A good introduction by a Muslim is Reza Aslan’s “No god but God.”
But a second book I’d most highly recommend to you is by a Christian – Miroslav Volf. It’s called “Allah: a Christian Response.” It was just released yesterday – I had a chance to read it before publication and found it extremely helpful. Groundbreaking even.
Just to assure you once more – I am a committed Christian. My highest devotion is to Jesus. But I believe there is a way of being a loving Christian neighbor that increases our love, understanding, and respect for Muslims rather than renders us their opponents and enemies. I believe it is possible – even deeply faithful – to be a Christian who is sympathetic to and respectful of Muhammad, even while acknowledging his humanness, his cultural situatedness, and so on, just as we’d do for any other human being. (Muslims themselves, it’s important to remember, believe that Muhammad was a human being. The counterpart to Muhammad in the Christian faith is not Jesus, but Mary; the counterpart to Jesus in Islam is not Muhammad, but the Quran.) Thanks again for your question. May God help us to learn what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, including (and in light of our history and contemporary world situation, we might say especially) our Muslim neighbors.
PS. I just noticed today’s MINemergent communique included this quote from Volf (Exclusion and Embrace) which is deeply relevant to Christian-Muslim relations:

“Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace. It heals the wounds that the power-acts of exclusion have inflicted and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Yet it leaves a distance between people, an empty space of neutrality, that allows them either to go their separate ways in what is sometimes called ‘peace’ or to fall into each other’s arms and restore broken communion.
Much more than just the absence of hostility sustained by the absence of contact, peace is communion between former enemies. Beyond offering forgiveness, Christ’s passion aims at restoring such communion–even with the enemies who persistently refuse to be reconciled.”
Miroslav Volf