The time has come for Christians and Muslims to make peace between our communities. Christians and Muslims already make up more than half of the global population, and these numbers are expected to grow in the coming decades; according to the Pew Research Center, by 2050, two thirds of humanity, some 5.7 billion people, will be either Christian or Muslim.
Our planet simply cannot afford another century of misunderstanding and violence between these two communities. The challenges we face as a global human family are profound: ongoing warfare and nuclear proliferation, global poverty and economic inequality, climate change and ecological degradation. How will humanity handle these crises and others if our two largest religious communities are embroiled in constant conflict, if misunderstanding defines our relationship? As contemporary theologian Hans Kung has argued for decades, there will be no peace between our nations without peace between our religions. Now is the time to transform the way Christians and Muslims see and relate to each other.
In an earlier blog on the Huffington Post about the problem of Christian Islamophobia, I argue that Christians have the opportunity to transform the way we see Islam and Muslims by accepting Muhammad as “Spirit of Truth.”
Historically, most Christian theologians—including John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Nicholas of Cusa, and Martin Luther—have seen Muhammad not as a “Spirit of Truth” but as a “Spirit of Error,” a false prophet or heretic. There are many Christians today who respect the Islamic tradition and would never make such an offensive statement about Muhammad.
However, the majority of Christians still maintain a fundamentally Islamophobic position on Muhammad. So I believe that the time has come for peacemaking Christians to contradict this position directly. Changing our view of Muhammad—so that we recognize him as a true prophet rather than discredit him as a false prophet—would effectively inoculate Christians against Islamophobia and would help to establish a new paradigm of cooperative Christian-Muslim relations.
In Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John (chapters 14 to 16), Jesus speaks about the coming of the “Spirit of Truth” or “Advocate” (in Greek, parakletos). For centuries Muslim interpreters have seen Muhammad as this “Advocate,” based on Qur’an 61:6, a verse in which Jesus predicts the coming of a future prophet named Ahmad: “O Children of Israel! Truly I am the Messenger of God unto you, confirming that which came before me in the Torah and bearing glad tidings of a Messenger to come after me whose name is Ahmad” (61:6, The Study Quran). Ahmad, which is another name for Muhammad, is very close etymologically to the Greek word, parakletos, so it is likely that the Qur’an is claiming that Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John predicts Muhammad. The major objection to applying these predictions to Muhammad or any other prophet is that Christians normally read them as part and parcel of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian faith and my interpretation of Muhammad as Spirit of Truth affirms this. John 14:16-17 and 14:26 are clearly about the promise of the Holy Spirit: in John 14:16-17, the Advocate or Spirit of Truth is spoken of as an everlasting, invisible, abiding, inner presence; in most manuscripts, this Advocate is even directly called “the Holy Spirit” in John 14:26. But as Jesus’ farewell discourse proceeds these titles become multivalent and, in John 15:26-27 and 16:7-15, they begin to refer more to a future prophet than to the Holy Spirit. Some Muslim interpreters who identify Muhammad with the Advocate argue that this title does not refer to the Holy Spirit at all—and that the text of John has been corrupted so as to obfuscate its direct link to Muhammad. But I believe that the titles Spirit of Truth and Advocate are used in the Gospel of John, first of all, to speak about the promise of the Holy Spirit—and I do not believe that the text has been changed to hide anything. This interpretation of John opens us up to Muhammad as Spirit of Truth in a way that affirms the integrity of the Christian tradition. But before I explain the fine details of my exegesis I want to speak briefly to the big picture of why the Gospel of John, in particular, tells us that Jesus predicts a future prophet.
The Gospel of John is the latest canonical version of the Gospel—it was written at least a generation after the synoptic gospels and probably two generations or more after Paul’s letters. The author of the Gospel of John, often called the beloved disciple, claims to be the last living witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a passage at the end of the Gospel he tells a story about an encounter with the risen Jesus that made him and others believe that he would live to see Jesus’ second coming.