Kissing the Koran: To What Extent can Christians Regard it as an Inspired Book?
As one of his many acts of reconciliation, Pope John Paul II at one point in his reign accepted a copy of the Koran from an Imam and kissed it “as a sign of respect.” Here is the reference: http://www.traditioninaction.org/RevolutionPhotos/A055rcKoran.htm The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Rafael, who was present at the time, affirmed that this “gesture” demonstrates that the Pope “has also great respect for Islam.”
Now such a profound gesture of respect also raises the question of the exact status of Mohammed as a “Prophet” and of his “Revelations” (the Koran) from a Christian point of view. Mohammed did seem to receive some special religious messages in his cave and the book itself carries an outspoken “numinous” or religious power to it. However, as Catholics we believe absolutely that God’s public revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle John. So how is a believing Christian to interpret Mohammed and the Koran? I wish to review a few possibilities that have arisen historically or that reason might suggest:
1) Some say Mohammed was simply deceived by a demon to promote a “new” religion as a rival to Christianity and with the purpose of stamping Christianity out. Thus the reference in Christian history to “the imposter Mohammed.” There seem to be vast times in Christian history when the name Mohammed is scarcely used without this prior designation. Now in light of the Pope’s gesture, in light of a valid ecumenism, and in light of world situation demanding fraternal respect and cooperation in order to avoid horrors, this would seem to be a very destructive, insulting, and unacceptable approach in the present day. Of course, such a way of speaking, insulting their deeply revered founder, is also not at all helpful toward attracting and converting Muslims, toward inspiring them to take a fresh look at Christ as really the God-Man, rather than merely a highly respected forerunner to Mohammed. Nor is this approach justified in light of the fact that there is much good and truth in their religion (even if as Christians we believe these dimensions go back mainly Old and New Testaments and the early years of the Church, i.e. borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition itself).
2) Some think Mohammed simply deceived himself into thinking he was having revelations and was a victim of his own pride and vanity here (or even epileptic fits). Again, not the best first step in trying to appeal to Muslims to think seriously about taking a fresh look at Christ, i.e. simply calling their founding hero either sick, a psycho, or an egomaniac. All of the objections raised in Point #1 count here as well. We as Christians know that if someone opens up insulting Jesus Christ, our natural reaction is to turn away from or be highly suspicious of their further message. It follows that Muslims would react in the same way if we insult Muhammad.
3) I think it could be argued that Mohammed may actually have received private revelations from above in his cave near Mecca. However, a difficulty here is that the standard Muslim interpretation is that Mohammed was a pure vessel of the revelation of God directly, i.e., that nothing in his personality or milieu touched or effected the “revelations” in any way, but that they are God talking directly from heaven through a chosen mouthpiece. This interpretation, of course, Christians would have to reject. But Christians could accept that Mohammed did receive private revelations from a messenger of God but that in fact those revelations were filtered through the human vessel of his personality. Thereby those private revelations may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and distorted: a) by Mohammed’s own personal faults, b) by his reception of the revelations in light of his surrounding milieu through which he would naturally have interpreted them, and c) by interpreting his private revelations in the context of his incomplete, faulty, and distorted contact with Jewish and Christian scriptures and beliefs. I think this third possibility is a real one that acknowledges some supernatural origin to the Koran (the OT and NT as remote causes, private revelations interpreted by a fallible human being as the immediate cause).
4) However, a problem arises with Point #3 even within the Islamic tradition itself (often not a popular topic of discussion, and disputed by some as to historical accuracy, but with evidence for the historicity of the account) in that Mohammed himself admitted at one point that he was deceived by Satan in certain of his revelations (the “Satanic verses”). In a crisis situation, while under persecution by the Meccans, he seems to have proclaimed that the 3 goddesses worshipped by the Meccans were valid objects of worship for his followers (contradicting his monotheism). This caused the Meccans to stop the persecution of the Muslims and to flock to Mohammed. However, he later claimed he was deceived by Satan in this proclamation about the three goddesses and rejected this “new” teaching. Then the persecution returned. Yet Mohammed himself seems to admit error here in being deceived by Satan. [Note that some Muslims today deny the historical accuracy of the “Satanic Verses” account, and threaten with death anyone who speaks of them. However, some even within Islam accept the historicity of the account.]
So in light of all this, it seems to me that in trying to interpret the status of the Koran as a holy book, we may have some entangled combination of (now listed in order of importance):
1) some genuine remnants of God’s true revelation as delivered to the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament and fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament (yet distorted, misunderstood and only partially known by Mohammed),
2) some actual private revelations from a divine messenger to Mohammed (yet again at times distorted and misunderstood in various ways in their interpretation by both Mohammed and his followers when passing through the human vessel),
3) some interjection of purely human dynamism via Mohammed’s own charismatic and complicated personality and human faults, and …
4) some possibility of deception by Satan himself, as seemingly admitted in at least one case by Mohammed himself.
It seems to me the most fruitful attitude to adopt today in a respectful and ecumenical approach to Islam would be to more emphasize the positive possibilities of the above and then to try to show how Islam and the Koran actually point toward and are fulfilled by Christ, despite Muslim claims that it is the other way around. [One can also build such arguments to some extent from within the Koran itself, though of course this is not the “orthodox” Muslim mode of interpretation. My son Michael happens to be working on just this perspective for his doctoral dissertation for the International Academy of Philosophy.]
So we as Christians can acknowledge that the Koran contains many elements of God’s genuine supernatural revelation traced back to the Old and New Testaments and the early centuries of the Church, some private revelations to Mohammed, and some insights on the level of human experience and reasoning, together with distortions, exaggerations, omissions, and deceptions that may have come from human or devilish origin. Pope John Paul II seemed to think there was enough good here to give the book a solemn and respectful kiss.