Muhammad’s Concept of Christianity
The Bedouin of the Hijaz were predominantly pagan, although there were at least two Christian tribes the Judham and ’Udhra. Many surrounding tribes had accepted Christianity in some form or other. The three chief centres were a) Yemen in the south; b) Syria in the north; c) Hira (Abyssinia) in the east. (Abyssinia was in fellowship with the Egyptian Monophysite Church). Christianity however, had little affect in Arabia with only really Najran affected in the south.
Abraha’s attack against the Ka’aba
In 570 A.D. the Hijaz was invaded by the Christian general Abraha who was from Yemen (c/f Sura 105 Al-Fil The Elephant). Abraha sought to make Christianity the dominant faith in Southern Arabia. Muslim authors tell us that he had a fine church built in Sana’ to which he had hoped to draw Arab pilgrims. It was said to be the wonder of the age, the Roman Emperor and the Viceroy of Abyssinia furnishing the materials and workmen for the building. He made a proclamation obliging Arabs to annually come to Sana’ but this was not heeded. News came to Abraha that an Arab from the tribe of Kenanah had desecrated the cathedral by throwing animal dung inside it, also that the Arab tribes had turned against him. Mohammad ibn Khuzza’a, king of Modar, an ally was assassinated. He therefore decided to attack the Ka’aba seeing it as a rival to his own cathedral. He had in his immense army an elephant. At Mughammis, near Mecca he plundered the outskirts including 200 camels belonging to Abd al Muttalib, Muhammad’s grandfather. The Qurraish did not wish to fight but and Abraha himself said he was only concerned to destroy the Ka’aba; after discussions Abraha retired and returned the camels. Islamic legend has it that birds hurled stones on Abraha as he fled.
The degraded Christianity in the peninsula
The Christianity of this period is described as “expiring under a motley and enormous heap of superstitious inventions, with neither the courage nor the force to raise her head or display her national charms to a darkened and deluded world,” (Mosheim)
Doubtless much of the success of Islam in its earlier stage was due to the state of degradation into which the Christian Church had fallen. The bitter dissensions of the Greeks, Nestorians, Eutychians, and Monophysites are matters of history, and must have held up the religion of Jesus to the ridicule of the heathen world.
Under the circumstances it is not surprising to find that the mind of the Arabian reformer turned away from Christianity and endeavoured to construct a religion on the lines of Judaism.
The church in the east was predominantly Nestorian and had a long history under the Persian Empire before Islam’s arrival. It’s theology had been denounced at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and again in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. It was said to be defective because it did not hold to the orthodox view of the two natures of Christ; the proper deity and humanity of Christ are conceded but they are not considered to be constituted in one self-conscious person. The two natures are deemed to be two persons. The divine Christ ascended into the human Christ and the divine Christ returned to heaven before the human Christ died at Calvary therefore, the man Christ was not God, but God bearer and Christ is worshipped, not because he is God, but that God is in him.
Some suggest that the term Isa (Jesus) used by Muhammad was possibly obtained from the Nestorian ’Isho,’ Hebrew for Yashua. Arabic and Semetic languages were allied to the Hebrew.
Bahira (A Nestorian monk – is said to have identified Muhammad as the coming one)
The story of Muhammad’s encounter with Bahira is found in the works of the early Muslim historians Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa’d and al-Tabari. It was related that when Muhammad was twelve he was taken by his uncle Abu Talib on a mercantile journey to Syria. When the travellers were near Busra, a monk who lived there in his cell was amazed and noticed that one of them was accompanied by a cloud, which provided shade, and when they sat down that a tree lowered its branches to give additional shade. Bahira thought that the caravan housed someone of extraordinary credentials so he invited the whole company to eat with him but they left Muhammad behind to guard the caravan. Bahira looked at the features that were described in his books but none of their faces revealed the last prophet, so he asked about the one left behind. Bahira asked Muhammad to answer his questions swearing by al-Lat and al-‘Uzza that what he should say would be the truth. But Muhammad expressed his aversion to these pagan idols and so his answers convinced him that he was the promised one. Having recognized the Prophet Muhammad, Bahira is reported to have said: “This is the master of all humans. Allah will send him with a Message which will be a mercy to all beings.”
Abu Talib, the uncle of Prophet Muhammad is said to have asked: “How do you know that?” To which the monk replied: “When you appeared from the direction of ‘Aqabah, all stones and trees prostrated themselves, which they never do except for a Prophet. I can recognize him also by the seal of Prophethood which is below his shoulder, like an apple. We have got to learn this from our books.” Ibn Sa’d and al-Tabari write that Bahira found the announcement of the coming of Muhammad in the original, unadulterated gospels which he possessed.
Established in the fifth century it was prevalent in Egypt and by Muhammad’s time was in Hira and the Syrian regions in the north. The majority of Abyssinia were Monophysites. They had established schools and monasteries, chanting could be heard as the monks prostrated themselves with faces to the ground. They turned to the east in prayer and women veiled themselves when they went out of doors.
Muhammad and the Najran Community
The Najran community was Monophysite. A certain Famiyun, a Nestorian Christian from Syria is credited with establishing the Christian community in Najran ( Ibn Ishaq – Sirat Rasululallah). He is said to have performed a miracle, cursing a palm tree which was torn up by its roots then venerated. Muhammad had heard Bishop Al Qass ibn Saida eloquently preached against wealth and was favourably impressed. A delegation from Najran met with Muhammad and questioned him about his teaching.
In theological terms Nestorians believed that in the incarnation Christ had one divine nature, (Greek monos ’one’ physis ’nature’) the divine and human natures of Christ blending into one single divine-human nature. Monophysites therefore rejected the Creed of Chalcedon (451) which taught that Christ had two distinct natures.
According to the commentaries the following verse relates to an incident where Muhammad invites the Christians of Najran to a debate:
“If any one disputes in this matter with thee, now after (full) knowledge Hath come to thee, say: “Come! let us gather together, our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves: Then let us earnestly pray, and invoke the curse of Allah on those who lie!” (Al-Imran 3:61)
They, along with the Jews, are known as the “People of the Book” and their truth claims are refuted. During Muhammad’s life-time Christians in Arabia were never subject to him for all relationships were fixed by treaties. For example the treaty with the Christians of Najran gave the Christians freedom of religion and the control of their own affairs as long as they paid tribute and gave some services to the Muslims. Later, during the Caliphate of ‘Umar and the expansion of the Islamic state the Christians of Najran were exiled to Iraq although some individuals continued to remain in Medina
Al-Baizawi and other Muslim commentators admit that Muhammad received Christian instruction from learned Christians, named Jubra and Yasara and that on this account the Qurraish said: “We know indeed that they say, “It is a man that teaches him.” (An-Nahl 16:103)
The Traditions relate that Muhammad used to stop and listen to these two Christians as they read aloud the Books of Moses (Taurat) and the New Testament (Injil). But it is remarkable that Muhammad should, after all, have obtained such a cursory knowledge of Christianity.
a) At first Muhammad praised Christians along with Jews and Sabians:
“Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Al Baqarrah 2:62)
“Those who believe (in the Quran), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness,- on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (Al-Maidah 5:69)”
Later he turned against them possibly because of his contact with Christian states.
b) The following verses give a general sample of Muhammad’s hardening attitude towards Christianity:
“And they say: “None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” Those are their (vain) desires. Say: “Produce your proof if ye are truthful.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:111)
“They say: “Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (to salvation).” Say thou: “Nay! (I would rather) the religion of Abraham the true, and be joined not gods with Allah.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:135)
“Or do ye say that Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know better than Allah? Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah? but Allah is not unmindful of what ye do!” (Al-Baqarrah 2:140)
“(Both) the Jews and the Christians say: “We are sons of Allah, and his beloved.” Say: “Why then doth He punish you for your sins? Nay, ye are but men, of the men he hath created: He forgiveth whom He pleaseth, and He punisheth whom He pleaseth” (Al-Maidah 5:18)
c) Muhammad attacked a number of core Christian beliefs:
1. The Messiah was God’s son:
“The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!” (Al-Taubah 9:30)
2. The crucifixion:
The crucifixion is denied (An-Nisa’ 4:156-158) and such a mistake and omission could only arise from a most imperfect acquaintance with the ordinary institutions and belief of the Christian communities, with whom Muhammad must have been brought in contact.
3. He especially denounced the Christian dogma:
The confusion he thought that Christian creeds engendered as shown in their endless schisms regarding the nature of the Trinity (Al-Maidah 5:73) and the person of Christ, and the idolatrous character of their worship, led him to turn from Christianity to Judaism as a model whereby to effect the reformation of a degraded and idolatrous people like the ancient Arabians,
4. He pointed out the deep divisions that existed amongst them:
“From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgement. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done.” (Al-Maidah 5:14)
5. Muhammad also realised that despite following both the Jews and Christians followed the same book their differences were acute:
“The Jews say: “The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: “The Jews have naught (to stand) upon.” Yet they (profess to) study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not; but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:113)
For these and other reasons Muhammad proposed that no meaningful relationship between Muslim and Christian would be tolerated:
“O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust.” (Al-Maidah 5:18)