There is an ongoing debate about the limits to appropriate contextualization in ministry among Muslims. I have had the privilege of being a part of some exceptional discussions, debates, and even arguments over these issues in a yearly meeting called “Bridging the Divide.” As with any complex issue, there are many different facets to the debate: Bible translation, use of the Qur’an, and the new believers’ identities to name a few.
One of the more tightly focused debates has to do with an issue that lies at the core of Islam, the Shahada: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”1 Specifically, there is disagreement about whether or not a believer in Christ can, with a clear conscience, say the second half, “…and Muhammad is his messenger.”
This article is based on a presentation I made at “Bridging the Divide 2013.” Before diving into my own opinion, I should briefly summarize the position with which I will spend the rest of this article disagreeing.
I don’t know if others have used the term or not, but “reinterpreting Muhammad” seems to me the best way to describe what I hear some missionaries call for. They are urging the mission community to adopt a more positive view of Islam’s prophet than the polemical one common in the Church.
Although I cannot do justice to all the nuances of their position in a short paragraph, I will briefly explain their line of reasoning. In both the Bible and Christian history, there is a very broad use of the term prophet, some of which fits with the central figure of Islam. Some also point out that there were many varieties of prophets in the Bible. Some of these were canonical (i.e., participants in giving us the canon of scripture), but others had, shall we say, dubious records (e.g., older prophet in 1 Kings 13:1-22 who lied to another man of God causing his death).
Furthermore, missionaries taking this position remind us that the term prophet is commonly used in some contemporary Christian circles for people who are basically charismatic spiritual leaders, certainly not infallible oracles of God. Finally, those who reinterpret Muhammad contend that allowing for his prophethood does not obligate us to endorse a full Islamic view of him.
Now, if this was as far as they wanted us to go, if missionaries in this stream of thought were only arguing for a general softening of Christian attitudes toward the central figure of Islam, then I would personally pitch my tent on the outskirts of their camp. But what troubles me is the conclusion which many are drawing from this line of reasoning. A number of missionaries have proposed that if a person has the above understanding of prophet, then reciting the second half of the Islamic creed does not conflict with either the Bible or historic Christian experience. Thus, followers of Christ (particularly those from a Muslim background) can recite the Shahada with a clear conscience—if they chose to do so.
With that said, let me make a fair disclosure statement: I advocate a fairly high level of contextualization. I am thrilled when believers from Muslim backgrounds find ways to retain significant parts of their pre-conversion identity and remain in their natal communities to the degree that is possible.
But I also believe we must be sure our practice of contextualization is careful and discerning, along the lines of what Paul Hiebert called “critical contextualization.” I am concerned that when it comes to saying the Shahada, those who would “reinterpret Muhammad” have not been robust enough in their practice of contextualization. While their position is based on sophisticated analysis of biblical material and historical analysis, I see other important concerns that they have ignored. Thus, I believe this idea still needs the critique of other tools that are part of the missionary’s contextualization tool box.
Perhaps I should put it this way: I am not concerned by the way a reinterpreting of Muhammad causes missionaries to think about him, nor about how they speak of him in the general sense. But I am troubled by what is communicated when a follower of Christ recites the Shahada. This is much more than a random string of eleven words; it is a creed, an act of bearing witness, and as such it is an act of communication. Therefore, it is imperative that we consider the issue in light of communication theory.
Applicable Communication Theory
When considered from this perspective, saying the Shahada is what communication theorists call a “speech-event.” This helps denote the different factors that play a role in shaping a message and its interpretation (Duranti 1997, 284). Speech-events have several important elements, four of which are particularly relevant to this discussion:
1. The context of the speech-event
2. The communication unit (the words themselves)
3. The encoded message (the speaker’s intended meaning)
4. The decoded message (the receivers’ understood meaning)
In brief, this model proposes that communication can be understood in the following way: A speaker has certain meanings in mind which he or she encodes into a statement. Those words move to the receptor, who must then decode the words, something he or she does according to his or her own understanding of the words and their context. The diagram below illustrates the concept.
This model leads us toward a key issue. The word “communication” itself is derived from the Latin communis (common), thus referring to a “commonness” of understanding between speaker and receptor (Hesselgrave 1991, 46). Therefore, in order for authentic, clear communication to take place, there must be shared units of meaning, or codes, between speaker and receptor, in a given context. With this in mind, let us consider the statement “Muhammad is God’s messenger” as part of the Shahada for the codes it carries, what possible communis exists between a follower of Christ as speaker and a typical Muslim as receptor, and the communication context.
Unpacking Context and Codes
We should begin by observing the codes involved. In the Shahada, the first code we encounter is the word “God”, or Allah. The relationship between God and Allah is also a hot topic in missiology right now, but is a separate one. Since I have enough controversy on my hands with the issue of Muhammad and his prophethood, I think it is best to refrain from commenting on the Allah/God debate here. Moving on, we can skip any discussion about the code “Muhammad” since we can be fairly certain that both the speaker and receptor agree this word refers to a particular historical person. In other words, there is clearly a common code at play here.
This leaves us to consider the final code in the creed: the word “messenger”, specifically Muhammad as messenger, or prophet of God. At this point, we must ask ourselves, “Does this code carry a common meaning for both the follower of Christ and the Muslim community? Or “Is the same meaning being encoded as is being decoded in the context of the Shahada?”
This brings my concern into sharp focus. The biblical ideas and historical examples that some use to “reinterpret Muhammad” are held, at best, by only one party (the speaker) in the speech-event we are considering. That is, some missionaries and Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) may encode novel meanings into the word “messenger”, or “prophet”, but I am fairly certain that in the context of the Shahada, the community on the receiving end of that communication will decode those words differently. At this point, we should return to diagram 1, but this time with specifics added.
I recognize that there are differences of opinion about Muhammad across the Muslim world, but I would argue that the vast majority of Muslims understand Muhammad’s prophethood in terms that closely resemble one of the two possibilities presented in diagram 2. I would not argue that every Muslim everywhere holds these views of Muhammad, but that is irrelevant because we are not talking about conversations between two or three individual Muslims. We are discussing the recitation of a creed.
When a follower of Christ says that Muhammad is God’s messenger in the context of saying the Shahada, he or she is not communicating that Muhammad fits one or more biblical categories, or that he conformed to ideas that later emerged in Christian history. Rather, the person is making a confession, and as such is communicating that he or she agrees with the Muslim community’s commonly-held propositions about Muhammad. This is the fundamental purpose of confessions and creeds—to produce and maintain commonly-held meaning.
The second diagram clearly demonstrates that although a follower of Christ may say the Shahada with a reinterpreted Muhammad in mind, his or her encoded meaning is very different from the meaning decoded by the listening Muslim community. This is a classic case of miscommunication.
Perhaps I can make my case in slightly different terms. Charles Kraft warned that in the matter of cross-cultural communication, the greatest weight must be given to the meaning understood by the receptor. This is because “people tend to perceive messages in such a way that they confirm already held positions, whether or not that communicator intended them that way” (Kraft 2005, 159).
Now I realize that an MBB saying the Shahada in his or her own culture is not an example of what we typically think of as cross-cultural communication. However, if a follower of Christ holds to the kind of reinterpreted Muhammad and his prophethood that I outlined at the beginning of the article, his or her perspective is radically different from that of the community. Thus, for all practical purposes the person is communicating cross-culturally when he or she is saying the Shahada.
By applying communication theory to this issue, we deduce two mistakes by those who believe a reinterpretation of Muhammad’s prophethood allows for saying the Shahada. One, it completely neglects the context in which such a speech-event takes place—a creed—which by nature implies a fixed understanding of the meaning. Two, relying on a reinterpretation of Muhammad places exclusive weight on the meanings encoded by the speaker rather than those decoded by the receptor, thus causing miscommunication. These mistakes are not trivial. They run contrary to one of the primary purposes of contextualization—that is to make our message clear.
Context Is Critical
It feels a bit strange taking issue with those who argue for a kinder view of Muhammad, one that will allow for saying the Shahada in good conscience. The reason is that I have used much the same logic, but in a different context. I remember a long conversation I had with a devout Muslim friend several years ago. When the subject turned to Muhammad, I built my argument along very similar lines to those who reinterpret his prophethood—albeit without the same level of academic sophistication. But precisely because this happened in the context of a conversation, I had time to fully explain the ways I sometimes use the term prophet and how I might be willing to apply the term to Muhammad. This personal antidote points to why context is so important—and why we should practice contextualization.
In a conversation like I described above, you have time to explain the nuances of your position. There is space for give and take. Answers are followed by more questions. That is how the encoding of my words, and my friend’s decoding of the same, were brought into alignment. I used the same logic as those who reinterpret Muhammad to show respect for my friend’s beliefs, but in the end he had no doubt that my view of Muhammad was not the same as his. Yet the context is very different when someone recites the Shahada—there is no give and take. Saying the Shahada is a confession, a singular act of communication, with no time for explanation.
I agree with those who reinterpret Muhammad in that Christians often use the word prophet with a very wide berth, and that possibly the actual, historical person of Muhammad would fit into this wider usage. Furthermore, I agree that it would help if Christians stop demonizing Muhammad, especially considering the fact that some of those we call prophets have serious flaws themselves.
Nevertheless, I remain quite critical of the idea that Christian liberty can stretch so far as to confessing the standard Islamic creed, specifically the part “…Muhammad is his [God’s] messenger.” In saying that, I am well aware of the pressures that followers of Christ in Muslim lands sometime face, and I am more than willing to extend grace to those who recite the Shahada under cohesion or threats. However, that is quite a bit different than reinterpreting the problem away.
So while I agree that reinterpreting Muhammad’s prophethood may lead us to a more respectful witness, we must remember that it is no witness at all if we intentionally miscommunicate.
1. The Arabic word rasul can be translated either “messenger” or “prophet”; for the sake of this argument, the two words are interchangeable.
Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hesselgrave, David. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Kraft, Charles H. 2005. Appropriate Christianity. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family served in Central Asia for twelve years. He is now a senior research associate with Fruitful Practice Research, studying how God is working in the Muslim world.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 304-311. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.