By Ian Mevorach
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.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:20-24, NRSV)
This passage shows us that the author of the Gospel of John is in a different paradigm than earlier New Testament authors insofar as he no longer expects Jesus’ imminent second coming. Paul, for example, who wrote in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection, believed that Jesus would return while most of the people he was preaching to were still alive. The author of the Gospel of John looks for new meaning in Jesus’ promise of the Spirit of Truth or Advocate because he realizes he will die before Jesus returns. When his Gospel was published he was likely already dead and his community was looking forward into a longer and more complicated future than originally expected.
The Gospel of John plays a similar role for the New Testament as Deuteronomy does for the Torah. Deuteronomy is the latest text of the Torah—it reiterates the Law of Moses as told in the four earlier books—and like the Gospel of John it predicts a future prophet:
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.(Deut 18:18-19, NRSV)
Both Deuteronomy and the Gospel of John are reflections on specific revelations—the Torah and Gospel—and both indicate that there is more revelation to come. The Gospel of John’s language for the Spirit of Truth or Advocate is strikingly similar to Deuteronomy’s: “he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13, NRSV).
Like Deuteronomy, the Gospel of John opens up an expectation for future revelation. John’s prophecy is not so specific that it must apply to Muhammad and only Muhammad. But insofar as the Qur’an makes the claim that Muhammad is the Spirit of Truth or Advocate that Jesus foretold, a strong interpretive option emerges for Christians to receive Muhammad as a prophet that Jesus predicts when he says:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, NRSV)
In this passage, the description of the Advocate or Spirit of Truth is qualitatively different than earlier mentions. Here we see the Spirit of Truth speaking not through the disciples but to them. Earlier, in John 14:17, Jesus says that this Spirit of Truth will abide with his followers and be in them; throughout the Gospel of John the Holy Spirit is spoken of as an abiding, inner presence. Again, in 14:26, Jesus says that the Advocate will “remind you of all that I have said to you.”
In these passages, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit who helps his followers understand what he has said. Essentially, this would have been the experience of the beloved disciple, the author of the Gospel of John, who was guided by the presence of the Spirit in remembering and interpreting Jesus’ words and deeds (which he does spiritually rather than literally). However, in John 16:12-15, Jesus is talking about a Spirit of Truth who will bring forth new revelations, who will say the “many things” that Jesus does not say because his followers “cannot bear them now.”
The clear distinction is that the Spirit of Truth in John 16 is predicted to declare new revelations not merely remind Jesus’ disciples of what he already said, as in John 14. The idea that he will “declare to you the things that are to come” is especially important because it acknowledges the uncertainty about the future that Jesus’ followers faced, given the fact that he had not returned as soon as expected. Jesus asserts that this future prophet will glorify him by declaring a new revelation that will come from the same source as his message: God. This discourse is designed to open the minds of Christians to receive a future revelation not as something that competes with or diminishes the Gospel, but rather as something that glorifies Jesus.
Unfortunately, these words in the Gospel of John have been totally missed by Christians who reject and belittle the Qur’an; we have for the most part completely ignored the unity of the Gospel and the Qur’an in terms of their common revelatory source. However, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we have the opportunity to receive the Word of God in the Qur’an in accordance with Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of Truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.” We can accept the Qur’an as a revelation, not in opposition to the Gospel, but in unity with the Gospel and the will of Jesus.
In the First Letter of John, which was written after the Gospel of John and is very similar to it, we find a continuation of the Gospel of John’s multivalent way of speaking about the Spirit as applying to the Holy Spirit as well as to prophets inspired by the Spirit. In 1 John 3:24 and 1 John 4:13, the author speaks about the gift of the Holy Spirit and how it abides in Jesus’ followers. But in 1 John 4:1-6, in between these mentions of the Holy Spirit, the author speaks at length about testing the spirits. In these verses the word “Spirit” is used to talk about prophets and how to tell whether they are true or false:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:2, NRSV)
The author contrasts “the Spirit of God” with the “Spirit of Anti-Christ,” those who are “from God” with those who are “from the world,” and “the Spirit of Truth” with “the Spirit of Error.” This discourse, again, is strikingly similar to the discourse in Deuteronomy about future Prophets that I quoted above.
In Deuteronomy 18:20-22, after the promise of a future prophet in 18:18 and the commandment to listen to that prophet in 18:19, criteria are laid out to distinguish a true from a false prophet. Deuteronomy threatens that a prophet who speaks for another god or who falsely speaks on God’s behalf “shall die” (18:20). It also advises the Israelites to ignore prophets who prophecy falsely:
If a prophet speaks in the name of the Eternal but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Eternal has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. (18:22, NRSV)
n the same way, but using different criteria, the author of 1 John defines true prophets and false prophets relative to their allegiance to Jesus, God, and the early followers of Jesus. Part of the dynamic of the early community of Jesus’ followers was that many claimed the inspiration of the Spirit and prophesied. The author of 1 John is especially worried about Docetic versions of Christianity that had developed denying that Jesus “came in the flesh”; in these versions of Christianity Jesus was not an actual human being but rather an angelic being that only appeared to be human. Such a version of Christianity, obviously, would have been quite disconnected from the actual teachings and values of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers, who knew him as a real human being. It is worth noting that Muhammad meets these criteria insofar as the Qur’an affirms that Jesus is the Messiah and that he “came in the flesh.”
In the history of Christianity, all of the negative terms in 1 John 4:1-6 have been used against Muhammad. He has been identified with “the Spirit of Anti-Christ” and the “Spirit of Error.” However, the time has come for Christians to recognize how wrong we have been in these assessments and to correct the record by affirmatively identifying Muhammad with “the Spirit of Truth.”
When we look at Islam as a world religion, and see that 1.6 billion people and growing are following in the way of Muhammad, the time has surely come to recognize him as a prophet. If Muhammad is not a prophet, who is? It is understandable, really, that so many Christians have been defensive and have reacted negatively to Islam. That kind of group-ego, fear-based response is part of human nature. However, it is absurd for us to continue to see Muhammad as a heretical Christian or false prophet given that Islam has lasted for nearly 1,400 years, has supported monumental cultural, spiritual, artistic, political, moral, and intellectual achievements, and has a tremendous and vibrant global following.
There is no better candidate than Muhammad, no one in fact that comes even close, in terms of fulfilling Jesus’s promise of the Spirit of Truth who would bring forth a new revelation from God. I do not have space in this article to explore the many Qur’anic verses directly addressed to Christians, but if we were to receive them our religion would be transformed for the better and would come into balance with Judaism and Islam.
Jesus knew it would be difficult for us to accept his guidance from another source. But he did not want our fear of the apparent otherness of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an to separate us from the Way, the Truth, and the Life; that is, the Word of God. This is why he spoke to the disciples reassuringly about the Spirit of Truth, saying, “he will glorify me”; and, for the same reason, he emphasized the unity of his teaching with the revelations to come, twice repeating the promise, “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14-15, NRSV). Based on the promises of Jesus, Christians can encounter the Qur’an without fear, knowing that it is a revelation which glorifies Jesus and, in a spiritual sense, is from him.
What we have in the Gospel of John is a biblical portal between Christianity and Islam. If we choose to walk through it in faith we will discover that our religions issue from the same divine source; we will discover that we are siblings in faith, meant to bear witness to the truth side by side (John 15:26-27) and collaborate in manifesting God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven. I invite Christians everywhere to look carefully at our scriptures, search our souls, consider our history, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in answering this question: “Has the time come for Christians to see Muhammad as Spirit of Truth?”
Ian Mevorach is a Theologian, minister, ethicist, and activist; co-founder of Common Street Spiritual Center (commonstreet.org)