Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Prayers to the "God of Muhammad"?

A colleague here at work recently asked me for my thoughts on the following matter. She was a part of a prayer group in which one member regularly began their prayers by saying “God of Mohammed…” What was my opinion? she asked.

I gave a gut reaction, but have been considering it for some time since. I asked the opinion of a priest involved in teaching prayer and in interfaith matters, and he replied with the following thoughts:

1. The phrases ‘the God of Muhammad’ and ‘the God of Jesus’ may appear to be similar but they are vastly different. It is a question of the value of the genitive preposition ‘of’. The ‘God of Muhammad’ can be put in the same category (mutatis mutandis) as the phrase ‘the God of Abraham’ since Muhammad professed to worship the God of Abraham. ‘The God of Jesus Christ’ is essentially different since the relationship of Jesus to God is Trinitarian, while Muhammad’s is not. No need to go further on this.

2. Furthermore, the phrases ‘the God of Muhammad’ and ‘the God of Jesus’, differ vastly when actually said by a Muslim or a Christian. The Muslim will pray to the God of Jesus with the same meaning as when he prays to the God of Muhammad. Not so the Christian. When he prays to the God of Jesus Christ he does so as a member of his body, through him and with him and in him who is the sacrament of the Father. The Muslim cannot logically do this, although spiritually he may in fact do so.

3. Therefore, given these understandings, it seems legitimate for the Christian to pray to ‘the God of Muhammad’ in the same way that he prays to the ‘God of Abraham’, but he will do so in and with and through Jesus.

I appreciated this reflection, but wondered if we could take it further. In my reply, I wrote as follows:

I agree that the issue is about the meaning of the genitive. But I believe there is a third meaning that the genitive can take. The three meanings are:

1) The God worshipped by Abraham/Moses/Jesus/Mohommed
2) The Divinity to whom Jesus was related as the 2nd person (only the genitive with Jesus could have this force, of course)
and thirdly:
3) The God revealed to/by Abraham/Moses/Jesus/Mohommed

In prayer, the naming of God serves a particular function. The Catechism says the following under the 2nd Commandment:

2143 Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. "The Lord's name is holy." For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it [cf. Zech 2:13; Ps 29:2; 96:2; 113:1-2].

This reminds me of what I learnt as a child from Luther's Small Catechism (going ecumenical here...)

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain. What does this mean?--Answer. We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks."

The gist of both passages is that God reveals himself by giving us his name which we are to use when we address him in the "I-Thou" relationship. The third use of the genitive suggested above, especially when used in prayer rather than in discourse, is in fact a means of identifying God, and thus a "name" which implies revelation. It is because God has revealed himself in his name to us that we can turn to him and call upon him in prayer. It is the gift of God's name which gives us access to God.

As Catholic Christians we can affirm that  the God whom Muslims intend to worship and to whom they intend to address their prayers is the same as the God whom Abraham, Moses and Jesus worshipped and to whom they addressed their prayers (ie. the first meaning of the genitive formulation)

But that is not quite the same thing as to say that the "revelation" Muslims claim Mohammed received of this God in the Koran is an authentic revelation (implied by the third meaning of the genitive form of address).

The Church has never endorsed the Koran as authentic revelation nor Mohammed as an authentic prophet of our God. Any claims to the contrary are personal opinion only. This does not preclude that there may be a reflection of the true revelation in the Koran, just as we acknowledge that the "seeds of the word" are to be found in other religious writings also.

So, since the Koran cannot be affirmed as an authentic revelation of their God, Christians cannot use the form of address "O God of Mohammed" with the meaning "O God who have been revealed by/to Mohammed" when they pray. To do so would be to affirm as revelation that which is not revealed.

Therefore, I believe that the use of the mode of address "O God of Mohammed" in prayer by Christians is (at least) confusing (because of the variety of meanings) and (at worst) false (because the revelation claimed by Mohammed is not authentic).

I would, however, have no difficulty with Christians addressing their prayers to “Allah”, as this is the same form of address that Arabic speaking Christians use for God. If one wanted to make an interfaith gesture, this would be acceptable.

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