Mawlid is the festival celebrating the birth of Mohammad. As the Archbishop Cranmer blog noted:
The only thing it has in common with Christmas is that it isn’t actually the day the celebrated baby was born. Yet All Saints Church in Kingtson-upon-Thames thinks there’s an interfaith syncretised opportunity to be found in holding a joint birthday celebration for both Mohammed and Jesus – so they put the flags out for both, rejoicing in both, eulogising both, solemnising both, glorifying both, honouring both.
Cranmer notes the interesting fact that All Saints Church appear happy to grant Mohammad his prophetic status while Jesus is titled with neither his prophetic, priestly or kingly titles. As Cranmer notes, ‘it’s the exalted Prophet Mohammed along with plain old Jesus, because to have added any of his claims to divinity would, of course, have alienated many Muslims (if they hadn’t already been alienated by the haram celebration), which wouldn’t have been very interfaith or sensitively missional, would it?’
Cranmer notes this is not the first time this sort of thing has been apparent in the UK Anglican communion. First, there was this at Westminster Abbey. Then, there was this at St Mary’s Cathedral in Galsgow. These apparently Christian churches conferred prophetic status upon Mohammad and read portions from the Qur’an that denied the Jesus presented plainly in scripture. Cranmer is apt to call these, along with the latest such example from All Saints Church in Kingston upon Thames, syncretistic.
To confer upon Mohammad prophetic status without qualification is to accept that he is, indeed, God’s final prophet and greater in status than Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is to render the gospels immaterial for, if Mohammad is truly a prophet from God, it follows plainly that the trope beloved of amateur Muslim apologists must be true: the Bible has been changed. This is necessarily so because even a cursory reading of the Qur’an exposes a very different take on the truth than the New Testament writers. The one thing plain is that both cannot be inerrantly true. If such is the case, and we are adamant that Mohammad is a prophet from God, the Bible must be the loser and Jesus is necessarily much less than the gospel writers claimed him to be.
Of course, we all want to be missiologically sensitive to our Muslim neighbours. There is no doubt that contextualisation is important. But a contextualisation and missional sensitivity that lead to the demotion of Jesus as less than Christ and the promotion of Mohammad to God’s final prophet is no less than syncretism. It is not missiologically sensitive but evangelistically dishonest for it fails to convey the evangel at all. Indeed, it does little more than comfort people in their error and permit them to continue, unchallenged, to the logical end of their rejection of God’s promised messiah.
Given all of that, may I gently suggest a better way to the folks at Kingston upon Thames? For we also met, just this last Friday, with our Muslim neighbours. At our regular Muslim-Christian dialogues, we choose a topic – sometimes apparently common; other times apparently different – to both Islam and Christianity. In the run up to Christmas, and the celebration of Mawlid, it made a lot of sense for us to talk about our respective primary prophets.
Unlike All Saints Church, we did not bill this as a ‘joint celebration’ of Mohammad and Jesus. Instead, it was a meeting to understand one another better. Our Muslim friends spoke about the coming of Mohammad and how they believe the Bible itself prophesies of his coming. We rebutted the suggestion that the Bible pointed forward to Mohammad and explained why Jesus is, indeed, the Christ. They looked at some of the details of Mohammad’s birth; we explored some of the details of Jesus’ birth. They explained the theological consequences of their view; we explained the theological consequences of ours.
Funnily enough, we disagreed on the issue at hand. All the more interestingly, despite our disagreement, nobody fell out with each other and the ability to share the gospel was much easier than had we pretended we were the same. As we ate food together after the meeting (as is our regular practice at these meetings), various Muslim and Christian people were deep in conversation. They were pressing into the details of what each presented, striving together to discover the truth knowing that both accounts clearly could not be right.
If missional sensitivity is the primary goal, it is my experience that it is not found in patronising one another and pretending we are all the same. If we really thought that, we’d all go to the mosque on Fridays and our Muslim friends would be filling the pews of our churches. Of course, neither they nor we actually believe that. So, to stand up and pretend otherwise at an interfaith meeting is both disingenuous and duplicitous.
Interestingly, counterintuitive as it may seem, we have far better gospel opportunities by refusing to patronise each other this way. As we state from the outset that we are not coming together to agree with one another, nor to insist on common ground, but to learn about each other we are freed to actually share what we really think. I have stood in such meetings and stated clearly our belief that Mohammad is a false prophet just as our Muslim friends have said they find our view of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, to be blasphemous. But stating these things plainly, and committing to discussion of our respective views without falling out, opens up a real opportunity to share the actual gospel of Jesus Christ with those who, typically, have never heard it.
You tell me, is it missionally sensitive to patronise our Muslim friends by pretending we’re all the same, failing to share anything of the gospel and even adopting certain of their views to avoid offence? Or, is it better to openly state our difference, and explain clearly what we believe about Jesus Christ and why we are convinced it is true so to share the actual gospel in the hope that the Lord might usher some into the kingdom? You tell me which view is consistent with Paul’s assertion in Romans 10:13-17?
If those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, and Paul implies they cannot be saved unless they hear, which approach is missionally more sensitive? The one that means Muslim people don’t hear the gospel and which comforts them in their false belief that Mohammad is God’s messenger, whose message is true, necessarily undermining the gospel; or, the one that states the gospel plainly and simply, acknowledging that we can be different – and even vigorously disagree using phrases such as ‘false prophet’ and ‘blasphemous’ – whilst nevertheless remaining friends?
There is surely nothing missionally sensitive about affirming people in their errant beliefs. In fact, there is nothing missional about it at all. For Christ did not commission his followers to go into all the world and tell them they’re fine. Nor did he suggest that when the Spirit of truth comes to guide them into all truth (often interpreted by Muslims as referring to Mohammad) he would contradict significant chunks of what Jesus has already taught them. A missional approach that does not share the gospel, and even adopts many of the assumptions of our interlocutors, is neither missional nor sensitive.
Jesus said you cannot serve two masters. Paul, taking up the same theme, states:
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor 10:14; 18–22)
Perhaps we are safer and missionally better to speak the truth in love rather than syncretise in the name of ‘being nice’, the god of so many churchmen. Interestingly, that god so often agrees with their own definition of ‘being nice’. To quote Tim Keller, ‘if your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealised version of yourself’. If you prefer your quotes from older sources, Augustine puts it similarly: ‘if you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself’.