65% of Republicans think President Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent headline. Since I first met President Obama (when he was State Representative Obama, and he was regularly attending the same church I was attending that day) at Trinity United Church of Christ, the same denomination that ordained me as a minister, I knew at the outset that he was officially and formally a Christian, even though his name had a Muslim heritage. ‘Barak’ was the great steed that carried Mohammed into heaven in his vision at Jerusalem, and ‘Hussein’ has many associations, for better and worse. ‘Obama’ suggests Africa, and could be Muslim or Christian in Kenya. (My name on the other hand suggests a peddler of trifles or cheap books, or a barbarian tribal warrior. Neither seems to have handicapped me or determined my destiny.)
The other part of calling someone a Muslim is the significant meaning of the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam,’ which derive from the definition of “one who submits to Allah” with Allah being the name for the One God. The God referred to is the God of the “people of the Book,” that is, the Bible, before it came to include the Koran. The title is therefore an honorific title as well as an aspiration for those who accept it. If someone were to call me a Muslim, I would consider that an honor, knowing what I have studied about Islam and the faithful Muslim people that I have known.
On the other hand, ordinarily, to be a Muslim is to accept the Muslim creed, that there is only One God and Mohammed is a prophet of that One God, although that One God has many names according to God’s many attributes. To use the title of prophet for Mohammed puts him in the company of an impressive historical, and from my perspective, some ahistorical characters, but they include Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Mary, and Jesus, among other lesser figures like Jonah and Job. Does Mohammed deserve the recognition that places him in that company? Traditionally many Christians have said no, but that is without assessing what Mohammed accomplished. Mohammed converted scores of Arabian tribes from paganism and idolatry to monotheism with all of the moral dimensions that traditional monotheism entails, not a small or unimpressive accomplishment. When he finally had the opportunity to utterly destroy his opposition, who had so often attempted to kill him, he offered mercy and forgiveness. Unlike most of the prophets who spoke to power, but had little of their own, at least in earthly terms, Mohammed was able in the last years of his life to exercise a great amount of political power, and he did so with some admirable accomplishments as well as some judgments that were more problematic, not unlike some of the wisest leaders the world has known. The title ‘prophet’ seems to apply to him at least as well as to most of the others.
I grew up in a Methodist Church, recognizing that the title ‘Methodist’ was first used of John Wesley as a pejorative, ridiculing the disciplined and ordered life that he espoused. I never lived up to that name, nor would I confidently describe myself as a Muslim, in the tradition of those who have fully lived out the meaning of that name, but I sure would like to be.