William Montgomery Watt: Muslim-Christian Encounters

Petra Uphoff

William Montgomery Watt. Muslim-Christian Encounters. (Perceptions and Misperceptions. London: Routledge, 1991. 164 pp.)

In his book W. M. Watt, meanwhile Emeritus Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, describes the background of some myths and misconceptions defining the Muslim-Christian relationship partly until the present time. According to nowadays’ understanding of scientific approaches it is unpopular to write about a “testimony” and some “fruits of faith”. W. M. Watt as an authority in this realm does so in his book. His central message is that Muslims and Christians should aim at a fruitful and lively dialoge in mutual respect towards each other’s religion and values by getting to know each other better.

Watt begins with the description of the early history of several Christian groups in the Middle East. He focuses on the Christian-Jewish background in Mecca at Muhammad’s time. In opposite to Medieval and even nowadays’ speculations whether Islam is the religion of the Antichrist or has a satanic background, Watt asks the precise question whether God might have allowed this new religion to come into existence because of the failures of the Christians at that time. Most Christians engaged in dialogue with Muslims are not aware of Watt’s analysis that Islam does not admit Jews and Christians to have a true understanding of God. Jewish and Christian scriptures are considered to be corrupted.

Watt gives an adequate description of the Koranic and Islamic picture of Jews and Christians. He calls it unprecise, inadequate, false and far away from their own perception. Through the centuries Islamic religious scholars (the ulama) tried to protect the ordinary people from the knowledge of non-Islamic, wrong, heretical doctrines. Hardly any of them might have read non-Islamic scriptures or even the Bible, as Watt points out. For W. M. Watt arrogance often plays an important role in today’s statements about Islam. Arrogance, according to Watt, has a long tradition in the Christians’ attitude towards Islam. He can not agree with rejecting the Koran to be divinely inspired just by analysing Islam and Islamic teaching. For the author, the Christians’ perception of Islam is prejudiced.

In Medieval times Muslims were regarded to be cruel. Missionaries and Colonialists felt morally superior in comparison to the Muslims. Muslims were in no respect treated as equals, Islam regarded to be mere superstition and Muhammad as Antichrist. Watt recommends dialogue between both religions as a necessity. But dialogue is only possible if both sides stay away from arrogance and prejudices. Watt considers the witness of one’s own faith only to be possible in mutual dialogue. Especially Christians should feel addressed to when he points out that a divinely inspired faith results in good fruits. According to Watt one can only witness of one’s own faith in such a way but without looking down on the other one’s religion and by accepting Muslims as equal partners in encounter.