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No, it isn't just like saying "Jesus Christ"

A number of news outlets and even some Christians (unfortunately) have taken to referring to Mohammad as "the Prophet Mohammad," "Prophet Mohammad" or even just "the Prophet."

Occasionally when one objects to this one hears that it is just like the phrase "Jesus Christ" and has no more significance--that is, that it does not represent any catering to Muslim sensibilities by appearing to acknowledge the status of Mohammad as a prophet.

There are a bunch of things wrong with this comparison.

First and most obviously, the word "Christ" is in fact a transliteration of the Greek word which was used by Jews in Jesus' time to mean "the Messiah," but that fact is not widely known or immediately understood among English speakers, which is why when an English-language source says "Jesus Christ" it need not either be intended or taken to mean "Jesus the Messiah." In contrast, the word "prophet" is an ordinary English word the meaning of which is well understood. So even to refer to Mohammad as "the Prophet Mohammad" has a significance that goes well beyond "Jesus Christ." Hence, a better analogy would be to the phrase "the Lord Jesus," which you would never find a secular publication using!

It might be argued that the phrase "the Prophet Mohammad" is understood to be in silent scare quotes--that is, he is given this title in Islam, and the speaker is giving him this title while not actually agreeing that he was really a prophet or even that there are such things as prophets. In the same way, an atheist might refer to "the Prophet Elijah." My strong guess, though, is that he would do so without capitalizing "prophet" in that case.

In the present cultural context, it would be just as well to be honest and to acknowledge that Muslims want such indications of deference as the word "prophet" with capital letter, whereas Christians don't much care whether a non-Christian person or non-Christian publication refers to "Jesus" or to "Jesus Christ." The fact that indications of respect for Islam are demanded and that there is a certain amount of nervousness, sometimes amounting to fear, about not giving such indications is relevant to the cultural meaning of a phrase like "the Prophet Mohammad" in a major publication.

What, moreover, are we to say of "the Prophet" cum capital letter and without any name following it when uttered by a non-Muslim? It is quite simply absurd even to attempt to say that this is not a deferential designation for the purpose of currying favor with Muslims. It's quite clear why Muslims would do it: Mohammad is, in their view, the prophet of Allah, as the Muslim statement of faith indicates. But he isn't the prophet either to a secular person or to a Christian. (Or to a Hindu, while we're at it.) It is completely inappropriate and inexcusable for a Christian to refer to Mohammad as "the Prophet," and all the worse if no one actually has a gun to your head when you do it.

Words mean things. You can't just make a gesture and then pretend that you are not making that gesture. Let's be clear, especially among ourselves as Christians. Calling Mohammad "the Prophet Mohammad" or, worse, "the Prophet" is not like saying "Jesus Christ."

Comments (27)

What I cannot understand is the mind-set of actually wanting to use phrases like "the Prophet" or "the Prophet Mohammed" by people who aren't Muslim. If you are a secular humanist, and don't believe Islam is true, then why would you want to curry favor with people who don't think like you and are obviously off their rockers?

I think you'd really have to work hard to convince yourself that it was "just good manners," that it is on a par with not humming loudly and pointedly while your Baptist relatives say grace over a meal. I'm pretty sure that kind of silliness is purveyed in the conference rooms of the people who make up the standard protocol lists for publications.

It is completely inappropriate and inexcusable for a Christian to refer to Mohammad as "the Prophet," and all the worse if no one actually has a gun to your head when you do it.

While I generally share your intuitions and observations about what commonly inspires this deference -- fear crowned with a sanctimony borne of self-loathing -- I'm not sure I can share in the firmness of this statement.

Beyond question, the most common spring for excessive deference to Islam over the past decade has been a frisson of defiance: a desire to spite Christians and conservatives and Americans. Fear has now crept in; but for many years the threat of actual Jihadist attack was distant, while the distortions of partisanship were very close.

Ten years ago numerous liberal bloggers and acolytes, still babes in the intellectual cradle (some never leaving it), felt a thrill of defiance when they made common cause with Islamists against BusHitler McChimpy. That Bush or Cheney never once deviated from liberal orthodoxy on the Religion of Peace means little to these poseurs; in the lore of the Left, the Bush Administration was composed of anti-Islamic warmongers par excellence. So they ostentatiously opposed it, made merry around its incantation at great liberal festivals; and we end up with one of them writing the phrases of the President's appalling obsequiousness at the UN in 2012.

But notice my reference in there. Does anyone suppose that I regard Islam as a peaceful religion? Juxtaposed with "liberal orthodoxy," the phrase Religion of Peace is intended to convey unrelenting scorn. Only a fool can miss the connotation. It is a rhetorical device, and I would not weary readers with this meta-rhetorical point except by way of saying that rhetorical or literary uses of Mohammadan slogans should always be permitted, especially by those of us who know the truth about the dogma and pattern laid down in history by Mohammad. If we can infuse these slogans with the contempt they deserve, all the deference shown by dusty old establishment figures in the media will be undermined.

Thus, if someone had a whim to adapt some verses from Bob Dylan's interminable diatribe against various things including the media, "Idiot Wind," into a sneer at the media's faux "Je suis Charlie" enthusiasm, and in the course of this bit of bosh it seemed well and good to use the phrase "the Prophet Mohammad" -- why, who are we to say him nay?

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The Prophet wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From Charlie Hebdo to the US Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you say you've read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to captivity
I followed you beneath the stars, Mahounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast of the Prophet Muhammad
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And you'll never know the worse about you, your little surrenders, your sanctimony
And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of your coats
Blowing through the columns that you wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon your shelves
You're a idiot, babe
It’s a wonder you can even feed yourself

All of which is to say that I generally agree with your post, Lydia, but I'm not sure I'm on broad with the firmness of "completely inappropriate and inexcusable." It may well be appropriate, in some circumstances; it's possible that to do otherwise is inexcusable.

I should clarify that that phrase was meant to refer to "the Prophet" with no "Mohammad" after it, which I had just been discussing, which I consider worse than "the Prophet Mohammad."

But yes, you have a good point. I forgot to say, "Except when the context indicates sarcasm or irony." I meant using it non-ironically or with no indication thereof.

I don't see why it should be handled differently from other common honorific titles. If used with the name then it should be capitalized, without the name not. If you aren't sure if it is a title you can place it in lowercase after the name, i.e. Elijah the prophet. That's actually what makes Jesus Christ unusual, normally it would be Christ Jesus (which is how St. Paul originally denoted his name). Somewhere early along the way it got altered and mainstreamed.

What I would find strange is putting the honorific in front of the name and using lowercase. It would be like writing Dr. Lydia McGrew, it is just a glaring grammar mistake.

Well, messed that up. I meant to write dr. Lydia Mcgrew.

An article or possessive adjective usually indicates that the word that follows is not a part of the proper noun. For example, "the father" or "my father," but "I told Father about what had happened." Which is why we don't say, "the Dr. McGrew."

In any event, I did give another reason why it isn't the same as "Jesus Christ"--namely, that the word "prophet" has a clear, well-known meaning in the English language while the word "Christ" does not.

I notice that you don't address the question of "the Prophet" without any name, as if he is _the_ prophet or some greater or more special prophet than any other.

If used with the name then it (the title) should be capitalized, without the name not.

It should definitely not be capitalized.

In the interests of meeting Muslims halfway, what about referring to him as "The False Prophet Muhammad"? "-)

I think we have to call him something other than simply Mohammed-nearly all Muslim males seem to go by that name. What about "The Founder of Islam"? It is accurate and doesn't attribute any special powers to him.

DeGaulle, even there we wouldn't use "Founder" capitalized. While there is only one founder of Islam, there are many founders in general, and "The Founder of Islam" isn't a special title that is the normative way of referring to him so as to have become iconic, it is just a descriptor. We don't say "The Founder of Microsoft" even though that clearly designates Bill Gates. (Maybe in Islamic countries the phrase is indeed iconic and THERE it would plausibly be capitalized. We aren't in one of those countries.)

I could go with Steve's "The False Prophet Mohammed" if there weren't so many other signal false prophets around: Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, etc. I would happily use "the false prophet Mohammed." Or even "the False prophet Mohammed" just to rub it in a little more, like Paul above - as if his falseness is indeed iconic in the class of false prophets.

Step2, there is a distinction between "Christ" and "Prophet". There is only one Messiah, unique to all of history. The Jewish concept is singular. (True, the word does refer to one who is anointed, and there are many who are anointed, but as used "the anointed" meant the one specific Davidic king of prophecy.) There are (even in Islamic teaching) many prophets. So inherently the given use of "christ" is a unique designator and thus ready to be morphed into a name (and therefore capitalized), whereas "prophet" is not.

By the way, as a purely sociological matter I'm confident that "Prophet Mohammad" without the article "the" is more deferential than "the Prophet Mohammad" with the article, though less extremely deferential than "the Prophet" full stop. But I'm not precisely sure why. My best guess is that dropping the article is so unusual among non-Muslims that it sounds like a specialized or foreign usage and therefore stands out as an attempt to "sound Muslim."

I have similar discomfort when speaking to a Catholic priest. Those of their flock would address him as "Father." As a non-Catholic (actually, ex-Catholic) it leaves me with awkward choices of address. I can refer to the Pope as Pope, but if I ever met him, I wouldn't know how to address him. He doesn't even go by his real name.

John, we address public figures by their honorary TITLES all the time. If go before a judge, you say "your Honor," not "Mr. Smith" - even if you know for a fact that he isn't all that honorable. If I meet the Archbishop of Canterbury, I would say "Your Grace" because that's his title, even if I don't think he's filled with grace, and if I address a letter to him it would be styled "The Most Reverend..." or "The Right Honorable" even though I doubt he is the most reverend bishop and maybe some of them weren't very honorable. If you meet the Pope, you say "Your Holiness" not because you are convinced of his holiness but because of his public honorary title - some of the popes weren't very holy (so far as we can tell).

But in print, for a dead person, we aren't addressing them in person and the honorary title concept doesn't really apply. I would not say of Pope Adrian IV "His Holiness Pope Adrian IV" (unless I were using an historical present construction).

John, I don't think you would be acquiescing in anything if you called him "Fr. Jones" or what-not, but if you really have a problem with it you could always replace "Fr." with "Rev."

I think we are missing something here. The suggestion seems to be that, out of convention, I should carry on the cultural fiction of personal address even into the realm of God (the religious and spiritual)? I should address by what someone is actually not (full of grace, reverend, holy) in order to be honorary--simply because the exalted ones are esteemed in some religion, whether or not it is one that I share, or whether or not it is even a legitimate religion? I should call evil good, bitter sweet, and darkness light out of etiquette?

Do I not, when engaging such honorific titling, empower illegitimately people for whom God has ascribed no such honorary position? In many cases, would I not be ascribing to such people honors that should rightly be ascribed to God alone--full of grace, reverend, holy, etc.

Have we forgotten the Biblical call to differentiate true from false messengers, to honor none other than those God would honor? You will find in Scripture neither pope nor archbishop, and prophets carefully sifted to tell true from false.

And are we not disregarding the Lord's instructions against receiving and against offering mortals such honors (Matt. 23:1-12)? Aren't all who receive such honors diminishing, to some degree, what truly belongs only to God?

Dare I say that the authoritative superstructures of many "churches" exist only in contradiction to the Scripture they claim? They are full of institutionally-important exalted ones, and the constituents of such institutions bestow on them honor and authority quite apart from God. They have busted free of Bible categories and, out of convention, we are now to carry on the fictions?

I should not be so critical without offering some better alternative. Perhaps we should all try a return to Biblical Christianity, and leave the fictions. They are shortly to be exposed anyway as mighty edifices upon the sands of culture.

Whoa, whoa, are you saying that even the title "Reverend" is objectionable to you? Gee, and here I thought that I was being irenic and suggesting a compromise. I mean, if I suggest "Pastor" as a suitably Protestant title for people in a ministerial role, are you then going to get upset because you might not actually know that the person in question is really shepherding God's flock?

At this point, I might point out that "doctor" means "learned" based on the Latin and that therefore you should refuse to refer to anyone as "Dr. Jones" unless you have personal knowledge that he is really learned.

I smell some stank hobbyhorsing from this one.

Look, when I meet an imam, Arabic for "leader," I will not fail to utter his title, out of civic respect and cordiality. I'd even address Kasim Reed as "Mayor" (Latin or Old French for "greater") should I ever make his acquaintance; even though his recent craven submission to organized perversity suggests the very reverse of that word's meaning. If any kind of honorific title is verging on idolatry, we've got a lot of civilizations, societies, cities, towns, villages, to tear down, because virtually every last one of them sets up wicked temptations to idolatry.

Scripture directly admonishes against idle insurrectionist notions. We're instructed to respect the civic nature of government, its purpose to punish evil and reward good. We instructed to live peaceably with our neighbors, which we can hardly do if every one of them who's afforded an honorific, by social convention, should be ostentatiously rebuked.

would I not be ascribing to such people honors that should rightly be ascribed to God alone--full of grace, reverend, holy, etc.

Well. Number one, I would think that the angel Gabriel is good enough authority for the thesis that "full of grace" is not rightly ascribed to God alone.

The suggestion seems to be that, out of convention, I should carry on the cultural fiction of personal address even into the realm of God (the religious and spiritual)?

Number two, I would not seek to ascribe to "the realm of God" our relationships with each other as borne out by religious matters here on Earth, in contrast to "culture". I would hope that my culture is infused and suffused with Godly relationships and Godly activities to the point where the "realm of God" is part of the fabric of culture and daily life. I would not want to attempt to distinguish calling a judge "your honor" because "that's cultural" and then refuse to call a bishop "your honor" because that is of "the realm of God." (Especially if the bishop is, actually, more honorable than the judge.)

Most romance languages use for the title by which you greet or name a man a variant that comes from "lord". In Spanish, "senor" is what is in French "monsieur (mon sieur = my lord) " and in Italian "signore". There were lords before Jesus, and lords after, surely we wont't condemn the entirety of these countries for using the word to refer to every man around them instead of reserving the title to the Lord!

And are we not disregarding the Lord's instructions against receiving and against offering mortals such honors (Matt. 23:1-12)? Aren't all who receive such honors diminishing, to some degree, what truly belongs only to God?

And do you equally object to calling your own father "father"?

And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matt 23:9)

I have heard that there ARE some few Protestants who take Matt 23:9 to such an extent that they refuse to call their own father by that name, even though there is no other word for the relationship in the language by which to call their father. What do they do, call him "Harold".

Honor your father and your mother. (Exodus 20:12)

Surely it is an offense against the Commandment to "honor your father and your mother" not to CALL your father by the name "father" (when even GOD calls your father "father"?) and instead use his given name as if you were his equal. So what must we do, make up some OTHER name which means "father" in order to follow the Commandment but not disobey Matt 23:9? Wouldn't that just be a pro-forma evasion?

Funny thing, I have not found any Christians willing to take Matt 23:9 literally, but who also insist on taking John 6 literally. I don't know what it is about that, but there it is: virtually everybody agrees that you shouldn't take SOME things that Christ said literally. They just pick different parts.

I search all of your attempted loopholes and find none convincing. It will not do to point to terms of function (pastor, elder, shepherd--they are all the equivalents) and see their the seeds of a system of human honor that will one day ascend to heaven: voila, a pope! Nor is it healthy to titter at the Scriptures, as though they are inane, because some absurd application has been made by someone somewhere. The Scripture means something, and that meaning should be honored. Let me know when you find it. Nor, again, is it helpful to find civil equivalents of honor and titles, for it assumes an essentially political character of "church." Nor should it inspire confidence that you all stand together on this: "Me too!" I should feel quite vulnerable to take my stand on the position that we should take it on ourselves to honor people in church, the special domain of God, when God has either not directed this, or--as Scriptures indicate--God forbids and opposes.

It strikes me that this issue has a deeper root and is but the manifestation of a more central problem. Perhaps that one on a different day.

You should all know that I appreciate you for all that you bring to this forum, and appreciate Lydia for hosting it and enduing it with most satisfying content.

Well, truthfully, John Krivak, I think your position on this particular topic is bizarre--objecting even to calling someone "Reverend" or "Pastor," regardless of whether there is any _particular_ reason against _that_ person (e.g., he's individually known to be a fake or a swindler) and denying any analogy to calling someone with a PhD "doctor." It makes no sense to me whatsoever, and your attempts to argue for it just sound like free-associative rants trying to be radical and based on extremely poor exegetical reasoning from a completely insufficient textual basis.

It is in any event getting off-topic from the main topic, because the analogy between calling someone ordained "pastor" and calling Mohammad "the prophet" is tenuous, to put it mildly. So I think we'll leave it there.

Nor is it healthy to titter at the Scriptures, as though they are inane, because some absurd application has been made by someone somewhere.

John, you haven't actually answered to the problem in the least: God Himself calls my father "father" in the commandment, and He commands me to honor him. Do you honestly think I myself am forbidden to call my father by the very same title as God uses for him? If not, in what sense is Matt 23:9 supposed to be understood so as to permit me to call my father by the title "father"?

And, by the way, I wasn't tittering at Scripture, I was tittering at you, so as to avoid something far more vehement. I find your position funny. I don't find Scripture funny.

Sorry, Lydia, I guess we wrote posts at the same time.

Shouldn't we have some consistency toward all who expect honorific titles of address in religious circles? Popes and archbishops have no more Biblical claim to such place than does the founder of Islam. Yet people who stumble over "the Prophet" don't sense their inconsistency should they, out of convention, nonplussedly blurt out: "Your Holiness, The Pope." or "the Most Reverend and Right Honorable Archbishop of Canterbury" (it still makes me snicker that they call themselves "primates"). None of that has any place in Biblical Christianity, but somehow is quite at home in our conventions.

For my part, taking my Lord's cue so as to avoid the flattery of honorific titles, I consistently have no such conventions. Should I have the privilege of meeting N. T. Wright, I would hope "Tom" or "Mr. Wright" would do just fine. The grand exalted muggawumps will have to get their accolades elsewhere.

No, there is no inconsistency. A prophet is a very specific type of thing, and the existence of prophet status is not, and no one (not even Muslims) has ever claimed that it is, granted by human bodies.

In contrast, to be a pastor, for example, is in human society a status that is granted by ordination. Even the most minimalist Baptists (I should know, I used to be one) believe that there is such a thing as ordination, that it's carried out by human beings, and that it confers human society's clergy status.

So you're just vaguely lumping to create a non-category called "honorific titles of address in religious circles" which was _never_ the topic of discussion. At all.

Shouldn't we have some consistency toward all who expect honorific titles of address in religious circles? Popes and archbishops have no more Biblical claim to such place than does the founder of Islam.

You are lumping in "religious circles" an equivalency of God's revelation in Scriptures and the Church with Muslim's beliefs in Mohammed and the Quran. They aren't remotely equivalent. I can't imagine why someone who believes in Christianity would want to do that. There is no cause for assuming such an equivalence, and no cause for assuming that we ought to be "consistent" in treating all other religious claims as having inherently equal rights with those of Christians.

It is obvious from the Bible that God favors the use of terms of honor and respect toward humans, and that He wants us to use these terms with attention to the meaning and source of the honor. The angel calls Mary "full of grace" not because Mary is self-important, but because Mary magnifies GOD's glory - as she herself says to Elizabeth.

St. Paul uses "father" of Abraham, not merely in the standard sense (as father of Isaac), but in the religious sense as well, as a term showing respect for his role in faith:

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

The terms "patriarch", "prophet", and "apostle" came to be terms of honor and respect because of the roles of these in the salvation of many, and yet throughout the Bible we see men (rightly and worthily) giving these titles to various men as sign of respect. The apostles named a new member and called him "apostle" in Acts.

Giving respect to men isn't wrong and certainly isn't unbiblical. Giving respect to men as if (a) God is not the source of the honor; or (b) the title of respect is not to be referred to God, and (c) not for building up the Church and the kingdom of God - these are bad things. Giving respect to prophets (as did the widow to Isaiah), and apostles is Biblical when that is referred to God as source and summit and it builds up the Church.

At the risk of me-tooing again:

John, in addition to what Lydia and Tony have said, none of us will ever actually meet Muhammad of Arabia, and thus we need not even consider how we might address him in civil or societal intercourse. But we're all likely to meet a Catholic priest, or an Anglican vicar, in social circumstances some time over the course of our lives. We may meet a bishop. We may even meet a monsignor. Only a strain of monomania could induce you to overlook the distinction between personal address and posthumous critique.

Relatedly, you may notice that some authors, historians, commentators do indeed refer to, say, Pope John Paul the Great (as a Protestant I judge him worthy of the title) as simply Karol Wojtyla. His American friend the renowned former editor of First Things appears in print merely as Neuhaus. No great furor arises over this, even among Catholics. Curious, that. Could it be because these men have left this mortal coil to their eternal reward, and none of us has any cause to inquire into how we'd address them if they walked into our living room?

To refer to this key point of plain reason -- that we address people differently in their presence than we do about them in historical disputation -- as among so many "attempted loopholes" from Scriptural orthodoxy is ... well, not a strong suggestion of exegetical brilliance.

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