Dr Craig Considine: His Newsweek article, and why he speaks about the life of the Holy Prophet(sa)

The Review of Religions conducted an interview with Dr Craig Considine who is a scholar, professor, global speaker, and media contributor based at the Department of Sociology at Rice University. He is the author of ’The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View (Blue Dome Press, 2020)’, and ‘Islam in America: Exploring the Issues (ABC-CLIO 2019)’, among others. This interview was conducted in conjunction with the “Voice of Islam” radio station. Arif Khan represented The Review of Religions, who is also the Deputy Editor of the Christianity Section. His co-host was Sufyan Farooqi from the Voice of Islam.

(The views expressed by individuals in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Review of Religions or the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Furthermore, wherever salutations after the names of holy personages were not originally used have been added by The Review of Religions.)  

AK: Thank you so much. So, let’s get into it. I had a look on social media and and it seems like one massive area of focus for you is around the Christian-Muslim Islamic dialogue, which has probably been really important in the US, especially I guess 9/11 onwards, it has been a really key topic, so I’d love to hear how you got involved in the area of Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Dr. Craig Considine: Sure. You know, it is funny you brought up 9/11 because that for me was really the moment that started all of this, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was a 15-year-old, in high school, living in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in a town called Needham, which is right next to West Roxbury and Brookline, and it’s a town of about 30,000 people and it’s about 99% Christian and white – largely Irish, Italian Scottish etc. When 9/11 happened, there was really no frame of reference at all. I had never met a Muslim in my life. I didn’t really know anything about the Islamic tradition or the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad (sa), it wasn’t taught to us in school and as many people, I suppose do, who are uninformed, and maybe even naive, you kind of go down this path of misinformation, of taking the bait of the news. And as we know, the news does not always do the greatest job of depicting people or cultures or even religions. So, when that happened, that was, 2001 and 2003 comes along, the United States invades Iraq, and I’m a freshman in college and when it comes time for me to decide what I needed to study, I was really paying a lot of attention to world events. And again, this topic of the Islamic faith was so pronounced in the media and I kind of wanted to figure out why something like 9/11 happened. So many of us were given this phrase like ‘why do they hate us?’ So, again, I took the bait. When I got to Washington DC, which is obviously the heart of America’s kind of, political system, I was taking Arabic courses, I was taking introductory Islam courses, with the aim of entering into the intelligence field. I wanted to be kind of a bureaucrat in a way. And long story short, I entered into the world of Islam, which is a course taught by Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University. And on the first day of class, he shared with me many sayings of Prophet Muhammad (sa), but one that really stuck out and had a lasting impression and that hadith was the ‘ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr’. And for me, right then and there, I realised that knowledge is invaluable and knowledge is really a type of medicine for the world’s ills and for our social challenges. So, it just so happened that the Islamic tradition and Christian-Muslim relations has been an area that I have really explored in depth, but it’s bigger than that, it’s bigger than any topic or category. It’s about knowledge for me. It’s about the power of knowledge, the importance of learning, of bridge-building, not only through scholarship, but through human relations as well. So, this journey is really one of knowledge for me.

AK: I mean that’s fantastic to listen to. Yeah, I think a lot of Muslims can take some good notes from that as well because you are right, the Holy Prophet (sa) really stressed acquisition and knowledge. And sadly, sometimes there’s still ignorance amongst us and knowledge really can kind of help combat that. So, social media is known as a really dangerous place though. I have always wondered, in terms of the great positive stuff you have been putting out there, have you had negative reactions? How have you dealt with that? You know, how do you kind of handle that side of it?

Dr. Craig Considine: Sure, yes, you are absolutely right. Definitely get a spectrum of comments and questions. I would say this, generally speaking, it is a positive response. I do really take care to be positive and to have constructive messages, to really not get too deeply involved in politics, where things become polarised. But nevertheless, there are some people who are not interested in bridge-building, they are not interested in peace. This kind of exclusive approach to knowledge-gaining is not unique to one particular group at all. A lot of people would think that I get a lot of backlash from, let’s say, Christians who are Islamophobic and who do not want to see Muslims in a humane light. I mean, that is true and I do get messages. But I also get messages from Muslims, who are, kind of condemning me because I identify myself as a Christian. Or, taking a random post that I have, let’s say about, Mary in the Quran or something about how Prophet Muhammad (sa) would approach a pandemic, like the Coronavirus and they will comment on this and say, I really hope that you convert. And I know some people may feel that these are good intentions. Some people want other people to be part of the same faith that they are and I understand that but you see this kind of closed mindedness everywhere. And for me, personally, over the years, I have really developed a thick skin for it and I am definitely one to take on constructive criticism. I am a learner, I love knowledge. I understand that I’m not perfect, nobody’s perfect and we should always strive to be better and to learn more. But when the kind of haters come along, I really just ignore it. And I found that there are some people that are just not here, especially on a social media site, to learn. They are there to condemn. And I would rather spend my time with individuals who are genuinely interested in learning, in dialogue and in expanding their mind. So, I kind of pick and choose my battles and I have to be careful with where I invest my time, If I could say that.

SF: So Dr. Craig. That’s really, really interesting. So, you’ve mentioned how when you started your journey of learning about Islam, you were doing it purely for a knowledge perspective. And I’ve been following you on social media for a while and it seems like while you’re still doing it to maybe get more knowledgeable and understand more, it seems like now, you almost have a deeper relationship with the religion of Islam. And I say that because some of your posts have been quite deep. So my question is, do you still feel like you are doing it for the purpose of attaining more knowledge about the religion, or do you think you are already there and now you are doing it for deeper reason because you built an affinity with the religion or with the personage of the Prophet Muhammad (sa)?

Dr. Craig Considine: That’s a good question, and thank you for that. I would say, both. I would say this, you cannot ever really disconnect you know the acquisition of knowledge and the process of knowledge with your own heart, your mind and your soul. I have absolutely developed a personal relationship, over the years, with numerous elements of the Islamic tradition, and particularly Prophet Muhammad (sa). He is someone that I have come to deeply admire through this process of gaining knowledge and I do not just share positive aspects of his life legacy, his teachings, his messages and the stories we know about him because I feel like it is important to bridge-build – I know it, that it is – but I mean the stuff that I post. I truly believe in, again, his life, his legacy and his teachings. So, for me, in many ways, engaging in this realm of knowledge, has enriched my own understanding of what it means to be a human and my own relationship with God. Long ago, I would say, maybe in 2009 or 10, after this initial phase of gaining knowledge had kind of initiated, it started becoming more personal and I started understanding God and my relationship with God in a different way and of course, all the mysteries and complexities that come with it. So, for me this is…it is a complex journey in many ways.  It is deeply, deeply personal and I am sure it is going to continue to be deeply personal. As long as I am continuing to seek knowledge, I am sure my perspectives will continue to, kind of, shape and shift with the times and depending on my surroundings and my environment. So, it is deeply personal.

SF:I would be really interested to know because, if I understand correctly, you are a practicing Catholic. So, when you read the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (sa) and the religion of Islam, how does that gel with the teachings that you adhere to, as part of your faith?

Dr. Craig Considine: Interesting question as well and I actually dedicate maybe six or seven pages of my forthcoming book to the golden rule in the Islamic tradition and the Christian tradition. And I use the examples provided by Jesus (as) and Muhammad (sa) to shed light on this commonality. So, I think first and foremost growing up as a Irish-Italian, Catholic in Boston and being reared in a Catholic school, we were taught the foundational principles of Jesus’s (as) life, which is to ‘Love thy neighbour as yourself’; to be someone that not only strives for peace but promotes peace; to treat others how you wish to be treated. I mean, these are kind of the basic principles and when I have dug deeper into the life of Muhammad (sa), I saw some really striking similarities. One story that really caught my mind early on in this process of gaining knowledge, was the story of the Jewish funeral procession passing by Muhammad (sa) and his companions. And Muhammad (sa) and his companions are all sitting down on the ground, and a funeral procession is coming by and Muhammad (sa) stands up and the companions are saying, what are you doing, this man is Jewish and then Muhammad (sa) says, this is a human soul, you stand and you pay your respects, it does not matter what race, creed, religion, ethnicity, whatever. He said, this is a human being. And that is a hugely significant and powerful lesson: he put humanity first. And when I view other elements of Muhammad’s (sa) life, I mean, that’s perfectly in line with my own faith and deeper than that, it’s not just about faith, it is about who Jesus (as) is, to me. We all have a unique relationship with Jesus (as) or views and I know some of my views of Jesus (as) are a bit unorthodox, especially for a Catholic, but I see them as kindred spirits, Muhammad (sa) and Jesus (as). They are really like brethren and even Muhammad (sa) mentioned that, he said that Jesus (as) and I are like brothers. And the Qur’an mentions that Christians are closest in love, closest in faith, to Muslims. So, when I see these passages, the light bulb goes off and I am just reminded again of how similar and how common our faith traditions are.

AK: Coming to the Covid situation and the piece you wrote on that, I wanted to understand a little about firstly your kind of motivation for taking up this topic about what would Prophet Muhammad (sa) do in this situation, so if you could talk a little about the motivation but then also, for those who have not maybe read it, what were some of the highlights from that article, what were the key Islamic teachings you had picked up on?

Dr Craig Considine: Sure. The motive was really in line with what we’ve been talking about, which is really the importance of knowledge. And when major world events often happen, or something around me is happening, I love to go into scripture and I love to look at all the Abrahamic prophets, Muhammad (sa) included, to see how might they approach contemporary events and things unfolding around us in society and politics and so on and so forth. From a Christian perspective, sometimes it is difficult to quote Jesus (as) because we do not really know that much about Jesus (as). That is how I see it, anyways. The first three Gospels largely tell the same story and then the Gospel of John provides a few more stories that the first three do not, but we really do not know too much about Jesus (as). 

But Muhammad’s (sa) life, on the other hand, is so well documented definitely much more so than Jesus’s (as) and I already knew some basic things, for example the importance of cleanliness in the Islamic tradition and I was familiar with Muhammad’s (sa) recommendations on keeping clean and washing hands. I really just did a simple 15 minute search, really quickly, I was like ok so: what might he say about the Coronavirus? I think I just typed into Google, prophet Muhammad (sa) and diseases, and a few people a few outlets had mentioned how he might approach a pandemic, like the coronavirus, but I dug a bit deeper and I came across four of five ahadith, that I’ll mention in a second, and I just wrote a really simple article. This Newsweek article really took me about 10 minutes, and I don’t even think I really edited it, it was simple, and it was simple because Muhammad (sa) explained it in a simple way. He wasn’t using parables, he wasn’t linking it to any metaphysical thing that was abstract. It was very clear and concise. So, my motivation was really to provide people with some practical steps to navigate this really difficult time that we see ourselves in.

In terms of Jesus (as), before I get to the actual article, you know Jesus’s (as) example his life and his legacy in light of the pandemic, I think it is more dynamic and fruitful when we consider what he would do if the pandemic was already happening. I think Jesus (as) would be the type of person that would go out into society run a makeshift camp, or volunteer at a hospital, try to heal the sick, heal the wounded, heal and assist those who are on the periphery of the society. 

If you actually go into history, one of the reasons why the early Christian communities around 200-300 AD were growing so rapidly was largely because there were several plagues in Rome and the Christians were the people that were really stepping up and doing their best to assist people. When people saw this service, and this selflessness, they were really intrigued by Christianity and Christianity grew. And I think that is in line with Jesus’s (as) spirit. It is interesting too, if we combine these two: Muhammad (sa) was giving us advice on how to prevent a pandemic from happening and then, once it happens, what can you immediately do to contain it, whereas what we know about Jesus (as), I feel Jesus would be more in the service realm, helping those who are actually sick.

In terms of the Newsweek article, the story that really seemed to stick with people was the story which I suppose I now call just the ‘tie your camel first’ story. Muhammad (sa), as the story goes, noticed a bedouin man one time leaving his camel and the bedouin man left the camel without tying it. Muhammad (sa) turns to the bedouin man and says, ‘Why aren’t you tying your camel?’ and the bedouin answered, and you can kind of imagine he says this proudly, that, ‘I have put my trust in God.’ Muhammad (sa) then turned to the bedouin man and said, ‘Why don’t you tie your camel first, and then put your trust in God.’

So I found this really significant. Tie your camel first, then put your trust in God. Muhammad (sa) is taking a very rational, pragmatic, common-sense approach and saying tie your camel first, you do not know what’s going to happen, take practical measures be safe, do the common-sense thing, but then also have faith in God. Pray, trust in God. He is striking a really important balance between reason and faith and I think that is really, really important, especially in today’s day and age where we’re so polarised. You are either only about faith, or only about science and you have to pick and choose one or the other. Muhammad (sa) was finding a middle ground and saying that we need both and I think that is really, really important with this pandemic swirling around us.

Another hadith mentions the importance of making use of medical treatment. So one thing that we’re hearing across the religious spectrum is people just saying, I’m going to pray to God and God is going to protect us from the coronavirus, or when you do get sick, just stay at home and you try to get better just by praying. Muhammad (sa) is actually saying, and we know this through another hadith, he is saying make use of medical treatment, and I’m paraphrasing here because basically, God didn’t make a disease without also making a cure for that disease. So, Muhammad (sa) is also encouraging people to seek medical advice and trust the experts as they know what is best in terms of combating the ill. And then we also know that Muhammad (sa) mentioned to wash your hands, you do not know where your hands have been and what type of germs are there. Then, of course, he also said, if you hear of an outbreak of a plague in the land, do not enter it. If the plague has broken out in a certain place while you are there then do not leave it, because by leaving it, you may spread it. 

So it’s pretty remarkable how relevant these passages are in light of what’s going on right now and he was by no means a medical expert, medical opinion in the traditional sense, but he’s offering really sound advice, and he’s offering wisdom that everyone can benefit from, and writing that article had that aim, hopefully people can just benefit from that advice really.

AK: And it was very interesting reading this part of your article. As I read it, I was thinking that this is in line with the advice from my government, but it is distilled into almost the smallest number of words. It is the simplest you can make it: if you hear of disease somewhere, do not go there, and if you are unwell stay at home. It was literally as simple as you cold make it yet still profound, and fully in line with the latest advice from the countries and medical professions.

Dr Craig Considine: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that is a testament to his character. Being able to dissect really complex things in a simple way is truly a gift from God, and Muhammad (sa) had the special ability of relating his ideas, and himself, to people that had absolutely no knowledge of what was being said or what was going on. I mean that is something that I aspire to do in my own life as a sociologist, as someone who teaches at Rice University, with complex sociological theories. What good are these theories, if they cannot be understood by someone who has no idea what these theories even stand for? Muhammad (sa) did a really good job, and I can imagine him engaging with the public in the seventh century, thinking how can he relate to these people. Jesus did the same thing. Jesus (as) was, as you know, a proponent of speaking in parables and telling stories basically, like nursery rhymes. How can we convince people to buy into these stories and to learn from these stories? It’s a special gift that the prophets had.

AK: What has been the response and the reaction to this article? I have noticed it being picked up by different news agencies, and seen clips of you on news shows and things. How has the response been?

Dr Craig Considine: I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive. As you mentioned, people all over the world really, have picked up on it and that’s all thanks to God and obviously the work of Muhammad (sa). I am just relaying his words really. It has been positive and it’s interesting too in a time like this, not to kind of bring it to the negative realm, the haters and the Islamophobes and the bigots and all of these kinds of individuals are completely silent, you know? Like, they can’t mess with these messages that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is giving to humanity, and I find it interesting these moments of silence and who is silent in a moment or after a publication like this because I regularly have people who will bash me, for whatever reason, for praising Muhammad (sa). But then, when you see his advice on how to handle a pandemic, however, these people are just silent. Often this type of silence teaches you a lot about who’s in this for knowledge and who isn’t. 

So I would say again, it has been positive. Which is great, for example, yesterday I did an interview with Al Jazeera of the Balkans, I did one with Voice of America Indonesia, and another interview with a major Turkish TV station so it is getting around the world. But, you know, surprisingly, it has not been picked up in the US, for whatever reason. But, you know, I cannot control who picks it up, and who does not. I just do my best to relay the message and hopefully people find these things on my social media channels.

AK: Yeah, no it’s fantastic, 

I thank you personally for doing such a great service for the teaching of Islam and it’s something that you know other Muslims look to and sort of see there’s some great teachings and gems and showing them in the world as something so positive and creating that dialogue is so important in the challenging current world we live in as well.  Thank you personally for doing that and keeping up that great work. 

Dr Craig Considine: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking too. Be safe. Take care. God bless and hope to see you soon.

You can hear the full interview on the Voice of Islam Soundcloud account by following this link.