Professor J.D. Latham belongs to that category of Christian scholars who have chosen to adopt a more sympathetic view about Islam and its followers than many of their predecessors who spared few stones from overturning to disrepute Islam and the Prophet, may Allah's blessings and mercy be on him.
He is regarded by many as the successor of Professor Montgomery Watt, the famous author of many well-known books on Islam including his highly acclaimed two volumes on the life of the Prophet (pbuh). The two, apart from the similarity of views, have served as Professors at the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Latham has also served as an editor of the bulletin of The British Society of Middle Eastern Studies (BISMES) and a member of the committee of Gobs Memorial Series.
Recently, he delivered a lecture on the topic of `Modern Challenges to Islam' in which he described the various efforts undertaken by the Christian writers and preachers from time to time to undo the influence of Islam on the non-Muslims and the less-informed Muslims. He emphasized the fact that most of the malicious propaganda was based either on lack of proper understanding of Islam or on deliberately distorted information about it. He then informed the audience about the noticeable change in attitude towards Islam one can observe in some of the well-known Christian scholars of today as distinct from their predecessors. This, according to him, was a welcome and healthy development.
He also pointed out the remarkable departure from the earlier policy of the Vatican regarding the faith which has the second largest following in the world after Christianity. To substantiate his view he quoted the relevant portion of the documents of Vatican II. The documents are the official version of what was agreed to by almost all the important Christian authorities of the world, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, who had assembled in the Vatican city between 1962 to 1964 for long sessions to decide a formal policy for the entire Christian world on various issues confronting them. The result of all these efforts were compiled in sixteen documents outlining the formal Christian policy called `The Documents of the Vatican II'. One of these documents is entitled `Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions'. Professor Latham quoted the part of this document relevant to Islam in his address. It says:
Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, Living and Enduring, Merciful and All-Powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they rever Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition they await the Day of Judgement when God will give each man his due after raising him up. Consequently, they prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
Although in the course of the centries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace, and freedom."
The lecture was followed by a question-answer session. This writer asked him how he managed to respect and praise the Prophet of the Muslims without formally being a Muslim, for in doing so it apparently meant that he was praising someone who, given his (Latham's) beliefs, had been consistently telling lies by making false claims to be the true Prophet of God and the receiver of His message. He gave no clear answer to the question but instead revealed that faith to him had nothing to do with reason. It appeared to be some sort of an apology for being a Christian. Interestingly, this view of Professor Latham about the relationship, or lack of it, between reason and faith is shared by many other Christian scholars of Britain as well. Ironically, however, many of the Muslim scholars too very proudly present the same absurd apology to those who demand reasonable explanations for the religious teachings of Islam.
He was asked by another Muslim to compare the linguistic beauty of the Quran with that of the Bible. Being a scholar of the Arabic language, he frankly admitted that while he found the existing English translation of the Bible too dull, even the Greek translation was no match to the inimitable literary beauty of the Quran. He, however, expressed his inability to comment on the Hebrew version of the Bible since he didn't know the language.
It is neither possible for us nor is it our responsibility to know whether, deep down in the heart, people like Professor Latham are really convinced about the authenticity of Islam or not. It is, however, quite clear that many of the Christian scholars know fully well that by adopting a sympathetic attitude towards the Muslims, as also towards followers of other faiths, they stand to gain an important advantage by turning away the attention of most of the people from the real issues that separate other faiths from the Christian beliefs. They have learnt through experience that they cannot afford to create a situation of confrontation in which a serious comparison between the dogmatic and intellectually unacceptable beliefs of Christianity with the Islamic faith will be necessitated. The modern advancement in the field of communication that has made it possible for information to spread in all corners of the world in no time has worsened their apprehensions. By `tuning down' this confrontation, they have attempted to halt the influence of Islam from making inroads into some of the honest, open-minded, and `less-committed' Christians who would have felt compelled to find the truth if the attitude of the Christians had been less friendly.
It is, of course, not being suggested that the Muslim scholarship should somehow ensure continuity of the earlier belligerence between the two faiths. They should, however, be aware of the changing attitude of the Christian world and devise fresh strategies to present the true Message of God to mankind in view of the changing circumstances which seem to be much more favourable for a faith which has the strength of reason behind its claims and teachings.
While presenting the message of Islam to the non-Muslims it should, however, be made quite clear to them that God Almighty cannot possibly desire from His servants to be following diverse and conflicting paths for the purpose of attaining salvation and earning His blessing. Of all the different versions of beliefs claiming divinity, logically only one can be the truth or else it will have to be acknowledged that the Creator of the World wants confusion and not truth to prevail in this world. That, of course, is the last thing the Almighty can will; that is, however, exactly what Professor Latham and the Vatican Declaration seem to be implying if one cares to look deeper into what they are attempting to suggest.