“The essential problem that the study of religion poses is how to preserve religious truth, traditional orthodoxy, the dogmatic theological structures of one’s own religion and yet gain knowledge of other traditions and accept them as spiritually valid ways and roads to God.” – Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Islam and the Encounter of Religions” (1999)
Christian-Muslim relations have been in the spotlight in recent years. Much have been due to the rise of religious extremism and conflicts involving and affecting the Christian and Muslim communities. In a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, Christians were the subject of harassment in 108 out of the 159 countries, while Muslims were harassed in 100 countries. These harassments include physical assaults, arrests and detentions, desecration of holy sites, discrimination and verbal assaults. In several of these cases, the tensions and conflicts involve direct Christian-Muslim clashes. Alas, despite the professed ‘Abrahamic roots’ of the two religions, Christian-Muslim relations remain fragile in the face of contemporary challenges. Given that both communities constitute more than half of world’s population (54% combined in 2010; Christianity 31%, Islam 23%) and projected to grow, Christian-Muslim relations have been the focus of several interfaith initiatives in the last few years; and rightly so.
Factors causing and driving these conflicts vary, but two historical determinants cannot be ignored. First, is the residue of the past memory of the imperial rivalry culminating in the era of the Crusades that continues to shape contemporary extremist narratives weaved along with an a-historical and de-contextualised theological response towards the Other. Second, is the mess of postcolonial conditions shaped by the baggage of a colonial era that pits the ‘Christian West’ against the ‘Muslim ummah’ read into unresolved contemporary geopolitical and economic conditions of the Muslim world. Hence, mending Christian-Muslim relations in the contemporary context must not ignore a critical evaluation of history and how the past had shaped the present.
These past determinants that has seeped through the contemporary reality may have amplified, inadvertently, the extremist narrative that Islam and Christianity are bound for a clash, defined by a cosmic narrative that the two religions are eternally locked in rivalry till the end of time where one’s legitimacy and presence can only be substantiated by the denial and obliteration of the other. It was as though co-existence and embrace between the two religious communities was anathema and contrary to the very essence of what it means to hold the truth or to be a faithful believer. For Muslim extremists in particular, this antipathy towards Christianity may range from a refusal to greet Christians on festivities such as Christmas, to an avowal to launch armed jihad against them. On the other side, for Christian extremists, the antipathy towards Islam may range from discriminatory treatment of Muslims to support for the bombing and invasion of Muslim countries.
Inter-connected and complex history
The extremist narrative, however, has mistaken the true nature of the Christian-Muslim relationship, which has never been of a single track. It ranges from mutual cooperation to rivalry, diatribe to dialogue, and conciliation to confrontation. (Bennett, 2008; Goddard, 2000) This is true, even of the medieval period, where Fletcher (2003) remarked: “Wherever and whenever we direct our gaze we find a diversity in the type or the temperature of encounter.” While acknowledging the centuries old conflict and rivalry that has shaped perceptions and relations between two of the world’s biggest religions (Jamieson, 2016), one must also be cognisant of the much-ignored strand of authentic embrace between the two religions, particularly in the formation of a civilisation that forms the basis of the modern world. Richard Bulliet’s The Case for an Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004) made excellent overtures to this. Bulliet dismisses the idealised notion of a separate (and antithetical) “Western” and “Islamic” civilisations, and argues that there are more similarities and peaceful interactions between the Christian and Muslim world than we would care to admit. A case in point is the much studied la convivencia (‘the coexistence) of the Muslim Iberian Peninsula of the medieval period that Menocal (2002) describes eloquently in her book, Ornament of the World. A specially commissioned study compiled as Borders of Islam (2009) further strengthens the case that Huntington’s once popular idea of an inevitable ‘clash of civilisation’ is a myth that ignores the complexity of conflicts involving Muslim and non-Muslim societies that cannot be reduced to a simplistic dualism or fault-line between Islam and other religions.
It is important, therefore, to firstly, highlight these nuanced situations as a counter to the supremacist view of religion that denies the value (not just the fact) of religious diversity and is bent upon dominating or obliterating the Other. Secondly, there is a need to promote a different narrative: one that is not simply utilitarian in the face of our contemporary reality of religious pluralism, but derives its legitimacy from the rich and diverse religious tradition and informed by the complex nature of Christian-Muslim relations from the formative period of Islamic history. Below, I shall highlight three aspects deserving of attention in the narrative. It is a narrative that can form a basis for the reformulation of a contemporary Muslim ‘theology of religions’ that departs from the notion of an irreconcilable division and opposition between Christianity and Islam that extremists peddle towards fulfilling the self-professed inevitable confrontation between the communities of both faiths. However, I am cognisant that I am discussing this from the Muslim angle and will leave further elaborations on the Christian perspective to my Christian friends and theologians.
An alternate theology and reading of early relations
Historical amnesia, historians often caution, is a danger that makes every society vulnerable to ideological manipulations. This is certainly germane to today’s situation, with the rise of demagoguery and extremism via global technology and mass communication. In highlighting an alternate reading of Christian-Muslim relations from the earliest period of Islamic history, I hope that new and creative engagements with the tradition can occur that can lead to better prospects to mend the relationship amidst the increasingly divisive rhetoric of extremists from both sides. This, inevitably, will involve an exploration into three components: the sacred foundational text of Islam (i.e. the Qur’an), the early interactions between both communities prior to the age of dynasties, and the continuous strand linking the formative period to later evolution at the theological and practical level.
In looking at these three components, I would affirm that the general validity of the Christian faith was never doubted during the formative years, even though Islam did try to correct ‘errors’ that could be understood as minor and not significant enough to set them apart from the monotheistic path emphasised by Islam. In fact, the idea of Islam nullifying the Christian faith through supersession is one interpretation that cannot be confused with the default theology of all Muslims. In his erudite analysis of pluralism, Sachedina (2001) wrote: “There is no doubt that the Koran [sic.] is silent on the question of supersession of the previous Abrahamic revelations through the emergence of Muhammad. There is no statement in the Koran, direct or indirect, to suggest that the Koran saw itself as the abrogator of previous Scriptures… It is important to bear in mind that the Koran introduces the idea of abrogation in connection with specific legal injunctions revealed in particular verses but apparently repealed, that is, abrogated or superseded by other verses. Accordingly, applying abrogation to Islam’s attitude toward preceding Abrahamic traditions was, to say the least, debatable.”
Throughout Islamic history, there have been voices that were amenable to an inclusive theology of religions. Within this alternate theology, Christians and Muslims are linked through a divine thread that unites them beyond the literal and outward forms of religion. Sufism, the spiritual branch of Islam, offers the most promising resource to understand this aspect further. (Nasr, 1999) A case in point is the writing of the celebrated mystic-philosopher, Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), whose interpretation of Q. 5:17 (“They have disbelieved/kafara who said: Truly God is the Messiah son of Mary…”) to mean a literal “covering up” (kufr) and not disbelief. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the Christians concealed God in the form of Jesus and not in “saying ‘He is God’ nor ‘the son of Mary’” (Fusūs al-Hikam, in Shah-Kazemi, 2006). Other Muslim scholars with an inclusive approach to Christianity includes Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) and al-Kashani (d. 1329), both hailing from the mystical and esoteric tradition in Islam. The Syrian 18th century Mufti of Damascus, al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), represents another interesting alternate theology that departs from the dominant exclusivist strand by saying that Christians with faith in God in their hearts are indeed believers, even if they remain as non-Muslim in their legal status. (Khalil, 2012) This is similar to how Indonesian scholar, Nurcholish Madjid (2003) interprets the distinction between islām (submission to God) and Islam (a legal category of being a follower of Muhammad) – as the Qur’an 3:67 declares Abraham, who preceded Muhammad, as ‘one who submits’ (muslīm). This distinction allows for a more inclusive truth-claim while being expansive in defining the path to the divine beyond the human construction of religion; or, as the Qur’an puts it: “To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way (shirʿatān wa minhāj). If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people…” (Q. 5:48)
Firstly, the close affinity that Muslims had with the Christians can be substantiated through the foundational text of the Qur’an. Q.5:82 declares that “nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians’…” The context of the verse was not entirely clear nor can be substantiated, but what is certain is that it acknowledges “a certain spiritual affinity between the Christians and the Muslims.” (Nasr, 2015) This affinity was also grounded in notable extension found in the Prophetic tradition. In one report (ahadith) found in both Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the Prophet said: “I am the closest of the people to Jesus the son of Mary in this life and in the Hereafter.” When asked how is that, he further replied: “The prophets are brothers from one father with different mothers. They have one religion and there was no other prophet between us.”
Notably, Q.5:82 was not an isolated verse. In fact, twice in the Qur’an was the salvific possibility of the Christians mentioned in unequivocal terms – “wa lā khawfun ‘alaihim wa la hum yahzanūn / on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (Q.2:62; cf. 5:69). Fazlur Rahman, in his Major Themes of the Qur’an (1989), mentions that the Prophet was aware of the unity of the Abrahamic faiths, but gradually acknowledged the mutually exclusive “communities” only when in Medina. In fact, the Qur’an’s frequent witness to the authenticity of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews included) is remarkable that Cyril Glassé (2001) once remarked, “The fact that one Revelation [i.e. the Qur’an] should name others [i.e. the Ahl al-Kitāb/People of the Book] as authentic is an extraordinary event in the history of religions.”
Examples abound in the Qur’anic text. In Q.10:94 and 16:43, Prophet Muhammad was asked to enquire from the People of the Book with regards to the truth of God’s revelation to him in the face of the Meccan detractors, while Q.74:31 mentions that the Prophet sought consolation from the People of Book who were certain of the truth that God revealed to him. In fact, the recognition of the People of the Book as bearers of divine truth in the Prophetic age was confirmed by a late Medinan verse that attempts to remove two important social barriers – dietary and marriage restrictions: “The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time…” (Q.5:5). Mahmoud Ayoub (2007), a foremost scholar on Christian-Muslim relations observes that these verses “demonstrate clearly the unity of faith and purpose which, according to the Qur’an, should exist among the three communities of faith [i.e. the Jews, Christians and Muslims].”
In one interpretation of early Islam, Donner (2010) notes that the Prophet and his early followers were less enamoured by the exclusive distinctiveness of their faith – a marked difference during the age of Muslim dynasties that understandably, would have carved out an exclusive faith to consolidate its position of power amidst the presence of the Christian Roman-Byzantine and Zoroastrian Persian-Sassanid empires to the west and the east of Arabia, contemporaneously. Hence, the early “believers” (mu ͗minūn, as a confessional identification, instead of the later and more exclusive identification of muslimūn) sense themselves as “constituting a movement open to all who believed in God’s oneness and in righteous living”, which forms the ecumenical character of early Islam.
Secondly, the Qur’an’s acknowledgement of the Christians in largely positive terms (except in a few verses, e.g. Q.5:72-3, Q.9:30 and Q.5:116, which describe Christian beliefs in ways that even the majority of the Christians would not identify with and hence, can be seen as Christian ‘heterodoxies’ or possibly, ‘heresies’), is best understood in the significant presence of Christianity in the Arabic context during the Prophetic age, particularly in north-west, north-east of Arabia, as well as the east coast of the south. This presence has been amply discussed in Trimingham’s Christianity among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times (1979). “The fact remains,” wrote the El Hassan bin Talal (1998), “that the Christian Arabs are in no way aliens to Muslim Arab society: a society whose history and culture they have shared for over fourteen centuries to date, without interruption, and to whose material and moral civilization they have continually contributed, and eminently so, on their own initiative or by trustful request.”
Based on one of the earliest biographical sources on Prophet Muhammad, Sirāt Rasul Allah (‘The Life of the Prophet of God’) by Ibn Ishaq (d.767), there were at least five direct encounters between the Prophet/early Muslims and the Christians, and in all of these, they were largely non-hostile and affirming of the closeness in faith: (1) a monk in the desert by the name of Bahira who saw the mark of prophethood in Muhammad when the latter was 12 years old and followed his uncle, Abu Talib for trade to Syria; (2) a Christian scholar by the name of Waraqa ibn Naufal, who assured Khadijah, the Prophet’s wife, that Muhammad will be a prophet to the Arabs, when she sought his advice concerning the traumatic experience of Muhammad after receiving his first revelation, (3) the early converts’ migration to Abyssinia circa 615 CE to seek protection from Negus, a Christian ruler of the kingdom of Axum, following the Meccan persecution – and upon hearing the Muslim delegation’s recital of a verse on Jesus from a chapter on Mary from the Qur’an, was reported to have picked up a stick and said that the difference between the Muslim and Christian belief on Jesus is no greater than the length of the stick; (4) the Prophet’s hosting of a delegation of Christians from Najran for a discussion, which ended with peaceful disagreements but of significance was the invitation of the Prophet to the Christians, led by a bishop, to perform their prayers within the Prophet’s mosque compound; and (5) the Prophet, towards the end of his life, sending letters to the neighbouring Christian rulers such as Heraclius, the emperor of Byzantine and the Negus of Axum, to accept Islam – an encounter that reflected the expanding power of the early Muslim community more than an exclusive theological assertion.
Thirdly, the positive attitude of the early Muslims may have informed the largely tolerant nature of later Muslims with regards to the Christians. Reza Shah-Kazemi in his book, The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam (2012) demonstrates how “tolerance of the Other is in fact integral to the practice of Islam; it is not some optional extra, some philosophical or cultural indulgence, or still less, something that one needs to import from some other tradition.” Examples abound in various periods of Islamic history. So much so that even Voltaire who was extremely critical of religion, pointed to the “sociable and tolerant religion” of Islam, in contrast to rabid intolerance of the Christian West where no mosque was allowed, but “the Ottoman state was filled with churches”.
One interesting document that may be representative of the tolerant characteristic of early Islam that shapes later Muslim attitude is the “Covenant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World” (known in Arabic as al-‘Ahd wa al-shurut allati sharataha Muhammad rasul Allah li ahl al-millah al-nasraniyyah) that was extensively discussed – along with other similar covenants to the monks of Mount Sinai, Christians of Persia, Najran, Assyria and the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem – in John Andrew Morrow’s book, The Covenants of Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (2013). In the covenant, the Prophet gave the promise “to guard and protect” the “all those who profess the Christian religion, in the Eastern lands and its West, near and far, be they Arabs or non-Arabs, known or unknown” which includes not “to remove a bishop from his bishopric, a monk from his monastic life, a Christian from his Christianity, an ascetic from his tower, or a pilgrim from his pilgrimage. Nor is it permitted to destroy any part of their churches or their businesses or to take parts of their buildings to construct mosques or the homes of the believing Muslims.” The document further outlined various other protections, including freedom of religion: “No one who practices the Christian religion will be forced to enter into Islam… They must be covered by the wing of mercy and all harm that could reach them, wherever they may find themselves and wherever they may be, must be repelled.” Remarkably, the covenant covers the specific protection of Christian women, where “the girls of the Christians must not be subject to suffer, by abuse, on the subject of marriages which they do not desire. Muslims should not take Christian girls in marriage against the will of their parents nor should they oppress their families in the event that they refused their offers of engagement and marriage. Such marriages should not take place without their desire and agreement and without their approval and consent” and “If a Muslim takes a Christian woman as a wife, he must respect her Christian beliefs. He will give her freedom to listen to her [clerical] superiors as she desires and to follow the path of her own religion.”
Although the authenticity of the covenant was disputed – a copy of which was dated to 1538 and widely circulated in the Ottoman Empire and Europe in the 17th century – it nonetheless corroborates with other similar covenants, and with Qur’anic ethos discussed earlier, and may be representative of the historic largely tolerant treatment of Christians during the Ottoman period and before. It was recorded that when the Muslims took Jerusalem in 638 CE, the second caliph, ‘Umar b. al-Kattab (d. 644) had a written message to the city’s inhabitants: “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is a written document from ‘Umar b. al-Khattab to the inhabitants of the Sacred House (bayt al-maqdīs). You are guaranteed (āminūn) your life, your goods, and your churches, which will be neither occupied nor destroyed, as long as you do not initiate anything [to endanger] the general security (hadathan ‘āmman).” (Sachedina, 2001) Throughout Muslim history, co-existence between Muslims and Christians was a cultural norm and mutual learning – testament to early Islam’s acceptance of the universality of the good, regardless of its religious origin – was not uncommon. For example, it was known that a luminary thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had no qualms in using Christian and Jewish sources as nass (text, used in argumentation as dalil/proof) in his writings, such as his Kitāb al-‘Ilm (Book of Knowledge). In fact, well-known 10th/11th century philosophers such as al-Sijistani (d. 1001) and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 1023) were students of a leading Jacobite Christian, Yahya ibn ‘Adi (d. 974) who lived in Baghdad. In the Sufi tradition, it was reported that the ascetic, Ibrahim bin Adham (d. 782) turned to a Christian monk named Father Simeon, who was “my first teacher in ma ͗rifāh (mystical knowledge).”
Embracing the Other as ‘Us’
What can be observed from the brief discussion above is that early Muslims had significant contact and engagements with the Christians that were largely peaceful and respectful. This was driven by the very message of Islam that, as seen in various parts of the Qur’an, accepted the inherent diversity of religions as God’s Will. In the context of family tradition, i.e. the People of the Book, Christianity was seen as a valid religion that has elements of truth which was affirmed in the Qur’an. Much of the disagreement that the Qur’an has with regards to Christian theology are not significant enough that prohibits social integration at the most intimate level, such as the permissibility of inter-marriage and sharing of food. It was this belief that informed later cordial and friendly interactions and protection of the other. Unfortunately, as the Muslim community expanded and established an empire of its own, a need for a constituted separate and unique political identity emerged along with a more exclusivist theology that accentuate differences more than the earlier affinity and closeness. This was further compounded by a hostile period where both communities clashed during the Crusades and locked in imperial rivalry that impacted further the theology of one against the other. This carried on to the colonial period and Muslims emerging from the colonised situation still carry the burden and baggage of the period of ‘Christian West’ dominating and plundering Muslim lands and humiliating them by the racist notion of a ‘superior Judeo-Christian-Western civilisation’ and suppressing any memory of the contributions of Islam to the rise of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Knowing the burden of history requires us to confront the narrative that has and continues to shape the present perceptions. This involves a reworking of the theology of religions based on knowledge of the historicity and contingency of views located in a certain period in time, while offering a new reading derived from the same authoritative early sources but contextualised to the present. This will also require laying the foundations for conciliatory approaches as opposed to the confrontational. Diatribe that has characterised Christian-Muslim relations for the last few decades, must be replaced with greater dialogue and mutual learning. Humility to acknowledge what has gone wrong in history and our sense of inadequacy in grasping the entire majestic truth of the divine, are prerequisites.
At the popular level, theological disputes must be replaced with narrative-building. This can start with common stories and wisdoms shared across the two communities. Just as early Islam benefited and grew out of positive inter-cultural contact and interactions, we must allow for new encounters that can lead to creative reworking of theology and how we make sense of our own present religious conditions, inter-religiously. This need not be an amalgamation of the two religions, which is neither possible nor desirable. But it can be a mutual partaking of wisdom and shared commitment in the pursuit of the divine and of truth that transcends the boundaries of each religious community. Differences may exist, but just like in the earliest period of Islam, they do not define the relationship or rebuke the divine basis and legitimacy of the other. It is how Mona Siddiqui (2013) eloquently remarked: “However differently Christians and Muslims define God and their relationship to God, God remains the deepest presence in our lives… whenever and wherever I turn to God, I share this humbling but joyful relationship with all who turn to him in faith.” It is to God that we turn to ultimately, not the worship of our own religion, much less, the Ego Self.
Ayoub, Mahmoud. 2007. A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue by Mahmoud Ayoub. Edited by Irfan Omar. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Bennett, Clinton. 2008. Understanding Christian-Muslim Relations: Past and Present. London: Continuum.
Bulliet, Richard W. 2004. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. Columbia University Press.
Donner, Fred M. 2010. Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Fletcher, Richard. 2003. The Cross and the Crescent: The Dramatic Story of the Earliest Encounters between Christians and Muslims. London: Penguin Books.
Glassé, Cyril. “Ahl al-Kitāb” in The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, Revised Edition. London: Stacey International.
Goddard, Hugh. 2000. A History of Christian-Muslim Relations. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books.
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Hansen, Stig Jarle, Mesoy, A. and Kardas, T. 2009. The Borders of Islam: Exploring Samuel Huntington’s Faultlines from Al-Andalus to the Virtual Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jamieson, Alan G. 2016. Faith and Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict, Second Expanded Edition. London: Reaktion Books.