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CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM. The history of Christian-Muslim relations begins with the biography of the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad met Christians and Jews on various occasions. Ibn Ishaq reports that a Christian uncle of Muhammad’s first wife identified Muhammad’s experience in the cave of Hira as divine revelation. Later, however, Muhammad disputed with a Christian delegation from Najran about the doctrine of the Incarnation; yet this same delegation had been invited to pray in the Prophet’s mosque. This ambivalence is reflected in the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’an tells Muslims that they will find Christians “nearest to them in love” (5.85) but warns them (5.54) not to take Christians or Jews as “close friends” or “protectors” (awliyd’). Sometimes the positive and sometimes the negative aspect has received greater emphasis in the history of Muslim relations with Christians.

The earliest Christian reaction to Islam shows ambivalence of a different kind and dates from the time when the early Muslim armies fought the Byzantine army for control of Egypt and Syria. Byzantine polemicists saw Islam as a “Satanic plot” to destroy Christian faith (Gaudeul, 1984, vol. 1, p. 65) and non-Chalcedonian Christians often saw Islam as “the rod of God’s anger” “to deliver us from the Byzantines” (Sahas, 1972, p. 23).

The development of dhimmi status gave non-Muslims, including Christians, some legal rights as subjects of Islamic government. In fact, relations between Christians and Muslims (especially the Muslim authorities) were generally very good during this period. The Muslim empire originally utilized the existing bureaucracy to administer the empire; the bureaucracy included Christians everywhere, especially in Egypt and Syria. In fact, the first language of Muslim administration in the Umayyad court at Damascus was Greek, not Arabic. Evidence does exist of problems between Christians and Muslims in the general populace, for example, the Coptic uprising in Egypt in 829-830. During this period, Islam inherited the learning of the Hellenistic tradition. The caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833) founded an academy to translate works of science, philosophy, and medicine from Greek into Arabic. The Bible was one of the few religious works translated. Islam became the heir to the learning of the past and reached creative heights in architecture, science, technology, and philosophy. The concept of legal rights for non-Muslims became an integral principle of Islamic law. Islamic learning and Islamic legal tolerance survived the disintegration of political unity and became important elements of the medieval world.

The Medieval Experience. The ninth century contained the seeds of major changes in the history of Christian-Muslim relations. In the Muslim world there were signs of the breakup of political unity. During periods of instability the rights of non-Muslim minorities were often threatened by popular discontent. This is often the lot of minorities at such times, and the phenomenon is not unique to Islamic history. The various Muslim governments struggling for stability usually sought to protect the legal rights of their minorities. The Byzantine empire was in a state of general decline and, in the eleventh century, had to petition Rome for help, a remarkable confession of weakness following close on the final schism of the Eastern and Western Churches. In the West, however, the same century saw the beginnings of a long struggle toward greater political and social integration, heralded by the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne (742-814). Western European history during this period paralleled Muslim history in that both were successions of competing dynasties. Western Europe, however, was struggling toward greater integration and stability, and the Muslim world was evolving toward greater disunity and instability (except for the remarkable period of Ottoman hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean).

These two worlds approached military parity well before they attained any degree of intellectual equality. The Middle Ages was the period of the Crusades and the Reconquista. It was also the time during which Muslim learning was passed on to the Christian West, which had been struggling self-consciously since Charlemagne’s reforms to reclaim its own intellectual tradition. The translations of Arabic texts into Latin from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries played a role in the development of western European civilization similar to that of the earlier translations of Greek texts into Arabic. Christians and Jews studied with Muslims at the universities of Cordoba (968) and Cairo (972), perhaps influencing the later development of western European universities (Paris, 1150; Bologna, 1119). The Middle Ages was a time of contradictions in ChristianMuslim relations: sometimes we find Christians and Muslims studying together, and sometimes we find them opposed to each other on the battlefield. Sometimes the language of interreligious polemic verges on the obscene, and yet Nicholas of Cusa explored the idea of an ultimate unity of all religions, and John of Segovia and George of Trebizond actively campaigned for a Christian-Muslim peace conference. Ibn Hazm illustrates the unreliability of the biblical text and Ibn `Arab! speaks of the presence of God in all religious experience.

Such a complex situation needs to be studied in terms of individual biography and of social history. Some generalities are valid, however. On the intellectual level, Islam played an important role in the development of Western European civilization by passing on both the philosophy of Aristotle and its own scientific, technological, and philosophical tradition. The language of scholarship provided a common vocabulary in which the different traditions could speak to each other. On the other hand, religious tolerance remained a part of Islamic law, although its application varied with social, political, and economic circumstances. Ibn Taym-lyah, writing during the time of the combined threat of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, developed particularly harsh restrictions on the rights of dhimmis. Nonetheless, when the Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492, they went to Muslim lands. The only Christian land to receive many Jews was Italy. Today communities that speak Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) survive only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire. The medieval period may be understood as the interaction of two great civilizations. As it began Islamic civilization was in its prime, and western European civilization was still a child. As the intellectual, technological, and scientific development of western Europe reached its prime, however, Islamic civilization showed definite signs of weakness.

Radical Transformation of the West. Al-Jabart-1 (1756-1825), the last great Muslim historian of the classical tradition, perceived Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt in 1 798 as “the beginning of a reversal of the natural order and the corruption or destruction of all things” (Hourani, 1991, p. 51). However, Napoleon did not represent medieval Christendom. He was a child of the French Enlightenment, which believed in reason rather than dogma and exalted not God’s law and God’s rights but human rights and the ideals. of secularism, equality, and democracy. In many ways, contemporary secular civilization challenges both Christianity and Islam as cultural systems and religious faiths. Both religions contain believers who accept that at least some Enlightenment values, albeit first proclaimed outside and even against western institutional religion, represent an authentic development of certain fundamental elements of the Qur’anic and biblical vision of humanity. Other Christians and Muslims, however, often make common cause against the challenge of secularism and irreligion.

The shift in the West from Christendom to nation began in the late Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation. This development meant that the religious dimension of Christian-Muslim relations increasingly became secondary to economic and political national interests. The post-Reformation “wars of religion” focused European attention on internal problems. Islam tended to be viewed by Westerners as just another heresy to be opposed. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, rapidly developing science and technology transformed Western society. Modern means of transport and communication welded distant regions and continents into one interdependent global society. International industrial and commercial complexes began to eclipse the power of individual nation states. Greater local and international mobility and the growth of vast conurbations began to erode traditional social and religious structures, resulting in the spread of multiracial, multicultural, and multireligious societies both in terms of geographic area and intensity. Different social and mental structures and perceptions coexist, often in unreconciled tension. Hence, Muslims and Christians live increasingly in mixed societies, sharing a growing awareness of the multiplicity of religions, ideologies, and cultures on many different levels: local, national, and international.

Western political dominance and colonialism. The Industrial Revolution gave increased power to those states where it first took place. It ensured military and technological supremacy to the Western powers whose colonial influence affected most of the Muslim world. In the Peace of Carlowitz (1699), the Ottomans were obliged to yield to increasing European pressure and interference. France, Russia, and Britain benefited from the privileges (capitulations) granted by the Ottoman sultans; these enabled their consuls to interfere in local affairs and to “protect” Christian minority groups [see Capitulations]. The European powers supported national revolutions; Greece became independent in 1832, Serbia and Romania in 1878. The Ottoman authorities were either powerless spectators or hidden organizers as some Christian minorities, discontent with dhimmi status and encouraged by European powers, became victims of extermination attempts.

Muslims in the Middle East regarded the Christians, with considerable justification, as pawns in the overall plans of the European powers to partition the Ottoman Empire. Following Napoleon’s brief incursion into Egypt, European interference increased. The British established a protectorate in Egypt in 1882. Algeria became a French colony in 1830; Tunisia, a French protectorate in 1881. European expansion halted the spread of Islamic states in West Africa. Following a revolt against British interests in 1857, India was placed directly under the British Crown, and repressive measures were directed particularly against the Muslims. In Southeast Asia, British and Dutch colonial rule expanded. World War I resulted in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire into the Republic of Turkey (1919) and several smaller Middle Eastern countries under the colonial mandates of Britain and France. Ethnic identity, traditionally strong in this region, played an increasingly important role in the nationalism of the emerging nation-states when the former colonies and mandates gained independence. Muslim nations have played an important role in the movement of nonaligned countries that emerged from the Bandung Conference of 1955. However, Western economic and military supremacy led to continued exploitation, and disadvantaged populations envied the Western way of life, propagated through the mass media.

Colonial policies also affected the religious institutions of Muslim societies. In particular, educational policy effectively marginalized, and so alienated, the traditional religious establishment (`ulama’); today the majority of young people in most Muslim countries receive Western-style educations [see Education, article on Educational Institutions]. Much the same happened in the sphere of law. The Muslim world felt politically humiliated and threatened by all these developments. NonMuslims had taken control of Muslim societies and interfered with Islam, the final religion, destined to be successful and dominant (Qur’an 3.110, 39.74 21.105). The grievances of Muslims (and other Asians and Africans) against the colonialists reflect the dehumanizing aspect of much European colonialism; the “native” was often considered as being of limited intellectual capacity, inferior dignity, and/or low morality.

The missionary movement and the clash of religious institutions and ideas. Although European churches often lost the support of civil governments and the influence of secular rationalism grew, a vigorous missionary endeavor introduced Christianity into all parts of the world. Missionary preaching, education, and health care could generally depend on the colonial governments’ protection, although evangelization was not always encouraged. Fundamentally, however, the missionary movement grew out of a genuine spiritual revival and a commitment to carry the gospel to all people. A number of new missionary institutions were started; for example, Anglican and Protestant Missionary Societies were founded in Britain and the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Catholic missionary orders such as the Society of Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers), in 1885. Missionary activity among Muslims included the distribution of Bible translations, apologetic-polemical tracts, and public disputations. Karl G. Pfander, a German who worked in India with the Church Missionary Society, translated into Urdu his first book on Islam and Christianity, Mizan alhaqq (Balance of Truth). Muslims in northwestern India felt threatened by his linguistic abilities and his comparisons of the “truth” of Christianity with the “falsity” of Islam. Mawlana Rahmat Allah Kayranawi, published a refutation of Pfander’s work, the Izhar al-haqq (Revelation of Truth), and led Muslim resistance to Christian activities. Later, in a public debate, Rahmat Allah used the methods of European biblical criticism to refute the fundamentalist approach of his opponents. Still being reprinted, both books circulate as examples of Christian and Muslim apologetics.

By the end of the nineteenth century many missionaries began to abandon this approach; it seemed contrary to the gospel proclamation to love one’s neighbor, which was understood to include respect for the dignity of persons and societies. The emphasis was laid on missionary service in education and health care. However, a strong emphasis on conversion in the sense of an institutional change of religious allegiance remained strong among certain groups of Christians and Muslims. On the Catholic side, Cardinal Lavigerie (1825-1892) saw the aim of the Church’s mission to be a transformation of individuals and whole cultures and societies by slow impregnation with priority given to a witness of disinterested love and service. Dialogue, meanwhile, must focus on common themes: God’s majesty, our creatureliness, our need to repent and to be forgiven. He disapproved of the teaching of Christian dogmas to Muslims and thought the ancient discipline of the Church should be restored: only catechumens, already committed to Christ, should be taught Christian doctrines (Gaudeul, 1,984, vol. 1, p. 313).

Islamic Response. Western colonial domination placed enormous stress on Muslims. For centuries, Muslims had faced many challenges, but the sweep of Western civilization proved to be the most serious challenge to Islamic life. The traditional pattern of Islamic life based on the shad `ah was everywhere threatened by what Muslims perceived as the “aggression” of the West: political aggression leading to subjugation, economic aggression leading to poverty, social aggression disrupting family and society, intellectual aggression imposing Western thought and education, and religious aggression. “For, say what we will, Christian missionary work is frequently understood by the peoples of Africa and the East not as the sharing of an inestimable treasure, but as an unwanted imposition from without, inseparably associated with the progress of the colonial powers.” (Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, Harmondsworth, 1964, p. 250). Muslims often view Western scholars of Islam, usually termed “orientalists,” as serving, deliberately or not, the colonial/imperial designs of their home countries. How far this generalization is tenable is a moot point. The question is whether study of a culture and religion by an external observer should be entirely rejected because of a certain inevitable degree of misrepresentation. Christian scholars, on the other hand, have regretted that few, if any, Muslims have attempted to create an Islamic “occidentalism” (Watt, 1991, p. 116). Of course, these Christian scholars intend that such work follow methods of modern, (that is, Western), critical scholarship to balance the work of orientalists and provide Christianity with a much-needed “critique” from without.

The reaction to Western domination has been a struggle to create independent nation-states reflecting the wide variety of Muslim thought. Some emphasize fundamental Islamic faith and practice, with minimal involvement in secular society; others adopt a secular approach and emulate European models. A reformist trend seeks to reconcile Islam with the contemporary world, particularly Western civilization, Christian or otherwise. The West is largely rejected emotionally by Muslims, although Muslim societies usually depend on it economically. These issues have produced a religious revival or resurgence, as the Muslim community seeks to clarify the relationship between Islam and modern national identity. Often the process has been accompanied by revolution. The Islamist trend, powerful in several Muslim nations, advocates the integral implementation of the shari `ah, and some states have declared themselves Islamic republics; this affects MuslimChristian relations profoundly, as can be seen, for example, in the present situation in Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent displacement of the Palestinians have had a profound effect upon MuslimChristian relations everywhere. Although evangelical Christians often support Zionist policies, many other Christians in the West have been moved by the plight of the Palestinians. Common bonds of language and culture often lead Arab Christians to support Palestinian rights; however, since they share with Jews the experience of dhimmi status, they desire more equitable arrangements within a modern democracy.

The Muslim world is searching for effective, modern structures of cohesion and growth for the ummah in order to play a decisive role in global affairs. The aims of the Rabitat al-`Alam al-Islami (Muslim World League), founded in Mecca in 1962, include the propagation (da`wah of Islam in Muslim and non-Muslim countries among Muslims and others. It defends the rights of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries and, since 1976, has sponsored the research and publication of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (Jeddah and London). Once the rights of the minorities have been secured in a given country, the second phase of the League’s strategy is aimed at transforming the minority into a ruling majority through proselytization. The secretary-general of the League has publicly stated that all the organization’s activities wish to proceed in the spirit of dialogue and collaboration with Christians (Nasseef, 1986); the journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs has published research on the treatment of Christian minorities in Muslim countries. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), founded in 1962, set up the Islamic Solidarity Fund in 1974 to support religious, cultural, and charitable work in Muslim communities everywhere. The Islamic Call Society, funded by Libya, was founded in 1970 to spread Islam by propagation and to provide educational and medical services as integral elements of da’wah. These and other organizations have sponsored meetings of Christians and Muslims. [See Muslim World League; Organization of the Islamic Conference; Islamic Call Society.] This work also takes place on national and regional levels. The Islamic Foundation in Leicester, United Kingdom, for instance, promotes da’wah among Muslims and nonMuslims through printed and audiovisual media and by training workers “to successfully face the challenge of the West.” [See Islamic Foundation.]

At least one-third of Muslims today live in minority situations and represent a wide range of understandings of Islam. This situation impresses upon Muslims the need for an intra-Muslim ecumenism and the urgency of developing interreligious ties with other faith communities. The problems of Muslim minorities among Christian majorities cannot be solved without the principle of reciprocity in the freedom of religious expression and movement. Christians and Muslims collaborate on global problems like international trade, economic underdevelopment, hunger, and migration within international and national organizations. No longer can Christian-Muslim relations be perceived in terms of relations between Islam and the West, not least because today the centers of Christianity and Islam have shifted to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Vatican II declaration Nostra AEtate of 1965 prescribes for members of the Roman Catholic Church “esteem” for Muslim faith and practice and “urges” Christians and Muslims “to strive sincerely for mutual understanding” and “to make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.” These themes are important elements of contemporary Christian Muslim dialogue both at the Office for Islam within the Pontifical Council for Dialogue between Religions and in the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In 1971 the WCC, representing Anglican, Protestant, and Orthodox Churches, established an Office for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths (DFI). Both the WCC and the Pontifical Council have sponsored many meetings between Christians and Muslims. These central initiatives and offices also occur on regional and national levels; although some politicians seek to replace the Iron Curtain with a “Christian-Muslim Cold War” (an understanding often reflected in the mass media), only determined worldwide efforts to address the divisive issues that have separated Muslims and Christians can make significant headway in achieving reconciliation. Muslim da’wah and Christian mission are being redefined in terms of constructive coexistence, respecting each others’ differences and being for one another a source of righteous emulation and challenge.

[See also Da’wah; Dhimmi; Muslim-Christian Dialogue.]


Ahmad, Khurshid, and David Kerr, eds. “Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah.” Issue of International Review of Mission 65 (1976): 365-46o.

“Christian-Muslim Relations into the Twenty-First Century: A Round Table Discussion.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 3.1 (1992): 5-39.

Courbage, Youssef, and Philippe Fargues. Chritiens et juifs dans 1’Islam arabe et turc. Paris, 1992. Perceptive sociohistorical essay with extensive, relevant demographic information and analysis.

Cragg, Kenneth. The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East. London, 1992. Traces the history of the Arab Christians from its beginning through the birth and growth of Islam to the present, as well as pondering the agenda-and enigma-of the future.

Ellis, Kail C., ed. The Vatican, Islam, and the Middle East. Syracuse, N.Y., 1987. Presents a wide spectrum of intellectual and practical insights into contemporary Catholic-Islamic relations, including essays on selected countries of Asia.

Gaudeul, Jean-Marie. Encounters and Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History, vol. i, A Survey; vol. z, Texts. Rome, 1984. Detailed analysis of the apologetic, polemical, and irenic efforts and texts placed in their changing historical contexts. Written from a Roman Catholic, post-Vatican II perspective for informed nonspecialists. Most of the selected texts are presented in the original and in translation. Crucial German studies in the field have not been considered. Hagemann, Ludwig. Christentum and Islam zwischen Konfrontation and Begegnung. Altenberge, 1983. Solid survey of the premodern phases.

Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Muslim Conduct of State (1935). Reprint, Lahore, 1963.

Hourani, Albert. Islam in European Thought. Cambridge, 1991. Masterly critical survey, balancing Edward Said’s work. Islamochristiana, 1975- Annually published by the Pontificio Istituto di Studie Arabi e d’Islamistica, Rome. Contains a wealth of primary sources and analyses and reports concerning the past and present of Islamic-Christian relations.

Joseph, Suad, and Barbara L. K. Pillsbury, eds. Muslim-Christian Conflicts: Economic, Political, and Social Origins. Boulder and Folkestone, 1978. Highlights the need for taking account of the complexity and diversity of the causes of conflict.

Khoury, Adel Theodor, and Ludwig Hagemann. Christentum and Christen im Denken zeitgenossischer Muslime. Altenberge, 1986. Based on a wide selection of Arab authors.

Lewis, Bernard. The Muslim Discovery of Europe. London and New York, 1982.

Moubarak, Youakim, ed. Les Musulmans: Consultation islamochritienne entre Muhammad Arkoun, Hasan Askari, Muhammad Hamidullah, Hassan Hanaft, Muhammad Kamel Hussein, Ibrahim Madkour, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, et Youakim Moubarak. Paris, 1971. Responses by outstanding Muslim scholars to questions regarding the ancient controversies, the present and possible/points of convergence in the future.

Nasseef, Abdullah Omar. “Muslim-Christian Relations: The Muslim Approach.” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, 7.1 (January 1986): 27-31.

Powell, Averil. Muslims and Missionaries in Pre-Mutiny India. London, 1992. Pioneering and penetrating study of the momentous Christian-Muslim controversies, placed firmly in the context of Indian-Muslim history.

Sahas, Daniel J. John of Damascus on Islam: The “Heresy of the Ishmaelites”. Leiden, 1972. Important study of one of the earliest Christian responses to Islam which also provides much valuable background information.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York, 1979. Brilliant and seminal, yet controversial, critical essay.

Schacht, Joseph, and C. E. Bosworth, eds. The Legacy of Islam. 2d ed. Oxford, 1974. Especially relevant contributions by Bernard Lewis and Maxime Rodinson.

Southern, Richard W. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass., 1962. Classic work on the subject.

Vander Werff, Lyle L. Christian Mission to Muslims: The Record; Anglican and Reformed Approaches in India and the Near East, 18oo1938. South Pasadena, Calif., 1977. Thorough historical account from a Protestant insider perspective. Detailed listing of the primary and secondary source material. Watt, W. Montgomery. Muslim-Christian Encounters: Perceptions and Misperceptions. London and New York, I99I. Succinct and brilliant account of central aspects and phases of the historical interaction of the two religions.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/christianity-and-islam/

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