Christianity and Islam: Beyond History to the Will of the One and Only God

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 4 »Christianity And Islam Beyond History To The Will Of The One And Only God

By Joseph Ng Swee-Chun, S.J.

Do not think you are going among infidels. Muslims attain to Salvation. The ways of
Providence are infinite.

Pius XI, to his Apostolic Delegate to Libya

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge humanity.

(Lumen Gentium, 16)



The Problem of Today Rooted in the Conflictual Past

Will the conflicts of the future occur along the cultural fault lines separating civilizations, as predicted by the hypothesis of Samuel P. Huntington in "The Clash of Civilisations?"1 Though it is not within the scope of this essay to evaluate—affirm or negate—the validity of the hypothesis, nonetheless it provides a persuasive and reasonable apprehension of the real and possibly greater clash between fanatic Islamic nations or Muslims and unfortunately Western-identified-as-Christian nations. Since the Western powers usually helped the missionaries from their countries, most Muslims came to identify practically all the activities of western powers with Christianity. In the Arab world to this day missionary activity is practically identified with colonialism.2 To some extent Western/European, including the specifically Christian perception and projection can be blamed for a distorted image of contemporary Islam. They emphasize the decadent and fabulously rich oil sheikh of the 1970s; the fanatic ayatollah, spattered with the blood of martyrs, of the 1980s—stereotypes which are no more representative of mundane reality than was the blood-thirsty and licentious pagan of medieval legend.3 After the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, all but four or five Muslim countries were engulfed by "Christian" imperial powers—Britain, France, Spain, Holland and Russia. Even after political independence, the cultural and economic expansionism of Europe and America continued to challenge and undermine the traditional values and structures of Islamic society. The failure of capitalism to deliver the economic and social benefits that had been promised, combined with the spectacle of the manifest decadence and corruption of the "Christian" West, produced a profound popular disillusionment with modernism among many Muslims. They spurn the society and values of "Christian" Europe and America as ungodly, unjust, decadent and corrupt—exactly the components of medieval Europe’s myths of Islam. The intellectual leaders of the revolt, Maulana Maudoodi in India-Pakistan, Sayyid Outb in Egypt, Sa’id Hawwa in Syria, began increasingly to employ the language of medieval theology to express their views. Individuals were called upon to renounce modern secular society and to join in the jihad for the universal restoration of God’s Law in the world again divided between the Dar al-Islam, the "abode of Islam" and the Dar al-Harb, "the abode of war," which included not just the non-Muslim world, but also the secular modernist regimes. Muslim opponents of European political, cultural, and economic imperialism came to use "crusader" as synonym for "imperialist," "colonial," and even "capitalist" (Johns 1993:201-3).

What is there in the "ghost" of the medieval past that was not "exorcised," which is still haunting the present conflict between fanatic Muslims and the unholy alliance of Western/European-Christianity? What were the old crusading wounds which were being opened up anew? Was it truly and sufficiently reconciliatory of the plea of Vatican Council II with Christians and Muslims to forget the past in a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding?4 In this crucial moment where the tension between Christianity and Islam is painfully critical, without demanding the other to take initiative or reciprocate, the Church self-critically needs to acknowledge and own its historical burden which contributes to the many quarrels and dissensions and bloody confrontations with Muslims over the centuries. The wounded memory of the past is irrepressible, but it can be harnessed to provide historical insights for a more precise grasp of the nature of those elements of theory, practice and attitude which presently exist in the relation between Islam and Christianity. Morally, all are obliged to seek a more enlightened ecumenical or interreligious approach that is characterized not only by openness and good will but which also has historical depth (Biechler 1976:2).

Historical Overview and Insights

The Unexpected Birth of Islam for the then Politically Manageable Christian World

Before the dawn of Islam, two superpowers, the Christian empire of East Rome (Byzantium) and the Zoroastrian, Sasanian empire of Persia, faced each other across the Euphrates and dominated the Near Eastern political geography and its history. The Syrian desert thrust like a wedge between them, and stretching southwards into the Arabian peninsula, was the home of the Arabs. After the third century ACE, East Rome or Byzantium set about the Christianization of those Arab kingdoms or confederates which dominated the desert, so that, to the bonds of military service purchased by annual subsidy, was added that of a shared faith. Constantine’s militarization of Christianity presented semi-nomadic Arab warriors with Christ Victorious, a God whom they could follow into battle alongside their Byzantine allies (Johns, 168). Perhaps it is an anachronistic question, yet one may wonder at the unintended implications of such presentation on the image of Christ and Christianity in general and in particular to the Arabs, eventually the Muslims. The development of a distinctly Arab Christian culture was facilitated in the fifth century by the spread amongst the Christian Arabs of Nestorianism and Monophysitism, which had in common their opposition to the official Byzantine Church. Most of the fifth and sixth centuries often saw violent revolts against imperial and patriarchal authority, subsequently the spread of Nestorianism and Monophysitism among the Arabs consolidated the hostility of the latter towards the established church (Johns, 169).

In spite of that partly language-induced5 antagonism among different and mutually hostile forms of Christianity, Christians of the east Roman empire knew that they lived in a wide yet manageable world. Cosmas the India-Sailor, a merchant from Antioch, wrote in around 540 ACE Christian Typography with optimism as if Christianity had only the distant fringes of Asia left to conquer since already Christianity was the religion of the world-empire of the Romans, and it was widespread in the Persian empire (Brown 1996:167-198). Unfortunately the "success" of evangelization grafted on political power and conquest could be self-complacent and deceptive. Altogether, religious confrontation was in the air. Throughout the Arab world, far from the inhibitions imposed by the dominant orthodoxies current in a Christian empire, the pros and cons of Christianity and Judaism were open to fierce contention. Yet, what is remarkable about the Arabian peninsula around the year 610 ACE was not that Christianity and Judaism were well known. It is, rather, that, in the person of Muhammad of Mecca (570-632) it produced a prophet who, in the belief of Muslims, had received from God authority to transmit to his fellow-Arabs, God’s own, definitive judgment on both faiths (Brown, 179). The messages of the Qur’an relayed by God through Muhammad claimed to undo the past. Neglect and partisan strife had caused Jews and, particularly, Christians, to slip away from, even to distort, the messages that they had once received from their prophets, Moses and Jesus. Christians were told that they had littered the Near East with strictly unnecessary institutions, such as monasticism. God also warned them that the Christological controversies were baseless since there was no divinity in Christ (Brown, 180-1).

Criticisms of Judaism and Christianity were less central to the overall course of Muhammad’s revelations than was his message to the Arabs themselves. He warned his fellow countrymen, in clear Arabic, to change their pagan ways. Ka’aba of Mecca had been the spot where Abraham, the ancestor of the entire Arab race, through his son Ishmael, had once sacrificed to the true God alone. In reclaiming the Ka’aba for His worship alone from the dominant family, the Quraysh, who had filled it with idols, Muhammad and his followers would regain for the Arabs as a whole the powerful blessing of God. The name adopted by the new religion, "Islam," and the word used to describe its adherents, "Muslims," came from the same Arabic root, slm—to surrender, to trust in one God. Muhammad died in 632. Having established their authority throughout Arabia, his companions were ready to offer their Arab allies conquests through war, as they were convinced that God blessed the armies of those who believed truly in Him (Brown, 181).

Islam twice posed a universal military challenge to Christianity. First, during the rapid conquests of the mid-seventh to mid-eighth centuries when, for a time, all Christendom seemed in danger of invasion and defeat. And second, in the 15th to 17th centuries when the Ottomans made their bid for world supremacy.6 At other times, military conflict between Christian and Muslim powers was confined to limited geographical regions. Indiscriminately and unconciliatorily, Western historiographical tradition has tended to portray the relationship between Christianity and Islam during the Middle Ages in terms of military conflict, and has concentrated upon certain regional conflicts and grouping them together as "the crusades" (Johns, 171, 177-8). The creation of a stable Islamic empire was the most unexpected outcome of those breathtaking years. There is an important contrast to be made between the conquests of the first four caliphs (632-56) and those of the Umayyads (692-750). Syria, Egypt and Iraq belonged to very much the same ethnic and cultural environment as the Arabian peninsula and their conquest was largely motivated by a desire to unite and to integrate the Arabs of this Semitic world. In the subsequent conquests of the Turkic pagan East and Latin Christian West, the Umayyad armies were directed against external non-Arab enemies, which assumed the character of ideological conflict (Johns, 173-4).

Reaction of Christians – Undervaluing Islam

Like the Romans of the fifth century west, Christians preferred to treat their conquerors as wild men from nowhere, with whom they had nothing in common. Greek and Latin sources never spoke of "Muslims." Muslims were "Saracens" or "Hagarenes"—that is, descendents of Ishmael, Abraham’s "bastard" son by his servant Hagar.7 Though Bede was not the first to make this identification, it was he who introduced it into the medieval tradition of Biblical exegesis, and after his day it was commonplace of Western scholarship. It helped to soften the harsh dichotomy between Christendom and those unpredictable enemies. It gave Muslims a niche in Christian history (Southern 1962:17). Furthermore, Islam was seen as no more than "a new, deceptive heresy." It was an incompetently plagiarized form of Christianity, thought up by Muhammad so as to give a cloak of religious respectability to the ravages of his bloodthirsty nation.8 Usually, it is believed that John of Damascus considered Islam as "Christian heresy," as he stated in the section "Against Heresies" of his main work, On the Source of Knowledge, in which he characterized the Ishmaelites or Hagarenes as the 101st heresy (Yannoulatos 1996:513).

The Christian criticism of Islam had as its primary goal the person of Muhammad, doubting his prophetic office. Most of the Byzantines considered that Muhammad served the work of the Antichrist and that he was the forerunner of the last age. Also, the Christian writers turned against the Qur’an, pointing out what they considered to be falsifications, misunderstandings, inconsistencies, and therefore concluded that the holy book of Islam consisted of underdeveloped theological and ethical teachings (Yannoulatos, 515).

The Qur’an contains several passages which clearly derive from Christian sources. Later in 1460, Nicholas of Cusa, in the Cribratio Alchoran, thought he had discovered in this Sieving of the Qur’an that there were three strands in the Qur’an: a basic Nestorian Christianity; anti-Christian sentiments introduced by the Jewish adviser of Muhammad; corruptions introduced by Jewish "correctors" after Muhammad’s death. Though the textual criticism carried out by Nicholas of Cusa correctly identifies some of the main intellectual influences in the Qur’an, one does not suppose that such analysis of the text of the Qur’an has any value now (Southern, 93-4). Jeremy Johns, lecturer in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Oxford, holds that exactly when these and other Christian influences were incorporated into the Qur’an cannot now be determined with certainty: Islamic tradition is almost the only source upon which we can draw and there have not yet been identified any satisfactory internal criteria upon which the reliability and the chronology of its many elements may be securely established. Islamic tradition does preserve the names of a few Christians living in pagan Mecca during the life of Muhammad and even asserts that the interior of the Ka’ba at Mecca was decorated with paintings of Jesus and Mary, but this is insufficient cause to conclude the existence of an active Christian community at Mecca, still less one which had so strong an influence upon Islam. Islamic tradition suggests that the migration to Medina brought Muhammad and his followers into close contact with the influential Jewish communities of northern Hijaz and that, almost immediately, the Muslim community began to distinguish itself from its Jewish neighbors, by changing the direction of prayer away from Jerusalem towards Mecca. It was only after the Arab conquest of Palestine and Syria that the young Muslim community had any significant contact with Christianity, and the principle influence of Christianity upon the new faith was to cause early Islam to define itself in reaction against the practices and beliefs of its new Christian subjects (Johns, 170-1, 182-3).

A Case of Islamic Tolerance towards the Others

In spite of its rejection of the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation (with it the divinity, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) in Christianity, juridically and theologically Islam accepted Christianity as "religion of the book" and the Christians as "the people of the book" with all that such a status implied for them according to the Divine Law of Islam, including the recognition and protection of their religion wherever and whenever they would be under Muslim rule (Nasr, 4). Within the territories embraced by the Islamic empire, the Christians of the Near East enjoyed far better position than any Jews and pagans in the Christian empire. In return for payment of what was part tribute and part religious tax (the jizya) Jews and Christians were granted the protection of the state (aman or dhimma) and were assured freedom of person, property and worship.9 This situation was not totally or radically unfavorable for them, nor did it discriminate against them. Certainly, though "subject" to Muslim authority with the payment of a personal tax, they were also "privileged" because of their confessional and jurisdictional autonomy, that of their ecclesial communities, and because of exemption from military service for the expansion and the defense of the Muslim empire. In principle, the right to strictly religious difference was not to be put into question, and in fact it never was over the more than one-thousand-year history of Muslim-Christian relations, even in the periods of the most violent confrontations. Christian and Jewish communities thrived in almost all the Muslim conquests, in stark contrast to the failure of medieval Europe to incorporate permanently its subject communities of Muslims and Jews. Today, for the first time since the Middle Ages, Christian (and Jewish) society plays host to large communities of Muslims. The historical case of accommodation made by the Muslims towards the others poses a question which seems central to the relationship between Christianity (and Judaism) and Islam: how and why was is that Islam managed to incorporate successfully Christian communities into Muslim society, whilst Christian Europe failed totally in its attempts to accommodate Muslims within Christendom? Western Christian society, since the fourth century, had been perfecting its own machinery for the extermination of all internal heterodoxy. The accommodation in Western Christian society of Jews who had been the victims of frequent persecutions, derived largely from the fact that Judaism could be located on a lower rung of the hierarchy of revelation which led to Christianity. Christianity as a whole rejected Islam’s claim to be the religion of Abraham and, instead, regarded it as a new and perverse mutation.10 The ultimate inability of Western Christendom, as a whole, to incorporate its non-Catholic citizens constitutes one of the most dismal failures in European history.11

On the other hand, by treating Jews and all Christian groups with even-handed indifference, the Islamic empire merely declared a permanent "open season" for religious disputes between Jews and Christians, Chalcedonians and Monophysites. Different Christian groups reacted very differently to the new situation in which they found themselves. The Chalcedonians who came to be known as "Melkites"—"the Emperor’s People," developed a characteristic genre which consisted of Questions and Answers and included imaginary debates with religious enemies. Syrians and Egyptians of the "Jacobite" Monophysite Church saw the Arab conquests as a punishment on the East Roman emperors for having persecuted the true— Monophysite—Church: "It was by striking a bargain with [the sons of Ishmael] that we secured our deliverance. This was no small gain, to be delivered from the tyrannical kingdom of the Romans." For the Nestorians of the former Persian territories, Muslim rulers were, if anything, a marked improvement on the erratic patronage of a pagan King of Kings. The Nestorians of Iraq positively welcomed the establishment of a strong, frankly monotheist empire. What these conflicting Christian groups soon had in common was a shared enthusiasm for the new language of the Arabs. An Arabic-speaking Christianity looked increasingly to Islam for its vocabulary and theological agenda, and not to the Christian centers of the west (Brown, 190-4). At the same time, in the course of historical development these churches have introduced into their collections of canon law norms of conduct coming from sources in Muslim law, the Shari’ah, for the spheres of private and family law, the law of succession and social obligations. Norms which did no harm to the essential laws of Christianity and the principle of confessional autonomy were accepted voluntarily and freely as an instrumental means employed precisely because of their usefulness and the effectiveness of their natural roles of serving the good and salvation of the members of the institutional church caught up in the vicissitudes of history (Hajjar 1996:66, 73). Thus the Eastern churches have lived and survived in Islamic countries under such a regime of institutional, legislative and jurisdictional autonomy.12

The Scourge of the Crusades by the Western Church

For the most part, the Western church showed an extraordinary lack of interest in the fate of Christian communities under Muslim rule. Late in the eighth century, Pope Hadrian I and Charlemagne did lend their support to a mission to succor the Christians of Spain and in the 850s, news of the martyrs of Cordoba prompted a modest response, but these were exceptional reactions. Moreover, when the Church did take notice of Christian communities under Muslim rule, it showed itself peculiarly insensitive to their plight (Johns, 188-9). After the defeat of Byzantine troops at Manzikert (1071) by the Turks, Gregory VII received appeals for help from the Christian East. Later in 1095, at the close of the Council of Clermont, Urban II launched an appeal urging the knights to cease fighting one another and go to the aid of their brothers in the Christian East. He spoke of the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher, then under Muslim domination, and promised full remission of sins to all joining the expedition, whose goal he set as Jerusalem. Urban II opportunely had hoped that the service rendered to the Emperor Alexius Comnenus by the crusades would make the Emperor favorable to the reunion of the Greek and Roman churches, in schism since 1054 (Richard 1967:506). On May 29, 1453 Constantinople fell to the troops of Sultan Mahomet II. Latins and unionist Greeks made it quite plain that they regarded the misfortune that had befallen the Empire’s capital as a punishment of the Orthodox people for their obstinacy in remaining in schism (Khoury 1967:25).

The military threat posed by Islam (and by the Vikings) to Western Europe during the ninth and tenth centuries prompted the Church to adapt and to extend Augustine’s doctrine of the just war. While it remained the responsibility of secular leaders to defend Christendom, the Church encouraged them and their followers to do so by promising eternal life to those who fell in battle against the heathen. When new peoples—the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century, the Ottomans in the thirteenth—arrived at the frontiers, it was Byzantium that had to suffer the blows and act as a buffer for Western Europe. The absence of regular contacts between the Western Church and Christian communities under Islam meant that the Church never had the opportunity to observe the socio-legal mechanisms whereby Islam accommodated its Christian subjects. The only means, other than war, that the Church could imagine for dealing with Muslims was conversion to Christianity (Johns, 189).

Without going into details of the many crusades waged against Muslims, and whether they could be characterized or "redeemed" as a penitential act and as a voluntary effort in the service of God which was perfectly attuned to the mentality of the Middle Ages, some observations and reactions and opinions towards crusades perhaps could point out the origin of the "old crusading wounds opened up anew" in today’s Christian-Islam relations. The crusades were born, were sustained and eventually declined because of currents deep within European society: Christendom’s assault against the Muslims had less to do with the relationship between Christianity and Islam than with the internal stresses and strains of Christian Europe (Johns, 175). This sanctioning of external aggression was the reverse side of a policy favoring internal peace. When the external threat from the heathen had declined, leaving unoccupied an increasingly brutal and lawless warrior-class, the reforming papacy sought to harness its violent energies, for example through the so-called "Peace of God" movement. But the transformation of the brutalized warriors of the tenth century into the Christian knights—the militia Christi—of the eleventh, was to have a crucial impact upon Christianity’s relationship with Islam: the responsibility for the conduct of just war was removed from the secular powers of Christendom and assumed, instead, by the Church through the agency of its Christian knights. But, right at the beginning of the crusading movement, the papacy lost control of its agents, and the conduct of war against Islam thus passed from the relatively cautious and well-informed papal, imperial and royal statesmen of Mediterranean Europe, into the hands of violent, ignorant and impressionable warriors from the North (Johns, 176).

The religious orders played their parts in sponsoring the Crusades. The Cluniacs had been among the chief propagators of the "Peace of God" and of the Spanish Reconquest. St. Bernard the Cistercian preached the Second Crusade, and lent his prestige and support to a group of knights who formed a military religious order, the Templars; they and the Hospitalers embodied the perfect union of the religious life with the war against Islam (Little 1983:356).

The Byzantines were surprised by the arrival of the first Crusaders and feared an attack on their own capital. Alexius Comnenus alone managed to use the Crusades to free the coastline of the Aegean from Turkish control; his successors displayed such mistrust of the Crusaders that the latter accused the Greeks of treason. The passage of the Western (called "Frankish") warriors through Constantinople in 1097 caused friction, and during the passage through in the Second Crusade in 1147, the French king’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil, reported of the Greeks: "They were judged not to be Christians, and the Franks considered killing them a matter of no importance and hence could with more difficulty be restrained from pillage and plundering." By 1204, the Fourth Crusade turned into a war against Byzantium. Storming the city, the soldiers looted and destroyed for three days with neither order nor discipline, and as a result, Constantinople and the empire never fully recovered from the treatment (Richard, 508, 511). The long-range impact of the Western adventure in Constantinople was to weaken the Byzantine Empire even more and to hasten its ultimate conquest by the Ottoman Turks (Richard, 357). Though it was a later reaction and was not caused solely by the Crusades, the presence of Franks in the Holy Land profoundly shocked the fundamentalist sectors of Islam, leading to a revival of the doctrine of al-Jihad (holy war) and to persecutions in Muslim countries directed against native Christians (Richard, 511). History should not be forgotten in which the Crusades weakened the Christian Byzantine Empire, incited Muslim expansionism, and broke down the coexistence and harmony that had been cultivated during the period of the Abbasids. Further they so embittered Eastern Christians that the miserable Orthodox Christians of the fifteenth century preferred the "Crescent" to the "protection of Rome" (Yannoulatos, 524).

Even though crusading still retained its prestige at the end of the 13th century, especially in the milieu of the knights, during the 13th century criticism grew in intensity. The crusades were charged with having shed innocent blood and with having inflicted severe trials on Christians. They were attacked as aggression against the "infidels" who were in peaceful possession of the Holy Land, with the demand that preachers show that the Muslims had illegitimately occupied the Holy Land. There were accusations also against the greed of the Church in allowing the redemption of Crusader vows and in levying taxes. The Church was reproached with having deflected the crusades from what should have been their single aim, the liberation of the Holy Land, and with having used them to serve the Church’s own interests or to exterminate heretics. These arguments are redolent primarily of a great weariness and of a feeling that the Crusade effort had been undertaken in vain (Yannoulatos, 524).13

Though not a single crusade had conversion of Muslims as its express aims, following the Christian advance in Spain, southern Italy and Sicily, the Church began to advocate the conversion of her new Muslim subjects. In the 13th century the religious revival within Christendom stimulated a new burst of missionary activity to Islam. But even within Latin Christendom, Muslim communities proved extremely reluctant to convert. Thus, by the mid-13th century, it was apparent that the missionary effort to the Islamic world had failed, and that the subject communities of Christendom were not going to convert, but, on the contrary, were determined to resist and, on occasion, to rebel. The Church reacted by linking Christian proselytism to the legitimate use of force. With regard to the Islamic world, Innocent IV (1243-54) decreed that, although Muslims must not be coerced into Christianity, the secular powers of Christendom could use force in order to ensure that the gospel was preached in Muslim lands. Within Christendom, the Church renewed the missionary effort, often with the support of secular government, and lent its full support to the suppression of Muslim rebellion. In Sicily and, later, in Spain, the secular authorities were ultimately forced to acknowledge their failure to incorporate their Muslim subjects into their kingdoms by expelling the entire Islamic community. The Church was just as eager to deal with spiritual rebellion amongst the subject Muslims. There was a tendency to identify Muslims, and especially Muslim rebels, with Christian heterodoxy. The inquisition was not specifically aimed at the Muslims of Christendom, nonetheless, it soon came to be used as an instrument for the persecution of Muslim apostates from Christianity. The inquisition did play a major role in the final extermination of Islam from both the kingdom of Sicily in the early 14th century and from Spain in the 15th to 17th centuries (Johns, 189-90, 192-4).

Failure to Seize the Chance through and beyond Common Humanity to Know and Accept the Other as Truly Other

During the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, as Western Christendom came into closer contact with Islam, in Spain, Sicily and—to a lesser extent—the Latin East, its appreciation of the nature of their common ideological heritage began to grow. Western scholars gradually produced a corpus of translations from the Arabic and studies of Islam. In the 1140s the abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, sponsored the first Latin translation of the Qur’an. Yet, Western Europe’s newly acquired knowledge was not used to develop the relationship between the two faiths, but instead, insofar as it was used at all, was selectively deployed by Christian missionaries in their assault against Islam. This, indeed, was the only use which even such intellectuals as Roger Bacon could conceive for the study of Arabic and Muslim doctrine (Johns, 195).

In the treatises written for Pope Clement IV in the years 1266-1268, Bacon, excluding war and miracles, saw with the help of philosophical tools that preaching was the only way in which Christendom could be enlarged. He seemed to have thought that once the arguments against Islam had been formulated they would require no real discussion: they were self-evident, and it could be left to missionaries and preachers to spread their influence (Southern, 90; cf. 52-61).

The contribution of Greek learning, transmitted through Islam, for example, the Aristotelian philosophical corpus, to the development of Christian philosophy, is so unquantifiably great. In terms of theology, on a central theological issue Western theologians of all shades of opinion in the mid-thirteenth century did not scruple to re-examine traditional views in the light of Islamic philosophy, or at least to restate traditional views in the language of these philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna (Southern, 90; cf. 55). It is therefore extraordinary that it did so little to improve the relationship between Christianity and Islam. In part, this is because Muslim and Western Christian intellectuals almost never got together due to a language barrier. Only at a few wholly exceptional points of contact, in Spain and Sicily, could Latin and Arab scholars meet, and there it was only Latins who had anything to learn. Moreover, the intellectual transfer from Islam to Christendom was limited by the West’s selectivity, and by the way in which it detached classical learning and Arabic ideas from their Muslim environment. The West sought to dehumanize the Muslim scholars to which it owed so much, and to transform them into passive agents of transmission of classical learning. But it was not always possible to separate Arab ideas from their Muslim context, and Europe’s perception of Arab wisdom was still inevitably conditioned by religious currents. Averroes enjoyed great popularity in the West at the beginning of the 13th century, when he was welcomed as the great "Commentator" upon Aristotle, but during the 1270s and, again, early in the 14th century, when the full impact of his ideas began to be felt, he was repeatedly condemned as an accursed infidel who had been inspired by Satan (Johns, 197-8).

Retrieval of Ignored and Suppressed Alternative Voice and View which could Serve as New Paradigm of Dialogic Relationship

For ecumenists and dialogists it ought to be encouraging to find within the folds of their own traditions intellectual and spiritual forebears whose religious instincts kept them perennially uncomfortable with doctrinal divisions and sectarian discord (Biechler, 2). R. W. Southern presented "the moment of vision" in Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages in people like Uthred of Boldon, John Wycliffe, John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa.14

Uthred of Boldon, a Benedictine monk, in the University of Oxford in the 1360s, held that at the moment of death all human beings, whether Christian or Muslim, or of whatever faith, enjoyed the direct vision of God and received their everlasting judgment in the light of their response to this experience. The proposition was condemned and withdrawn, but it was significant in putting forward a view which admitted unbelievers outside Christendom to the privileges hitherto, in traditional Christian thought, exclusively reserved for Christian believers (Southern, 76).

John Wycliffe (1330-84), an English religious reformer, a precursor of the Reformation, in nearly all his later writings, and especially from about 1378-1384, has something to say about Islam. For him the main characteristics of Islam were also the main characteristics of the Western Church of his own day. The leading characteristics of both Islam and the Western Church were pride, cupidity, the desire for power, the lust for possession, the gospel of violence and the preference of human ingenuity to the world of God. These features in the West were the main cause both of the divisions within Christendom and of the division of the West from its neighbors—the division of Avignon from Rome, of Greek from Latin, of Western Christendom from the Nestorians and from the other Christian communities of Asia and India, and finally of Islam from Christianity. These vices in the Church were, in a mysterious way, the cause of the rise of Islam, which only began with the growth of pride and avarice and the possessions of the Church. Wycliffe advocated that, since Islam was only curable by curing the diseases of Christendom, not only was war useless, but even preaching and argument directed at Islam were subordinate to the reform of the Church from within. And he repeated and developed the condemned doctrine of Uthred of Boldon that salvation was not the prerogative of Christians alone: "Just as some who are in the Church are damned so others outside the Church are saved….Man can be saved from any sect, even from among the Saracens, if he places no obstacle in the way of salvation…." Wycliffe, in his view of Islam, summed up the results of a century in which responsible persons in the West had become critical of their society as never before, and had found it less clearly distinguished from the outside world than had previously been hoped and believed (Southern, 77-83).

John of Segovia, a Spanish Cardinal, during the last five years before his death in 1458, did two things: he made a new translation of the Qur’an, and he tried to interest his distinguished friends in his plans for solving the whole problem of the Islamic question. The special criticism that John of Segovia made of the old translation of the Qur’an of Peter the Venerable was that it introduced into the text the ideas of the Latins, and used words and notions proper to the Christian world but not to that of Islam. So seriously concerned was John not to misrepresent the thought of the rival religion in 1455 he engaged a learned Segovian Muslim to translate the Qur’an into Spanish for him; from the Spanish, John himself made a further translation into Latin. A completely accurate text was required for John’s program of textual criticism in asking the fundamental question: Is the Qur’an the word of God or not? In contrast to Roger Bacon’s program of philosophical discussion, critical scholarship was to take the place of logical gymnastics.

John held that war could never solve the issue between Christendom and Islam. As he saw it, war was the natural mode of expression of Islam, which was founded on the doctrine of conquest. But this was contrary to the essence of Christianity. It was therefore only by peaceful means that Christendom could win, because only then was it true to itself. John realized that missions to convert Islam were doomed to failure because even preaching and missionary endeavors had been shown by experience to be inefficacious, for it required the advance permission of those in charge of the prospective audience, something hard enough to get even if a Christian wished to preach to other Christians. The first problem to be faced was, therefore, the problem of a new kind of communication. The main purpose of his letters to friends was to suggest a new method of persuasion— "conference" or, as John put it, contraferentia. Departing from the traditional view that discussion with the infidel could only be justified by conversion, John saw many partial and practical advantages; he saw the conference as an instrument with a political as well as a strictly religious function, and in words which will strike a chord in modern breasts he exclaimed that even if it were to last ten years it would be less expensive and less damaging than war (Southern, 86-92; also cf. Biechler, 8).

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), a German cardinal, was in philosophy a Platonist, in temperament a pacifist and moderate, in purpose deeply committed to the search for unity. In earlier years he had been one of the chief negotiators with the Hussites and the Greeks, and for many years he had been collecting all he could find on the Islamic controversy. In De Pace Fidei, a book completed within several months after the fall of Constantinople, he presented a dialogue between representatives of the leading religions of the world, in which he tried to embrace what was good in the religions of all peoples and to see through the details to the inner core of truth and unity—"non nisis religio una in rituum varietate"—religion is one though its rites be various. Like John of Segovia, Nicholas abandoned the philosophical ground, and he tried to carry the plan of discovering in the Qur’an itself the issues which separated Islam and Christendom, treating it as a document written in good faith, with a character and virtues of its own. Nicholas’s long preoccupation with the problem posed for Christianity by the perduring reality of Islam, culminated with his Cribratio Alchoran. Eight years of anti-Muslim polemic after the fall of Constantinople had decidedly dampened the pious irenicism of the De pace fidei, but the remarkable fact is that it had not destroyed it. The formula "fides una, ritus diversus" and its implications were distinctly muted in the Cribratio but were by no means absent. Though the Cribratio reiterated a large portion of the traditional medieval anti-Muslim material, and Nicholas reduced the issues separating Islam and Christendom essentially to a dispute between Western Christianity and Nestorian Christianity, the striking thing is that Nicholas approached the Qur’an convinced that it contained fundamental truths, that he at times manifested at least an ambivalent attitude toward Muhammad’s prophetic mission, and that he still gave evidence of a serious inclination toward doctrinal accommodation (Southern, 92-4; Biechler, 5-11).


Contemporary Resounding and Affirmation of the Living Voice of the Past Enlightened Dialogists

The writings of John Wycliffe, John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa show by a great effort they had made themselves masters of the knowledge of the 13th century; and to this they added the wider experience and capacity for self-criticism of the 14th. They saw the full complexity of the problem. They appealed to practical reason and common sense rather than to refined and insubstantial speculations (Southern, 103-4).

Both John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa were well aware that the enlightened approach they preferred was in fact contrary to the announced papal program against the Turks. Pope Nicholas V had issued a solemn summons to a "holy" war on September 30, 1453, and had called upon all Christian leaders to cooperate. Nonparticipation could even endanger one’s eternal salvation! (Biechler, 8-9) The revolutionary stance of Nicholas of Cusa and John of Segovia toward Islam in the wake of the conquest of Constantinople found no widespread acceptance by contemporaries and their plans were never much more than dreams. The remarkable thing is that, considering the long-standing and practically unanimous tradition of anti-Muslim polemic, two cardinals of the Holy Roman Church could have instigated such initiatives at all. And, even though their ideal never materialized, it cannot be said to have failed, as did the papal crusade program, dismally. For their irenic ideal remains alive, but as a Christian option the crusade is dead (Biechler, 14).

Many Muslims in Asia and Africa express strong criticism for all that they claim to have suffered from Christendom. They refer to the pressures of colonialism by the Christian nations in the 19th and 20th centuries. To this Muslim criticism the Orthodox, from its long cohabitation—"dialogue of life"—with the Muslim world, and its long history of trials in which the Eastern churches were oppressed and harassed by Muslim nations, offer the exceptional counterweight experience reminding the Muslims that it is not Christianity in its entirety that is responsible but only a limited number of "Christian" European nations (Yannoulatos, 524). Unless Europe can abandon its medieval inheritance of exclusivity and intolerance, and unless Islam can break free from the medieval anachronisms advocated by its radical extremists, modern secularism is unlikely to succeed where medieval Christianity failed (Johns, 204). Humanity under fire from religious conflicts has wept and whined "enough blood, enough tears, enough hatred, enough war."15 Where is the hope of humanity for a peaceful future of which religions are supposed to deliver?

"No peace among nations without peace among religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions."16 Yet, much opposition has been raised in the Christian world to the danger that interreligious dialogue may compromise Christian faith. Subsequently, there are different degrees of interreligious response and engagement, from the most positive and syncretistic view to a balanced orientation to the most negative and fanatic reaction among Protestant Christians, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Conversion of mind and heart is exigent.

If authentic dialogue is to occur, it is imperative that each partner is open and comes to learn from the other. This is all the more so in a dialogue entailing Christians and Muslims (and Jews) for there are so many barriers that only the literally "eccentric" members of each tradition who are likely to be able to engage in such a dialogue (trialogue) today. After the pioneers—following the heart and footsteps of the enlightened ecumenists and dialogists of the Middle Ages—have laid the groundwork, which doubtless will take years, then the more centrist members of each tradition will feel it is safe to tread the path of dialogue (trialogue). We know that the long-term "fundamental research and dialogue" approach to the interrelationship between Protestantism and Catholicism in Germany in the 1950s had a profoundly positive effect on the revolutionary changes that Protestant-Catholic relations have undergone since the early 1960s. It took decades of dangerous and often repressed and condemned dialogue between Catholic and Protestant pioneers before the breakthrough of the "Decree on Ecumenism" of Vatican Council II made it safe for the pope to venture forth on the ecumenical journey (Swidler 1996:360-8, at 360-1). The present Pope John Paul II has even boldly gone beyond where no popes have embarked on before, to be the first Pope to visit a mosque in Damascus on May 5, 2001.17 In a real sense he is very much a trailblazer in interreligious dialogue, especially when there is still no adequate and safe theology of religions to make such a visit and prayer fully intelligible and consistent.18 In other words, the experience comes first and the theology comes afterwards. On that occasion the pope said,

I truly hope that our meeting today in the Umayyad Mosque will signal our determination to advance interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. This dialogue has gained momentum in recent decades; and today we can be grateful for the road we have traveled together so far…. It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each other’s religious beliefs. Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family.19

However, we should not look at things romantically. One cannot guarantee such positive results in the much more complex Christian-Muslim (-Jewish) relationship. The disposition for dialogue to date has been cultivated more in the Christian world in contrast to the Muslim world. For that reason it is best to speak of a dialogue between some Christians and some Muslims. But one can guarantee that, without such an approach in a long-term manner, positive developments in their relationship will not come about. This will also ensure the continued undermining of the world peace process (Swidler 1996:360).

It is interesting and insightful to see that during the pressure of the Ottomans, Orthodox Christians responded with an enduring silence in a unique "mystical dialogue"—full of prayer and doxological attention to the paradoxical will of God and to the eschatological hope of liberation.20 Historical insights from the medieval Christian-Muslim relations, especially through the enlightened approach of those ecumenists or dialogists who reached out for peace, bear witness to that paradoxical will of God—all need to be open to others as a response to God who acknowledges our differences and wants us to know each other more deeply.21

Since the middle of the 20th century, a new situation has arisen in many European countries. Today some 100,000 Jews once again live in Germany (in 83 communities), but there are also 3 million Muslims, and in Europe generally there are between 10 and 12 million Muslims. This religious pluralism is disquieting to the confessional as well as to the secular-humanist status quo of European society. This is a huge shift for Europe to the extent that Europe now has to take Islam as part of its identity. The present situation of Muslims in Europe is without analogy. For the first time a large number of Muslims live outside Dar al-Islam, in countries whose legal system is not based on Shari’ah. The Muslims must enter into dialogue with a Europe that is marked by democracy, human rights and separation of state and religion (Kuschel, 235-6). Both the Christians and the Muslims, in Europe or in the West, and throughout the world, must learn from the past, but at the same time there is an urgent need for changes on both sides. In the spirit of openness and willingness to changes, Christians and Muslims (and Jews) must activate their spiritual, moral and intellectual resources more keenly than ever before in order to expel the demons of hatred, retaliation, violence and counter-violence from human hearts. That is the only and necessary way forward, learning through and moving beyond the infrequently dissonant history of interreligious tragedy to the submission in accord with the will of the one and only God for the good of all humanity.



1. Cf. Huntington 1993:22-49; Comments – Responses to Samuel P. Huntington’s "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 4, 1-26; Samuel P. Huntington, ‘Response – If Not Civilizations, What?’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 5, 186-94. Huntington includes other civilizations such as Confucian and Hindu Civilizations, but for the purpose of this essay the focus is on the "inter-civilizational-religious clash and dialogue" between Christianity and Islam.

2. Nasr 1986:3-12, p. 10. Also a painful personal experience from attaining "Inter-Civilizational Dialogue" organized by University Malaya, Malaysia, in 1997 affirmed such unfortunate identification between Christianity and Western society as they were used interchangeably throughout the seminar.

3. Granting the risk of generalization that may obscure the variation of images of Islam as perceived in Europe or in the West, the focus on the negative stereotypes here is meant to highlight the rhetoric that is potential to play up or trigger conflict and violent confrontation.

4. Declaration Nostra Aetate on relations between the Church and non-Christian religions, ch. 3: Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all humanity, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.

5. Recent scholarship questions whether Nestorius was himself a "Nestorian" and maintains that his position was orthodox and that his differences with his great rival, Cyril of Alexandria, are to be explained more by the confusion of terminology from which both suffered, particularly the failure to distinguish clearly between "person" and "nature," rather than from any departure from the Church’s faith on Nestorius’ part. As for Monophysitism, the orthodox version of the formula, "the one nature of the Incarnate Word" of Cyril of Alexandria was upheld in rejecting the "one person (hypostasis) in two natures" formulated and defined by the Council of Chalcedon. The Second Council of Constantinople attempted to resolve the issue by offering an obligatory orthodox interpretation of "one nature" language. Cf. Nestorianism, p.715, Monophysitism, p.673 in The New Dictionary of Theology, eds. Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, Dermot A. Lane (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1990).

6. Besides those two highlighted periods of military challenge, Islam posed a constant threat to Europe. Firstly, it posed a real challenge to the claims of universality of the papacy, secondly until the defeat of the Turks at Vienna, Islam was more civilized, more organized and militarily stronger than any European state. Compared with Islam, Christendom was indeed poor, small, backward and monochromatic. Split into squabbling, petty kingdoms, its churches divided by schism and heresy, with constant quarrels between the churches of Rome and the East. Indeed, for a very long time, it seemed that nothing could prevent the ultimate serious threat to Islam then. It is only in modern times that the situation has been reversed. See Lewis 1993:9.

7. One may ask, why were these people called Saracens if they were not descended from Sarah but from Hagar? See Lewis, Islam and the West, 7-8: Europeans at various times and in various places showed a curious reluctance to call the Muslims by any name with a religious connotation, preferring rather to call them by ethnic names, such as Saracens, Moors, Turks or Tatars, the obvious purpose of which was to diminish their stature and significance and to reduce them to something local or even tribal. Medieval Muslim writers show a similar reluctance, and refer to the Christian rivals and enemies as Romans, Slavs or Franks, depending on when and where they encountered them. The most common religious term which each applied to the other was, besides Muhammadans to Muslims and Nazarenes to Christians, "infidel," and it was in the exchange of this insult that they achieved their fullest and most perfect mutual understanding.

8. Brown, 187; also Lewis, 7: For Christians, Islam was at best a heresy, more usually a false doctrine, founded by one who was variously depicted, at different stages in the evolution of European consciousness, as a heretic, an impostor and later, in the age of the Enlightenment, an Enthusiast.

9. See also Lewis, 6-7: For Muslims, Christianity, like Judaism, was a predecessor, a religion which had been true and had possessed an authentic revelation, but was incomplete and now superseded by Islam. Muslim theologians had difficulty with such Christian doctrines as the Trinity, and the sonship and divinity of Christ, which in their eyes were blasphemous absurdities, and are explicitly rejected by the Qur’an (5:75-76 and 112:1-4). But in general, they were willing to concede the tolerance to the earlier religions enjoined by Qur’anic law, upon the submission of the Christians. If they did not, they were to be fought until they were overcome and either accepted the truth of the Muslim faith or submitted to the authority of the Muslim state.

10. See Lewis, 6-7. There is a discernable pattern among the absolutist monotheistic religions in claming over each other. These religions were, at least historically, convinced that theirs was not only the whole of God’s truth, it was also its final expression. No tolerence could be accorded to subsequent religious manifestations which impugned the veracity and finality of their own dispensations and, by their missionary zeal, threatened to misled the faith. Anything subsequent was therefore necessarily false and harmful and could not be tolerated.

For Christians, Judaism was a predecessor: an incomplete and superseded religion, fulfilled and replaced by Christianity, but not in itself false. Jews were therefore accorded some measure of precarious tolerance in medieval Europe as long as they kept to the Old Testament , even if they rejected the New. But they could forfeit that tolerance by following the Talmud, which was in larger part subsequent to the advent of Christianity and which, therefore, in Christian eyes was full of errors. If for the medieval Christian, Talmudic Judaism was falsified, Islam was simply false and it had to be resisted and overcome. Consequently, the reconquests for Christendom of Sicily, Spain, Portugal, were followed sometimes immediately and sometimes after an interval, by the expulsion or forcible conversion of their Muslim inhabitants.

For Muslims, on the other hand, Christianity, like Judaism, was a predecessor and deserving of the same degree of tolerance. But, as the Christians feared and persecuted Islam, so did the Muslims fear and persecute such post-Islamic conversioninst religious movements as the Baha’is and the Ahmadis.

11. Johns, 180, 167, 187-188; cf. Brown, 187-188; also Hajjar 1996:66-80, at 66, 76. Muslims did not normally go to Europe nor did Islam convert peoples not under its political authority, so Christian Europe understandably had no experience in dealing with Islamic minorities. In the history of European self-perception and self-definition, Islam played a thoroughly negative role. The history of European Islam ended catastrophically in both European regions where there had been a living Islam: Sicily and Spain. Bosnia-Herzegovina, including Kosovo, is the one region in Europe where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived together for centuries—over 500 years—ignoring the rest of Europe. When war broke out in the Balkans during the 1990s, Christians everywhere realized that two historical models of coexistence among Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe had foundered tragically. Thus, twice in its history, Europe has had the opportunity to constructively exercise coexistence among Jews, Christians and Muslims. The future will show whether there will be a third chance. See Kuschel 2002: 233-38, at 235.

12. Cf. Johns, 201: "Very different attitudes towards Muslims prevailed in Byzantium and in the Oriental churches, and so it would seem that violent xenophobia towards Muslims was not so much characteristic of medieval Christianity as of medieval Europe. The Latin Church inevitably reflected the exclusivity and intolerance of European society, but it was not their cause." What could be the real cause then?

13. Ibid. Much is wrong with the theory and practice of the crusades, but a liberal historical reading that categorically consigns total failure to the movement is perhaps unfair. For example 16th–17th century shipping in the Mediterranean depended on the Crusader Knights for protection. Cyprus, Malta as well as Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania were all helped by the Crusades.

14. Southern, 67-109. Southern was an English Anglican historian. His personal point of view that heretics were good and so Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had a basis for their Anglican schism should pose no prejudice to his written subject matter here, which is the Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages.

I leave Jean Germain and Aeneas Silvius out of the list since both advocated the renewal of the crusades. Also I do not include Luther—though like Wycliffe in rejecting war as a solution and seeing the need to first renounce the internal enemy, he looked to the probability that Christendom would be engulfed in Islam, a pessimism which is not helpful for building up a mutually respectful dialogic relationship. For conciliatory and iraenic examples of dialogist in the Greek Orthodox approaches to Islam—St. Gregory Palamas, the Emperor Manuel II Paleologos and Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios—see Anastasios Yannoulatos, "Byzantine and Contemporary Greek Orthodox Approaches to Islam," 515-19.

15. Echo of the resonating voice of the late Jewish Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who dedicated his life to working towards a peaceful coexistence between the Jews and Palestinians.

16. Address of Catholic theologian Hans Kung at the UNESCO Conference in Paris on world peace and dialogue among religions in February 1989.

17. Earlier in October 1986 Pope John Paul II hosted a meeting and prayer of world religious leaders at Assisi. The religious leaders and representatives were united in common prayer for peace, justice and protection of the earth. John Paul stated clearly that he had not asked them to come for an interreligious conference on peace, but to proclaim to the world that there exists another dimension of peace and another way to promote it. Prayer—and interreligious prayer at that—was the key to world peace. That afternoon John Paul said that "the challenge of peace transcends all religions." Assisi was a magnificient sign. The great religions praying together generated a spiritual energy that vibrated throughout the cosmos. Pope John Paul, deeply shocked by the terrorist attackes of September 11, 2001, called another interreligious peace meeting in Assisi. The 200 delegates from 12 of the world’s religions were to commit themselves to "eliminate the root causes of terrorism" and to proclaim that "violence and terrorism are compatible with the authentic spirit of religion." See William Johnston, "Break the Chains and Pray Together," Tablet (16 March 2002).

18. Ibid. Johnston brings to light that "some cardinals and theologians of the Roman Curia were less than happy (about the meeting at Assisi in 1986). They could not reconcile Assisi with the teaching of the Catholic Church as set forth in the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the standard work of Heinrich Denzinger. They were educated to believe that worship with non-Catholics (communicatio in sacris) was an abomination. The council, it is true, had permitted and even encouraged prayer with other Christians. But prayer with pagans? No doubt Christians and non-Christians could pray ‘in the same place.’ But could they pray ‘together’? Perish the thought!"

19. Quoted in Kuschel, "Christian-Muslim Dialogue," 234. See also Muslim-Christian Relations: Bibliography & Recommended Links There is a special compilation dedicated to John Paul’s Pope John Paul II & Islam.

20. Yannoulatos, 520. There is a similarly inspiring and mystical text found in the Qur’an, Sura 5:48: "To each of you we have given a law and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variant." Quoted in Kuschel, 238.

21. Address of John Paul II to the bishops of the Maghreb on a visit to Tunisia on April 14,1996. He further suggested that the different religions at their root "all agree on the acceptance of differences, and on the benefit to be drawn from looking critically at each other and seeing how other people formulate their faith and live it out." He gave a severe warning that "no one can kill in the name of God, no one can agree to bring death to his own brother." He urged Catholics in Islamic countries to "go out towards your brothers and sisters without making distinctions on the basis of race or religion."


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