Por Roberto Verttuti
Jumada’ al-Akhirah 13, 14392018-03-01
In this first part of or our interview, we talk to Dr. John Andrew Morrow, author and scholar, about his life’s journey and thoughts. He is best known for his Covenants’ Initiative that aims to create better understanding between Muslims and Christians in the world today.
CI: Let us begin with your journey to Islam; tell us something about it.
Like most Métis and French Canadians, I was raised Roman Catholic and I am profoundly grateful that my parents, the Church, and the Bible cultivated my faith, morals, ethics, and values. Raising children without a divinely-revealed religion and without a sense of Natural and Divine Law is detrimental to both self and society. Like all human beings, I was born with a divinely-instilled inclination to believe. Consequently, I am who I was: a believer in the One. I am not a “New Muslim” nor am I a “revert” or a “convert.” I was raised as a follower of Jesus (a) as well as the prophets and messengers who preceded him. Due to historical, cultural, and geographical reasons, the message of Muhammad (pbuh), the final messenger of God, had not reached my people. My transition into Islam was natural. I did not move from disbelief to belief or from immorality to morality. I simply perfected my religion. I graduated from Christianity to Islam. At the time of the Prophet, there were unbelievers — pagans, heathens, idolaters, polytheists, and atheists — and there were believers: Jews, Messianic Jews or Judeo-Christians, and Christians. There were also the Hanifs, the Arabs who followed the ancient religion of Isma‘il and his father Ibrahim (a). Most members of these faith communities made a smooth transition into Islam. They recognized it as a continuation and completion of their faith traditions. So it was for me. Regardless of where I was born, I would have been a believer in one God: a Brahman in ancient India, a believer in the Great Spirit in pre-Columbian North America, a follower of Nezahualcoyotl in Mesoamerica, a Jew in the time of Moses, a Christian in the time of Jesus, and now, a Muslim in the age of Muhammad (a). I started to study Islam at the age of 13 and took shahadah at the age of 16. I have been a practising Muslim for 30 years and have never ceased to study. What was so appealing about Islam? Divine unity and divine justice; spirituality and social commitment; ethics and morality as well as the importance of family.
CI: Your book, Covenants of the Prophet with the Christians of the World, has received wide recognition among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Let’s start with addressing some key issues in your book. You claim to have found evidence that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) spent a great deal of time with the Christian monks in Sinai during his twenties. Some detractors would argue that this claim feeds the orientalist narrative that the Prophet learned his teachings from Christians and Jews and then self-invented Islam. What is your response?
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was well-traveled. This is a fact. It is well-established in classical Muslim sources. Abundant references to these can be found in The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World along with Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, who was both a Western academic and a traditionally trained Muslim scholar, held this to be true. Consequently, one cannot exclude the possibility that he traveled to Mt. Sinai as it was located along the main trading routes that the Arabs, including Abu ˇalib, routinely employed.
As Muslims, we do not believe that Islam is a new religion. Islam, namely, the belief in One God, divine revelation, and the hereafter, along with major moral laws, was the religion of Adam, Idris (Enoch), Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Yahyå (John), Jesus, and Muhammad (a). The Prophet did not draw upon Jewish and Christian doctrines to create a new religion: he was the heir of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its culmination. Although some orientalists have argued that the Prophet learned his teachings from Jews and Christians and invented Islam — and they base this belief on the Cycle of Bahira Legends that circulated among some Christians who were unfriendly toward Islam, Muslims, and the Prophet — this is not the tradition that was passed down by the monks who were acquainted with the Messenger of Allah (pbuh). The tradition of the Prophet’s travel to the Sinai — which could have taken place when he was a youth, during the early days of his mission in Madinah, or even toward the end of his prophetic mission, namely, when he went to Maqna — has been transmitted by large numbers of sources over the past 14 centuries. I have cited them in “The Covenants of the Prophet: Questions and Concerns” and “The Provenance of the Prophet’s Covenants,” both of which are found in Islam and the People of the Book.
Curiously, none of these original traditions claim that the Prophet studied with Christian monks. On the contrary, they assert that a Christian abbot from St. Catherine’s Monastery witnessed a sign of God clearly showing him that Muhammad (pbuh) was destined to greatness and that he would become a powerful leader; hence, the abbot asked him to protect the monastery after he proclaimed his prophecy. This tradition does not reinforce the orientalist narrative any more than the tradition that both Bahira the Monk and Nastura the Monk recognized young Muhammad as a future prophet. These are not the only instances in which seers, monks, priests, and rabbis prophesized that Muhammad was the long-awaited prophet who would come from Arabia. They are found in both ancient Christian and Muslim sources. They confirm, rather than deny, his divinely-ordained prophetic mission and the truth of his teachings.
CI: You reside in the US. There is currently a great deal of polarization between the so-called left and the right spectrum of the political trend. Many Muslim organizations have accepted the mainstream liberal narrative that leftists are friends of Muslims and rightists are outright racist and enemies of Islam. Neither the left nor right is monolithic. Are there any healthy right/conservative groups and organizations in the US with whom Muslims could build a mutually beneficial alliance?
Most Muslims in the West have cast their lot with the liberals. They have naively bought into the lie that liberals are tolerant people who care about Muslims. Tell a liberal that you oppose abortion on demand, that you oppose fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, gay marriage, and transgenderism, that you are convinced that the traditional family structure is in danger, that you believe that there are only two genders, that you oppose the use of alcohol and drugs, that you believe that both men and women should dress modestly, and that you are against illegal immigration since you believe in the rule of law, and see how tolerant they really are. You will be called by every profanity excluded from the dictionary. At the very least, you will be accused of being a racist, a sexist, and a fascist.
While I disagree with half of what Michael Savage has to say, I do agree with the other half, particularly his assertion that liberalism is a mental disorder. At the same time, however, I am equally convinced that conservatism is a mental disorder. Both are extremes. Both are symptomatic of spiritual, psychological, and social imbalance. While the political spectrum varies from country to country and from age to age, I stand at the center that was marked by Muhammad (pbuh), the Messenger of Allah, and the other Prophets of God who preceded him. Liberalism, both classical and social, had a platform in the past: opposition to slavery, racism, segregation, and discrimination, the right to vote for women, equal pay for equal work, along with a call for civil rights and human rights. Now, they spend their time cavorting with transsexuals, anti-white racists, and takfiri terrorists. The liberals sure have strange bed fellows.
What does liberalism stand for today? The right of children to choose their own gender? The right for illegal immigrants to invade Western nations with impunity? The right to blame white Westerners for crimes that they never committed and that most of their ancestors never committed? What does liberalism stand for today? Sexual anarchy? The destruction of the traditional family? The supplanting of religion by secularism? The right to change the ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious background of a country overnight as it ensures liberal votes, spreads secularization, and promotes globalization? The right to create a single people, speaking a single global language, sharing a single global culture, and sharing faiths “that are all the same” since they are all under the umbrella of the One World Religion? What does liberalism mean today? The right to destroy the sovereignty of nation-states to subject them to a New World Order controlled by the one-percenters, a bunch of billionaire elites who wish to exterminate most human beings who are overcrowding a planet they view as their personal country club and resort? As Muslims we categorically reject racism. We do, however, value diversity. Hence, we must oppose efforts to homogenize humanity, to weaken resistance, and to facilitate subservience. For the globalists, races, religions, languages, cultures, and ideologies are sources of division and conflict. If they are suppressed, there will only be submission, not to God, but to the real rulers of the world.
Although most Muslims feel that they share more affinities with liberals, who pretend to profess an unflinching belief in pluralism and an appreciation for diversity, they share just as much in common with certain conservatives, including, in some sectors, a clear sense of right and wrong derived from the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. As a Muslim, if I must choose between a person who believes in God and a person who is an atheist or an agnostic, I will side with the person of faith. As a Muslim, if I must choose between a person who believes in chastity and a person who advocates sexual immorality, I will side with the person who has a sense of human decency. Despite the slanderous propaganda of liberals, leftists, socialists, communists, anarchists, secularists, atheists and Satanists, most religious conservatives are not racist nor are they sexist. Simply because one believes in the teachings of the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an, the traditional family and the existence of two genders, does not mean that one is a racist, a bigot, a misogynist, an extremist, a fascist, or a terrorist. Tolerating the intolerable is not tolerance: it is complicity and advocacy. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have the right to stand their moral ground, stand for what is sacred, and advocate for what they believe is best for society based on revelation and reason.
While liberals and conservatives take different positions on social issues such as abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, the role of the public sector, education vouchers, embryonic stem cell research, energy, euthanasia, climate change, gun control, healthcare, homeland security, immigration, private property, religion, same-sex marriage, social security, taxes, the role of the United Nations, and welfare, they are, in reality, but two sides of the same coin and the difference between liberal and conservative governments in the West is generally superficial since the world revolves around economic as opposed to social interests. Both liberals and conservatives are secular and believe in the separation of church and state. Both believe, not in the Great Prophet Moses, the Great Prophet Jesus or the Great Prophet Muhammad (a) but in the Great Profit Margin. Both serve the interests of the global economic elites as opposed to the interests of God, the Prophets, and the people. They place their trust, not in God, but in the Market, some type of Supreme Force that “regulates itself.” We just need to submit to it. We, believers in God and followers of His Prophets, however, hold that human beings were not created to serve the economy but rather the economy was created to serve people.
Although conservatism, like liberalism, has been co-opted by the economic elites, the neocons, and the alt-right, who are just as diabolical as the liberal degenerates they denounce, having turned conservatism into savage capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism, there are some conservatives with whom traditional Muslims can make common cause. This would include cultural conservatives, moral conservatives, religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives, paleo-conservatives, and traditionalist conservatives — but certainly not neoconservatives.
Despite their shortcomings, shortsightedness, and ignorance in certain areas, practicing Catholics have been firm when it comes to defending the fundamentals of their faith and its relevance in the world today. Orthodox Christians, in general, who tend to be even more conservative in theology and practice, also share universal, time-honored values. Although I am partial to the Catholic Church, both East and West, I admit that bridges can also be built with Protestants, particularly with conservative groups like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites, as well as more liberal denominations like the Anglicans and Methodists.
I had long written off Southern Baptists, assuming erroneously that these predominantly white anglophones were all intolerant racists and white supremacists. My views changed when I met an old white preacher who was a Southern Baptist. He listened to a lecture I delivered in Jackson, Mississippi, in which I lambasted ISIS and shared the true teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Not only did I change the way he viewed Islam and Muslims, the man made me change the way I viewed Southern Baptists. Although Muslims tend to gravitate toward liberal Jews who share the same values, or lack thereof, of liberal Christians, there are plenty of conservative, orthodox, and even ultra-orthodox Jews who are very close to traditional Muslims in their worldview. Just like it is unfair to claim that all Muslims are anti-Jewish, it is also unfair to claim that all Jews are anti-Muslim. The message is clear: we, human beings, of different races, ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions, and political beliefs, must get to know one another. Then, and only then, will we see how much we share.
CI: What could Muslims in the US and Canada do to reach out to the conservative segment in society in these two countries?
Reaching out to conservatives is the same as reaching out to liberals. Make some calls. Send some emails. Knock on doors. Meet some people. Agree to agree. Focus on similarity. Learn from one another in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. Work together toward common causes. Personally, I would focus more on religious conservatives, including some of the denominations I previously mentioned, than political conservatives. I would not advise Muslims to reach out to extreme Trumpians, the violent side of the alt-right, racist neocons, radical Zionists, and other overtly anti-Islamic parties. I know some brothers, both African American and Caucasian American, who dialogue with people on the fringe. It takes proper training and preparation — not to mention, courage. As normative Muslims, we should be willing to talk to anyone who wishes to talk to us in a constructive fashion. We should respond to those who reach out to us and, at times, we should also reach out to others. Some may or may not respond, but the offer of dialogue, peace, collaboration, and reconciliation should always be on the table. ∞
“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.
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