The Many Sides of Christian-Muslim Relationships
Leo D. Lefebure
Since the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E., Muslims and Christians have related to each other in a wide variety of ways, ranging from friendship and cooperation to bitter conflict and military combat. The great medieval historian R.W. Southern asserted, “The existence of Islam was the most far-reaching problem in medieval Christendom. It was a problem at every level of experience.” The major options for relationship were: “Crusade, conversion, coexistence, and commercial interchange.” Meanwhile, theologically, “it called persistently for some answer to the mystery of its existence: what was its providential role in history?” (Southern 3). Historically, Islam is the most successful competitor that Christianity ever encountered prior to modern secularism; most of the heartlands of early Christianity, the sites of the early church fathers and councils and some of the oldest sees, are today predominantly Muslim. No other movement had this type of success on traditional Christian soil. This left medieval Christians profoundly uneasy with Islam. Christians could argue that the subordinate situation of the Jews demonstrated God’s anger at them for their rejection of Jesus; Islam, however, was from the beginning immensely successful in the military and political field.
In the early Middle Ages Muslim cultural and intellectual life far surpassed developments in Western Europe. Islam had more vibrant cities, wealthier courts, better scientists and doctors. Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (ca. 935-ca. 1002) described Muslim-ruled Cordoba as the most splendid of cities:
In the western parts of the globe, there shone forth a fair ornament, a venerable city, haughty because of its unwonted might it was a city well cultured, which the Spanish race held in possession, rich and known by the famous name Cordoba, illustrious because of its charms and also renowned for all resources, especially abounding in the seven streams of knowledge, and ever famous for continual victories. (Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, Passio S. Pelagii, verses 12-18; cited by von Grunebaum 57.)
The Christian tradition in general and the Catholic Church in particular have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship to Islam. Dante Alighieri, perhaps the greatest poet in the entire history of Christianity, represents and symbolizes this. Nearly a century ago, the Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios demonstrated that in conceiving the Divine Comedy, Dante was directly dependent upon Muslim accounts of the Night Journey of Muhammad to heaven, where the prophet reportedly met and conversed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus (Asin Palacios). The achievement of Dante would have been unthinkable without the contribution of the vibrant culture of early medieval Islam. Yet when the great Christian poet describes Muhammad’s place in the afterlife, Dante finds the prophet in the Eighth Circle of hell reserved for schismatics. The punishment Dante envisions for Muhammad is to be repeatedly split from the chin through his torso over and over again for all eternity (Inferno 28:22-36).
Similarly, Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries developed scholastic theology in constructive dialogue with Muslim thinkers Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Thomas deeply respected Ibn Rushd’s interpretation of Aristotle, and Aquinas accepted Ibn Sina’s distinction between existing and essence as a way to move beyond Aristotle’s metaphysics in understanding creation ex nihilo. Nonetheless, Thomas, like Dante, could imagine no place in heaven for Muhammad, Ibn Rushd, or Ibn Sina. For Thomas, implicit faith in the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Trinity could have sufficed for salvation prior to the time of Christ; but after the Incarnation, “when once grace had been revealed, all were bound to explicit faith in the mystery of the Trinity,” as well as in Jesus Christ (Summa Theologiae 2-2.2.8; 2-2.2.7).
A few medieval Christians had a reasonably accurate understanding of Islam, but the majority learned about Islam through polemics, lies, and slanders. The last chapter of John Damascene’s book, Concerning Heresies, is entitled, “The Heresy of the Ishmaelites,” and describes Islam in insulting terms as the hundredth heresy. John refers to Saracens (one etymology is that the word means “empty of Sarah,” i.e., driven out by Sarah from Abraham’s home) rather than Muslims and “the heresy of the Ishmaelites” rather than using term “Islam.” John ridiculed Islam, charging that Muhammad fabricated stories of revelation to justify his sexual appetites and that Muhammad invented the teachings of the Qur’an based on instruction from an Arian monk (later named Sergius in Byzantine and Western legend, Sargis-Bahira in Syriac and Bahira in Arabic) (Daniel 15, 109-110). Nicetas of Byzantium argued that the God of Islam is actually a devil. Muhammad himself was vilified, often being portrayed as an epileptic who invented stories of an angel to excuse his fits. Medieval Christians largely refused to understand Islam on its own terms and viewed it as a Christian heresy or schism. As Christian and Muslim warriors encountered each other on the battlefield off and on for over a millennium, the threat of a decisive Islamic victory hung over Christian Europe. In this context, Christian attitudes toward Islam were often bitter and fearful.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in fifteenth-century Spain, many Catholics respected their Jewish and Muslim neighbors and their religions. One commented, in contradiction to the teaching of the Catholic teaching authorities of the time, “the good Jew and the good Muslim can, if they act correctly, go to heaven just like the good Christians” (cited by Kamen 6). At least at times, Christians, Muslims, and Jews gathered together to share their wisdom, exchange translations of ancient Greek texts, and make possible the spread of knowledge across religious boundaries. The rebirth of Western medieval scholarship in the twelfth and thirteen centuries was made possible by the open dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Spain and the Middle East.
In various settings Jesuit missioners continued both sides of the earlier tradition. Some, like Francisco Ignacio Alzina, S.J., who came to the Philippines in 1632, commented bitterly in his Historia about "that infamous sect of Mohamet, which has infected many of the islands of this archipelago before our true one arrived here." Meanwhile, in Mughal India, Jesuit missioners participated in lively debates with Sunnis and Shiites, as well as Hindus and Jains, under the supervision of the Emperor Akbar. Akbar personally supported the work of the Jesuits; but his goal was to establish an amalgam of the best of the world’s religions, with a particular focus on himself. The Jesuits, for all their skill in debating and their acceptance at court, did not make major inroads into India at this time. Nonetheless, the Jesuits’ scholarship and translation of Christian texts into Persian did have a major impact on the Mughal court and earned them the respect of their Muslim debating partners.
In the current time of international tension, the vilifying of Islam continues unabated in some quarters, as the violence done in the name of Islam is identified with the center of the religion itself. Nonetheless, in many areas Christians know Muslims as neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Through first-hand knowledge, stereotypes can be set aside and healthy relationships formed. Vatican II affirmed that Catholics and Muslims worship the one God (Lumen Gentium 16, Nostra Aetate 3) and called Catholics and Muslims to forget past animosities and “train themselves towards sincere mutual understanding” in the service of social justice (Nostra Aetate 3).
Blessed Pope John Paul II clearly distinguished authentic Islam from the actions of the terrorists and was a leader in developing relations with Muslims. On May 6, 2001, he became the first pope ever recorded to visit a mosque—the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which was built on an earlier Byzantine Christian church honoring the grave of St. John the Baptist. John Paul II said: “It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. . . . In Syria, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and a rich dialogue of life has gone on unceasingly. . . . For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and offer each other forgiveness.” The challenge echoes still.
Asín Palacios, Miguel. Islam and the Divine Comedy. Trans. and abridged by Harold Sutherland. London: Cass, 1968.
Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. 1960; reprint, Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.
Grunebaum, Gustave E. von. Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation. 2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
Southern, R.W. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1962.