Islam and Christianity
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Islam and Christianity have a common origin that is the Semitic tradition. Both are Semitic religions. Although the advent of Christianity was about six hundred years before that of Islam, there are great similarities between the two religions. There is much common ground between Islam and Christianity.
The Quran is the authentic text of the religion of Islam. In regard to the Muslim-Christian relationship it is worth mentioning that there are frequent references to Christianity in the Quran. For example, Muhammad and Ahmad are referred to in the Quran five times, while Isa and Masih are mentioned thirty-six times, and Maryam (Mary) is referred to thirty-four times. This shows that Islam gives special regard to Christianity and desires that Muslims develop high respect for it.
The Quran praises the Christian community in these words: “We gave him the Gospel and imbued the hearts of those who followed him with compassion and mercy.” (57:27). In another verse the Quran mentions the Christian community in these words: “The nearest in affection to them are those who say, ‘We are Christians.’” (5:82).
In Chapter 61, the Quran enjoins the Muslim to follow the method of the Christians: “O believers, be God’s helpers, as Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples, ‘Who will be my helpers in the cause of God?’ The disciples said, ‘We shall be God’s helpers.’”(61:14)
Greater than this is that according to the Prophet’s tradition, all the Muslims believe in what is called “the second coming of Jesus Christ”. According to Muslim belief this coming is not just for the sake of coming, it is for the sake of performing a great role. It is the final role of the history of mankind. At that time, Muslims are required to follow Jesus Christ and by joining him, they must fight against dajjal, the great deceiver. This belief is common among all Muslims.
According to a saying of the Prophet of Islam, in the later period of history, two religious communities will emerge as the greatest communities in terms of number. By seeing the above references from the Quran and the Hadith, it can be said that Islam wants that Muslims and Christians should join together in the later period of history for the cause of Allah, and they must eliminate evil by joint effort. According to the Islamic teaching, this is the greatest mission of both the communities.
We are living in an age of information – the age of the knowledge explosion. Today, everyone wants to know more and more about everything, including religion. The result is that today on the subject of religion, people are far better informed than ever before.
At the same time, we are living in a world of differences – of multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies. To remove these differences people fight amongst themselves, not realizing that differences cannot be removed. A reformer has rightly said that Nature abhors uniformity. This means that ‘difference’ is a part of Nature and it exists in every aspect of life including religion. What we need to do is simply learn the ‘art of difference management’ rather than the art of difference elimination. Who has the power to remove all differences?
How do we manage differences? In ancient times, people used to take a confrontational course whenever differences arose. They knew only one way to settle disputes, and that was war. But democracy put an end to this way of settling matters and introduced the culture of dialogue leading to peace.
We should also understand that difference is not a curse, but rather a blessing. History shows that difference of opinion leads to dialogue, and dialogue results in intellectual development, which is a boon for everyone concerned. Difference of opinion also leads to high thinking, which is the sole key to all kinds of human progress.
In the realm of religion, today, differences are managed only through meaningful and positive ‘inter-faith dialogue’ between people of world religions. The aim of dialogue is to seek peaceful solutions to controversial matters, in spite of differences. There may be differences in religion and culture, but there is absolutely no difference or discrimination made between people in terms of respect and honour.
The principle of dialogue is that the parties should present their viewpoints supported by arguments, while remaining ever ready for give and take — a pre- requisite of a successful dialogue — rather than insist on all demands being unconditionally met.
Dialogue in Islam
Dialogue or peaceful negotiation, is the path prescribed by Islam. Islam is based on the principle of dawah, which is another name for peaceful negotiation. Violence is totally forbidden in Islam. There is only one exception to this ban and that is when it is engaged in self-defense. This can take place only at the time of external invasion, and such action is the prerogative of an established government. Non-governmental organizations have no right to wage a war in the name of justice or even in self-defense.
The Prophet of Islam started his mission in Makkah in 610 A.D. This mission was to communicate his ideology to people by talking to them, listening to their objections and trying to convince them of his viewpoint by means of arguments. One of the initial Quranic verses revealed to him was that the ideology given by God to the Prophet should be spread by him among the people (93:11) The Prophet’s ideology was based on monotheism, whereas his Arab contemporaries believed in polytheism. It was but natural, therefore, that his mission should become subject to bilateral negotiation.
He would communicate his point to people, listen to their responses and then give them further explanations. In this way his mission became a practical demonstration of what we now term dialogue. To make this dialogue fruitful, the Quran lays down certain meaningful guidelines: “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in a way that is best.” (16:125)
This verse shows that your conversation with others should be carried on in the best and most gracious way, hence, any bickering with other parties has to be avoided. After listening to their objections, the point should be made in such a way that appeals to their minds. That is, it should not end in mere debate, but should be result-oriented. The conversation should not appear to be between rivals, but should aim at mutual understanding.
The Quran makes this quite explicit: “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.” (41:34)
This verse of the Quran tells us that no one is Mr Enemy. Everyone is potentially Mr Friend. This is so because everyone is born with the same nature. From this Quranic principle, we learn that the beginning of any dialogue should not be marked by any sign of despair about the possible outcome. The right approach is to display a hopeful attitude and at the very outset to suppress any tone which would suggest low expectations of success.
In this regard, another verse of the Quran is as follows: “Say, ‘People of the Book! Let us come to a word common to us that we shall worship none but God.’” (3:64)
We learn from this verse, what should be the subject of discussion when a conversation is being held between two parties? That is, the beginning of a dialogue should not start with a controversy. Instead, a common ground should be sought on which the discussion should begin. The sequence of the discussion, therefore, should be from agreement to difference of opinion and then back to agreement.
In Islam, the formula for social peace, social harmony and interfaith dialogue is based on peaceful coexistence as has been given in the following verse of the Quran: “To you, your religion, and to me, mine.” (109:6)
In other words, the principle of dialogue given by Islam is, “Follow one and respect all”, or the method of ‘mutual respect’. As per the teachings of Islam, while respecting others, we have to welcome differences wholeheartedly without any reservation. It is hatred, which has to be eliminated and not difference of opinion. People may have their differences in belief, religion, culture, etc., but while following their religion, they have to have mutual respect for others and discover a common bond between them, which shows them that all are human beings.
The following is another relevant verse: “Do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they, in their hostility, revile God and out of ignorance.” (6:109)
We gather from this verse of the Quran that, when dialogue takes place between two parties on a controversial subject, it is essential that an amicable atmosphere be maintained. If both parties set about arousing animosity and people on both sides are engaged in spreading antagonistic feelings, such an unfavorable atmosphere will be created that no fruitful dialogue can take place.
It is a fact that the result of dialogue is not solely dependent upon the atmosphere of the immediate surroundings, but depends rather upon whether the external environment favors or disfavors it.
Another principle of dialogue is supported by the tradition of the Prophet of Islam concerning the via media arrived at in drawing up the Hudaybiya Peace Treaty. This treaty was signed only after long negotiations between the Prophet of Islam and the Quraysh. It is a matter of historical record that the conclusion of this treaty was possible because the Prophet unilaterally accepted the conditions laid down by the Quraysh.
The principle of dialogue derived from this Sunnah of the Prophet is that both the parties should present their viewpoints supported by arguments, while remaining ever ready for give and take — a prerequisite of a successful dialogue — rather than insist on all demands being unconditionally met.
In practical matters, Islam advocates flexibility to the ultimate possible extent.
We learn from a number of examples throughout Islamic history that Islam not only lays down principles of dialogue, but gives also practical demonstrations. In the Makkan period of his mission, the Prophet of Islam repeatedly practiced the principle of dialogue. For instance, once the Quraysh sent their leader, Utba ibn Rabiyya, as their representative to the Prophet of Islam so that an atmosphere of peace might be arrived at through negotiation on the subject of mutual differences. The traditions tell us that Utba heard the Prophet out patiently and with full attention. Then he conveyed what he had said to the Quraysh. Similarly, at the invitation of his uncle, Abu Talib, representatives of the Quraysh gathered at the Prophet’s home and held negotiations there peacefully on controversial matters.
This principle of peaceful negotiations can also be witnessed in the negotiations held at Hudaybiya between the Quraysh and Prophet of Islam that continued for about two weeks, culminating in the treaty of Hudaybiya. This event, without doubt, is a successful example of peaceful negotiation. Again, in the presence of the Prophet of Islam, tripartite talks were held between representatives of three religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity, in the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. This historic event, which took place in the sacred place of worship, shows the importance given to peaceful dialogue in Islam.
Such examples, which are many in number, relate to the golden age of the Prophet and his companions. That is why the practice of dialogue in terms of bilateral negotiation enjoys the position of an established principle in Islam.
It becomes clear from the above discussion that the method of Islam is that of peaceful dialogue. The Quran tells us that the way of peace is the best way. (4:128). There is another verse, which tells us that the way of negotiation and arbitration should be adopted in controversial matters. (4:35)
There is a tradition of the Prophet to this effect: “Do not desire or seek confrontation with the enemy, but rather ask for peace from God.”
The objective of Islam is to bring about divine revolution, to invite people to worship God, to strive for a society in which spiritual, ethical, and human values are cherished. Islam advocates an atmosphere where peace, tolerance, love and well-wishing is the order of the day — an atmosphere where controversies are resolved without the use of violence. This is the desired world of Islam and such a world can be established only through peaceful dialogue. The truth is that Islam is based on monotheism, with regard to God; and on peaceful dialogue, with regard to methodology. This is the essence of Islamic teaching. No other way is possible in Islam.