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Christian History Home > 2007 > Issue 94 > Encounters with Islam

Encounters with Islam
Few issues have more serious implications for Christian witness and global politics today than Christian-Muslim relations. We can learn much from Arab Christian apologist John of Damascus, eloquent Assyrian Church leader Patriarch Timothy 1, and tireless Protestant missionary Samuel Zwemer.
Andrew Saperstein | posted 4/01/2007 12:00AM

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Relations between the Muslim world and the West dominate the international news. The events of 9/11, ongoing war in Iraq, developments in Afghanistan, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Danish cartoon crisis, Pope Benedict's remarks on Islam, countless other lower-profile events—all reflect the fact that Muslim-Christian and Muslim-Western relations stand among the defining issues of our age. This situation compels serious followers of Jesus to consider precisely what Christ is calling us to concerning our Muslim neighbors—and our Muslim enemies.

Christians today are not the first to face this challenge. Since the sudden emergence of a vigorous and growing Muslim community in the Arabian Peninsula in the early seventh century, Christians and Muslims have been forced to negotiate the realities of face-to-face interactions in everyday life, in political relations between Christian and Muslim nations, and in all-too-common violent conflicts.

Unfortunately, violence has shaped Muslims' and Christians' views of each other and generated shame and anger on both sides. Marching under the banner of the cross, medieval Crusaders slaughtered thousands of Muslims, justifying their behavior in part as a response to Islamic aggression against Christians in the East. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Mongol warlord Tamerlane and his armies left great heaps of skulls across Asia as a symbol of their grisly ventures in the cause of holy war. More recently, European colonial powers have pilfered Muslim lands and subjugated their peoples in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. And today, murmurings of an impending "clash of civilizations" mingle with the din of violent confrontations involving Muslims and Christians on several continents.

While these painful realities must be reckoned with, there are brighter points in our shared history as well. Among the many past Christians who engaged Muslims in more constructive ways, three stand out: Christian apologist John of Damascus, Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I, and Protestant missionary to Arabia, Samuel Zwemer. These three men inhabited different times and places and had different callings, but they display to varying degrees certain critical features of constructive Christian-Muslim engagement: a commitment to Christian orthodoxy, to intentional, non-violent engagement of Muslims, and to the respectful accommodation of their words and deeds to Muslim experience.

John of Damascus: Defender of Orthodoxy

Born to a prominent Arab Christian family in 655, John of Damascus (Yahya al-Dimashqi in Arabic) spent the first years of his career as the chief financial officer to the Muslim caliph Abd al-Malik. He was later elevated to the position of chief councilor of Damascus. John was well educated, gifted in rhetorical skills, and fluent in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek. With his thoroughly multicultural upbringing he undoubtedly moved among Syriac-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Muslims, and other local groups with ease.

John was apparently not always in favor with his Muslim employers or with the broader Christian community. He found himself on the wrong side of an increasingly acrimonious political and theological divide when he challenged the iconoclastic edicts of Byzantine Emperor Leo III, defending instead the role of images in Christian worship.

Leo III retaliated by sabotaging John's reputation among his Muslim patrons: He arranged for someone to forge a letter in John's handwriting offering to deliver the city of Damascus into Byzantine hands. John left the service of the caliph and spent the remainder of his life in the monastery of St. Sabas, less than 20 miles from Jerusalem.

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