Christians and Muslims: Divided by History
"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
This sentence from Pope Benedict XVI's speech ignited a firestorm of protest across Muslim lands last September. As the Western press noted, the pope was quoting Manuel II Palaiologos, a fifteenth-century Orthodox Byzantine emperor. Critics deemed the pope's speech insensitive and irresponsible given current tensions, and many denounced the quote itself.
Yet if you consider the situation at the time of Palaiologos, the reason for this emperor's vehement words against Muhammad becomes clear. Palaiologos was ruler of a proud but beleaguered empire facing near extinction at the hands of an army of Muslim Turks. He died in 1425, only 28 years before Constantinople (for centuries a bulwark of Christian power) fell to the Ottoman sultan. Is it any wonder, then, that at that moment in time a Christian would bemoan the militancy of Islam?
Quotes like these—and the damage they do to Christians' relationships with Muslims—make Hugh Goddard's A History of Christian-Muslim Relations timely and essential reading. Western Christians aren't necessarily aware of their predecessors' interactions with Muslims, but the past still powerfully affects many Muslims' perceptions of Christianity. Goddard hopes his survey will "help both Christians and Muslims to understand how the two communities have reached the situation in which they find themselves today."
Goddard, a professor of Christian-Muslim relations at the University of Nottingham, is well qualified to write this book. He writes for fellow scholars and students, but his fluid and accessible style shows he also has the general reader in mind. He avoids academic jargon and follows events chronologically, working his way from Muhammad's earliest encounters with Christians to Muslim-Christian relations today.
Arguably the most important chapter is the second, which examines the Qur'an's portrayal of Christians. While Qur'an 2:62, 3:55, 3:199, 5:66, 28:52–55, and 57:27 all make positive statements about Christians (or "People of the Book"), Qur'an 5:72–73 and chapter 9 place Christians in the same category as kufr, or unbelievers deserving damnation. This ambiguity has enormous implications for the history of Christian-Muslim relations because Muslims' treatment of Christians have depended upon which passages in the Qur'an they have emphasized.
Thus Goddard describes some of the horrors that Muslims have committed against Christians. For instance, in 850 the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil demanded that Christians wear clothing identifying their religion, destroyed newly-built churches, and ordered that wooden devils be nailed to Christians' doors. But then the author tempers this portrayal by noting that Christians hadn't always lived with these restrictions, and that Muslims often treated Christians kindly. He quotes the caliph al-Ma'mun, who protected a Christian debater from his angry Muslim opponent in 829: "This is a court of justice and equity: none shall be wronged therein. So advance your arguments and answer without fear, for there is none here who will not speak well of you … Let everyone speak who has the wisdom to demonstrate the truth of his religion."
This balanced portrayal of Muslim treatment of Christians sets Goddard's work apart from a book like Bat Yeor's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam. In her book, Yeor meticulously documents Muslim wrongs against Eastern Christians, but critics have argued that she covers only the worst examples without considering more positive encounters.
In the course of his survey, Goddard makes some interesting claims about the history of Christian-Muslim relations. For example, he argues that Westerners initiated the Crusades in the Holy Land partly out of anger over the "Cordoban martyrs," a group of 48 Christians who were executed by Muslim rulers in Islamic Spain from 850 to 859 for desecrating Muhammad's name. Goddard does not deny other accepted reasons for the Crusades, such as the Western church's response to Islamic aggression against Byzantine Christians. But linking the Crusades to the Cordoban martyrs is definitely a novel approach.
Goddard also outlines conflicting Protestant responses to Islam and suggests that American evangelicals in particular have opted for the confrontational approach of the American missionary Samuel Zwemer over the more irenic approach of English missionary Temple Gairdner (both of whom worked in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Gairdner believed that Christians could use Islamic thought as a bridge whereby missionaries could present Christianity as the fulfillment of Islam. In contrast, Zwemer believed that Islam was antithetical to Christianity and that missionaries should just stick to presenting the gospel to Muslims. If Goddard is right, the September 11 attacks have only deepened American evangelicals' antipathy toward Islam.
Like any historian, Goddard writes from a particular perspective—but he is very clear about his own bias. "What is the best model for the future of the relationship between Christians and Muslims?" he asks. "In my view, it is the one described by Kenneth Cracknell that sees them as 'fellow-pilgrims to the truth that none of us has yet grasped in its immensity.' … Christians and Muslims are therefore, along with others, fellow-pilgrims on the route towards the perception of the truth, rather than either of them being, as some Christians and Muslims seem to like to think, already the proud possessors of the truth."
That's not a theological position that evangelicals can embrace. But kudos to Goddard for giving us a book that appreciates nuance and portrays the complicated history of Christian-Muslim relations that so many of us might easily (and wrongly) simplify.
Steven Gertz recently completed his master's degree in Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and now serves as an editorial advisor for Christian History & Biography.
Note: Christian History & Biography issue 74 on Christians and Muslims is currently out of print, but the content is available online with a subscription to CT Library.
Copyright © 2006 Christian History & Biography, or the author.Click for reprint information.
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