Muslim-Christian Relations, The Good, the Bad

There were great times and there were the bad ones. Tolerance, respect and cooperation on one side. Murder, intolerance and hostility on the other. These have been some of the defining features of Muslim-Christian relations throughout history. Here are three examples of the good and the bad.

First the good memories:

1. Habasha and the Negus

It was a Christian king in a predominantly Christian land who gave the small, persecuted community of early Muslims in the beginning of the Prophet Muhammad's mission. May Allah's peace and blessings be upon the Prophet.

The Muslims sought refuge in Habasha, modern day Ethiopia, after suffering starvation and torture at the hands of the polytheistic Makkans. The Prophet Muhammad said about the Negus and Habasha: "a king rules without injustice, a land of truthfulness."

Muslims were welcomed, were protected and lived in peace with the Christians of Habasha. But this did not sit well with the Makkans, who did not want to see them leave Makkah or want the message of Islam to flourish in peace.

They spent special envoys with gifts and lies about the Muslims to convince the Negus to send the Muslims back to Makkah.

They told the Negus that this "new" faith took pride in insulting not just ancestral Makkan beliefs, but the beliefs of Christians as well.

Another king may have simply taken their word and automatically kicked the Muslims out. The Negus did not. He ordered that the leader of the Muslim community come to his court and explain Islam’s position.

Enter Jafar ibn Abu Talib, early Muslim refugee to Habasha, and cousin of the Prophet.

Not only did he eloquently explain the message of Islam and the persecution of those who accepted this truthful message, he also recited the opening verses of Surah 19 of the Quran, Surah Maryam or Mary, after the Negus asked him to recite part of Quran.

King Negus listened to the recitation of the Quran in focused attention. He cried as he listened, so much so that his beard got wet. When Jafar completed the recitation, Negus said, ‘Surely this Revelation and the Revelation of Jesus were from the same Source.’ Then to the two Makkan ambassadors, he said, ‘By God, I will not hand over these persons to you."

But the story does not end here. The Makkans would not give up so easily. They asked the king to find out what the Muslims’ view of Jesus and his Divinity were, knowing of course, the difference in Christian and Muslim position regarding Jesus.

Again, Jafar responded, with no compromise of principles, just the simple, clear Truth:

'He (Jesus) is God’s servant and Messenger; a spirit and a word from God that He bestowed on the Virgin Mary.'

Upon hearing this, Negus picked up a straw from the ground and said:

‘By God, Jesus was not even as much as one straw more than what you have said about him.’

He returned the gifts of the Quraysh and told them he was not used to taking bribes and the Muslims would remain under his protection.

This was an early victory for positive Muslim-Christian relations.

2. Umar ibn al-Khattab and Jerusalem

Jerusalem and its surrounding territory were and remain holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was during the Caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab (634-635) that Muslims first gained leadership of this territory. May Allah be pleased with Omar.

The Muslim reaction to this victory is something to remember.

Omar entered Jerusalem in humility. He walked in with not he, the Caliph, but his servant comfortably riding on a camel. They had been taking turns walking and riding.

At one point in Jerusalem, the Christians asked him to pray in their church but he declined. He refused saying that he is afraid that in the future Muslims could use it as an excuse to take over the Church for building a Masjid.

The Christians gave the key of the Church of Resurrection to Muslims to be responsible for its safety. This key is still with the Muslims today as a sign and symbol of the mutual trust.

3. Salah el Deen Ayyubi and the Crusades

It was in response to the horrific oppression in Jerusalem at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century and the need to free the area of their control that Sultan Salah el Deen Ayyubi (Saladin) liberated Jerusalem from them in 1187.

His arrival brought relief for the local Christian population, who helped him, after the oppression they suffered at the hands of their co-religionists, the Crusaders.

Not only did Saladin treat the Crusaders with kindness, he ensured that Muslim and non-Muslims live in peace and harmony with each other.

One particular story about him recounts that some Muslim soldiers were besieging a Christian fortress. Many Christians were seeking shelter inside, including a young couple who was planning to get married, but whose plans had been stopped by the fighting. They decided to get married anyway, even though they were trapped inside the castle.

Saladin was in charge of the Muslim troops at this time. When he heard about the wedding, he ordered his soldiers not to attack the castle where the couple was staying, so that they could enjoy peace and quiet. In return for this respect, the bride’s mother sent out trays of food, so Saladin and the Muslim army could share in the wedding celebrations.

Indeed the longest period of peace and justice for all in Jerusalem has been the period when Muslim were in control.

Now the bad news

1. The Crusades

During the Crusades (1095 until 1291) European Christians attacked and occupied this holy land. They oppressed the Muslims, the local Christians and the Jews. These Crusaders killed over 200,000 innocent civilians.

The aim: to wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. This was not only a period of bloodshed, hostility and violence. It was also the beginning of collective stereotypes, according to some scholars, about Islam and Muslims.

The Crusades ended centuries ago. But today, the remnants of those stereotypes have taken on new meaning. Muslims are still bloodthirsty, violent savages by most of the mainstream media’s standard. The propagation of these views on the collective level through the media has affected Muslims globally and locally.

Muslims in America, while living peacefully with Christians and other religious groups, are still subject to discrimination in at varying degrees, and physical violence and harassment in the worst cases (remember the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing?).

While the Crusades were bad news for Muslims and even local Christians living alongside them, one significant outcome of this contact between Muslims and Western Christians was the passage of knowledge from one to the other.

Christians, through the Muslims, were able to access texts like those of Aristotle, for instance. The Muslims clearly passed on an intellectual heritage, which a number of scholars say laid the foundations for the modern Christian West. For more discussion of this, please see the book " Islam and the Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane.

2. Muslim Spain versus Christian Spain

Many Muslims look back at Muslim Spain with pride. But Jews also call it their "golden era".

Spain became part of the Islamic world at the beginning of the eighth century. Under Muslims Spain became the center of civilization. Although many local Spaniards embraced Islam, Christians and Jews were free in all aspects of their lives. The Muslims respected their religion and institutions. The result was the birth of the first true cosmopolitan culture in the West.

Christians studied alongside Muslim scholars to such a degree that in 854, a Christian named Alvaro of Cordoba complained that these students were forgetting their own religion and culture.

Muslims and Christians of Spain did not live in their ghettos, isolated and not cooperating in various aspects of daily life together.

It was in Spain that Aristotle’s works on physics and natural history were translated into Arabic from Greek in Muslim Spain. Historians generally acknowledge that the Muslim world proved to be a major conduit of ancient scholarship into the West, especially through Muslim Spain.

It wasn’t just Muslims and Christians who thrived in Spain, though. Jews, who were reviled and hated elsewhere, were not only living safely and peacefully alongside non-Jews in Muslim Spain, they were learning and contributing to its culture and knowledge which Muslim scholars had established.

But this success in wealth, knowledge and co-existence came to end in a violent and very sad way.

As Christian Crusaders of Spain expelled Muslims, civilization that took centuries to build was destroyed. Muslims and Jews were either expelled or forced to convert to Christianity. Millions died as tolerance was replaced by the Spanish Inquisition. A suspected Muslim was to be killed for the smallest act resembling Islamic tradition - such as taking a bath on Friday.

3. European colonialism (1500s to the early 20th century)

European colonialism was such a powerful force that by 1900 90.4 percent of Africa was under European or American colonial control. This was a political and economic phenomenon that began in the 1500s. Various European nations "discovered", conquered, and exploited large areas of the world.

In a quest for silk, spices and world domination, European explorers, like Christopher Columbus, for instance, set out to sea. He ended up in North America. The result: the slaughter and destruction of millions of Natives and the usurpation of their land by Europeans.

In Muslim lands, colonialists wreaked havoc, supplanting Islamic educational systems with secular or Christianity-focused ones, and murdering and/or enslaving the natives of the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, for example.

They also acculturated the "savage" natives to the "refined" customs of Europe. In the Indian subcontinent today, the term "Brown Sahib" is used to refer to a native who is mentally colonized by the West. There are similar stock characters in other Muslim cultures.

4. Armenia-slaughter at the hands of Muslims, early 20th century

The predominantly Christian Armenians consider the greatest disaster in their history to be their murder and deportation from Turkey during World War I.

In 1915 as Turkish Armenians aligned with the pro-Christian Tsarist Russian enemy, Turkish army reacted strongly against this betrayal. Although, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, statistics are disputed regarding the Armenian population in Ottoman Anatolia at the outbreak of World War I and the number of Armenians killed during this deportation, a large number of Armenians died during this civil war.

Those Turkish Armenians who survived migrated to places predominantly Muslim Lebanon and Syria, as well as Russia, France, and the United States.

5. Current relations between the Muslims and Christians

Today 70% of all refugees in the world are Muslims. In Muslim mind many of this refugees and other conflicts are a result of their powerlessness.

Muslims feel culturally enslaved, in many ways to the predominantly Christian West. The United States, with the new geopolitical reality of uni-polar world, continues to dictate policies to smaller nations of the world.

This new form of colonialism is done with the help of local lackeys in Muslim countries who take their orders about how their countries should be run from Washington, D.C. as opposed to locally.

On a larger level, British, French, American and Russian colonial powers (all Western, and all predominantly Christian) also control Muslim and other Third World countries through international institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United Nations. These three organizations have an extraordinary influence on world affairs.

This excessive power over the lives of millions is perceived by a number of Muslims as the continuing perpetuation of the colonial era. For most Muslims, colonialism is not about the spread of "refined European civilization". It is about massacre, slavery, and weakness. It is nothing to proudly look back upon.

The fight against tobacco

One example of modern American colonialism can be found with the fight against tobacco in the United States.

In the last eight years, the tobacco industry in the USA has lost business because of public health awareness campaigns against smoking. But in the same period the industry has achieved the record profits. How?

They now have an open market to sell their deadly products to Third World consumers, thanks to the help of the American government. So cancer is bad for Americans, but it’s okay for others. Where is the justice?

Despots and dictators: not in my backyard, but fine for yours

A second example of Western neo-colonialism is found in these countries’ support for corrupt dictators, totalitarian despots and anti-democratic forces in the Muslim world. Muslims question how sincere the Western belief in justice and democracy really is when this happens.

For instance, the government of France supported the Algerian army when it canceled elections following the victory at the ballot of the Islamic Salvation Front party in 1992. France is the country famed for "liberty, equality and fraternity". It seems this is not what they had in mind for the Muslims in their former colonial baby, Algeria.

The United States, which touts "freedom and democracy" has similarly supported undemocratic regimes in Muslim and other countries. Justice, it seems, is not for all, especially not Muslims.

The neo-colonial "F" word

The Western obsession with Islamic "Fundamentalism" provides a third example of the tense current Muslim-Christian relationship can be.

Virtually any form of Muslim worship, but especially the daily prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam, is shown on TV while talking about fundamentalism and fanaticism. A purely Christian term from America is being applied in any Muslim, organization, or country which opposes America.

See an interesting book about the Muslim perceptions of the West: "Western Fundamentalism in Action..New World Order " by Dr. S.M. Koreshi".

Still Some Examples of Cooperation:

But amid these examples of New World Order colonialism and tense Muslim-Christian relations, there are some bright spots.

Politically, the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s following the occupation of the country by the communist ex-Soviet Union was a common rallying point for the East and the West. The United States supported the Mujahideen at that time.

In the 1990s, the West did eventually come to the aid of Muslims following massacres, rapes and the oppression of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosova.

On the level of faith, the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population in Cairo, Egypt, became a platform for Muslim and Catholic cooperation against forces of secularization and birth control in the guise of "family planning".

Finally, it is somewhat ironic that while Muslims resent the Western support for dictatorships in their countries, they turn to the West when seeking to escape the oppression in their countries. Anti-Shah revolutionaries were essentially based in the West.

It is not uncommon to find Muslim refugees escaping to Germany, France, Britain, America and Canada. While many of them are economic migrants, seeking a better life for themselves and their families on a financial level, there are also those escaping political turmoil and corruption in their home countries.


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