There were great times and there were the bad ones.
Tolerance, respect and cooperation some times. Murder, intolerance
and hostility on other occasions.
These have been some of the defining features of Muslim-Christian
relations throughout history. Here are some examples of the good and the
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 protection. 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, 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
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 the
Christian and Muslim positions 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. Negus 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 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 said he was afraid that in the future Muslims
could use this as an excuse to take over the Church to build 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. Saladin (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 Muslims and non-Muslims lived 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 for Saladin and the Muslim army to share in the wedding
Indeed the longest period of peace and justice for all in Jerusalem
has been the period when Muslims 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
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 Western stereotypes of Islam and Muslims,
according to some scholars.
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 varying degrees, and physical violence and
harassment in the worst cases.
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
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.
The 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. 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
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
In a quest for silk, spices and world domination, European explorers,
like Christopher Columbus 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 Africa, South Asia 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, the 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 like
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. To Muslims, many
of these refugees and other conflicts are a result of their
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
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 Security Council of the United Nations.
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, slaver, and weakness. It
is nothing to proudly look back upon.
The fight against tobacco
One example of modern American colonialism can be found in the fight
against tobacco in the United States.
In the last eight years, the US tobacco industry 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
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.
Muslim minorities in the West versus Christian minorities in Muslim
Both of these groups of minorities have been the brunt of
stereotypical images in the local media, along with various forms of
harassment. For example, several Masjids in America have been burned
down and attacked as have chuches in Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Tribal clashes in Nigeria have taken on a religious color and a number
of Christians have been murdered outside churches in Pakistan.
Muslims in Muslim countries must protect the rights of their
Christian neighbors to freely practice their religion as well as their
freedom of speech, as Prophet Mohamed (peace and blessings be upon him)
and the rightly guided Khalifas after him did.The constitution the
Prophet drafted in Madinah following his migration from Makkah enshrined
the rights of Christians and Jews in the city, including those of
worship. These were fully enforced under his leadership. Another example
was when Umar ibn al-Khattab was Khalifah. He returned tax money
collected from Christians in a town in modern day Iraq after he and the
Muslims had to leave it. The taxes had been collected to ensure Muslim
protection of the Christians living there. Since the Muslims could no
longer do that, they returned the money.
Similarly, Christians in countries like America must stand up for
Muslims' rights, especially those of free speech and freedom of
religion. This way, both groups can build bridges of understanding and
tolerance in a world currently fraught with violence, terror and
Still Some Examples of Cooperation:
But amid these examples of New World Order colonialism and tense
Muslim-Christian relations, there are some bright spots.
In the 1990s, the West did eventually come to the aid of Muslims
following massacres, rapes and the oppression of Muslims in Bosnia and
On the level of faith, the 1994 United Nations Conference on
Population in Cairo, Egypt, became a platform for Muslim and Catholic
cooperation against perceived anti-religious bias.
In addition, 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. For
example, Iran's anti-Shah revolutionaries were essentially based in the
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.
The current situation
Although the current "war against terrorism", which has now expanded
to include war against Iraq, started off as just that, there is now a
general perception amongst Muslims that the war is turning against them,
despite US President George W. Bush's assurances to the contrary. First
came the reference to the war as a "crusade," then the bombing of
innocent civilians in Afghanistan. America's one-sided support of Israel
while its president refuses to even see Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat, has only worsened the situation.
In the US at this moment, there are thousands of Arabs and Muslims
who have been in prison for the past three months with no charges
against them. Even their names are not being released. Racial and
religious profiling is the norm today when it comes to Arabs and Muslims
in America. Three major charities in the US have been banned without due
process of law. Muslims who gave millions of dollars to these charities
to fulfill the third pillar of Islam, Zakat, in the month of Ramadan,
lost all that money. The abuse of individual freedom, the media's
ridicule of Islam and mockery of Muslim beliefs have led to such
lawlessness in dealing with Muslims that one Jewish attorney of a Muslim
client commented that, "Muslims have become the new Niggers of America."
Terrorism is a real threat. It must be dealt with in a proper and
fair manner. If we could wait to try Timothy McVeigh with the due course
of law, why not let these individuals and their organizations know what
the charges are against them and allow them to defend themselves. It
seems that a Christian terrorist has civil rights but a Muslim terrorist
has none, although terrorists do not represent their faith. Otherwise
they would not do things like this.
But there have been positive actions taken as well since September
11. A number of churches and their leaders have come forward in
interfaith gatherings to show support and sympathy for the Muslims of
America. The Pope issued a call to Catholics worldwide to fast on the
last Friday of Ramadan of 2002 in solidarity with Muslims. Some
non-Muslim women have donned headscarves as a way of expressing sympathy
for Muslim women too afraid to cover themselves in the backlash that
followed the September 11 attacks.
More recently, a number of mainstream Christian groups have been at
the forefront of the peace movement that opposed the war on Iraq, as
well as the country's occupation by America. This is a very positive
step forward, considering that churches did not oppose the Vietnam War
until 10 years after it began, nor did Christian groups oppose the
internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, except for the
However, with this positive development has come a threat to Muslims
from one section of Christian America: certian evangelical groups.
Statements made by high profile individuals like Franklin Graham (who
described Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion") and Rev. Jerry
Vines, a Southern Baptist (who said during a conference in St. Louis
last year, that Islam's Allah is not the same as the God worshipped by
Christians, and that "Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah's not going
to turn you into a terrorist.") have added fuel to the fire.
Although some mainstream churches opposed Graham's and Vines'
statements, most adopted a silent or neutral stance towards such false,
In addition, amongst Christian groups, there has been a split in
terms of war on Iraq. While most groups oppose the war, the more
right-wing groups, like the evangelicals support it.
And so the cycle of positive and negative relations between Muslims
and Christians continues. Muslims and Christians must continue to work
together for peace and justice for all people. Muslims and Christians in
America, especially, are in a unique position to do this and can serve
as an example of peaceful co-existence of minorities the world over.
MORE ON ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY
The Islamic and Christian View of Jesus
The other Ansar: Companions of Prophet Jesus
John the Baptist: A Prophet of Islam
Muslim-Christian Relations, The Good, the Bad
For further study of a Muslim view of Jesus and Christianity read the
Jesus, Prophet of Islam by Muhammad 'Ata'ur-Rahim
For Christ's Sake by Ahmad Thomson and Muhammad 'Ata'ur-Rahim
For a unique Christian view of the Islamic contribution to the West
read the following book:
Islam and the Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane