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The Christian Background
to the Coming of Islam
EARLY CHRISTIAN THINKING ABOUT OTHER RELIGIONS
When the Islamic community was established in the seventh/firstcentury and the Christian community found itself having to respondto this new phenomenon, it did so on the basis of an already well-establishedtradition of thought about other religions. This was basedpartly on the scriptures which it had inherited from the Jewish community,the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, partly on developments foundwithin its own distinctive scriptures, the New Testament, and partly onthe tradition of Christian thought and practice as it developed in thePatristic period, the period of the Fathers (patres) of the Christian church.
Thus in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible there was a well-establishedtension between what might be called exclusivism or antagonismon the one hand, and inclusivism or universalism on the other. Insome places the dominant theme is the chosen-ness of the Children ofIsrael, with the emphasis on their being set apart and enjoying a specialrelationship with God, expressed in the concept of covenant. Thissometimes resulted in confrontation between them and the surroundingnations and religions, as expressed most memorably in 1 Kings 18,the challenge of the prophet Elijah to the prophets of Baal and Asherah,but in many of these confrontations the extent to which the maincause of conflict was religious and the extent to which it was politicalor territorial is not always clear. On the other hand theHebrewscriptures often point to individuals outside the community of theChildren of Israel who are recognised as knowing something of Godand who may either be accepted into the community, as was the casewith Ruth the Moabitess, or be explicitly recognised as being agents ofGod, as was the case with Cyrus the King of Persia, who in Isaiah 45: 1was described as having been anointed by God.
The long series of battles between Israelites and Amalekites, Canaanites,Philistines, Syrians and others, and between their gods,suggest that the dominant motif in the relationship between thecommunities was that of confrontation, even enmity. But the moreinclusive tradition was always there, and the universalist dimension isperhaps most clearly expressed at the start of what in the Christianarrangement of the Hebrew scriptures is the last book, Malachi, of theOld Testament:
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1: 11)
The two contrasting attitudes are also well illustrated in the messagesof two short prophetic books from the latter part of the OldTestament, both of which focus on the city of Nineveh, the capital cityof the Assyrian Empire. The book of Nahum celebrates the fall of thecity, and glories in it, celebrating and indeed exulting in its destruction.The book of Jonah, by contrast, tells a story of the population of the cityresponding positively to the call to repentance which is proclaimed bythe prophet, thereby escaping divine judgement and leading to Jonah'srecognition of an important truth about God. This seems in a way toforeshadow certain parts of the teaching of the Qur'an, namely thatGod is gracious and merciful (Jonah 4:2).
The Inter-testamental period too, roughly the four centuries beforethe time of Jesus, saw a similar spectrum of attitude developing amongthe Jewish people. On the one hand was an attitude of militantseparatism and exclusivism, as represented by the Maccabees whorevolted against Greek rule over Palestine in the second century BCE.They displayed an attitude of hostility both to foreign rule and toforeign religion and culture, an attitude which was continued in thetime of Jesus by the Zealots, who were quite prepared to use violence inpursuit of their religious and political ambitions. In contrast to this,particularly among the Jews of the Diaspora, those living outsidePalestine, an attitude of much greater openness was evident. This isbest seen in the first-century CE figure of Philo, a Jew from Alexandria,who sought to expound Judaism in terms of Hellenistic philosophy andwho was willing to draw on philosophical language and terminology inorder to do so. The translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek,which was undertaken in the same city in the second or third centuryBCE, and which came to be known as the Septuagint because of theseventy scholars who were thought to have done the translation, is alsoevidence of a greater openness towards religious ideas emanating fromoutside the Jewish community.
For the early Christian community there were two main aspects toits thinking about other religious traditions. Firstly its relationship tothe Jewish community from which it had grown, and secondly itsattitude towards the prevailing patterns of Graeco-Roman religion andphilosophy by which it was surrounded.
Over the course of the past fifty years much research and reflectionhas been undertaken about what is commonly called 'The Parting ofthe Ways', the process by which the Christian church became establishedas a community separate and distinct from the Judaism withinwhich it had its roots. One important theme which has been pushedinto renewed prominence, thanks to the work of Geza Vermes inparticular, is the Jewishness of Jesus: contrary to much later Christianthinking which developed after the separation of the Christian churchfrom Judaism, Jesus in much of his teaching and practice was a veryJewish figure, in the prophetic tradition of Jewish religion. All of hismost intimate disciples were Jewish, he prayed and worshipped insynagogue and temple, and the earliest records of his teaching seem tomake it clear that he regarded his message as being targeted primarilyat his own Jewish community. Some aspects of his teaching, however,caused considerable resentment and controversy within the Jewishcommunity, and it was these which led to Jesus's crucifixion at thehands of the Romans.
Even after this, Jesus's early disciples continued at first to regardthemselves as Jews and to pray in the Temple and the synagogue. Theywere not always welcomed, however, and efforts on the part of someJewish leaders to purge the followers of Jesus from Jewish congregationsled to the beginnings of a separate Christian community. Thiswas accelerated by the conversion of Saul, according to the Book ofActs a leader in the campaign against the followers of Jesus. AfterSaul's change of heart he began to argue for the abandonment of someJewish practices by Christians and thus contributed towards theestablishment of separate Christian congregations. The Council ofJerusalem, referred to in Acts 15, discussed the question of whetheror not non-Jewish converts should be required to undergo circumcision,and by seeming to suggest that they need not it accelerated theprocess.
What began as a parting, or separation, gradually became a focus ofmore antagonism and even vitriol. After the destruction of the JewishTemple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, following a Jewish revoltagainst Roman authority, the two communities began to define themselvesmore explicitly as separate and distinct from each other. At firstboth communities were suspect in the eyes of the Roman authorities,and both on occasion suffered persecution, but the level of polemicbetween the two began to increase. Even within the New Testamentsome of the animus which some Christians evidently felt towardsJudaism is clear, especially in the writings of John.
In the early Christian centuries New Testament texts such asMatthew 27: 25 (in which in his account of the trial of Jesus beforePontius Pilate Matthew writes that, in response to the Roman governor'sprotest that he could find no evil in Jesus, the crowd, most ofwhose members were Jews, shouted 'His blood be on us and on ourchildren!') and Acts 2: 23 (where in his first major public sermon afterthe death of Jesus his disciple Peter says to his mainly Jewish audience'This Jesus whom you crucified') began to be used to justify violenceand persecution of members of the Jewish community. Later, when atthe start of the fourth century Christianity became the official religionof the Roman Empire, the power of the state also began to be usedagainst Jews, so that the burning of synagogues was sanctioned and theforced conversion of Jews to Christianity was legitimised. Christian-Jewishrelations therefore deteriorated dramatically, and despite theircommon ancestry the two traditions increasingly adopted mutuallyhostile attitudes.
A particularly graphic example of this comes in a series of eightsermons delivered by John Chrysostom (literally 'the golden-tongued')in the Syrian city of Antioch in 387 CE, where he describes the Jews asdogs who have descended to gluttony, drunkenness and sensuality,whose synagogues are no better than theatres, brothels or dens ofthieves, whose souls have become the seats of demons and places ofidolatry, and who are to be shunned as a filthy plague threatening thewhole world. There is even a suggestion that they are no longer fit foranything but slaughter. Recent research has suggested that theseremarks need to be located in the context of a Christian communityin Antioch which still found aspects of Judaism attractive, and thattheir vitriolic tone should be seen as rhetoric intended to remindChristians of their separate and distinct identity. But it must beacknowledged that their negative tone was a major contributory factorto the emergence of the ghetto in medieval and modern Christiansocieties.
On the other hand, alongside the diatribes of Chrysostom and others,more positive attitudes towards the Jews were sometimes evident,with individual friendships between Christians and Jews not unheardof, and the overall picture of Christian-Jewish relationships after theconversion of Constantine is not one of unremitting darkness.
Christian attitudes towards Hellenism and Graeco-Roman philosophywere more varied. Within the New Testament itself, even if Jesus'smessage seems to have been directed primarily at the Jews, there arenevertheless, as in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures, a number ofencounters and stories which present individuals outside the Jewishcommunity in a favourable light: there are positive encounters with aRoman centurion and a Samaritan woman, and one of Jesus's mostfamous parables has at its heart a Samaritan as the model who iscommended for his compassion and charity.
Partly as a result of the deterioration in the relationship betweenmany Jews and the followers of Jesus, the early Christians began todemonstrate their conviction that the message of Jesus was not only forJews but also for non-Jews. This is reflected in the New Testament bythe story of the Three Wise Men (Matthew 2: 1-12), who came from theEast in order to give gifts to Jesus, and in the Book of Acts in the visionof Peter concerning the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10). It is onceagain Paul, though, who drives the process forward, and the Book ofActs, as it tells of his travels around the Mediterranean seeking tomake Jesus more widely known, provides several accounts of hisattitude towards the Greek religion of his day. Firstly, in Athens, asrecorded in Acts 17, Paul seems to adopt a remarkably positive andopen attitude towards Greek philosophy, suggesting that what theAthenians worship as the 'unknown god' is the God whom he proclaims;his message, he suggests, is perhaps therefore the fulfilmentrather than the antithesis of what they believe. But later, in Ephesus, asrecorded in Acts 19 and 20, there seems to have been a greater elementof confrontation and rejection in his message, with the suggestion thatthe worship of Diana/Artemis of the Ephesians was of no value.
In the Patristic period too, different attitudes towards Greek philosophygrew up in different parts of the Christian church. One stream ofChristian thought, more influential in the Western, Latin-speakinghalf of the Roman Empire, emphasised the distinctiveness of theChristian message and the need for the Christian community toseparate itself from surrounding intellectual influences. This view ismost succinctly represented in the famous statement of the NorthAfrican Christian Tertullian (c. 170-220 CE): 'What has Athens [thehome of philosophy] to do with Jerusalem [the home of revelation]?' Inthe Eastern part of the Empire, however, where most Christians wereGreek-speaking, a more inclusive/universalist tradition grew up, asrepresented by such figures as Justin Martyr (c. 100-65 CE), whoproclaimed Christianity as the true philosophy, and Clement of Alexandria(c. 155-c. 220 CE), who suggested that the salvation brought byJesus would be universal in scope. Thus Justin wrote:
It is our belief that those ... who strive to do the good which is enjoined on us have a share in God, ... [and] will by God's grace share his dwelling ... in principle this holds good for all ...
and Clement argued that:
By reflection and direct vision those among the Greeks who have philosophized accurately see God.
In this tradition the giants of the Greek philosophical tradition suchas Plato and Aristotle were in a sense baptised as honorary Christians.Passages such as the one in Plato's Republic, which refers to the JustMan being crucified, were seen as in some way prophetic, and theemphasis seems to have lain much more on synthesis and compatibilitythan on antagonism or separation.
Some parts of the New Testament and the writings of some of theChurch Fathers do on some occasions, however, use extremely stronglanguage concerning those with whom their authors disagree. The firstletter of John speaks of the Antichrist:
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist ... (1 John 2: 22)
Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist ... (1 John 4: 2-3)
This is strong language indeed, but it is very important to note thatits original target was those within the Christian community whoseemed to the writer to be developing opinions about Jesus which wereextremely suspect. The most plausible suggestions concerning thenature of these threatening beliefs is that they involved some kindof combination of Ebionism and Gnosticism, as represented by theopinions of a figure such as Cerinthus around the end of the firstcentury CE. He argued that Jesus was an ordinary man who was chosenby God at his baptism for a special ministry; he received specialwisdom for this at his baptism, which disappeared before his crucifixion.This strongly negative judgement, in other words, was not madeupon people outside the community altogether, but rather on thoseinside who were perceived to be threatening its identity in some way.In the same way many of the most polemical statements from themouth of Jesus in the New Testament were originally directed towardsmembers of his own (Jewish) community with whom he disagreed (e.g.Matthew 3: 7).
Context also needs to be kept in mind when considering some of thestatements in the New Testament which have often been interpretedexclusively by Christians, in other words as meaning that only Christianswill be saved. The two verses most commonly referred to in thiscontext are John 14: 6 (Jesus said: 'I am the way, the truth and the life;no one comes to the father, but by me.'), and Acts 4: 12 (Peter said:'There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name underheaven ... by which we must be saved'). It has been suggested bymodern scholars that the Johannine saying in particular must beunderstood in the context of a vigorously sectarian Johannine community,whose exclusive social identity was therefore reinforced bysuch exclusive statements. Peter's saying in Acts needs to be seenagainst its immediate background, which is that of a spirited defenceby Peter of the healing of a lame man in the Temple.
Other parts of the New Testament also use extremely strong languageconcerning the Roman state, which as it began to persecuteChristians from the time of Nero (54-68 CE) came to be referred to inapocalyptic terms as 'the beast', especially in the Book of Revelation.Earlier attitudes, whereby Christians attempted to establish theirposition as loyal citizens of the Empire, therefore came to be substantiallyrevised by changing circumstances, and not surprisingly a fargreater measure of antagonism becomes evident and persists throughthe early centuries.
When the Islamic community came onto the scene, therefore, in theseventh/first century, these were some of the traditions which theChristian community was able to draw on and develop in seeking toformulate its response to and interpretation of Islam. We shall see laterthat a considerable variety of Christian response emerged at that time,with no single universally accepted Christian view ever gaining completeacceptance. Given the spectrum of opinion which we have seenexisting within both the Christian scriptures and early Christianthought, this is not really surprising.
THE HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH IN THE MIDDLE EAST
One of the aspects of its history which the Christian church shareswith the Islamic community is that it has its historical origins in theMiddle East. It is therefore important that some account is given of thehistory and development of the Christian church after its origins asdescribed in the New Testament, with which most modern Christiansare broadly familiar; the 600 or so years of further development are lessfamiliar, at least to many modern Western Christians, and it is importantto outline the main features of evolution in the centuries priorto the establishment of the Islamic umma (community).
Probably the most important change in this period was a result of theconversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine in thesecond decade of the fourth century. From being a minority communitywith little or no political influence and power, the Christianchurch suddenly became the established religion of the most powerfulstate of the Mediterranean world. Close links were thus establishedbetween church and state, with Christian bishops sometimes becomingpowerful players in the political arena, and with the power of thestate sometimes being used to further the influence of particulargroups within the Christian community.
Part of the reason for Constantine's decision to accept Christianityhimself was his hope that the Christian religion might serve as a focusfor unity and thus bring about renewed strength within the Empire.Developments in the next few centuries, however, quickly made itclear that this was to be a vain hope, as more and more division tookplace within the Christian church, leading to the emergence andestablishment of a number of different Christian communities. Argumentand division were not new, of course, with many fierce debatesbeing waged in the first three centuries, but somehow the minoritystatus of the Christians, together with the persecution which they hadintermittently suffered, meant that these early divisions did not becomeinstitutionalised in the way that was the case with those whichcame after the time of Constantine.
By the seventh/first century, therefore, the Christian church wasdeeply divided, and this was one of the charges which the Qur'an quiteexplicitly made against Christians as it sought to challenge their claimto possess the truth:
And with those who say: 'Lo! We are Christians,' We made a covenant, but they forgot a part of that whereof they were admonished. Therefore We have stirred up enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection, when Allah will inform them of their handiwork. (5: 14)
Excerpted from A History of Christian-Muslim Relations by Hugh Goddard. Copyright © 2000 by Hugh Goddard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.