By Harrison Akins
April 24, 2017
There are many people today who argue Islam and Christianity are locked in a civilisational war, a view that has become a rationale for a number of the Trump administration’s policies.
This argument, however, is an inaccurate and simplistic assessment of the relationship between these two faiths. Quite distinct from the apocalyptic struggle many espouse, an examination of the foundations of the Islamic faith shows respect for Christianity.
Islam is part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Christianity. Key figures within the Bible — Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Mary (Maryam), and Jesus (Isa) among others — are all respected prophets and figures within Islam. There is a chapter in the Quran about Mary and, within the Quran; Jesus is the only person who can perform miracles.
Within Islam, Christians and Jewish people are therefore treated as “People of the Book” whose rights and religious traditions were to be fully protected as monotheistic faiths with revelations understood to be earlier versions of the same revelation to the Prophet of Islam.
The protection that Christian communities were meant to receive under Islam was enshrined in a letter of protection from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai in the early seventh century. This letter promised the monks that, under Islamic rule, the Christian community, as a “people of the book”, shall have the freedom to practice their religion and be protected from any unlawful interference or molestation, whether in their communities or while travelling. Distinct from a war with Christianity, Prophet Muhammad further stated, “No one shall bear arms against [Christians], but, on the contrary, the [Muslims] shall wage war for them.”
The respect that Muslims have for Jesus in particular is demonstrated by the verses of Hafez, the most famous and beloved of Muslim poets from the 14th century. In one stanza, he writes, “I am a hole in a flute that the breath of Christ moves through/Listen to this music.”
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the former Pakistani Ambassador to the UK and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who I was privileged to have worked for as a researcher, reflects today this same admiration when he stated unequivocally in an interview, “For me as a Muslim, Jesus is the ultimate symbol in the Quran of compassion, love for humanity, piety, and simplicity.”
This kind of respect is not just a one-way street. Even America’s Founding Fathers spoke with admiration for Prophet Muhammad and respect for the rights of Islam in the United States. John Adams called the Prophet one of the world’s “sober inquirers after truth,” and Benjamin Franklin cited him as a model of compassion for the world.
The foundational principles of our country set down by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Quran, was to be open and receptive to people of all religions, including Muslims who would be under the “mantle of [the law’s] protection”.
Far from a civilisational war, we see a situation in which two religions have much in common, but this commonality is too often lost in the turmoil and din of antagonistic voices that push a politics of fear and division.
There have been many problems and conflicts that have unfortunately existed between Christians and Muslims over the centuries, and will continue to exist, as the close relationship and theological bonds were forgotten under the pressures and priorities of contemporary politics. But these political conflicts do not negate this rich history and theology.
For many of the conflicts and challenges across the Muslim world, the Trump administration and politicians around the country should not be working to promote further conflict between Christianity and Islam through the frame of a civilisational war. They should, rather, focus on what is held in common between these two great world faiths in order to work together to solve any seemingly insurmountable issues.
Pushing these two faith communities further apart will do little to halt the mistrust and violence that currently exist and make any real problems even more difficult to solve.
Harrison Akins is a graduate research fellow at the University of Tennessee’s Baker Centre for Public Policy.