The period of Easter is amongst the holiest times in the Christian calendar. In the midst of the conflicts currently raging in our world, inter-religious moods are often extremely pessimistic. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking that religious coexistence is as difficult to achieve as it is rare. In light of this, it is a good time to revisit 5 moments in history that highlight the reality that coexistence between Islam and Christianity is as beautiful as it can be forthcoming. The 2 religious traditions share much theology, beliefs, and spirit, and within our shared histories existed great believers who ensured that coexistence would be harmoniously realised.
In the early days of revelation of Islam, Muslims were severely persecuted by the Pagan Arabs who had rejected the Prophet’s call to Islam. When this affliction reached its pinnacle, the Prophet is reported to have told some of his companions, to migrate to Abyssinia for, “the King (there) will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country”. The King in question was a man by the name of Ashama or Amrah; Muslims refer to him as An-Jasahi, which means emperor in the language of the Abyssinians. He ruled over the Aksum empire, which today would envelope much of the horn of Africa. A delegation of Muslims seeking refuge (seemingly the first Muslim refugees) set out seeking this King’s justice. While the Pagan Arabs tried to sabotage this and convince the King to send the Muslims back to Mecca with them, the King refused.
On hearing the teachings of the Prophet, as well as the verses from the Quran relating the story of Mary, her voyage and the virgin Birth of a holy child, the King is reported to have said, “Certainly this (the Quranic verses) and what Jesus had brought come out of one source…I won’t hand them to you (to the Pagan delegation) and I’ll defend them…You’re welcome, your Prophet is welcome…live wherever you like in my country”. The African king chose to side with justice and compassion, true to Christian values. The first Muslims were blessed to find a friend in this noble King.
Umar in Jersualem
In 637 Muslim expansion had reached within the vicinity of Jerusalem, under the rule of the Caliph Umar. Having surrounded the city, the Muslims anticipated a surrender by the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius. Sophronius refused to surrender the city unless Umar himself came from Madinah to accept the surrender. Umar made the journey and on arrival was given a tour of the holy city.
During this tour, the time for prayer came and Sophronius invited Umar to pray within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Church is amongst the holiest sites of Christianity, believed to contain the area in which Jesus was crucified, as well as his reported tomb, from where he was resurrected. Umar, engaging his faculties of wisdom and courtesy, refused the Patriarch’s request, rightfully fearing that if he was to pray in the Church, future Muslims might decide to convert it into a mosque. Further to this, Umar signed a treaty with the Christians of Jerusalem which included the following: “He (Umar) has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses…their Churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted”.
Richard the Lionheart and Salahideen
While the Crusades mark among the lowest points in Christian-Muslim relations, within these bloody wars emerge more hopeful instances of mutual respect and compassion. In the midst of King Richard’s attempts to retake the Holylands from Muslim control, he fell gravely ill with malaria. On hearing this news, the famed Muslim commander Salahideen decided to send his personal physician to help in Richard’s recovery. Muslim physicians at the time were well ahead of their European counterparts in terms of having a grasp of the field of medicine. As well as sending his physician, Salahideen sent fruits and ice to assist in his recovery. The two leaders eventually agreed a truce that would see Christian attempts to retake the Holylands ceased, while Christians were guaranteed free right of passage to visit Jerusalem. While this would not prove to be the end of the Crusades, nor does it admonish the many atrocities that were committed as part of these wars, it’s a stark reminder that even in the worst of times chivalry and mercy was shown between these two leaders.
La Convivencia (Spanish for coexistence) describes a unique time in world history within which Islamic, Christian and Jewish thought and culture flourished within “Muslim Spain”. While some historians write about it lasting 4 centuries, it particularly describes the 9th and 10th centuries within the Iberian peninsula. Within this period, it is under the rule of the Muslim caliph Abd al-Rahman the III (912-961) that this coexistence was most harmoniously realised. Much of this period is characterised by the flourishing of philosophy, culture and thought, from all three religions, while Jewish and Christian involvement in running the state reached unprecedented levels. While some historians believe this period occurred due to reasons of political necessity and pragmatism, scholars such as Sachedina write that it was a true manifestation of the Quranic ideal of coexistence, citing numerous verses from the Quran that talk of the importance of inclusivity in support of this.
Pope Francis and his Stance on Refugees
The Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, and the horrific fallout out from these, has seen a crisis emerge as millions of refugees seek respite. While xenophobic populism and fear has seen the rise of many hostile politicians, from the U.S.A. and parts of Europe, Pope Benedict has taken a lead on promoting a message of compassion instead. The Pope has won millions of hearts and minds with his strong message of love, going as far as washing the feet of Muslim, Hindu and Orthodox Christian refugees to mark Easter week last year. In case this message was not clear enough, he has come out with statements such as saying it is “hypocritical to call oneself a Christian and send away a refugee”. At a time when fear and mistrust of refugees is so rampant, the Pope using his position and voice to sound out a message of compassion is beautifully humbling.