We Must Learn from our History: How Interreligious Debates Could Be Held Respectfully

A thick layer of dust covers a forgotten yet highly important part of history. It impatiently awaits the first person to blow away that dust and investigate in order to solve several infamous mysteries. Let us for now ignore the current discussions on the so-called Islamic intolerance and the blame towards Muslims and ask ourselves: Is Islam really an intolerant religion that is not open to critical minds?, Does Islam obstruct other religions to flourish? How open is Islam to critique? Centuries before our time, the Middle East would have answered those questions instantaneously. Let us return to a time and place where Muslims ruled freely. Did they use that freedom and power to silence critics and people from different beliefs?

The First Seeds of Mistrust for Muslims in the West

The Suspicion towards Islam in the West is nothing new. One of the earliest seeds of distrust for Muslims originate from Damascus, in the 8th century. Damascus was at the time the capital of the first Islamic empire: the Ummayad Dynasty. The Muslims, who were foreign in a previously Greek speaking Christian city, soon realized that the Christians, who had been living there for centuries, had much more knowledge and expertise in this climate, so they were allowed to keep their important roles. At the same time, one of the first writings on the Muslims was written. The writing found its way into the Byzantine Empire and would leave a long lasting impression on the Western vision towards Islam. John of Damascus was a Syrian priest who, with his work titled “Concerning Heresy”, attempted to describe Muslims from a Christian-Orthodox point of view. He sums up a hundred heresies, ending with Islam as the 100th. According to this priest, Muhammad was a false prophet, whom he described as crazy. His hatred towards Islam was caused by the fact that Muhammad did not recognize Jesus as son of God. This famous work would gain authority in the West and planted the first roots for hatred towards Islam.

Interreligious Debates in the Islamic Empires

However, in the Islamic empires, the relationship between Muslims and people from different beliefs was far from hostile. During the Abbasid period, Islamic rulers asked Nestorian priests for help on their quest to find knowledge. Christians translated ancient Greek texts into Arabic for them. This resulted in a marvelous collection of valuable works in the House of Wisdom or Bayt al Hikma. The criterion for Muslims was not that the teacher was Muslim, nor that the information was rooted in Islamic theology, but rather that the information was useful, regardless of the origin and content. All sorts of texts were translated: from philosophical to astronomical, mathematical, linguistic, religious and many more.

Use whichever argument you please, yet abstain from arguments based on verses from one of the Holy Books, for they are invalid. They had to fully rely on their ability to think critically without using arguments in which the other does not believe anyway.

Interreligious Debates in Majalis

The most spectacular of all were in fact the religious debates between Muslims, Christians, Jews and others in the so-called “Majalis”. The situation was described by one of the guests of such a session. It was a Moroccan man who had traveled to Bagdad to be able to join the debate.This is how he described the event:

In the Majalis, everybody was equal. The attendants were waiting for the person who would lead the debate. When he arrived, the other guests bowed to show respect. They only sat down after the moderator told them to. The moderator was a Nestorian Christian who commanded Muslim scientists inside an Islamic Empire. In the debate, they tried to critically approach each other’s religion, explaining why another religion was the wrong one. Before the interreligious debate started, several principles were mentioned: use whichever argument you please, yet abstain from arguments based on verses from one of the Holy Books, for they are invalid. They had to fully rely on their ability to think critically without using arguments in which the other does not believe anyway. In other words: defend your religious point of view using philosophy, text analyses and other ways. That way, they had to speak a language which is spoken by everyone else.

An example of the above is how the caliph al-Madhi tried to prove that Christianity was incorrect by analyzing the Bible. He remarked something that pulled his attention and presented it to Timotheus. According to al-Madhi, the Greek word “perikleitos” (meaning Muhammad) was written instead of “peraciletus” (meaning Holy Spirit). Timotheus responded that his argument was wrong and that they did not believe in Muhammad as a prophet, but that they did see him as an enlightened being.

It’s clear there was a difference in beliefs, but no absence of mutual respect. This is an excellent example of tolerance in Islam and the Islamic Empires. Is it possible for those debates to take place in the current “enlightened” and modern era without the loss of respect and without any blame? I highly doubt it.

Another example is that of a Palestinian monk named Abraham of Tiberias. He was informed about the Islamic governor during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A question that emerged when he was talking about religious matter was: “How do we talk about religion?” The governor’s answer to that was simple: “By clearing our hearts.” They communicated. Even better, there was an urge for understanding and openness. The fact that this came from the governor proves that religious tolerance and openness was both institutionalized and regulated.

The Entrance of Islam in the Middle East

A lot of people claim that Islam entering the Middle East caused Christianity to disappear for the greatest part. This is incorrect. On the contrary, Islam resulted in the construction of even more churches. Christians were finally free from the emperor’s reign of imperialism. They were able to build national churches freely. The Coptic Egyptians were pleased with the coming of the Muslims, so they welcomed them accordingly. The high taxes and prosecutions were finally over for them.

Coptic Church
Coptic Church

But what did cause the decrease of Christianity in that region? The harmony was disturbed by the crusaders coming from the West. During the war, the Middle Eastern Christians were forced to move to Christian areas. The relaxed atmosphere from the Abbasid reign would no longer exist for them. Not because of Islam. Because of Western imperialism.

Islam and Debates: A Combination of Openness and Mutual Respect

Muslims are forced to be critical and to educate themselves throughout their lives. Studying is a form of admiration in Islam. The word for pen, al qalam, was the first word of the Quran. Knowledge, however, has no limits and we have to learn from everyone. Having an open mind is a necessity in a religion that calls upon education. Other people asking us critical questions and for us to reply them just as critical is something that is well portrayed in the interreligious debates. Is Islam an intolerant and closed religion? Definitely not. A necessary condition to allow fluent discussions is respect. Not because one should always agree with another’s arguments and beliefs, but because a conversation without respect is merely empty quarrel. Today, it seems discussions are mostly used to humiliate others instead of understanding them. When the idea of “creating connections” is not intended, arguments will usually have an insult hidden in them. And what is a better tool to broaden the gap between communities than insulting? Let us return to an environment where religion is not seen as an obstacle for critical thinking, but rather as the engine, regardless of the discussion’s subject or conversation partner.

Written by Mayada Srouji

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Mayada Srouji is a 23-year-old student Gender and Diversity at the UGent and has a bachelor in Arabic and Islamic Sciences, with a minor in political and social sciences. She is interested in women rights, philosophy, literature and history.