A Case for Greater Dialogue with The Christian Community
Muslims and Christians have engaged in numerous exchanges related to faith and morality since the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE. While it is worth noting that not all these exchanges were peaceful, one considers it of significant value to reinvigorate interest in the history of these two major religious traditions. Religion remains a perennial fault line within many societies despite efforts to achieve compromise in many instances throughout history. This is possibly due to the fact that Islam and Christianity both claim a monopoly of divine revelation. However, adherents of both faiths should find that, aside from the theological aspects of both faiths, there are many virtues and guidance on living a virtuous life that we can find common ground on. For the largely Muslim audience, I intend to explore the reasons and directions for finding common ground with our Christian friends on matters related to faith. It is my hope that this will contribute to more meaningful and positive exchanges between the adherents of two of the world’s major religions.
*Note: This piece is not a research paper.
Muslim-Christian Interactions in the Prophet’s (pbuh) Era
What better way to highlight Islam’s and Christianity’s close relationship than to highlight a few of our Prophet’s (pbuh) own exchanges with Christians. According to historians, following the persecution of Muslims in the land of Mecca in the early years of Islam, a group of companions of the Prophet (pbuh) emigrated to the land of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) under the orders of the Prophet (pbuh). When they were brought before the Negus, the Christian King of Abyssinia’s Kingdom of Aksum, the party of Muslims were asked of the message sent down upon the Prophet (pbuh). In the court of the Negus, Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (r.a.), cousin of the Prophet (pbuh) eloquently recited verses from Surah Maryam, which included the story of the miracle birth of Isa A.S. (Jesus), Son of Mary. Realising the parallels between the traditions, it is narrated that after the second migration of Muslims to the land of Abyssinia, the Negus guaranteed the Muslims’ safety and security in his land after the Quraysh had dispatched envoys to bring back the fleeing Muslims for causing enmity among the tribes and betraying their forefathers. In a hadith narrated by Imam Bukhari, Jabir ibn Abdullah (r.a) stated that the Prophet described the Negus as “a pious man from Abyssinia” as he prepared to pray Salat-ul-Ghaib for the Negus, who had reverted to Islam in the 7th year of the Hijra and died two years later. (Bukhari 3877, Book 63, Hadith 102)
Another notable encounter by the Prophet (pbuh) with Christians was in Medina, just a few years before his death. The Prophet (pbuh) had sent letters through his companions to many distant communities in Arabia to persuade them to embrace Islam. One of the communities was the Christians of the southern city of Najran. The Prophet (pbuh) also sent one of his companions, Mughira ibn Shu’ba, to Najran to educate the Christians there on the Islamic faith. Intrigued by the Prophet’s (pbuh) teachings, a delegation of sixty Christians from Najran set off for Medina to visit the Prophet (pbuh), among them scholars and judges. Upon their arrival, the Prophet (pbuh) welcomed them to Masjid An-Nabawi and subsequently, according to some narrations, allowed them to pray there. The Najran Christians and the Prophet (pbuh) engaged in inter-faith conversations, including on theology. Despite their differences, both sides remained gracious and decided to enter into a treaty of peace. The Treaty of Najran guaranteed security for the lives, religion and property of the Christians in return for the payment of jizya (tax).
These two events in the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh) highlight that Muslims and Christians have crossed paths and engaged in dialogue since the early days of the spread of Islam. To emulate the graciousness of the Prophet (pbuh) in dealing with Christians should be the primary focus of Muslims today with regards to inter-faith interactions. Muslims should not merely ‘agree to disagree’ with Christians, rather, we should portray the behaviour expected of us by our religion and debate with them in a just and respectful manner. In addition to that, disputes and disagreements should be resolved amicably to avoid conflict.
The Rise of Islamophobia: Our Response
For the past few decades, the world has seen numerous cases of Muslims being misrepresented in the media. Terrorist groups around the world have become a serious threat to world peace, at least, as the media portrays them to be. Islamophobia does not just affect a small group of Muslims living in the predominantly Christian West as some may suggest. Its impact is far-reaching, with adherents of other faiths in other parts of the world also being exposed to negative portrayals of Muslims in the Western media. However, a mistake many Muslims do is to create more cracks in this increasingly fragile relationship between the Muslim world and the predominantly Christian West. While conversations about this topic oftentimes evolve into a political debate, one argues that the political discourse matter less than the actual verbal or virtual response to Islamophobia by Muslims in the public arena. Some Muslims may even resort to name-calling and making hateful or alarmist remarks that oftentimes cause greater division. It is also unbecoming of Muslims to alienate adherents of other faiths from their circles merely because of Islamophobic comments. Such acts can repel more non-Muslims from us and might even confirm the negative presuppositions they may have about Islam.
Let us emulate the Prophet (pbuh) in our response to Islamophobia. It is worth noting that the Prophet (pbuh) himself was a victim of harassment by the disbelieving Quraysh of his time for staying grounded on his faith in Allah s.w.t. However, the Prophet (pbuh) remained patient and stayed grounded amidst the falsehoods they spread about him and Islam. Despite the falsehoods and baseless accusations, the Prophet (pbuh), by the will of Allah, succeeded in calling many into Islam. For many, the excellence of his personality invited them to embrace Islam. As we all know, the Prophet (pbuh) only spoke kindly and truthfully, and it is precisely these virtues that we must portray when engaging with non-Muslims. As Allah s.w.t says in the Qur’an:
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ كُونُوا۟ قَوَّٰمِينَ لِلَّهِ شُهَدَآءَ بِٱلْقِسْطِ ۖ وَلَا يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَـَٔانُ قَوْمٍ عَلَىٰٓ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا۟ ۚ ٱعْدِلُوا۟ هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَىٰ ۖ وَٱتَّقُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ خَبِيرٌۢ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ
“O believers! Stand firm for Allah and bear true testimony. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what you do.” (Al-Qur’an 5:8)
This verse reminds us of the need to be just to people who spread hate and enmity. Indeed, our actions reflect our personality and conduct. Muslims should never fight fire with fire. Insya-Allah, with good conduct, we will encourage non-Muslims to understand what Islam stands for and the truth it teaches.
Christians are mentioned by Allah s.w.t. in the Holy Qur’an in many instances. In Surah Al-Maidah verse 82, He describes the Christians at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) as the ‘closest in affection’ with the believers. In the book of Tafsir ibn Kathir, as part of the exegesis of this Surah, he writes “These people are generally more tolerant of Islam and its people, because of the mercy and kindness that their hearts acquired through part of the Messiah's religion.” (Rana et. al., p. 226) Elements of such virtues can still be found in Christians today, and we should find goodness in our interactions with them. Through our relations with Christians, we can certainly make headway in dispelling attempts to portray Muslims negatively in the public arena. Islamophobia is ultimately produced from a certain negative perception some may have about Islam, and we need to make an attempt to prove to others, through our own words and actions, that we are contrary to what they perceive we are. After all, good akhlaq is better da’wah than good arguments.
Interfaith Dialogue: Past and Present
Interfaith dialogue is integral to Islam and the development of Islamic theology. In the most basic sense of the term, it refers to when adherents of different religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, come together to talk with each other on matters related to their beliefs. Debating, rationalising, and contemplating were instrumental in developing spirituality and maturity in thought, which is highly encouraged in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The fields of exegesis and fiqh were matters in which teachers and scholars of Islam had differing opinions about. Relations with non-Muslims and the ‘People of The Book’ (Jews and Christians) was also one of the key issues frequently discussed about among scholars and intellectuals. Notably, it was from such interactions among the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths that the fields of philosophy, science, jurisprudence and medicine flourished. Some of us may be familiar with names such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and Al-Farabi, who were very influential scholars in the Muslim and Christian world during the Golden Age of Islam. The House of Wisdom, during the Abbasid Caliphate, was a major centre for research and translation of that era. It included a society of scientists and academics. Much of the research done in that era still impact our education today. In retrospect, there is plenty for us to gain from the intellectual endeavours of past scholars within the Christian and Islamic world.
In recent decades, interfaith has become much more possible and convenient with advancements in technology. Television and social media have become mediums for many to spread their beliefs and debate with people of other beliefs. Muslims who grew up in the 1980s would remember a highly popular televised debate between Ahmad Deedat, a South-African Muslim missionary, and the American Christian televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart. The subject of the debate was ‘Is the Bible God’s Word?’ and was a highly contentious topic among the faithful. While we do not find such televised debates anymore today, discourse on topics like the one in the Deedat-Swaggart debate has shifted to online social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tiktok. Muslims and Christians are now more vocal and are free to express their views on the internet. However, a point to note would be that these exchanges must be done respectfully and not with the intention of fuelling hate and enmity between the adherents of the two faiths.
With such exchanges of ideas and perspectives on these platforms, I am confident we can find greater understanding of each other’s beliefs and have a heightened appreciation for pluralism and diversity in our society. It is no doubt that both Muslims and Christians desire peace among us, as the Prophet (pbuh) and the Christians of Najran did. The only way for us to continue on the path of peace and stability is through dialogue.
I have proposed several reasons and directions for Muslims to engage in extensive dialogue with the Christian community. Muslims have traditionally been ardent supporters of interfaith dialogue, including the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself. The global events of recent decades may have stifled healthy interfaith debates between Christians and Muslims. Nevertheless, there is a need for us to understand each other on a much deeper level owing to the complexities of today’s issues. We hold the responsibility to bridge the gap and reach out to those who may have misconstrued Islam’s teachings by displaying the best of our akhlaq. The Qur’an and Sunnah offer the wisest advice from the Almighty on our approach towards those who are of a different faith from us. As we gather the valuable jewels from the sea of knowledge Allah has sent down upon us, we should share them with our friends of other faiths to collaborate and build upon the works of the scholars and academics who came before us. Insya-Allah, in our pursuit of peace in this life and in the hereafter, we will reap the many bounties bestowed upon us by Allah s.w.t..
1. Rana et. al., (n.d.) Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surah Al-Ma’idah p. 226, Retrieved from https://darpdfs.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Tafsir-Ibn-Kathir-Surah-al-Ma%E2%80%99idah.pdf