A Tale of Three Cities: Christian-Muslim Relations Across the Centuries - Gordon Conwell

A Tale of Three Cities: Christian-Muslim Relations Across the Centuries



This spring semester I’m teaching a course “A History of Christian-Muslim Relations” in which we will be surveying interactions between Christians and Muslims from the time of Muhammad to the present. Our main goal is to understand events in the past and how we can learn from them today as we witness and as we live together. We will also focus on what obstacles in recent history continue to stand in the way of fruitful engagement between Christians and Muslims.

For example, today Christians and Muslims represent 57% of the world’s population. Yet two myths persist about the world’s two largest religions. First, Christianity is widely perceived as a Western religion. While it is true that for a thousand years (920-1980 CE), Europeans represented the vast majority of all Christians, today only 33% of all Christians today are Westerners. Second, many consider Islam to be the religion of Arabs. However, while Islam began among Arabs 1,400 years ago, today only about 20% of all Muslims are Arabs. Thus, the idea that Christian-Muslim relations is about Westerners and Arabs falls short of reality.

We need new paradigms to move beyond these myths.

Regarding the Christian myth, although the vast majority of Christians are Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders, the faith is characterized by Western culture and many Muslims equate Western popular media with “Christianity.” And yet, generally speaking, Western Christians are not aware of their own context. For example, while White Christian scholarship is recognized as “theology,” the work of Christian scholars of color is often exoticized as “Black theology” or “Asian theology.” In other words, Western or White theology needs no qualifier because it is considered the global standard by which all others are measured. One theologian has called this “the stubborn invisibility of whiteness.” Christianity, with its historical and current presence in so many of the world’s cultures, is best represented by diversity and universality. Consequently, in Christian-Muslim relations, Christianity should be encountered as a global faith, not a Western faith.

From the Muslim side, the focus of Christian-Muslim relations cannot be on the Middle East (as important as this is). Muslims from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria represent the demographic weight of Islam and should be natural partners in Christian-Muslim relations. Though they draw on a religion that was born and cultivated in the Arabian Peninsula, non-Arab Muslims bring to their faith the richness of their own cultures. They don’t represent Arab culture or politics any more than Christians represent European culture or politics.

Over the next three weeks, we will encounter tales of three cities, illustrating Christian-Muslim relations in the past. While two of those tales are inspiring, the third is cautionary.

The first is Baghdad in the 9th century—one of the world’s wealthiest and most progressive cities and the nexus of the Muslim Abbasid empire. But Baghdad was also a gathering place of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars, who articulated a powerful symbiosis of faith and reason.

Second, Cordoba in 10th century Spain continued the Baghdad experience for several hundred years. Christians, Muslims, and Jews combined scholarship along with medicine, music, art, trade, among a host of other interactions.

Finally, Damietta was the scene of an encounter between Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219, in the midst of the Crusades. Francis provides a counterpoint to the aggression of the Crusades. This is perhaps the most instructive for our day.

All three tales speak to our current situation. Not only do we see the possibility of interaction between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but a rich collaboration of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars on projects of global significance. For example, artists and musicians of each faith can combine their talents to imagine remarkable works of art and music. Christians in business can transcend religious differences with Muslims and Jews to find ways to build fair, global trade. Finally, we can all stand against aggression and violence toward our religious communities. Peaceful co-existence is possible if Christians and Muslims learn from their histories and embrace their global identities. In these settings, a genuine gospel witness, not overidentified with a single culture, can be shared and lived out.