The history of Christian-Muslim relations exhibits almost unrelieved conflict-military, political, economic and religious. The Christian world has seemed incapable of promoting and maintaining amicable relations with the Muslim world, most probably because Christians have not found a place for Islam in their view of the universe. Christianity is exclusive in teaching that it is the only way of salvation and up to now the bask of being reconciled with another exclusive system, Islam, has proven too taxing for Christendom.
Nor, from their side, have Muslims been able to overcome their doctrinal and moral objections to Christianity. In spite of the very positive place that Christianity occupies in the Islamic view of the universe, Muslims have stressed their anti-trinitarian feelings so far as to accuse Christians of being polytheists. Of course, neither Christians nor Muslims have been helped to achieve mutual respect by the course of world politics or by the rapacious actions and tendencies of some individuals and groups of people.
In spite of the somber history of Muslim-Christian interaction, a new spirit of conciliation is evident among some Christians and Muslims in the world today. It does not yet govern all or even most encounters between the religions, but it is growing. Neither is this spirit altogether unprecedented.
Perhaps the most important precursors of this new movement were the thousands of ordinary believers in Islam and in Christianity who for centuries lived together as neighbors in several countries, proving by their example that religion does not have to be a factor for animosity between peoples.
Since the Second World War a number of Christians and Muslims have been working for a spirit of understanding and reconciliation between members of the two religious communities. This movement is the most recent development in Christian-Muslim relations. On the Christian side, it results in part from the intensive theological research of the last hundred years, particularly in Europe. Modern Christian theology has developed in societies that have come to value pluralism of peoples, opinions and religions, so that a new approach to Islam is able to thrive. So far, not many Christians have realized the implications of this theological climate for the encounter with Islam, because Christian-Muslim relations remains an issue of low priority in the Christian churches.
Modern pioneers in Christian-Muslim relations are few; most of them developed their interest through direct relationships. Three such persons immediately come to mind. Only one of them can be called a theoretician of Christian-Muslim relations, and it was his acquaintance with Muslims that led him to develop his ideas. Wilfred Cantwell Smith of the United Church of Canada has through his writing done much to break down the barriers between persons of faith. His relationships with Muslims have been his basis for interpreting humankind's religious experience. One of his most compelling theses is that the modern world, with its intermingling of cultures, affords an unprecedented opportunity for Christians, in faithfulness to their missionary motivation, to participate with Muslims as well as with believers from other religions in the ongoing multiform religious evolution of humankind.
Louis Massignon (d. 1962) was a French diplomat and scholar whose life was transformed by his contact with the world of Islam. His consecration to God as revealed in Christ, within the Roman Catholic tradition, grew very much in terms of the Islamic understanding of godliness. In his thought and writings, Massignon moved constantly back and forth in the most natural way between Christianity and Islam, yet without ever failing to appreciate the particularity of each religion. No one has shown better than he how far a Christian can go in sensitive, self-sacrificial friendship with Muslims. Only recently have Massignon's writings begun to be translated into English, but French-speaking Christians in touch with Islam, and a number of Muslims as well, consider Massignon to be a key figure in their spiritual formation.
From the Anglican branch of Christendom comes the poet-bishop and search of the Qur'an, Kenneth Cragg. His brilliant writings have opened new perspectives to a while generation of Christians. Cragg, a sober philosopher, theologian, and skilled Arabist, is devoted to the church. His life among Muslims in the Middle East, as well as his research, have led him to feel with exquisite sensibility the theological gulf that separates the two religions. Yet he has also found untold riches of common themes in the Qur'an and the Bible, in Muslim and Christian theology, in the two contrasting paths of spirituality, and in the two separate patterns of worship.