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.
A declaration made by the Vatican Council in 1964 marked a turning point in the official Roman Catholic attitude toward Islam:
Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and powerful, creator of the heavens and the earth and speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will give each man his due, after raising him up. Consequently, they prize the moral life and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this Council urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.
As a result of the official publication of this text and of the Roman Catholic Church's expressions of interest in other religions, a Secretariat was established at the Vatican to promote good relationships between Catholics and members of non-Christian religions. The Secretariat section on Islam has been very active, publishing a number of materials and organizing meetings between Christians and Muslims. Personnel competent to work among the peoples of Islam are trained at several specialized centers, such as the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome and a few research centers in Muslim capitals.
Protestants have no similar central body that speaks for their many churches. The World Council of Churches, a forum for many Protestant and Orthodox bodies and a means for cooperative effort, has established a division for dialogue with people of living faiths. This office has organized a variety of gatherings in Europe, Asia and Africa to encourage exchanges between Christians and Muslims on many topics. Protestant church workers who are sent to live among Muslims can receive appropriate training at the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England, and at several institutes in other countries.
In the United States only one center has as its primary aim the cultivation of constructive, friendly relations between Christians and Muslims, based on the primacy of faith in God: the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. The Muslim World, a quarterly journal devoted to Christian-Muslim understanding, is published there. In addition to the teaching and research staff of the Macdonald Center, Hartford Seminary offers office space to the Office on Christian-Muslim Relations sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, with a full-time staff member. The goal of the office is to help Muslims and Christians in the United States to enter into mutually beneficial relationships.
Muslims have responded in various ways to Christian initiatives of friendship that are based on mutual respect. In many cases they have shown joy and relief when they realize that their Christian acquaintances have abandoned traditionally aggressive and condescending approaches to them. When they find that they no longer have to defend themselves against the Christians, they are able to express freely the kinship that they feel with them and to explore frankly the differences that exist between the two religions. In several parts of the world, Muslims have taken the initiative to organize interfaith gatherings. At the same time, the pattern of Christian political and economic domination of the recent past is too fresh in the minds of many Muslims for them to welcome easily new overtures from their former adversaries. Sometimes they are puzzled, distrustful and defensive-and naturally so.
Steps in the New Approach to Relationships
The religious difficulties between Christians and Muslims are of two basic kinds: doctrinal and moral. In the interest of conciliation, a value whose importance is self-evident, these two difficulties should be faced frankly and then set aside for awhile for the sake of starting to talk. First, many doctrinal problems can be discussed rationally as issues of the understanding. If we Christians explain carefully what we believe, then Muslims can understand what we say about our doctrines, even if some beliefs have to do with the divine mystery. In the same way, if we Christians simply listen carefully to Muslims, we can understand what they say about their beliefs. That is the first step in meeting the doctrinal problem frankly.
Very often doctrinal points of contention draw people from the two faiths into animated debate. I have seen American Christians become provoked when they first hear Muslim accusations that the church has ignored supposed biblical prophecies of the coming of Muhammad into the world. The immediate temptation is to launch into a rebuttal of such arguments. Instead, we need to remember that we are not the first Christians to be confronted with these and similar accusations. In fact, some of the best minds in Christendom have made rebuttals against Muslim objections. The only thing that rebuttals or counter-accusations accomplish is to underscore the gap between our two faiths. No one has ever "won" the argument.
If we listen to each other we will take a great step toward reconciliation. But listening is only the first step. The doctrinal difficulties between our two peoples are heightened because we want the others not only to understand us, but to believe as we do. So, the Muslim says, for example, "If you understand what we mean by the prophethood of Muhammad, why will you not accept it as true?" And the Christian says to the Muslim, "Your Scriptures say that you should respect and believe in the gospel of Jesus. Why, then, do you not read it?" Therefore, the second step toward meeting doctrinal difficulties frankly is to give up the insistence that the other become like ourselves. To do so does not require abandoning a vital witness to one's faith or the concern that others enter into the joys of salvation. What it does mean is leaving the other person free to be himself or herself.
Once these two steps are taken, the discussion can move to other matters without being blocked by doctrinal differences. Doctrine is important, but it is not the only question in our relationships. Doctrinal matters should not stand in the way of whatever form or degree of reconciliation is possible.
What about moral issues? It is good to have another religious community to encounter so that our moral choices can be tested by the ethical insights of the other group. We need to be a moral check on each other. An ethical torpor may descend on a people who will not accept criticism from those outside. What is unfortunate about our two religious communities is that we have for many centuries simply hurled accusations of immoral or unethical behavior at each other, each assuming a position of superiority in relation to the other.
Such recrimination offers no lasting benefits. For each moral or ethical defect in one community, a corresponding defect can always be discovered in the other community. As an example, Christians have accused Muslims of unbridled sensuality because they permit polygamy. Muslims, in turn, have pointed out that polygamy as a stable social force is preferable to prostitution and other forms of extramarital sexual involvements that are common in the Christian world. Also, Christians often accuse Muslim nations of being turbulent and warlike, unable to settle their differences among themselves. Muslims point out that it is Christian countries that have fought two world wars in half a century. To make invidious comparisons of our two religious systems in order to prove the moral superiority of one over the other is an exercise in vanity. Therefore, we can safely set aside the moral problem insofar as it consists of picking out the flaws in the other group. The right kind of mutual moral critique will come as a result of meeting together on a deeper level.