Christians and Muslims: An Ambivalent Relationship

By Leo D Lefebure

The Christian tradition in general and the Catholic Church in particular have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship to Islam. Dante Alighieri, perhaps the greatest poet in the entire history of Christianity, represents and symbolizes this in “The Divine Comedy.” Nearly a century ago, the Spanish scholar Miguel Asín Palacios, in “Islam and the Divine Comedy,” demonstrated that in conceiving his masterpiece, Dante was directly dependent upon Muslim accounts of the Night Journey of Muhammad to heaven, where the prophet reportedly met and conversed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

The achievement of Dante would have been unthinkable without the contribution of the vibrant culture of early medieval Islam. Yet when the great Christian poet describes Muhammad’s place in the afterlife, Dante finds the prophet in the Eighth Circle of hell reserved for schismatics. The punishment Dante envisions for Muhammad is to be repeatedly split from the chin through his torso over and over again for all eternity (Inferno 28:22-36).

Similarly, Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries developed scholastic theology in constructive dialogue with Muslim thinkers Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Thomas deeply respected Ibn Rushd’s interpretation of Aristotle, and Aquinas accepted Ibn Sina’s distinction between existing and essence as a way to move beyond Aristotle’s metaphysics in understanding creation ex nihilo. Nonetheless, Thomas, like Dante, could imagine no place in heaven for Muhammad, Ibn Rushd, or Ibn Sina. For Thomas, implicit faith in the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Trinity could have sufficed for salvation prior to the time of Christ; but after the Incarnation, “when once grace had been revealed, all were bound to explicit faith in the mystery of the Trinity,” as well as in Jesus Christ (Summa Theologiae 2-2.2.8; 2-2.2.7).

A few medieval Christians had a reasonably accurate understanding of Islam, but the overwhelming majority learned about Islam through polemics, lies and slanders. John of Damascus ridiculed Islam, charging that Muhammad fabricated stories of revelation to justify his sexual appetites and that Muhammad invented the teachings of the Qur’an based on instruction from an Arian monk. Nicetas of Byzantium argued that the God of Islam is actually a devil. Muhammad himself was vilified, often being portrayed as an epileptic who invented stories of an angel to excuse his fits. Medieval Christians largely refused to understand Islam on its own terms and viewed it as a Christian heresy or schism.

As Christian and Muslim warriors encountered each other on the battlefield off and on for over a millennium, the threat of a decisive Islamic victory hung over Christian Europe. In this context, Christian attitudes toward Islam were often bitter and fearful.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, in fifteenth century Spain, many Catholics respected their Jewish and Muslim neighbors and their religions. One commented, in contradiction to the teaching of the Catholic teaching authorities of the time, “the good Jew and the good Muslim can, if they act correctly, go to heaven just like the good Christians” (cited by Henry Kamen, “The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision, 6”). At least at times, Christians, Muslims and Jews gathered together to share their wisdom, exchange translations of ancient Greek texts and make possible the spread of knowledge across religious boundaries. The rebirth of Western medieval scholarship in the twelfth and thirteen centuries was made possible by the open dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Spain and the Middle East.

In various settings, Jesuit missioners continued both sides of the earlier tradition. Some, like Francisco Ignacio Alzina, who came to the Philippines in 1632, commented bitterly in his Historia about “that infamous sect of Mohamet, which has infected many of the islands of this archipelago before our true one arrived here.” Meanwhile, in Mughal India, Jesuit missioners participated in lively debates with Sunnis and Shiites, as well as Hindus and Jains, under the supervision of the Emperor Akbar. Akbar personally supported the work of the Jesuits, but his goal was to establish an amalgam of the best of the world’s religions, with a particular focus on himself. The Jesuits, for all their skill in debating and their acceptance at court, did not make major inroads into India at this time. Nonetheless, Xavier’s Persian writings and his translation of Christian texts into Persian did have a major impact on the Mughal court and earned him the respect of his Muslim debating partners.

In the current time of international tension, the vilifying of Islam continues unabated in some quarters, as the violence done in the name of Islam is identified with the center of the religion itself. Nonetheless, increasingly Christians are getting to know Muslims as neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Through first-hand knowledge, stereotypes can be set aside and healthy relationships formed. Vatican II called Catholics and Muslims to forget past animosities and “train themselves towards sincere mutual understanding” in the service of social justice. The challenge echoes still.

Leo D. Lefebure, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Visiting Professor of Theology at Georgetown University.

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