Seeing Islam in a New Light
Christians & Muslims agree on the greatness of God & the centrality of the family
It is a remarkable thing that the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem are held in trust by a Muslim, Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, who is a member of a family that has honorably maintained the holy places there for centuries. Christians and Muslims have had a troubled relationship over the centuries. Frankly, we are old enemies. Each side has fought and lost many battles and has bitter memories. The Middle East was the nursery and the home ground of Christianity but all that changed with the rise of Islam: Christians lost Palestine. Their attempts to recover it in the Crusades have been excoriated not only by Muslims but by secular historians in an increasingly anti-Christian environment who conveniently forget the sack of Rome and other acts of aggression on European soil in the centuries leading up to the Crusades. The Muslims also lost ground: gradually forced out of France and Spain they had to abandon their goal of a strong foothold in western Europe. It is startling to remind ourselves, though, that the Ottoman Empire remained a significant world power until the First World War.
Christians complain that Islam is bent on world conversion and that Muslims will never be satisfied until the world has turned to Islam. There is truth in this, for Islam is very strong on proselytizing. But can’t Christianity be accused of the same single-mindedness? The reality is that Christianity and Islam are almost inevitably at loggerheads because both are driven by immense ambitions to teach and convert.
How realistic is it then to hope for better understanding between them? William of Tripoli was a Dominican friar and contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. He wrote two books that were highly sympathetic to Islam, at a time and in a place where you would expect such a thing to be unthinkable. Without rancor he narrates the story of Mohammed’s life and of the subsequent rise of Islam, he describes the Koran, relates it sympathetically to the Christian and Jewish scriptures and even claims that the two Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are implicit in it! Both William’s books were clearly written as handbooks for Christian missionaries, in the belief that there was common ground to be found, and that both communities worshipped the same God. Of course William was a Christian through and through: he believed firmly that the Christian revelation is unique and final, and that the Muslim religion is defective and incomplete, but he saw good in it.
If you have seen Muslims at prayer or heard of their distress at the dangerous defection of some of their radicalized youth, you will recognize good people who love God and try to serve him. God alone knows how relations will develop in the future between the strong-willed followers of these two major religions. Both honor Jesus – though, in Islam, as no more than a major prophet — and Mary his mother. In an irreligious world we should try to concentrate on the things we have in common, such as the greatness of God and the centrality of the family. We can never agree entirely on matters of faith, but like William of Tripoli we should seek friends where we can find them.
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