A biographical history of Christian-Muslim relations
A couple of weeks ago I was in India, not just to escape the Saskatchewan winter for a few days, though that was nice. I was participating in a conference exploring the history of Christian-Muslim relations, particularly in Asia. My involvement was part of a longer commitment to a scholarly project of compiling a bibliographical history of what Christians and Muslims have written about each other over the centuries.
The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been much in the news. Locally and nationally, this past year we have received many refugees from Muslim-majority countries, resulting in differing views about how they should be welcomed. Internationally, the violent treatment of Christians by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram has also received much attention. Again, responses from Christians in Canada have been mixed, some insisting that such violence is inherent in Islam and others arguing that other historical, political, and economic factors also play a role.
As someone who has studied and taught about the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations for more than twenty years, I feel that what is often lacking in these conversations is a broad, historical perspective. Even before I began my formal studies at university, the four years I lived in Pakistan working as a missionary prompted me to begin exploring the history of how Christians have viewed Muslims and how Muslims have viewed Christians.
Ever since the seventh century when the armies from Arabia rapidly conquered territory in the Middle East and North Africa that had been under the control of the Byzantine Empire, Christians have been recording their views and opinions about Muslims. Within a few generations, as Muslims developed a distinct identity and as they began theological discussions and disputes with Christians, a body of literature expressing this interaction developed.
Much of this literature has only recently become available in the English language. But it is amazing how many of the points of theological disagreement that are debated by these two faiths today were already discussed more than one thousand years ago. For instance, very early on we find that Muslims were arguing that the paraclete that Jesus promised would come to teach us all things actually referred to the coming of the Prophet Muhammad. And ever since that time Christians have also offered a range of proofs demonstrating that Jesus was rather prophesying the coming of the Holy Spirit.
This topic continues to be regularly debated today, often without the awareness that this discussion has continued for centuries. Both Christians and Muslims are seemingly unaware of the answers that previous generations of Christians have given to this assertion. Likewise, for centuries Christians have attacked the character and morality of Muhammad without sincerely listening to the responses given by Muslims to these charges. We often fail to recognize that an essential component in our efforts to witness for our faith or to engage in dialogue is a willingness to listen and really hear what the other is saying.
I would like to extend this willingness to listen to include a willingness to listen to what has been said in history as well. That brings me to my involvement with the project to produce a bibliographical history of Christian-Muslim relations. As part of my job description as a professor here at Briercrest, I engage in academic research and writing. I joined this project five years ago in its second phase, focusing on the era from 1500 to 1914. Five volumes had already been published on the earlier era from the death of Muhammad to 1500, documenting the history of Christian-Muslim relations.
My responsibility as one of the section editors for South Asia is to prepare lists of all that has been written by Christians about Islam and Muslims, and by Muslims about Christians and Christianity, in places such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even the Maldives. Once we have prepared the lists, we search for scholars who have expertise in those areas and ask them to contribute an encyclopedia-like entry on a particular author and his or her writings. We aim to be as exhaustive as possible in order to provide an authoritative resource for other scholars.
This team of editors includes both Christians and Muslims from all points of the globe. It has been exciting to get together regularly to report on progress, plan for the future, and seek solutions to challenges we are facing. It is also very interesting to see what new ideas (and old ones too!) are coming to light as we combine our discoveries from different regions, languages and periods of time. The conference in India was the first regional gathering, focusing specifically on Christian-Muslim relations in South Asia and involving scholars from not only India, but also Pakistan, Nepal, Australia, and Japan.
As host and moderator for the many of the sessions, I had the responsibility to make sure that the question-and-answer periods after the presentations remained on topic and did not degenerate into fruitless arguments. Overall, the sessions went smoothly, and I tried to give the participants the freedom to express themselves clearly. Our primary focus, however, was to inform attendees of the project and to encourage their participation. The list of writings by Christians about Muslims and by Muslims about Christians in South Asia has turned out to be very lengthy, with many writings not only in English but also in Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Malayalam, and other South Asian languages. Finding scholars to write entries for all these writers and writings will be a challenge.
What are we trying to achieve with all this scholarship? Are we just producing many large, expensive volumes that will only gather dust in libraries? Is there any practical value to all this work? I think the project’s website states it well:
Islam and Christianity share an intricate history that goes back fourteen centuries. Present attitudes between Muslims and Christians are shaped by the remembrance of conflict and cooperation. In order to understand the historical dimensions of mutual perceptions in modern times, the roots of Christian-Muslim relations need to be recovered and accurately mapped.
We aim to create “an essential research tool to do just that.” Those who are studying an aspect of Christian-Muslim relations will be able to find not only a brief bibliography of each writer and a description of his or her work but also a bibliography of the primary sources and the best secondary sources about those writings.
As editors, we have already been discussing how we can bring the benefits of all this research to the world beyond the universities and specialized researchers. We are planning to create a reader of some of the key writings that illustrate historical trends in Christian-Muslim relations. We are also considering other volumes that analyze what we have discovered by comparing different regions and different periods of history. What has changed in the way Christians have written about Islam, for instance, and what has remained the same?
Personally, my involvement in the project has been extremely satisfying because it has given me the opportunity immerse myself in a subject I enjoy and consider of vital importance for the world today. I’ve enjoyed meeting other scholars who share my passion, and have found the relationships that developed to be stimulating. The work of preparing the list of writings, of editing the work of other scholars, and of writing some of the entries myself has been a delight as well. In a very real way, this project has helped me to fulfill Briercrest’s vision of equipping the Church and engaging the world.