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Christianity and Islam

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Christianity and Islam

    Before the rise of Islam in the early 600s, the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the Roman Empire) and the Persian Empire controlled most of the Middle East. The Persians soon fell to Muslim invaders, but the Byzantine civilization, which was largely Christian, endured for almost 1,000 years. Throughout history, relations between Christians and Muslims have been characterized by cooperation and conflict. Their followers have fought in wars for political dominance. At the same time, Muslims and Christians have benefited from cultural and economic exchanges. Today interaction between the world's two largest communities of faith continues to be marked by ambivalence.

    Conquest and Collaboration.

    At the time of Muhammad, Jewish and Christian tribes lived in Arabia. Muhammad reached out to these groups, hoping that they would accept his message of social and religious reform and become his allies. Debate and dialogue between Christians and Muslims soon developed. Muhammad, for example, discussed theological issues with Christians from Najran and eventually allowed them to pray in his mosque.

    In the years following the Prophet's death, Muslim armies extended the boundaries of the Islamic world from the Arabian Peninsula to Spain, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. During that time, Muslims captured Egypt and Syria, which had been controlled by the Byzantines. Although many welcomed the Muslims as liberators from Roman rule, some Byzantine Christians viewed them as agents of Satan sent to destroy their religion. In 829 the Coptic Christian community in Egypt even rose up against the Muslim government.

    Despite occasional religious battles, relations between Christians and Muslims living in the Islamic empire were generally good. In accordance with Islamic law, Muslim leaders extended legal protections to Christians living under their rule. Muslims considered Christians and Jews to be People of the Book, meaning that these groups were guided by scripture—sacred writings that contained revelations from God. Furthermore, the caliphs permitted greater religious freedom and imposed lower taxes than had the Byzantine rulers. Many Christians held government positions in the Islamic empire. In Andalusia, for example, they served as translators, engineers, physicians, and architects.

    Cultural exchanges between the Muslim and Christian worlds were also common during this time. Scholarship provided a way for the different traditions to communicate. The caliph al-Ma'mun founded an academy to translate works of science, philosophy, and medicine from Greek into Arabic. The Bible was one of the few religious works translated into Arabic. Christians studied at Islamic universities in Córdoba and Cairo. Such institutions became the models for universities in western Europe. The exchange of knowledge between Muslims and Christians eventually helped Europe to emerge from its intellectual “dark age.”

    Rise and Fall of Empires.

    By the 1000s, the Holy Roman Empire, a European power composed of several states, controlled northern and central Europe. The Christians within the empire considered Islam to be an enemy and a threat to their religion. At that time, the Holy Land was under Muslim control, and European Christians believed they would be in danger if they attempted to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In addition, Alexius I , the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, believed that his capital city of Constantinople was vulnerable to attack. In 1095 Pope Urban II called for a Christian army to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Four years later, the Christian forces captured Jerusalem and massacred Muslims and Jews living there, including women and children. This event was the first in a lengthy series of bloody military expeditions that came to be known as the Crusades. Muslims still regard the Crusades as a clear example of the aggression and imperialism of the Christian West.

    Christianity and Islam

    From the 1000s to the 1300s. Muslims and Christians fought over possession of the Holy Land in a series of bloody battles known as the Crusades. This decorated tile from the 1200s commemorates the Third Crusades, during which Richard I of England and Muslim leader Saladin signed a three-year truce. It provided for Jerusalem to remain in Muslim hands, while allowing Christian in pilgrims access to shrines in the city.



    British Museum, London, Londin/Bridgeman Art Library

    view larger image

    Muslim forces recaptured Jerusalem in 1187 . Subsequent Crusades failed to dislodge the Islamic armies, except for brief periods. Muslim victories eventually gave rise to a powerful Ottoman Empire in the 1300s. The vast Muslim state ultimately encompassed southeastern Europe, most of the Middle East, and the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Christians living in the conquered territories served in the Ottoman government and military, and Islamic law protected their churches.

    The hold of the Ottomans gradually weakened, however. Inept leaders and corruption plagued the empire. Beginning in the mid-1700s, Europe experienced the Industrial Revolution, which generated military and technological advances, further shifting the balance of power in its favor. In the 1800s, European nations established colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and other Muslim lands and helped Greece, Serbia, and Romania gain independence from Muslim rule. After World War I, the victorious European powers completed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Colonization brought Western government and education and Christian missionaries to the Islamic world.

    Most Muslims considered Western imperialism to be a serious challenge to their way of life. They viewed colonization as an attack on their society, education, religion, and culture. In response, some Muslims joined militant resistance groups. Anticolonial movements gained strength after World War II. By the early 1960s, most Islamic regions had achieved independence from colonial rule and had established Muslim nation-states.

    In 1948 the United Nations divided the Arab territory of Palestine into two parts, creating the state of Israel. Muslims regarded Israel as a Western colony in Arab land. Arab nationalists and Islamic activists have fought to regain possession of this land.

    Renewed Interest in Islam.

    East-West geographic divisions are no longer a defining factor in Muslim-Christian relations. Followers of both religions are now spread throughout the world. Centers of Christianity and Islam exist in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Approximately six million Muslims live in the United States alone. Nonetheless, the relationship between Christianity and Islam still retains a dual nature. Though cooperation has reached new levels, suspicion and violence still separate the two faiths.

    By the 1950s, Christian scholars renewed their interest in the study of Islam. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims grew as the World Council of Churches and the Vatican organized meetings for representatives of various faiths. In 1965 the Vatican officially recognized the legitimacy of Islam and called for greater understanding between Catholics and Muslims. In the late 1990s, the Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, called for increased tolerance of Muslims. In 2002 Christian and Muslim leaders met in London to improve relations and to promote mutual understanding.

    Muslims and Christians have also worked together to solve many world problems including poverty, hunger, and trade barriers. During the 1990s, the administration of President Bill Clinton helped Muslim groups take a more active role in public life in the United States.

    Despite recent progress, conflict remains a major factor in Muslim-Christian relations. The 1970s marked the beginning of an Islamic revival. Some experts attribute this trend to increased revenue from oil in the Middle East and the corresponding rise in economic and political power of Muslim governments. Others point to the defeat of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 war against Israel and the continued statelessness of many Palestinians as a reason for renewed distrust of Christians among Muslims. Radical Muslims became committed to victory over Christian culture and Western political systems. In 1979 Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the Western-supported government in Iran. Islamic militancy grew in nations around the world, aggravating tensions between Muslims and Christians. Since the 1980s, Muslim and Christian mobs in northern Nigeria have battled in the streets. Sudan has been embroiled in a 20-year civil war between Arab Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Since 1999 an estimated 10,000 people have died in Muslim-Christian violence on the Indonesian island of Ambon.

    Most radical Muslims see the United States as their chief Christian enemy. They oppose its military and economic support of Israel and what they consider to be oppressive anti-Islamic regimes. Beginning in the 1990s, Islamic militant Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network launched a series of terrorist attacks against American targets around the world. Bin Laden seeks to unite Muslims in a global jihad against Christians and Jews. Al-Qaeda's devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, demonstrated the intensity and potential for tragedy in this ongoing conflict. See also Bin Laden, Osama; Colonialism; Crusades; Israel; Ottoman Empire; Qaeda, al-.

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