Christianity and Islam in HistoryMSGR. WALTER BRANDMüLLER
I will address the topic of Christianity and Islam by limiting myself to a brief presentation of historical facts, without entering into the specifics of religious and theological dialogue.
In his message, Benedict XVI pointed to “nihilism” and “religious fanaticism” as the two deep sources of Islamist terrorism.
But the analysis at the December 13 meeting at the Lateran concentrated above all on the history of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. The occasion for the meeting was the fifth centenary of the birth of saint Pius V, the pope of the battle of Lepanto in 1571, at which a league of Europe’s Christian states inflicted a decisive defeat upon the Turkish fleet.
The topic was explored by an authoritative specialist in Church history, monsignor Walter Brandmüller, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.
Delivered in the presence of cardinal Sodano, his address represented the Holy See’s current point of view on the question: a point of view that is certainly less pliant than the one that prevailed during the pontificate of John Paul II. - Sandro Magister
I will address the topic of Christianity and Islam by
limiting myself to a brief presentation of historical facts, without entering
into the specifics of religious and theological dialogue. This seems useful to
me, because the celebration of the fifth centenary of the birth of Pius V was
a bit muted, especially in academic circles. The victor at Lepanto in 1571, this
pope who had the courage and the energy to construct an alliance of almost all
the Christian kingdoms against the Ottoman empire — which was advancing to threaten
Europe and had already established dominion over the Balkans — today, precisely
on account of the unhappy restoration of hostility between the two worlds — one
formerly Christian, and to a certain extent still Christian, and the Muslim world
— seems to many to be an obstructing presence best left in the shadows.
But on the part of the Muslims, from the earliest times, even while Mohammed was still alive, conversion was imposed through the use of force. The expansion and extension of Islam’s sphere of influence came through war with the tribes that did not accept conversion peacefully, and this went hand in hand with submission to Islamic political authority. Islamism, unlike Christianity, expressed a comprehensive religious, cultural, social, and political strategy. While Christianity spread during its first three centuries in spite of persecution and martyrdom, and in many ways in opposition to Roman domination, introducing a clear separation between the spiritual and political spheres, Islam was imposed through the power of political domination.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the use of force occupies a central place in Islamic tradition, as witnessed by the frequent use of the word “jihad” in many texts. Although some scholars, especially Western ones, maintain that jihad does not necessarily mean war, but instead a spiritual struggle and interior effort, Samir Khalil Samir again clarifies that the use of this term in Islamic tradition — including its usage today — is essentially uniform, indicating warfare in the name of God to defend Islam, which is an obligation for all adult Muslim males. Those who maintain that understanding jihad as a holy war constitutes a sort of deviation from the true Islamic tradition are therefore not telling the truth, and history sadly demonstrates that violence has characterized Islam since its origin, and that Mohammed himself systematically organized and led the raids against the tribes that did not want to convert and accept his dominion, thus subjecting the Arab tribes one by one. Naturally, it must also be said that at the time of Mohammed warfare was part of the Bedouin culture, and no one saw anything objectionable about it.
According to this representation, Western Christians were invaders in a peaceful region that was respectful of the different religions — the Holy Land, which back then was part of Syria — using religious motives to disguise imperialist ambitions and economic interests.
But the idea of the crusades emerged, above all, as a reaction to the measures that the Fatimid caliph Hakim bi-Amr Allah took against the Christians of Egypt and Syria. In 1008, al-Hakim outlawed the celebrations of Palm Sunday, and the following year he ordered that Christians be punished and all their property confiscated. In that same year of 1009, he sacked and demolished the church dedicated to Mary in Cairo, and did not prevent the desecration of the Christian sepulchers surrounding it, or the sacking of the city’s other churches. That same year saw what was certainly the most severe episode: the destruction of the Constantinian basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, known as the Holy Sepulcher. The historical records of the time say that he had ordered “to obliterate any symbol of Christian faith, and provide for the removal of every reliquary and object of veneration.” The basilica was then razed, and Ibn Abi Zahir did all he could to demolish the sepulcher of Christ and any trace of it.
Today in many intellectual circles there is a lot of talk about the religious tolerance shown over many centuries by the Islamic authorities, because — while in terms of the pagan populations the saying “embrace Islam and your life will be spared” held true, and the pagans who did not convert were killed — the “people of the book,” the Jews and Christians, were able to continue practicing their religion.
In reality, the situation was much less idyllic: the Christians and Jews could survive only if they accepted Muslim political dominion and a situation of humiliation, which was aggravated by the obligation to pay increasingly burdensome taxes. So it’s no wonder that most of the Christians, even though they were not constrained by force, converted to Islam on account of the constant economic and social pressure. This led to the total disappearance of a form of Christianity that had flourished for more than half a millennium, as in the part of Africa ruled by the Roman empire, the land of Tertullian, saint Cyprian, Tyconius, and above all saint Augustine.
But the biggest difference between Christianity and Islam concerns the crucial issue of understanding the human person.
This is shown by the fact that many Islamic countries have not accepted the declaration of human rights promulgated by the United Nations in 1948, or have done so with the reservation of excluding the norms that conflict with Qur’anic law — which means practically all of them. From an historical point of view, therefore, it must be recognized that the declaration of the rights of man is a cultural fruit of the Christian world, even though these are “universal” norms, in that they are valid for all. In Islamic tradition, in fact, the concept of the equality of all human beings does not exist, nor does, in consequence, the concept of the dignity of every human life. Sharia is founded upon a threefold inequality: between man and woman, between Muslim and non-Muslim, and between freeman and slave. In essence, the male human being is considered a full titleholder of rights and duties only through his belonging to the Islamic community: those who convert to another religion or become atheists are considered traitors, subject to the death penalty, or at least to the loss of all their rights.
So if Islam implied, and still implies, not merely religious membership, but an entire way of life, sanctioned even at the political level — a way of life that naturally involves and prescribes how to act with other peoples, how to behave in questions of war and peace, how to conduct relations with foreigners — it is very easy to understand how the victory of Lepanto guaranteed for the West the possibility of developing its culture of respect for the human person, for whom equal dignity regardless of his condition came to be guaranteed.
If this characterization of Islam is destined to remain unchanged in the future, as it has been until now, the only possible outcome is a difficult coexistence with those who do not belong to the Muslim community: in an Islamic country, in fact, the non-Muslim must submit to the Islamic system, if he does not wish to live in a situation of substantial intolerance.
Likewise, on account of this all-embracing conception of religion and political authority, the Muslim will have great difficulty in adapting to the civil laws in non-Islamic countries, seeing them as something foreign to his upbringing and to the dictates of his religion. Perhaps one should ask oneself if the well-attested difficulties persons coming from the Islamic world have with integrating into the social and cultural life of the West are not explained in part by this problematic situation.
We must also recognize the natural right of every society to defend its own cultural, religious, and political identity. It seems to me that this is precisely what Pius V did.
And the pope’s speech to the Muslims he met in Cologne on August 20, 2005: Dear Muslim Friends...”
Monsignor Walter Brandmüller. "Christianity and Islam in History." Christianity and Islam, Yesterday and Today (December, 2005).
Address delivered at “Christianity and Islam, Yesterday and Today” conference held at the Pontifical Lateran University.
Text provided by Sandro Magister. English translation by Matthew Sherry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sandro Magister manages Chiesa.com. Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is email@example.com
Monsignor Walter Brandmüller is president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.
© 2005 Chiesa
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