Shortly after 9/11 I started reading the Quran. The divisive rhetoric regarding Islam had reached a fever pitch and I wanted to better understand the faith. What I found helped me see the dichotomy between true Islam and the extremist vision of the terrorists who co-opted the name of the religion for their own purposes. Education dispels ignorance, which lies at the root of fear.
Sixteen years have passed and we find ourselves again in a time of schism. Extremists from all sides attempt to appeal to our base natures and seek to drive us into a regressive tribalism rooted in a fear of the other. Now, as before, I think we need to be deliberate in working against this. Knowing our history can help.
Many people know about the Crusades, the long and bloody religious war between the medieval Latin Church and Islam. However, if we look deeper into the history of the two faiths we find a deeper history of mutual respect and brotherhood between Muslims and Christians.
The Migration to Abyssinia
A coin of King Armah
In the earliest days of Islam (613 CE), followers of Muhammad found themselves facing persecution at the hands of the polytheistic residents of Mecca. The persecution reached such a high level that Muhammad told his followers to flee the land and to see refuge in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) under the protection of the Christian Negus Ashama ibn Abjar (called King Armah by modern historians). Members of the persecuting Quraysh tribe pursued the refugees and attempted to bribe the Christian king into handing them over to their persecutors. They even appealed to the king’s faith declaring, “They have abandoned their own religion but neither accepted yours, and have invented a new faith which neither of us know.” King Negus called the Muslims into his presence and asked them to speak of their faith. After hearing what they had to say, and despite entreaties from his bodyguards, Negus declared that he would never hand them over and that they could remain in his kingdom in safety.
The Achtiname of Muhammad
The Patent of Muhammad
A decade later, Muhammad would offer similar protection to Christians. In 625 CE, he wrote a document that has come to be known as the “Achtiname of Muhammad” or the “Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai”. The letter declares itself, “directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.” It goes on to say that, “he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.”
The letter details a list of freedoms to be guaranteed the Christians. It begins with a broad statement that, “Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.” After this, it states that Christians are not to be unfairly taxed. They are not to be compelled to leave their faith or to take up arms in times of conflict, instead stating that Muslims should fight for them. The letter also declares that if a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she should not be hindered from practicing her Christian faith.
As broken human beings, there are times that members both faiths have failed to live up to their highest ideals. There are now and have been in the past, fringe elements of Christianity and Islam that have sought to distort the faiths for their own personal agenda. We need to look beyond this, to find those things that bind us together, to find the stories in our past that demonstrate that a better world is possible today.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”