Christians in the Muslim world
By Elias Karmi
In recent years, much has been said in the media about Islam and countries with Muslim majorities. At first, many reports were made with conspicuous bias due to the public outrage at the events of 9/11. Slowly, more reports are being made with an extra effort at being objective.
Still, certain aspects of the Muslim world are either being misrepresented or simply left to the audience to guess.
One example of these aspects that are ambiguous or distorted is the depiction of the experience of Christian minorities living in Muslim countries. Most Americans perceive Muslim countries as either devoid of Christians or perhaps having some Christians who hide their religious identities for fear of persecution.
A clear view of history — from the early beginnings of Islam to the present day — will help correct the above misconceptions. Muslims know that in the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) allowed a group of visiting Christians to pray in his mosque in Medina, and the caliph Omar, the second Muslim caliph after the death of the Prophet, granted the Christians of Jerusalem full rights to live and worship and even helped repair their churches, which were damaged due to neglect under Byzantine rule. Note that the actions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and for most Muslims the first four caliphs after him, are viewed in Islam as sources of jurisprudence (Islamic law, or Shari’ah). Coercively converting a Christian was out of the question since it was explicitly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:256).
Historians agree that Christians have always been allowed to worship and build their churches on Muslim lands from Muhammad’s time to this day*. In precolonial times, they were also allowed to live by their own laws within their communities. If they wished not to use Shari’ah, they were not compelled: That was a step ahead of the contemporary American version of tolerance that maintains the Law of the Land over minority communities. Knowing all of this makes Muslims view the West’s repetitive descriptions — of Christians living in Muslim countries as being persecuted and oppressed because of their religion — as quite strange and unfounded.
In Islamic history, famous Christian figures in high levels in the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates included poets and scientists. One of them was Al Akhtal, a famous poet whose verses are taught to this day in Arabic language curricula in schools in the Arab world. Al Akhtal boasted his religion openly and expressed his contempt at Islam in his poetry, right in front of caliphs, who would respond by giving him money for the excellent linguistic quality of his poetry. This shows that not only were Christians allowed to live and worship in Muslim countries, but they were given quite a bit of freedom of speech, as well.
In the 20th century, Arab Christians were instrumental in literature, science, and politics. The writings of Jubran Khalil Jubran, Mikhail Nu’aima, and Mai Ziyadah — are highly respected and are also taught in Arabic language classes. Their books are easily found in most Muslim households in Arab countries. Notable contemporary Christian political figures include former Iraqi prime minister Tariq Aziz, former Jordanian prime minister Kamel Abu Jaber, and former Egyptian foreign minister Boutrus Boutros-Ghali.
After the Armenian massacre at the hands of the Turkish army, Armenians fled to countries with Muslim majorities such as Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq and were welcomed as neighbors and even given a part of Old Jerusalem, the third most holy Islamic ground.
Muslims seem to never have had a problem with Christianity itself, not when they are told in the Qur’an that “You will find the nearest in love to [you] to be those who say, ‘We are Christians’” (Qur’an, 5:82). We need to see more historians and academics in the media who counteract the well-propagandized premise that Islam is against tolerance when Islam is actually the first system in human history to include religious tolerance as part of the law. In times like these, Westerners need to learn the historical relationship between Islam and Christianity from a nonpartisan point of view.
–Elias Karmi, Burnsville, Minn.
*Note: Some countries with Muslim majorities have some restrictions on religious freedoms, particularly the freedom to proselytize. See the U.S. State Department’s 2007 report on religious freedom around the world.