An Orienting Essay for Canadian Muslims

Say, ‘People of the Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all: we worship God alone, we ascribe no partner to Him, and none of us takes others beside God as lords.’ If they turn away, say, ‘Witness our devotion to Him.’
(Qur’an 3:64, translated by M. A. S Abdel Haleem) 

Together, Christians and Muslims make up over fifty percent of the world’s population.[1] This reality is more than just a contemporary statistic, but a foundation for a hefty moral imperative. Given the size of these faith communities, relations between the two can have global impacts. Likewise, it can be said that – given their size – if there is peace and good will between Muslims and Christians, then there is peace and good will throughout much of the world. In Canada, Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity. Though Muslims in Canada make up only 3.2% of our national population, individual provinces like Ontario (4.6%), Alberta (3.18%), and Quebec (3.15%) have higher percentages with large concentrations of Muslims living in major cities.[2] In some cities, Islam as a whole is larger than any individual Christian denomination other than Catholicism. However, Muslims and Christians have more in common than the global size of their faith community. They share many beliefs and values that motivate adherents to contribute for the betterment of the world and communities across Canada.

Though Muslims and Christians do not share the same faith, they share a faith in God and the same sense of obligation to serve their community, as well as the same sense of empathy that forms the soil from which springs the Golden Rule – to love for others what one loves for oneself. Yet, there remains a great deal of misunderstanding between the two faith communities. Despite the best efforts of those involved in interfaith dialogue and related initiatives, Islamophobia is still on the rise. While some may wish to argue that this is an indication of the failure of interfaith dialogue, it is, rather, a strong indication of the need for more of it. Studies show that individuals who have negative opinions of Islam and/or Muslims have never met a Muslim. Moreover, other studies show that individuals with greater familiarity with Muslims have more positive views about Islam.[3] Thus, one of the easiest ways to combat Islamophobia is simply getting to know one’s neighbor.

A History of Engagement

Muslim-Christian engagement is not new. In fact, it dates back to the very beginning of Islam. After receiving the tremendous weight of the first verses revealed of the Qur’an (i.e., 96:1-5), the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ[4] sought the comfort of his noble wife, Khadija (may God be well-pleased with her). During that time in Mecca, illiteracy was common, and many were unfamiliar with previous revelations from God. However, Khadija had a cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, who was a Christian and was familiar with the previous scriptures—including the Gospel of Jesus ﷺ. Khadija brought the Prophet ﷺ to speak with Waraqah who was impressed with the Prophet’s experience and counseled him on what to expect now that he had received revelation from God. As was the case with previous prophets, Waraqah warned, people will treat him and his message with hostility; a warning that ultimately proved true.

As the Prophet ﷺ preached in Mecca, his message—like the message of the prophets before him—was most readily embraced by the poor. However, as Islam spread so too did the growing hostility towards it by those in power; leading to a growing persecution of the most vulnerable believers. To ensure their protection, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ sent a group of his followers to seek refuge in Abyssinia, a Christian kingdom in East Africa. Undoubtedly, those migrating to Abyssinia had concerns about their travel. However, the Prophet ﷺ reassured them by informing them that the Christian ruler of Abyssinia, known as Negus,[5] was a just and fair leader.  Notably, it was in the Negus’ court that the first truly Muslim-Christian dialogue took place. During this exchange, the Negus was so impressed with the faith of the Muslims that he promised to protect them. Moreover, despite the geography separating him and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the two developed a deep respect for each other. This is evidenced not only by the Negus’ protection of the Prophet’s followers living in his land, but also gifts exchanged between the two. The Negus even officiated the Prophet’s marriage to Umm Habiba (may God be well-pleased with her) who, at the time, was among those seeking refuge in his Christian land.

Later in the Prophet’s life ﷺ, when the Muslim community had a stronger political standing in Arabia, another major Muslim-Christian dialogue occurred; this time in the Prophet’s city (Medina). A delegation of Christians from Najran arrived in Medina to meet with the Prophet ﷺ. Najran was then, as it is now, a historically significant city for Christians in Arabia. During the reign of Dhu Nawas (circa 517–527CE)—half a century before the Prophet ﷺ was born—Christians of Najran were persecuted and killed for their faith. God speaks of their sacrifice in Surah al-Buruj[6] and the Prophet ﷺ, as well, spoke about this incident to his Companions with much respect; as evidenced in various hadiths. When the Christians arrived to speak with the Prophet ﷺ, he invited them to Islam. However, he never coerced them. Moreover, when they sought a place in his city to offer their Christian prayers, the Prophet ﷺ offered them the use of his own mosque, marking the first time in history that a Christian congregation prayed in a mosque.

After the Prophet

After the Prophet ﷺ passed away, Muslim engagement with Christians continued and even flourished at various points in their shared history. As Islam spread to the borders of the Byzantine Empire, Christian scholars were invited to debate in the Caliph’s court. It is reported that the earliest debates took place between the Caliph al-Mahdi (reigned 755-785CE) and Timothy I (728-823CE), a Nestorian Christian. Later, a second series of debates occurred between the Caliph al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-833CE) and Theodore Abu Qurra (755-830CE), the Bishop of Harran. Though one may not think of debates as a form of dialogue, in the context of the time such debates allowed both Muslims and Christians to better understand the beliefs and practices of the other. It is even reported that the Caliph al-Ma’mun made it a point to treat their Christian interlocutor with respect and to never speak to him except, as the Qur’an commands, “in a way that is best.” (16:125)

Such engagement with Christian scholars, particularly those influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition, pushed Muslim theologians to articulate their faith in more sophisticated ways. It was even a Christian, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873CE), who translated some of the most significant Greek philosophical works into Arabic; contributing to the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement (circa 750-975CE) and the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization. Centuries later, many of the Arabic contributions to philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and other fields were taught in al-Andulus (Islamic Spain) and were translated into Latin; contributing to the European Renaissance. Of those who had works translated into Latin is Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), an Islamic scholar familiar with the New Testament who notably cites statements attributed to Jesus ﷺ throughout his most famous work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din).

A Common Word

Such engagement, of course, has not always been the norm. There are various events, statements, and persons throughout history that have contributed to negative impressions of one another’s faith. In our time, heightened tensions between Christian and Muslim-majority nations and increased anti-Muslim rhetoric in North America and European nations has made dialogue between Muslims and Christians ever more relevant. It is for this reason that 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals came together to invite Christian leaders across the world to dialogue by declaring a foundational ethos that is shared between these two Abrahamic faiths: the love God and neighbor. Since its declaration in 2007, the Common Word (whose name is inspired by the above Qur’anic verse) has received increased endorsements from Muslim scholars, thinkers, and activists, as well as numerous Christian and Jewish responses.

An Invitation

I am very pleased that the Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Canada are joining other Christian churches as endorsees of this initiative and have, thus, made a commitment to greater Christian-Muslim dialogue throughout Canada and abroad. In light of this demonstration of commitment, I encourage my fellow Canadian Muslims to welcome, and be welcomed, in greater dialogue with our Christian neighbors.

May God enable us to engage with others in a manner “that is best” (16:125) and support each other in all that is good within our local and global communities.

Ibrahim J. Long, MA, GC
Islamic Studies Teacher
Community Chaplain

[1] Based on statistics from the Pew Research Centre, 2017.

[2] According to Statistics Canada data from 2013.

[3] See Gardner and Evans, “In Western Europe, familiarity with Muslims is linked to positive views of Muslims and Islam.” Pew Research Centre, July 24, 2016.

[4] This is a calligraphic rendering in Arabic of the prayer “peace and blessings be upon him;” a commonly stated prayer after mention of any of the prophets and especially the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

[5] His name was Ashama ibn Abjar. However, he is more commonly referred to by his title Negus (meaning “ruler”).

[6] The Qur’an draws attention to the faith of the Christians of Najran and the sinfulness of those who persecuted them in the following powerful verses: “By the sky with its towering constellations, by the promised Day, by the Witness and that which is witnessed, damned were the makers of the trench, the makers of the fuel-stoked fire! They sat down to watch what they were doing to the believers. Their only grievance against them was their faith in God, the Mighty, the Praiseworthy, to whom all control over the heavens and earth belongs: God is witness over all things” (85:1-9, translated by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem).

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