Historical Development – The Christian-Muslim Debates

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In this section, the relations between Christians and Muslims will be discussed chronologically. A brief look into the discussions between the Christians and Muslims can help one understand the nature of these debates. Although the two religions have many similarities, Christianity and Islam represent some differing theological approaches. As a matter of fact, most theological debates between Christians and Muslims center on the understanding of God’s nature and the doctrine of the Trinity. As one follows these arguments, one can eventually reach the basic difference about God’s attributes. Subsequently, the manner in which the theological debates modified the principles of the Mu’tazila School of Thought will also be discussed.

Initial Contacts and Discussions

The relations between Christians and Muslims can be traced back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH). When Islam emerged in Mecca, there were Christian groups living in the Arabian Peninsula.[1]During the initial encounters, which the Prophet (PBUH) himself experienced, there was no exchange of religious discussions. According to the Islamic sources, a monk named Bakhira, whom the Prophet (PBUH) encountered during his childhood, was a Christian. Bakhira knew that Muhammad would be the promised Prophet (PBUH) and he advised Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, to protect Muhammad. Another Christian living in Mecca, Waraqa Ibn Nawfal, had manuscripts of the Bible. When the Prophet (PBUH) consulted Waraqa after he received his first revelation, Waraqa explained to him the meaning of his experience while receiving the revelation, and informed him that he would see the angel Gabriel. According to Ibn Ishaq, one of the first Muslim historians, about twenty people from Christian Abyssinia entered Mecca and converted to Islam after the conversation they had with the Prophet[2](PBUH). It is due to this reason that the Prophet (PBUH) sent the Muslims who were persecuted in Mecca to Abyssinia for protection. The sources narrate that the ruler of Abyssinia, Najashi (Negus), agreed with the explanations of Muslims about their understanding of Jesus.[3]Muslim scholars have generally accepted Najashi’s agreement as his being a Muslim. They believe that Najashi became a Muslim when he did not object to Muslim ideas about Jesus— that Jesus was a created human. Therefore, the Prophet (PBUH) concluded that Najashi converted to Islam, and also performed his funeral prayer in Madina when Najashi died.[4]The Muslims’ stay in Abyssinia resulted in many conversions among Abyssinians. According to the story narrated in Islamic sources, many converts sailed to visit the Prophet (PBUH)  in Madina; some including Najashi’s son, the prince of Abyssinia, reached to Madina, but many of them were drowned in the sea.[5]

Another connection that the Prophet (PBUH) had with the Christians was his letters to rulers such as Heraclius, the Byzantium Emperor, and Muqawqis, the King of Egypt. Although these letters were the declaration of the Prophet (PBUH), they did not contain any theological discussion. In general, the Prophet (PBUH) invited these rulers and their vassals to become Muslims; otherwise, they were asked to pay the jizyatax. However, the letter sent to Najran Christians contained theological criticisms of the Christian beliefs.

The Prophet (PBUH) stated the following in the letter sent to Najran: “I invite you to worship not the created, but Allah.”[6]Due to this letter, a committee arrived at Madina from Najran and the first theological debate commenced between the Prophet (PBUH) and Christians. At the center of this argument was the doctrine of the Trinity. As a result, a significant portion of the chapter, Al- Imran, was revealed. It stated that the Qur’an validates the previous Scriptures, God is one, and Jesus was God’s messenger; and he, Muhammad, showed them the miracles with God’s permission and help. When they gained no conclusion with these discussions, the Prophet (PBUH) invited them to the mutual invocation of a curse. Finally, Najran Christians declined and went back to their home accepting to pay jizya. This historical event shows us that the actual disagreement between the Christians and Muslims was about how the two groups perceive and understand God’s nature. While Muslims disapproved of the existence of any associate for God, underscoring His absolute oneness and transcendentality, Christians did not see any drawback in their belief that God incarnated and became flesh in Jesus. This event also points out the direction of the discussions that would be held by Muslims and Christians thereafter.

Questions

  1. What are the 2 main themes of the Christian-Muslim debates?
  2. What were the initial encounters with Christians in Prophet’s (PBUH) life?
  3. What did the Qur’an state in the chapter Al-Imran regarding the Christian-Muslim debates?
  4. How different was the Christians’ idea about God’s nature from that of the Muslims’?

[1]Ali Jawid, Tarikh al-Arab Qabla al-Islam, (Baghdad: 1956), VI: 185-210.

[2]Ibn Hisham, al-Sirat al-Nabawiyya, (Cairo: 1955), 1: 237.

[3]Ibid., 1: 361.

[4]Al-Tirmizi Abu Isa Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Sevre, Sunan al-Tirmizi, (Cairo: 1964), 3: 348.

[5]al-Suhayli Abdurrahman ibn Abdullah, al-Ravd al-Unuf, 4th ed., (Cairo: 1970), 3: 263. Although these evidences are very strong about Najashi being Muslim, there are still some doubts from historical aspects. First, Najashi did not clearly declare Muslim faith in front of the Muslim representatives. His approval to Muslims’ belief about Jesus might be his unique interpretation within Christianity. Indeed, his statement that “the difference between us is as small as this line” drawing a line on the ground shows that he was holding a unique position. Second, The Prophet’s (PBUH) behavior in the face of Najashi’s death may be understood as his respect to Najashi, who helped the pained Muslims in their uneasy times. As a matter of fact, the Hanafite School does not perform this kind of funeral prayer in the absence of the corpse taking this historical event as a unique case to the Prophet (PBUH) himself. But we must remember Hanefites’ decision is no more than a jurisprudential conclusion and it does not mean that they question Najashi’s conversion.

[6]Ibn Katheer Abu al-Fida, al-Bidaya wa al-Nihaya, (Beirut: 1966), 5: 553.


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