Christian-Muslim Polemics

Has the Age of Polemics Ended?

by Diego Sarrió Cucarella

Can Christians and Muslims understand one another? Can they see in the other a partner on the path to God, someone who has value not only as a fellow human but more so as a seeker of God? Christians and Muslims have a centuries-long history of living side by side in the Middle East and now also in the West. That history has known harmony and mutual affection but also misunderstanding and sometimes conflict.

Why have Christians and Muslims suspected the beliefs of one another? Why have they sometimes accused one another of failing to understand the true nature of God? Why have they occasionally been hostile to the idea that they have something to learn from one other about the ways of God. This essay hopes to offer a bit of perspective from history. This is not to say that we want to repeat the past, only to learn from it.

A few years back, a group of scholars under the leadership of David Thomas of the University of Birmingham inaugurated a rather ambitious project that seeks to account for all known works written by Christians and Muslims about one another. Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, published by Brill, has already become a basic tool for the study of the history of the relation between the two faiths. The five volumes published until now take the project from 600 to 1500 of the Common Era and focus on the wider Mediterranean region. Future volumes will doubtlessly confirm a fact that even a cursory read of the published volumes reveals: Most of what Christians and Muslims have written about one another has been polemical. There are rare instances when the religion of the other is depicted without prejudice, but the “default position” is one of suspicion and antagonism. Those who sought to overcome stereotypical characterizations of the others were exceptions on both sides.

Polemics is the right word to describe this type of literature. It comes from pólemos, which means war in Greek. The history of Christian-Muslim writings has been for the most part a “war of words.” The writers saw themselves as participants in a larger battle that was being fought by rulers no less than scholars. They were simply unable to disassociate their writings about the other from the wider competition over political and cultural hegemony, to say nothing of the race to control the wealth of the world and its economic resources.

The writings on both sides form something of a genre: set formulas and tropes for speaking about the religion of the other. A first distinguishing mark of “the genre” is the attitude of most polemicists towards the holy books of the other religion. These were carefully minded for evidence to strengthen one’s pre-existing conviction that the other was wrong. For Christians, this usually meant proving that Muslims were heretics who had deviated from the truth of Christianity. The scripture of Islam, they sought to prove, was nothing but a mishmash of phrases taken from the Bible, full of contradictions and obvious mistakes. The Muslims, for their part, sought to demonstrate that Christians had purposely distorted the books of the Bible and that Christianity as practiced by Christians had nothing to do with the message preached by Jesus, who, as a prophet rather than savior, was to be termed Son of Mary, not Son of God.

A second distinguishing mark of the genre is the tendency, common to both sides, to project onto the other the way one’s own of understanding religion. The religion of the other is then evaluated according to criteria that one holds to be the standards of true religion when in point of fact they are concepts that only make sense within the discourse of one’s own tradition. Ironically, Christians and Muslims of the past were shaping their own religious thinking by defining themselves over against the other, but they were ultimately starting from different points of departure and different categories for what constitutes true religion. As a result, they tended to speak past one another in their varied discussions on the processes of religious history, notions of revelation, and acceptable language for humans to use in speaking about God. Here, we face one of the principal difficulties that continues to hinder dialogue between the two faiths: the failure of communication that occurs when both sides take their worldview and theological categories as universal standards. Do Christians and Muslims mean the same thing when they speak of grace, scripture, and creation?

A final mark of Christian-Muslim polemics involves the question of audience: the people one seeks to address. The writers of this literature often claimed to be seeking to enlighten their religious adversaries, but they do not seem to have expected they would change the minds of their opponents. They often expressed doubts that the others would sincerely take to heart the guidance offered to them. Rather, it was assumed that they would only stubbornly reject the truth and cling to their false beliefs. Clearly, then, they assumed a sympathetic audience, and this shows that they were actually writing for the members of their own community, not the other. The goal was to help their fellow believers to resist pressures to convert in societies where the majority belonged to the other religion; to strengthen them when political misfortunes challenged long-held assumptions of the superiority of one’s side; or simply as a response to direct challenges made by scholars of the other side.

It is worth dwelling on a point that can be easily overlooked in today’s secularized society. Christian-Muslim polemics of the past—and still today—was not simply a dispute over doctrine. Religion was not conceived as a privately held creed. It was a way of life for society and the basis of a civilization. We can see this in the writings of a thirteenth-century Egyptian scholar by the name of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī, who composed a highly influential tract of anti-Christian polemic entitled “Splendid Replies to Insolent Questions.” Before setting out to refute particular Christian doctrines, he opens the treatise with a series of vignettes that speak to what he sees as the decadence of Christian society. The connection is clear in his mind: With the loss of true religion, the very edifice of a community’s well-being collapses. To be sure, al-Qarāfī is quite concerned to establish correct doctrine, but he also ties his argument for the superiority of Islam to the benefits that are to be gained in society from implementing the laws of Muhammad, which have a universal scope that the teachings of previous religions do not.

It is clear that al-Qarāfī’s portrayal of Christianity—its beliefs, practices, and institutions—is inspired by polemical purposes. However, his writings remind us that when Christians and Muslims talk theology today, they should be open to discussing the role of religion in the broader issues of society beyond doctrine. In discourse around religion in the modern West, it is taken as a given that there is a distinction between religion as faith and religion as social identity. But this distinction, we know, was devised as a strategy to free religion from antagonisms in society. The goal was to define any religiously motivated conflict as extraneous to the real core of religion, henceforth restricted to the transcendental relationship between individual believers and their idea of God. This was to categorize all religions that refused to adopt this distinction as being at odds with modernity. Islam’s persistent presentation of itself as dīn wa-dunyā, as both spiritual and societal, was commonly held up as a prime example of this category of religion. And yet it is difficult not to notice that such assessment of Islam vis-à-vis modernity projects back into past history what is actually a fairly recent image of Christianity as a religion that has come to terms with modernity and that therefore can only look good when compared with a religion classed in advance as stagnant. In sum, it all depends on the criteria one uses. Christianity came out looking bad when judged by al-Qarāfī, Islam as a problem for society when assessed by modernist sentiment about true religion.

Has the age of polemics ended? Few Christians and Muslims today would engage in the sharp vilification of the other that one finds in past polemics. But there is still a tendency to identify religions with particular geographical areas, and this leads many to overemphasize the religious undertones of events that are better explained in socioeconomic terms. For example, recent migration patterns are polemically presented as a “Muslim Takeover” of the West. Similarly, the affirmations of liberal values in increasingly diverse societies in the West are denounced as Islamophobia.

The age of polemics has not ended. Battles continue to be fought in pen and ink. This makes it even more important to look to the past. Familiarity with the history of Christian-Muslim polemics should help us see the polemicists that we can all easily become, self-justifying rather than self-critical. More crucially, it can help us recognize the enduring theological constructions of the other that past polemics has bequeathed to Christians and Muslims today. How fixed are the differences we impute to others? And how much are they the products of particular moments from the past rather than eternal truths? The important theological differences between Christianity and Islam should not be presumed to be simply “there” as givens. It is more accurate to see them as largely the result of the “othering” that has characterized the history of Christian-Muslim polemics: a view of the other as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself and that only widens the theological gap between the two faith traditions. Awareness of this reality will help temper the impact of our adversarial conceptions of the other.

Diego Sarrió Cucarella is a member of the Society of Missionaries of Africa (also known as the White Fathers, because of their white garb). He has worked in the Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, where he directed the Bibliothèque des Sciences des Religions, in Tunis. He received his Ph.D. in 2014 from the Department of Theology at Georgetown University where he wrote his dissertation on “The Mirror of the Othor: Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī’s Splendid Replies.” He teaches at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) in Rome.

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