Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some thoughts on Islam and Christianity....

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, a book by William Dalrymple called From the Holy Mountain. It is a travelogue about his journey through the Middle East, where he searches out the Christian populations, many of which are now dwindling in the place where Christianity originated. It is an excellent book so far, very readable, full of interesting personalities and vivid descriptions of places I'll probably never be able to visit but would love to see.

I've read some things about the relationship between Christians and Muslims in this part of the world that I've found incredibly interesting and thought-provoking.

For about 1500 years Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, formerly the territory of the Roman Empire and later, Byzantine Empire. I would say that much of this relationship was peaceful for your common Christian or Muslim, unlike the way things were in Western Europe where the Spanish forced out all the Muslims in the middle ages, or the way the European crusaders came to attack the Muslim Empire, where many Christians and Jews opted to live because it was a much more tolerant society.

One of the most interesting things about this book in my opinion is that it casts the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam in a new light. I'll let Dalrymple explain in his own words:

' Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity's Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation. When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies, they assumed Islam was merely a heretical form of Christianity, and in many ways they were not so far wrong: Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets.'

He continues, 'Certainly if John Moschos (Byzantine saint and cronicler of the Christian Middle East) were to come back to day it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is. Moreover the modern demonisation of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West's repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), have led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam. (Dalrymple, 168)

One section of the book I found particulary interesting, but in no way exceptional, talks about Mar Gabriel monastery in Eastern Turkey. Here the author attends early morning services with monks, nuns and lay people of this Orthodox church. He enters the candle lit church as the sun is just creeping over the horizon. There, nuns dressed in black prostrate themselves on reed mats on the church floor. Old monks with patriarchal beards chant in Aramaic, similar to Gregorian chant, but with an Oriental twist.

As the mass began, 'the entire congregation began a long series of prostrations: from their standing position, thge worshippers fell to their knees, and lowered their heads to the ground so that all that could be seen from the rear of the church was a line of upturned bottoms. All that distinguished the worship from that which might have taken place in a mosque was that the worshippers crossed and recrossed themselves as they performed their prostrations. This was the way the early Christians prayed, and is exactly the form of worship described by Moschos in the Spiritual Meadow. In the sixth century, the Muslims apear to have derived their techniques of worship from existing Christian practice. Islam and the Eastern Christians have retained the original early Christain conventions; it is Western Christians who have broken with sacred tradition.' (105)

The book is full of examples of Christians and Muslims praying to the same saints, in shared shrines, at the same time; of Muslim couples offering sheep to the Virgin Mary in thanksgiving for her help concieving a child or even, in the case of some Syrian cosmonauts, for a safe return from outer space. While there have certainly been conflicts between Muslim and Christian populations throughout history and in the present day, what I gather from this book is that such conflict is not inevitable. Many Christians and Muslims have been neighbours and friends for one and a half thousand years, and it is wrong for us to just give in to the idea that Christians and Muslims are just too different to get along and that Islam belongs in the Middle East and that Christianity is a European religion. Things are never so black and white. I have enjoyed having my horizons broadened by this book, and am eager read more. I really recommend this book!

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