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‘Islam and Christianity: How do we relate?’

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When you think of Islamic-Christian relations, your mind may flash to the Crusades, Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand or the current geopolitical strife. Yet, in the hundreds of years since the founding of Islam, Christians and Muslims often interacted peaceably, even coming to each other’s aid as fellow members of the Abrahamic faith tradition.

During a Theology on Tap at Ornery Beer Company and Public House in Woodbridge March 27, Franciscan Father Michael D. Calabria, director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan school in New York, relayed stories of interfaith cooperation.

In the early 600s during Islam’s inception, the first Muslims were persecuted by the polytheistic Quraysh tribe in Mecca. Muhammad instructed his followers to seek asylum in a Christian kingdom in Abyssinia, Africa. But members of the Quraysh tribe pursued the Muslims to Abyssinia and asked the Christian king to send them back. Ja’far, leader of the Muslims, explained to the king their religion’s reverence for Mary and Jesus Christ. The king, touched by their similarities, vowed to protect them.
The Quran and the Bible have many overlapping stories, said Father Calabria, including the story of the resurrection of Lazarus and two accounts of the Annunciation. Mary is the only woman specifically named in the Quran, and one of only eight people who have a book of the Quran named after them. “Mary, for Muslims, typifies what it means to be Muslim because she gave over her will to the will of God,” he said.

Islam teaches that Jesus Christ was a great prophet and that He will come again. “Jesus embodies God’s mercy for Muslims. He is God’s Word who heals the blind and the sick,” said Father Calabria.

Islam’s belief in prophets also sacred to Judaism and Christianity has led to conflict in the Holy Land several times throughout history. Yet in some cases, the disagreement did not lead to bloodshed. In the 13th century, Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire promised to go on a Crusade to the Holy Land, and eventually was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX for failing to do so. In 1229, he successfully negotiated Christian control of the Holy Land, but allowed for Muslims to have access to their holy places.

Centuries later in Algeria, a Muslim man named Emir Abdelkader led a holy war, or jihad, against the invading French forces. Eventually they were defeated, and Abdelkader was kept under house arrest for several years. In 1860, he was released and settled in Damascus. There, a civil war broke out between the Muslim Druzes, supported by the British, and the Christian Maronites, supported by the French.

When the Druzes attacked a Christian neighborhood, Abdelkader welcomed large numbers of Christians into his home for protection. For his bravery, he was awarded the French Medal of Honor and Abraham Lincoln gifted him with two pistols.

Abdelkader explained, “The good we did toward the Christians we had to do out of fidelity to the Muslim faith and to respect the rights of humanity, for all creatures belong to God’s family.”

Through these stories and others like them, Father Calabria hopes to remind both Christians and Muslims of their commonalities and the times they lived together in harmony. He urged all gathered to study the holy texts of other religions, to dialogue with those of different religions and to go in peace. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017