For decades Islam has evoked discussion and debate. The
religion is under a microscope after the 9/11 attacks. Never before has Islam
been so questioned as to the extent that it is today. A few scholars have
come to its rescue to clarify the principles on which Islam is based. One
such scholar is Dr. John L. Esposito who
has done so through his writings
Both Jews and Christians hold a special status within
Islam because of the Muslim belief that God revealed His will through His
prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (Peace be upon them).
Say, We believe in God, and in what has been revealed
to us, and in what has been sent down to Abraham and Ismail and Isaac and
Jacob and their offspring, and what has been revealed to Moses and Jesus and
to all the prophets of our Lord. We make no distinction between them and we
submit to Him and obey. (Holy Quran 3:84)
The Holy Quran and Islam regard Jews and Christians as
children of Abraham and refer to them as "People of the Book",
since all three monotheistic faiths descend from the same patriarch, Abraham.
Muslims believe that God sent his revelation (Torah) first to the Jews
through the prophet Moses and then to Christians through the prophet Jesus.
However, they believe that over time the original
revelations to Moses and Jesus became corrupted. Thus, Muslims see Greek
influences in Christianity's development of "new" and erroneous
doctrines such as Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus' death redeemed and
atoned for humankind's original sin.
Relations between Muslims and Christians and Jews from
the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) till today have been marked by
conflict as well as co-existence, leading many to ask: Haven't Jews and
Christians always been enemies of Islam?
The relationship of Jews and Christians to Islam, like
the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, is long and complex, conditioned
by historical and political realities as well as religious doctrine. Jewish
and Christian tribes lived in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Mohammed
(PBUH). Jews and Christians were members or citizens of the early Muslim
community at Madinah.
In his early years, Mohammed (PBUH) anticipated that
Jews and Christians, as "People of the Book," would accept his
prophetic message and be his natural allies. The Holy Quran itself confirms
the sending of prophets and revelation to Jews and Christians and recognises
them as part of Muslim history: "Remember, we gave Moses the Book and
sent him many an apostle; and to Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear evidence
of the truth, reinforcing him with divine grace" (23:49–50; see also
5:44–46, 32:23, 40:53).
Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) initially presented himself as
a prophetic reformer re-establishing the religion of Abraham. For example,
like the Jews, the Muslims initially faced Jerusalem during prayer. Prophet
Mohammed (PBUH) made a special point of reaching out to the Jewish tribes of
The Jews of Madinah, however, had political ties to
the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, so they resisted Prophet Mohammed's (PBUH)
overtures. Shortly afterwards, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) received a revelation
changing the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah, marking Islam as a
distinct alternative to Judaism.
When Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) consolidated his
political and military control over Medina, he wrote and promulgated the
Constitution or Charter of Madinah (c. 622–624), which regulated social and
political life. The constitution states that the believers comprise a single
community, or ummah, which is responsible for collectively enforcing social
order and security and for confronting enemies in times of war and peace.
Tribes remained responsible for the conduct of their
individual members, and a clear precedent was set for the inclusion of other
religions as part of the broader community led by Muslims. The Jewish
population was granted the right to internal religious and cultural autonomy,
including the right to observe Jewish religious law, in exchange for their
political loyalty and allegiance to the Muslims.
However, relations between the early Muslim community
and some Jewish tribes became strained when the Jews backed Prophet
Mohammed's (PBUH) Meccan rivals. Judged as traitors for their support of his
enemies, many were attacked and killed.
This confrontation became part of the baggage of
history and would continue to influence the attitudes of some Muslims in
later centuries. Recently, this legacy can be seen in official statements
from Hamas and Osama bin Laden. Both not only condemn Jews for Israeli
occupation and policies in Palestine but also see the current conflict as
just the most recent iteration of an age-old conflict dating back to the
Jews' "rejection and betrayal" of Islam and the Prophet's (PBUH)
community at Madinah.
Nevertheless, in many Muslim communities at various
times in history, Jews found a home where, as "People of the Book,"
or dhimmi, they lived, worked, and often thrived. Vibrant Jewish communities
existed in Muslim countries like Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran.
When the Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella drove
the Jews out of Spain, many found refuge in North Africa and the Ottoman
The establishment of the state of Israel was a turning
point in relations between Muslims and Jews. The political fallout from the
struggle between the Palestinians and Zionism severely strained Jewish-Muslim
relations in Muslim countries. As a result, the majority of Jews emigrated or
fled to Israel and other parts of the world.
The relationship of Christians and Muslims is even
more complex. Despite common theological roots, Islam and Christianity were
in contention from the outset. Islam offered an alternative religious and
Just as Christians saw their faith as superseding the
covenant of the Jews with God, Islam now declared that God had made a new
covenant, revealing his word one final and complete time to Prophet Mohammed
(PBUH) the "seal" or final prophet. Islam, like Christianity, proclaimed
a universal message and mission and thus challenged the claims of
Christianity. Moreover, the remarkable spread of Islam, with its conquest of
the eastern (Byzantine) wing of the Roman Empire, challenged the political
power and hegemony of Christendom.
The history of Christianity and Islam has been one of
both conflict and co-existence. When Muslims conquered Byzantium, they were
welcomed by some Christian sects and groups, who were persecuted as heretics
by "official" Christianity, that is, Catholicism.
Many Christians welcomed a Muslim rule that gave them
more freedom to practice their faith and imposed lighter taxes. This spirit
was further reflected in the tendency of early Islamic empires to incorporate
the most advanced elements from surrounding civilisations, including
Byzantine and Persian Sasanid imperial and administrative practices and
Hellenic science, architecture, art, medicine, and philosophy. Christians,
like John of Damascus, held positions of prominence in the royal courts.
Christian and Jewish subjects assisted their Muslim
rulers with the collection and translation of the great books of science,
medicine, and philosophy from both East and West.
However, the rapid expansion of Islam also threatened
Christian Europe, as Muslims seemed poised to sweep across Europe until
finally turned back by Charles Martel in southern France in 732. The
Crusades, the Inquisition, and European colonialism represented major periods
of confrontation and conflict, as did the rise and expansion of the Ottoman
Empire into Europe.
An often cited example of interreligious tolerance in
history is that of Muslim rule in Spain (Al Andalus) from AD 756 to about AD
1000, which is usually idealised as a period of interfaith harmony, or
convivencia (living together). Muslim rule of Spain offered the Christian and
Jewish populations seeking refuge from the class system of Europe the
opportunity to become prosperous small landholders. Christians and Jews
occupied prominent positions in the court of the caliph in the tenth century,
serving as translators, engineers, physicians, and architects.
Muslims maintained an open-door policy to Jews
escaping from persecution in Christian Europe during the Inquisition. During
the Crusades, despite their conflict, Muslims tolerated the practice of
Christianity – an example that was not emulated by the other side. In the
thirteenth century, some treaties between Christians and Muslims granted
Christians free access to sacred places then re-occupied by Islam.
The Ottoman Empire is a prime example of the positive
treatment of religious minorities in a Muslim majority context. The Ottomans
officially recognised four religiously based communities, known as millets:
Greek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorian, Muslim, and Jewish. Under the millet
system, Islam assumed the prime position, but each other millet was placed
under the authority of its own religious leaders and permitted to follow its
own religious laws.
Members of minority religions further had the right to
hold government positions in some cases. Thus, a limited form of religious
pluralism and tolerance were important components of Ottoman statecraft.
In the contemporary era, religious and political
pluralism has been a major issue in the Muslim world. Many of those seeking to
establish Islamic states in the Muslim world look to historical precedents to
determine the status of non-Muslims.
Although many call for a strict reinstatement of the
gradations of citizenship that accompanied dhimmi (protected) status in the
past, others recognise that this approach is not compatible with the
pluralistic realities of the contemporary world and international human
Professor John L. Esposito is a professor of
Religion and International Affairs, and Founding Director of the Centre for
Muslim-Christian Understanding, Walsh School for Foreign Service, Georgetown
University. Among his more than 25 books, is What Everyone Should Know about
Islam, on which this series is based.