Placing Muslim-Christian Relations in Their Proper Context

Sent On: 
Wed, 2018-02-14
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Between February 3 and 11, I was the guest of Rekaya el-Hafi and her family in Tunisia. Rekaya has earlier visited us in Egypt, and we later met twice in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Rekaya became deeply interested in our work with Arab-West Report, building a database and having many different scholars and students contribute to this. Through this work, students are building on the work carried out by previous students, and they learn how complex Muslim-Christian relations can be.


Rekaya introduced me to scholars, students, Muslim thinkers and people in different churches. Tunisia is more open and freethinking then other Arab countries. Prof. Dr. Zahia Jouirou, head of the Arabic studies department at the University of Manouba, for example, challenges traditional Islamic thinking about gender equality. Traditionalist scholars, she said, look too much at individual verses of the Qur’an but do not consider the context of the entire Qur’anic text, and neither take the period in which the text was written into consideration.


The Faculty of Comparative Religion at the University of Manouba invited me for a presentation about our work, but not limit this to Egypt alone. For this reason I have given the example of the accusation of blasphemy of a young man from Kafr Darwīsh, which resulted in a collective punishment of his entire family (July 2015) which shows that an event must always be explained in its wider historical and cultural context, which is, sadly, often not done in media reporting. Following this I described the historical development of Christianity, Emperor Constantine the Great using Christianity to advance his own political objectives, and divisions between the Orthodox and Arians about the nature of Jesus.


The Byzantine and Persian Empires have fought a number of devastating wars which have greatly weakened both empires. It was in this context that Islam came into being. Christian witnesses who experienced the Arab conquests of their lands believed they were dealing with Arians since these conquerors had similar beliefs. The oldest surviving Qur’anic manuscripts date to around 670 CE. The texts about Jesus in the Dome of the Rock date to 688-692 CE and present views that can be both explained as Arian and Islamic. What happened between the first conquests and the first surviving manuscripts? Was the earliest form of Islam closer to Arian Christianity? Historian Peter Frankopan describes how rulers have impacted the religions of their times. What was the role of the earliest Islamic rulers? Did they try to make their faith more distinct from the Christianity of the Byzantines, and does this explain Islam as this developed in the 9th and later centuries when more manuscripts appeared? This is, of course, a fascinating area of study, but that is neither the role nor competence of Arab-West Report. However what it does show is that one has to study developments always in their proper historical and socio-cultural contexts, and need to give greater value to contemporary sources than later sources that are more likely influenced by political interests of their days.


Discussions about the origin of Islam can be very sensitive since Islamic history has been long based on the histories written in the 9th and later centuries, histories that were influenced by the early Ummayad and Abbasid rulers. Revisiting early Islamic history means giving greater value to contemporary sources over later sources. The University of Manouba is a place of education where this is possible.


For the full text of my lecture please click here.


Cairo, February 14, 2018


Cornelis Hulsman,

Director Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation (CIDT)