Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Muslims have always been able to see the Christians in positive light, for several reasons. I will outline a few here. The name of Jesus, may peace be on him, appears more than 20 times in the Holy Quran and the Christians are mentioned in the Holy Scripture as the People of the Book, scores of time. A chapter of the Holy Quran is named after Mother Mary and she is suggested as a role model for both Muslim men and women. So, Christians seem very familiar to any student of the Holy Quran and the friendship is sealed when a Muslim reads in the Holy Quran: “And thou shalt assuredly find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ to be the nearest of them in love to the believers. That is because amongst them are savants and monks and because they are not proud.” (Al Quran 5:83) Last but not the least, the Holy Quran also had a prophecy about the victory of the Roman Empire or the Christendom against the Persian Empire, as a dramatic come back after extreme set back. Those, who are unfamiliar with the details may first want to read the details in the commentary of the Holy Quran edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, as it comments on verse 30:5, of the Holy Quran.
To clearly document that Christendom had indeed been revived from the claws of death and oblivion, when it scored a victory against the Persians in 624 CE, let me quote Tom Holland, as he knowingly or unknowingly becomes a witness for this prophecy of the Holy Quran:
The restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem was the profoundest demonstration imaginable of the great victory that had been won in the cause of Christ. It also served as a ringing statement of Heraclius’ intent: never again would he permit the Christian empire to be pushed by its enemies to the edge of oblivion. On his approach to Jerusalem, he had made a point of stopping off in Tiberias, where he had been hosted by a wealthy Jew notorious, under the Persian occupation, for his persecution of the city’s churches. Asked by Heraclius why he had so mistreated the local Christians, the Jew had answered disingenuously, ‘Why, because they are the enemies of my faith.” Heraclius, grim-faced, had advised his host to accept baptism on the spot – which the Jew had prudently done. Two years later, this order was repeated on a far more universal scale. From Africa to distant Gaul, leaders across the Christian world received news of a startling imperial decision: all Jews and Samaritans were to be brought compulsorily to baptism. Heraclius, conscious of how close he had come to defeat, and of the debt he owed to Christ, was not prepared to take any second chances. From now on, the Roman Empire would be undilutedly, and therefore impregnably, Christian.
So, for all the above mentioned reasons, it is easy for the Muslims to conceptualize Christians as friends, but the converse may not be very true. It is some what hard for the Christians to imagine Muslims in positive light, as their scripture does not mention the Muslims, at least how most Christians understand it, and their history does not have many positive reflections of the Muslims and present day media does not help, given a tendency to stereotype Muslims with violence and relative apathy in trying to tease different Muslims apart, to separate the mellow and the learned from the extremists.
When Umar Farooq, the second Caliph of Islam took over Jerusalem, in February of 638 CE, after a peaceful siege, no blood was shed. The transfer of power was peaceful, but, the psychological, emotional and theological wounds have not healed after fourteen centuries. The recent turn of events have made things worse. Karen Armstrong wrote in 1991, “Now it seems that the Cold War against the Soviet Union is about to be replaced by a Cold War against Islam.” With the unfortunate events of September 11, 2001, internet revolution, reduction of our planet into a Global village, the events of previous millennia have once again come crushing down on the consciousness of genuinely literate men and women. To solve this complexity and conundrum, let us briefly study the history of Jerusalem, the early history of Islam, and the two Empires at the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. According to the famous psychiatrist, Carl Jung, who was a contemporary and one time friend of Sigmund Freud, the past experiences of our fore-fathers become our subconscious, which he calls archetypes. In other words past history does not go away with the passage of time, rather it stays with us in our subconscious. So, it is important for us to dig up this old history, analyze ourselves, and to heal these old wounds as they are affecting our present day psyche and peace on our planet.
Muhammad (c. 26 April 570 – 8 June 632; also transliterated as Mohammad, Mohammed, or Muhammed; Arabic: مُحَمَّد), full name: Muhammad Ibn `Abd Allāh Ibn `Abd al-Muttalib (Arabic: مُحَمَّد بِن عَبْدَالله بِن عَبْد اَلْمُطَّلِب), may peace be on him, was the founder of the religion of Islam.[n 1] Born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca, he was orphaned at an early age and brought up under the care of his uncle Abu Talib. He later worked mostly as a merchant, as well as a shepherd, and was first married by age 25. Discontented with life in Mecca, he retreated to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God. Three years after this event Muhammad started preaching these revelations publicly, proclaiming that “God is One“, that complete “surrender” to Him (lit. islām) is the only way (dīn)[n 2] acceptable to God, and that he himself was a prophet and messenger of God, in the same vein as earlier prophets.
Muhammad gained few followers early on, and was met with hostility from some Meccan tribes; he and his followers were treated harshly. To escape persecution, Muhammad sent some of his followers to Abyssinia before he and his remaining followers in Mecca migrated to Medina (then known as Yathrib) in the year 622. This event, the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, which is also known as the Hijri Calendar. In Medina, Muhammad united the tribes under the Constitution of Medina,. After eight years of fighting with the Meccan tribes, his followers, who by then had grown to 10,000, conquered Mecca. Muhammad destroyed the symbols of paganism in Mecca and then sent his followers out to destroy all of the remaining pagan temples throughout Eastern Arabia. In 632, a few months after returning to Medina from his Farewell pilgrimage, Muhammad fell ill and died. By the time of his death, most of the Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam, and he had united the tribes of Arabia into a single Muslim religious polity.
After converting to Islam in the 6th year after Muhammad’s first revelation, Umar Farooq spent 17 years as a companion of Muhammad. He succeeded Caliph Abu Bakr on 23 August 634, and played a significant role in Islamic history. Under his rule the Islamic empire expanded at an unprecedented rate, conquering the whole territory of the former Sassanid Empire and more than two thirds of the Byzantine Empire.
To contextualize the psychological make up of Christendom, as it began to interact with Islam in the time of Umar Farooq, may Allah be pleased with him, one has to know the details of its interaction soon before with the Persian Empire. For this, I turn to Tom Holland and describe the life history of Heraclius from his book, In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World, his initial set back and then a remarkable come back or turn around story:
The decade that Khusrow had spent in making extravagant conquests, Heraclius had spent in firming up his power base. By 624. he was finally in a position to go on the offensive, confident that he would not be stabbed in the back. This, for his prospects of success, could hardly have been more critical: for the emperor’s campaigning plans were the height of ambition. Just as he had toppled Phocas by striking directly at him from across a prodigious expanse of sea, so now did he aim to repeat the trick by crossing the mountains of Armenia and ‘cutting out at its roots the very source of the evil- Persia’. The gamble was a prodigious one: for Heraclius, straining every financial and logistical muscle to the limit, had mustered a task force that was effectively his empire’s last line of defence. Teetering on the edge of such peril. he too, just as the Jews had done, looked to scripture for reassurance: “And Heraclius, taking the book of Daniel, discovered in it written thus: ‘The goat of the west will come forth, and he will destroy the horns of the ram of the east.’ Then the emperor rejoiced, and was convinced that everything would succeed for him against the Persians.”
And so it did. Four long years Heraclius would be gone from Constantinople: a period of absence that would culminate in one of the most stunning comebacks ever recorded in military history. Relentless though the fighting was, and doomed though the Roman cause would certainly have been had the emperor and his tiny army ever been wiped out, yet the greatest aspect of this astonishing campaign was the one that pitched faith directly against faith. In Palestine. shortly before the sack of Jerusalem, heavenly armies had been seen clashing in the sky; and now, on the fallen earth, a battle no less celestial in its character was due to be fought. Heraclius, taking a leaf out of the Ghassanid book, did not hesitate to proclaim himself a warrior of Christ. In doing so, he put on the line not merely his own life and his empire’s survival, but the entire authority of the Christian god. As a stake, he wagered the most precious thing he had: Constantinople itself In 626, when Khusrow ordered Shahrbaraz to advance directly to the shores of the Bosphorus, Heruclius did not waver in his conviction that the Christian people of his capital lay secure beneath the watch of the heavens. Not even the fact that the Avars were Simultaneously descending from the north, complete with the very latest fashion in siege-towers and catapults, could persuade him to abandon his plan of campaign, and retreat from lranshahr. His confidence, in the event, was to be richly rewarded. The Virgin Mary – whose silhouette, ‘a woman alone in decorous dress’, was said to have been glimpsed by the Avar Khan himself upon the battlements – stood directly on guard over the capital. It helped as well that the Byzantine navy, sallying out into the Bosphorus, succeeded in sinking the entire Persian transport fleet. The great siege lasted only a couple of weeks before both Shahrbaraz’s army and the Avars withdrew. The citizens of Constantinople, steeled by such an ultimate test, could know themselves truly the people of God.
Meanwhile, far distant in Iranshahr, Heraclius was busy demonstrating to the fire-worshipping subjects of ‘the destructive and ruinous Khusrow’ that their own lord was heaven-cursed. Rather than aim at direct, immediate military conquest – an objective that was well beyond his resources – he made it his goal instead to demolish every conceivable underpinning of the prestige of the House of Sasan. This was why he chose to open his campaigning by sweeping down upon the Fire of the Stallion, storming the summit of the lonely mountain on which it stood, wasting the temple, and stamping out the sacred embers. Then, emboldened by a whole string of victories, he descended from the mountains of Media, and scythed a bloody course across the open mudflats of Mesopotamia, leaving canals, roads and villages polluted with corpses. Finally, in December 627, he began to target Khusrow’s own palaces. Their overseers were taken captive: the animals in the royal parks, from ostriches to tigers, barbecued and fed to his soldiers; the silks, and carpets, and bags of spices in the treasuries put to the torch. ‘Let us quench the fire before it consumes everything.’ Heraclius wrote to his great rival – but already, even as he sent the letter, the flames lit by his soldier were to be seen from the walls of a terrified Ctesiphon.
How Heraclius saw his role in Christendom and how he converted Jews to Christianity by force is outlined in another article, Umar Farooq versus Heraclius: Who gave us our religious freedoms? This was the psychological make up of the Christians, as they saw Divine help and superiority of their religion in their ability to take back Jerusalem and above all the True Cross from the Persians and in that process destroyed the Persian Temple and took away the religious freedom of the Jews. It was within a few years of the recapture of the True Cross by Heraclius that Jerusalem fell to Umar Farooq in 638 CE. It was not just a geo-political set back but a theological dilemma. Karen Armstrong, a British author and commentator, author of twelve books on comparative religion, a former Roman Catholic nun, who went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical faith, describes the theological crisis generated in the Christendom by the Fall of Jerusalem:
The author of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians had explained that Jesus would not return until the ‘Great Apostasy’ had taken place: a rebel would establish his rule in the Temple of Jerusalem and mislead many Christians with his plausible doctrines. The Book of Revelation also spoke of a great Beast, marked with the mysterious number 666, who would crawl out of the abyss, enthrone himself on the Temple Mount and rule the world.” Islam seemed to fit these ancient prophecies perfectly. The Muslims had conquered Jerusalem in 638, had built two splendid mosques on the Temple Mount and did indeed seem to rule the world. Even though Muhammad had lived after Christ, when there was no need for a further revelation, he had set himself up as a prophet and many Christians had apostasised and joined the new religion. Eulogio and Alvaro had in their possession a brief life of Muhammad, which had taught them that he had died in the year 666 of the Era of Spain, which was thirty-eight years ahead of conventional reckoning. This late eighth century Western biography of Muhammad had been produced in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona on the hinterland of the Christian world, which trembled before the mighty Islamic giant. Besides the political threat, the success of Islam raised a disturbing theological question: how had God allowed this impious faith to prosper? Could it be that he had deserted his own people?
So, the success of Islam, especially the Fall of Jerusalem in 638 CE raised a disturbing theological question for Christianity and there were no straight forward answers. What had happened three centuries ago in Jerusalem, when the Christians were about to lose the city to the Jews, during the rule of Roman Emperor Julian, did not help the cause of empathy towards other faiths and religious tolerance. Julian had sided with the Jews and had told them, “I will rebuild the holy city in Jerusalem at my expense and will populate it, as you have wished to see it for these many years.” Karen Armstrong has beautifully cataloged the history of Jerusalem in her book, Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths:
There was wild enthusiasm in the Jewish communities. The shofar was blown in the streets, and it seemed as though the Messiah would shortly arrive. Many Jews turned viciously on the Christians, who had lorded it over them for so long. Crowds of Jews began to arrive in Jerusalem, thronging its streets for the first time in over two hundred years. Others sent contributions for the new Temple. The Jews built a temporary synagogue in one of the ruined porches on the Temple Mount, and Julian may even have asked the Christian inhabitants to restore the property that belonged by rights to the Jewish people. He appointed his scholarly friend Alypius to supervise the building of the Temple and began to amass the materials. Special silver tools were prepared, since the use of iron was forbidden in the construction of the altar. On 5 March 363, Julian and his army left for Persia, where, the emperor believed, the success of his campaign would prove the truth of his pagan vision. When he returned, he promised that he would personally dedicate the Temple as part of the victory celebrations. After the emperor’s departure, Jewish workers began to uncover the foundations of the old Temple, clearing away the mounds of rubble and debris. Work continued throughout April and May. But the patriarch and the rabbis of Galilee regarded the venture with deep misgiving: they were now convinced that the Messiah alone could rebuild the Temple. How could a Temple built by an idolater be blessed by God, and what would happen if Julian did not return from Persia?
Now it was the Christians’ turn to contemplate an imperial building program that wholly ignored their claim to the Holy City. For fifty years the church had seemed to be going from strength to strength, but Julian’s apostasy had shown Christians how vulnerable they really were. The old paganism still flourished, and over the years a great deal of pent-up hostility had accumulated against the church. In Paneas and Sebaste the pagans had actually rioted against Christianity when Julian’s edicts were published. His plan to restore the old religion was not an impractical dream, and the Christians knew that. On the day that the work began on the Temple Mount, the Christians of Jerusalem assembled in the Martyrium to implore God to avert this disaster. Then they processed to the Mount of Olives, singing the Jewish psalms that they made their own. From the spot where generations of Christians had meditated on the defeat of Judaism, they gazed aghast at the purposeful activity on the Temple platform. They had become so accustomed to seeing the decline of Judaism as the essential concomitant to the rise of their own church that the Jewish workmen below seemed to be undermining the fabric of the Christian faith. Bishop Cyril, however, begged them not to lose hope: he confidently foretold that the new Temple would never be completed.
On 27 May, Cyril’s prophecy seemed to come true. An earthquake shook the entire city in what seemed to the Christians to be a display of divine wrath. Fire broke out in the vaults underneath the platform, as gases, which had been gathering in the underground chambers, exploded, setting fire to the building materials stored there. According to Alypius’s official report, huge “balls of fire” (globi flammarum) erupted from the ground, injuring several workmen.’ By this time, Julian had already crossed the Tigris and burned his bridge of boats. He was now beyond the reach of communications, so Alypius probably decided to wait for further news from the front after this setback. A few weeks later, Julian was killed in battle and Jovian, a Christian, was proclaimed emperor in his stead.
The Christians made no effort to conceal their jubilation after this “miracle”: there was talk of a giant cross appearing in the sky, stretching from the Mount of Olives to Golgotha. Other people claimed that crosses mysteriously appeared on the clothes of many pagans and Jews in Jerusalem. These extreme reversals could only intensify the hostility between Christians and Jews. Jovian banned the Jews from Jerusalem and environs yet again, and when they came to mourn the Temple on the Ninth of Av, the rituals had acquired a new sadness. “They come silently they go silently,” wrote Rabbi Berakiah, “they come weeping and go weeping.” The ceremonies no longer ended in thanksgiving and bracing procession around the city. Christians regarded these rites with a new harshness. When the biblical scholar Jerome saw this “rabble of the wretched” process to the Temple Mount, he decided that their feeble bodies and tattered clothes were outward signs of their rejection by God. The Jews “are not worthy of compassion,” he concluded, with a callousness that showed scant regard for the teaching of Jesus and Paul, who had both declared charity to be the highest religious duty. To Jerome’s fury, by the end of the fourth century the Jews seemed to have recovered their nerve. They still proclaimed that the ancient prophecies would be fulfilled. They pointed to Jerusalem, confidently predicting: “There the sanctuary of the Lord will be rebuilt.” At the end of time, the Messiah would come and rebuild the city with gold and jewels.
Christians did not forget that they had nearly lost their holy city. They could no longer take their tenure for granted and were determined to establish such a strong Christian presence in Palestine in general and Jerusalem in particular that they could never be dislodged again. The character of the city changed as the Christians gradually began to achieve a majority. By 390 the city was full of monks and nuns and foreign visitors came to Jerusalem in large numbers, returning home with tales of the Holy City and enthusiastic descriptions of its impressive liturgy; others stayed on permanently. Jerome was just one of the new settlers who came from the the West toward the end of the fourth century: some had come as pilgrims, others as refugees from the Germans and Huns who had started to bring down the Roman empire in Europe. This influx from the West increased when Theodosius I, a fervent Spanish Christian, became emperor in 379. He arrived in Constantinople on 24 November 380, with an entourage of pious Spaniards who were committed to implementing his aggressive orthodoxy. In 381 Theodosius put an end to the long Arian controversy by declaring Nicene Christianity to be the official creed of the Roman empire. Ten years later, he banned all pagan sacrifice and closed down the old shrines and temples. Some of the women in the court, such as Empress Aelia Flacilla, had already distinguished themselves in Rome by attacking pagan shrines and building splendid churches in honor of the martyrs. Now they brought this militant Christianity to the East.
The obsession with Jerusalem and its theological implications took the form of the Crusades in the subsequent centuries and during the process Islamophobia got compounded. I will give some account of the First Crusade mostly in the words Thomas Asbridge, a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Queen Mary, university of London, from his recent book, The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict between Christianity and Islam published by the Oxford Press in 2004. He writes in the first chapter:
“The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom. Likewise, the fevered spontaneity of Bohemond’s decision to take the cross, dutifully recorded by one of his followers, was almost certainly a facade masking calculated ambition.”
“A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak than to keep silent?On whom, therefore, does the task lie of avenging this, of redeeming this situation, if not on you, upon whom above all nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms, magnitude of heart, litheness of body and strength to humble anyone who resists you.”
A central feature of Urban’s doctrine was the denigration and dehumanisation of Islam. He set out from the start to launch a holy War against what he called ‘the savagery of the Saracens’, a ‘barbarian’ people capable of incomprehensible levels of cruelty and brutality.Their supposed crimes were enacted upon two groups. Eastern Christians, in particular the Byzantines, had been ‘overrun right up to the Mediterranean Sea’. Urban described how the Muslims, ‘occupying more and more of the land on the borders of [Byzantium], were slaughtering and capturing many, destroying churches and laying waste to the kingdom of God. So, if you leave them alone much longer they will further grind under their heels the faithful of God’. The pope also maintained that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being subjected to horrific abuse and exploitation. While the wealthy were regularly beaten and stripped of their fortunes by illegal taxes, the poor endured even more terrible treatment:
‘Non-existent money is extracted from them by intolerable tortures, the hard skin on their heels being cut open and peeled back to investigate whether perhaps they have inserted something under it. The cruelty of these impious men goes even to the length that, thinking the wretches have eaten gold or silver, they either put scammony in their drink and force them to vomit or void their vitals, or – and this is unspeakable – they stretch asunder the coverings of all the intestines after ripping open their stomachs with a blade and reveal with horrible mutilation whatever nature keeps secret.’
These accusations had little or no basis in fact, but they did serve Urban’s purpose. By expounding upon the alleged crimes of Islam, he sought to ignite an explosion of vengeful passion among his Latin audience, while his attempts to degrade Muslims as ‘sub-human’ opened the floodgates of extreme, brutal reciprocity. This, the pope argued, was to be no shameful war of equals, between God’s children, but a ‘just’ and ‘holy’ struggle in which an ‘alien’ people could be punished without remorse and with utter ruthlessness. Urban was activating one of the most potent impulses in human society: the definition of the ‘other’. Across countless generations of human history, tribes, cities, nations and peoples have sought to delineate their own identities through comparison to their neighbours or own identities through comparison to their neighbours or enemies. By conditioning Latin Europe to view Islam as a species apart, the pope stood to gain not only by facilitating his proposed campaign, but also by propelling the West towards unification.”
“Crusades, military expeditions, beginning in the late 11th century, that were organized by Western Christians in response to centuries of Muslim wars of expansion. Their objectives were to check the spread of Islam, to retake control of the Holy Land, to conquer pagan areas, and to recapture formerly Christian territories; they were seen by many of their participants as a means of redemption and expiation for sins. Between 1095, when the First Crusade was launched, and 1291, when the Latin Christians were finally expelled from their kingdom in Syria, there were numerous expeditions to the Holy Land, to Spain, and even to the Baltic; the Crusades continued for several centuries after 1291, usually as military campaigns intended to halt or slow the advance of Muslim power or to conquer pagan areas. Crusading declined rapidly during the 16th century with the advent of the Protestant Reformation and the decline of papal authority.
To read some additional details about the Crusades, see one of my articles, Trinity and other dogma at the point of sword: Christianity drips with blood! Karen Armstrong has eloquently explained Islamophobia, in the Christendom, in one of her biographies of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, in a chapter titled: Muhammad the Enemy, and how it continued to evolve over the centuries:
The diatribes against Muhammad uttered by the Cordovan martyrs had been based on this apocalyptic biography (produced in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona). In this fear-ridden fantasy, Muhammad was an impostor and a charlatan, who had set himself up as a prophet to deceive the world; he was a lecher who had wallowed in disgusting debauchery and inspired his followers to do the same; he had forced people to convert to his faith at sword point. Islam was not an independent revelation, therefore, but a heresy, a failed form of Christianity; it was a violent religion of the sword that glorified war and slaughter. After the demise of the martyr movement in Cordova, a few people in other parts of Europe heard their story, but there was little reaction. Yet around 250 years later, when Europe was about to re-enter the international scene, Christian legends would reproduce this fantastic portrait of Muhammad with uncanny fidelity. Some serious scholars would attempt to achieve a more objective view of the Prophet and his religion, but this fictional portrait of ‘Mahound’ persisted at a popular level. He became the great enemy of the emerging Western identity, standing for everything that ‘we’ hoped we were not. Traces of the old fantasy survive to the present day. It is still common for Western people to take it for granted that Muhammad had simply ‘used’ religion as a way of achieving world conquest or to assert that Islam is a violent religion of the sword, even though there are many scholarly and objective studies of Islam and its Prophet that disprove this myth of Mahound.
By the end of the eleventh century, Europe was beginning to rise again under the Pope and was pushing back the frontiers of Islam. In 1061 the Normans had started to attack the Muslims in southern Italy and Sicily, conquering the area in 1091; the Christians of northern Spain had begun the Wars of Reconquest against the Muslims of al-Andalus and conquered Toledo in 1085; in 1095 Pope Urban II summoned the knights of Europe to liberate the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem in the expedition that would become known as the First Crusade. In 1099, after years of incredible hardship, the Crusaders managed to conquer Jerusalem and establish the first Western colonies in the Near East. This new Western success took the form of an out-and-out war against Islam, but at the start nobody in Europe had any particular hatred of the Muslim religion or its Prophet. They were more concerned with their own dreams of glory and the extension of papal Europe. The Song of Roland, which was composed at the time of the First Crusade, shows a revealing ignorance of the essential nature of the Islamic faith. The Muslim enemies of Charlemagne and Roland are depicted as idol-worshippers, bowing down before a trinity of the ‘gods’ Apollo; Tervagant and Mahomet, but they are valiant soldiers whom it was a pleasure to fight. When the armies of the First Crusade fought the Turks for the first time in Asia Minor, they were also full of respect and admiration for their courage. …
The Franks had felt kinship with the Muslim soldiers at the battle of Dorylaeum in 1097, but two years later when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they seemed unable to see the Muslims as human beings like themselves. They slaughtered the inhabitants of the city in cold blood in a massacre which shocked even their own contemporaries. After this, Muslims were regarded as vermin to be cleared away from the holy places: the official word for them in Crusading jargon is ‘filth’. Before 1100 there was practically no interest in Muhammad in Europe, but by 1120 everybody knew who he was. At about the same time as the myths of Charlemagne, King Arthur and Robin Hood were being evolved in the West, the myth of Mahound, the enemy and shadow-self of Christendom, was firmly established in the Western imagination. As R. W. Southern explains in his monograph Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages:’There can be little doubt that at the moment of their formation these legends and fantasies were taken to represent a more or less truthful account of what they purported to describe. But as soon as they were produced they took on a literary life of their own. At the level of popular poetry, the picture of Mahomet and his Saracens changed very little from generation to generation. Like well-loved characters of fiction, they were expected to display certain characteristics, and authors faithfully reproduced them for hundreds of years.’
Mahound’s fictional status in the West has perhaps made it even more difficult for people to see him as an historical character who deserves the same serious treatment as Napoleon or Alexander the Great. The fictional portrait of Mahound in The Satanic Verses resonates deeply with these established Western fantasies. To explain Muhammad’s success, the legends claimed that he had been a magician who had concocted false ‘miracles’ to take in the credulous Arabs and destroy the Church in Africa and the Middle East. One tale spoke of a white bull which had terrorised the population and which finally appeared with the Qu’ran, the scripture which Muhammad had brought to the Arabs, floating miraculously between its horns. Muhammad was also said to have trained a dove to peck peas from his ears so that it looked as though the Holy Spirit were whispering into them. His mystical experiences were explained away by the claim that he was an epileptic, which at that time was tantamount to saying that he was possessed by demons. His sexual life was dwelt on in prurient detail: he was credited with every perversion known to men and was said to have attracted people into his religion by encouraging them to indulge their basest instincts. There was nothing genuine in Muhammad’s claims: he had been a cold-blooded impostor who had taken in nearly all his own people. Those of his followers who had seen through his preposterous ideas had kept quiet because of their own base ambition. The one way that Western Christians could explain Muhammad’s compelling and successful religious vision was to deny its independent inspiration: Islam was a breakaway form of Christianity, the heresy of all heresies. It was said that one Sergius, an heretical monk, had been rightly forced to flee Christendom and had met Muhammad in Arabia, where he had coached him in his distorted version of Christianity. Without the sword, ‘Muhammadanism’ would never have flourished: Muslims were still forbidden to discuss religion freely in the Islamic empire. But Muhammad had come to a fitting end: during one of his demonic convulsions he had been tom apart by a herd of pigs.
Some details of this fantasy reflect Christian anxieties about their own emergent identity. Islam was stigmatised as the ‘religion of the sword’ during the Crusades, a period when Christians themselves must have had a buried worry about this aggressive form of their faith which bore no relation to the pacifist message of Jesus. At a time when the Church was imposing celibacy on a reluctant clergy, the astonishing accounts of Muhammad’s sexual life reveal far more about the repressions of Christians than about the facts of the Prophet’s own life. There is a definite note of ill-concealed envy in this depiction of ‘Islam’ as a self-indulgent and easygoing religion. Finally it was the West, not ‘Islam’, which forbade the open discussion of religious matters. At the time of the Crusades, Europe seemed obsessed by a craving for intellectual conformity and punished its deviants with a zeal that has been unique in the history of religion. The witch-hunts of the inquisitors and the persecution of Protestants by Catholics and vice versa were inspired by abstruse theological opinions which in both Judaism and Islam were seen as private and optional matters. Neither Judaism nor Islam share the Christian conception of heresy, which raises human ideas about the divine to an unacceptably high level and almost makes them a form of idolatry. The period of the Crusades, when the fictional Mahound was established, was also a time of great strain and denial in Europe. This is graphically expressed in the phobia about Islam.
Islamophobia has continued over the centuries since the Crusades, but, if we look at its origin it goes back to the theological shock that Christianity experienced, when they lost the Jewel of Jerusalem, and began to question with panic, on whose side is God the Father? I am not yet done with all the negative history of Jerusalem and its consequences. So, let me go back to Jerusalem again and this time start with when the Persians took over Jerusalem from the Roman Empire. Karen Armstrong describes:
On 15 April 614 the Persian army arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. Patriarch Zacharias was ready to surrender the city but a group of young Christians refused to allow this, convinced that God would save them by a miracle. The siege lasted for nearly three weeks, while the Persians systematically destroyed all the churches and shrines outside the city, including St. Stephen’s church, the Eleona basilica, and the Ascension Church. At the end of May, Jerusalem fell amid scenes of horrific slaughter. In his eyewitness account, the monk Antiochus Strategos says that the Persians rushed into the city like wild boars, roaring, hissing, and killing everyone in sight: not even women and babies were spared. He estimated that 66,555 Christians died, and the city was vandalized, its churches, including the Martyrium, set aflame. Survivors were rounded up, and those who were skilled or of high rank were taken into exile, including Patriarch Zacharias.
When the deportees reached the summit of the Mount of Olives and looked back on the burning city, they began to weep, beat their breasts, and pour dust over their heads, like the Jews whose mourning rituals they had so thoroughly despised. When Zacharias sought to calm them, he uttered a lament for the Christian Holy City which had now become inseparable from the idea and experience of God:
‘O Zion, do not forget me, your servant, and may your Creator not forget you. For if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you …. I adore you, O Zion, and I adore him who dwelled in you.’
The Christians had sharply differentiated their experience in Jerusalem from that of the Jews. Now as they went into exile in their turn, they turned naturally to the gestures and psalms of their predecessors in the Holy City, and like the Jews they spoke of God and Zion in the same breath. With the exiles went the relic of the True Cross together with other implements of the Passion of Christ that had been kept in the Martyrium: the spear that had pierced his side, the sponge and the onyx cup that he was supposed to have used at the Last Supper. They passed into the possession of Queen Meryam of Persia, who was a Nestorian Christian.
Twenty four years later when Umar Farooq took over Jerusalem the scene was fairly different, there were no killings, zero versus sixty six thousand by the Persian Empire, an infinite difference if you compute the ratio. No one was killed and no one was forced to convert. Karen Armstrong describes the details:
The patriarch Sophronius valiantly organized the defense of the city with the help of its Byzantine garrison, but by February 638 the Christians were forced to surrender. Tradition has it that the patriarch refused to deliver the Holy City to anybody but Caliph Umar. One of the earliest Muslim sources claims that Umar was not present in person but only visited Jerusalem at a later date. But most scholars still believe that Umar came to receive the city’s surrender. He was in Syria at the time, and, given the status of Jerusalem in early Islam, it is very likely that he would have wanted to preside over this momentous occasion. The traditional account says that Sophronius rode out of the city to meet Umar and then escorted the caliph back into Jerusalem. Umar must have looked incongruous amid the splendidly dressed Byzantines, as he rode into the city on a white camel wearing his usual shabby clothes, which he had refused to change for the ceremony. Some of the Christian observers felt that the caliph was being hypocritical: they were probably uncomfortably aware that the Muslim caliph embodied the Christian ideal of holy poverty more faithfully than their own officials.
Umar also expressed the monotheistic ideal of compassion more than any previous conqueror of Jerusalem, with the possible exception of King David. He presided over the most peaceful and bloodless conquest that the city had yet seen in its long and often tragic history. Once the Christians had surrendered, there was no killing, no destruction of property, no burning of rival religious symbols, no expulsions or expropriations, and no attempt to force the inhabitants to embrace Islam. If a respect for the previous occupants of the city is a sign of the integrity of a monotheistic power, Islam began its long tenure in Jerusalem very well indeed.
Umar had asked to see the holy places, and Sophronius took him straight to the Anastasis. The fact that this magnificent complex of buildings commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus would not have pleased the caliph. The Qur’an reveres Jesus as one of the greatest of the prophets but does not believe that he died on the cross, Unlike Jesus, Muhammad had been a dazzling success in his own lifetime, and Muslims found it hard to believe that God would allow a prophet to die in such disgrace. The Arabs seem to have picked up the Docetist and Manichean idea, current in many areas of the Near East, that Jesus had only seemed to die: the figure on the cross was only a phantom, a simulacrum. Instead, like Enoch and Elijah, Jesus had ascended triumphantly to heaven at the end of his life (Editor: The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes that Jesus went into a swoon on the cross but did survive the ordeal and later migrated to Kashmir). Later Muslims would express their contempt for the Christian belief by calling the Anastasis al-qumamah (‘the Dungheap’) instead of al-qiyamah (‘the Resurrection’). Umar, however, showed no such chauvinism, even in the excitement of an important military victory. While he was standing beside the tomb, the time for Muslim prayer came around, and Sophronius invited the caliph to pray where he was. Umar courteously refused; neither would he pray in Constantine’s Martyrium. Instead he went outside and prayed on the steps beside the busy thoroughfare of the Cardo Maximus. He explained to the patriarch that had he prayed inside the Christian shrines, the Muslims would have confiscated them and converted them into an Islamic place of worship to commemorate their caliph’s prayer in the bayt almaqdis. Umar immediately wrote a charter forbidding Muslims to pray on the steps of the Martyrium or to build a mosque there. Later he prayed in the Nea and, again, was careful to ensure that it would remain in Christian hands.
I have highlighted centuries of divergent thinking and rivalry among the three Abrahmaic faiths here and unstitched a shirt, in a manner of speaking, now, I have to stitch it back, which I will do in the Epilogue. I hope the sharing of this information has a cathartic effect on our psyche and moves us closer to a healing process.
Centuries of obsession of the Jews and the Christians with Jerusalem and partial obsession of the Muslims with the Mosque there, as the third holiest site in Islam, are not merely human follies. Our constant struggle to find the Divine, even in our battles, seems to me, reflects some transcendent reality, which mankind cannot escape. We believe that the creation of Israel and coming together of the Jews in the Holy Land, in the Latter Days, though tragic in some ways, was foretold in the Holy Quran:
And after him (Moses) We said to the children of Israel, ‘Dwell ye in the land; and when the time of the promise of the latter days comes, We shall bring you together out of various peoples.’ (Al Quran 17:105)
The Holy Quran also says:
And already have We written in the Book of David, after the exhortation, that My righteous servants shall inherit the land. (Al Quran 21:106)
What are the implications of these Quranic prophecies, some aspects, I have examined in a previous article, Ishmael and not Isaac. Given the history of mankind, finding their religion and salvation by taking over sacred land and symbols, the atheists and agnostics wish that religion may go by the way side, but religion has been with mankind for six thousand years and it is here to stay. Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, most countries have only moved further to the right. Only solution to this conundrum seems to be a better and universal religious understanding, or at least of religious freedoms.
The Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani came as a subordinate prophet in Islam, in India 120 years ago to unite all religions and mankind by emphasizing religious freedom for everyone and the fact that the founders of all religions, Confucius, Buddha, Tao, Krishna, Ram, Moses and Jesus were prophets of God. He initiated renaissance of Islam in keeping with the prophecies of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him. Ahmad also laid the foundation of a vibrant Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and as a result of his writings and teachings, we have a clear understanding of Universal Brotherhood for our Global village. Our international leader, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad has been tirelessly talking about various aspects of it and we have covered much of that in our Muslim Times. Islam provides all the necessary principles to build a universal society of brotherhood, mutual affection and compassion. This is the Temple that we need to all build together, in Jerusalem and else where for the worship of One God of the Abrahmic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Let us build a Temple for the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius and Muhammad, may peace be on all of them. Long live humanity and Monotheism!
1. Tom Holland. In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Little Brown, 2012. Page 295-296.
2. Karen Armstrong. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Phoenix 1991, Page 24.
3. Tom Holland. In the shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Little Brown, 2012. Page 292-293.
4. Karen Armstrong. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Phoenix 1991, Page 24.
5. Karen Armstrong. Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths. Ballantine Books, 1997. Pages 195-197.
6. Karen Armstrong. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet. Phoenix 1991, Pages 26-27.
7. Karen Armstrong. Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths. Ballantine Books, 1997. Page 214.
8. Karen Armstrong. Jerusalem: One City Three Faiths. Ballantine Books, 1997. Page 228.