In June 2015, the Islamic charitable association Maqāsid promoted the drafting of the Beirut Declaration, a document that aims to counter religious violence and promote an enlightened interpretation of Islamic culture. One of the contributors condemns the subversive rhetoric used by extremists against both Christians and Muslims. His position is born out of a conciliatory interpretation of Islam, and the belief that Muslims need Christians (and vice versa) in order to survive.
The concerns currently gripping Eastern Christians are not unfounded. It is a reaction to the tragic events that have shaken many Arab countries, and in which the victims were Christians. People who have been killed for their faith, forced to emigrate, taken prisoner and deprived of their places of worship, churches and monasteries.
This wave of religious extremism, characterised by violence and dominion over vast areas (especially in Iraq and Syria), but above all by its subversive, Takfiri slogans, has not been met by an Islamic counterwave capable of a robust legal and practical response. This has increased among Christians the feelings of frustration and fear for their future and destiny. The resulting mass emigrations represent an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of modern Muslim-Christian relations.
Since the middle of the 20th century, the percentage of Christians living in Arab countries has fallen by more than half, and the bleeding is likely to increase if subversive extremism continues to grow. Christians have many reasons to be concerned. The most important of these is linked to certain religious notions espoused by extremist Islamic movements, which they interpret as central tenets of the Islamic faith, but which, in point of fact, are nothing of the sort.
Dhimma vs. citizenship
Some extremist Islamic movements deny the faith of Christians and Jews on the basis of incorrect understanding of two Qur’anic verses: “Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (3:19) and “whoever desires a religion other than Islam shall not be accepted by God” (3:85). This is the consequence of an exclusivist vision of faith in God, which is limited solely to the message of Muhammad. In truth, this misunderstanding leads these Islamic movements away from the spirit of Islam and the essence of the Qur’anic text. In fact, the meaning of Islam is submission to the will of the one true God. In light of this clarification, it can be seen that being a Muslim does not mean believing exclusively in what God revealed to Muhammad. The essence of Islam is to believe in all God’s prophets and messengers, from Abraham to Muhammad, and all the heavenly scriptures that were revealed to them, insofar as these writings were inspired by the Word of God, and especially the Gospel and the Torah, which, recalls the Qur’an, contain “guidance and light” (5:44-46).
Dhimmitude is not a Qur’anic notion, any more than it is a religious statute. It is a legal “pact” concluded (during a given period) between two parties: the Muslims who were in power and the Christians who were under their protection. At the time when the Muslims established this system it represented the best and fairest way of regulating coexistence with non-Muslims.
Today, however, we have the concept of citizenship. During the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, this pact caused resentment because it relegated the Christian to the status of a second-class citizen within the framework it had established, so that he felt deprived of both his dignity and his rights. Re-evoking this notion in today’s day and age would be tantamount to calling for a return of the inhuman, uncivilised and ungodly excesses of those times.
For this reason, Christians regard the dhimma system as an attack on patriotism and coexistence. And they are right. The dhimma system is an anachronistic notion that is no longer valid, since the parties have long since dissolved the contract it was based on, which has been superseded by the nation-state, created by Muslims and Christians together. With the consolidation of the concept of citizenship, which guarantees the equality of citizens regardless of religion, confession, race and gender, the dhimma has become a historical fact, and is not a definitive, stable legal precept. It goes without saying that superseding the dhimma does not signify superseding Islamic sharia law or Islamic doctrine. Dhimmitude is a sad page in a long history that has seen its own light and dark ages, as emphasised by the Apostolic Exhortation on Lebanon in 1995.
Eastern Christians: conqueror crusaders?
Whenever there is a political problem involving Christians, irrespective of whether the issue regards a political party, or a political or religious authority, the Crusades are dusted off and used to defame, discredit and damage them. But the reality is that the Middle Eastern Crusades were not Christian attempts at proselytising the region. They were expansionist campaigns, carried out by the West under the banner of the cross, with the aim of liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims. This is demonstrated by the fact that the first victims of the campaigns were the faithful of the Eastern Churches and the Jews, from Constantinople to Jerusalem itself. The Crusaders destroyed churches, killed monks and priests, and burned Christian towns and villages inhabited by peaceful people. The former Coptic Pope, Shenouda, once mentioned to me that the Coptic Church has canonised some nuns who were killed by the Crusaders. Arab historians soon realised how things really stood, defining these expeditions as “Frankish campaigns”. They knew that Eastern Christians were as much victims of these campaigns as Muslims were.
Similarly, whenever a crisis erupts in relations between the Arabs and the United States, or any European country, Arab Christians are accused of being a fifth column of the Western enemy against Muslims and Arabs. The origin of this error, or rather, this sin, lies in the confusion that is generated in the minds of Islamic extremists between the notions of the West and Christianity. This leads them to assume that Eastern Christianity is simply an extension of the West, its spearhead, or that Eastern Christians are the remnants of the Conqueror Crusaders.
Two facts belie this view. First, the West has renounced Christianity, severing its cultural link with religion and embracing secularism as the foundation of its societies. When the West sets itself up as a defender of the rights of Eastern Christians, it is not moved to do so out of any reasons of faith, rather by the desire to protect its interests in the region. Secondly, Eastern Christians have taken a stand against Western colonialism and the Zionist occupation, as evidenced by the national movements in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, but above all in Palestine, which were led by Christians or in which Christians played an active role.
Takfīr and human dignity
Reticence about takfīr [“anathema”] directed against non-Muslims is the foundation that makes it possible to level charges of anathema also against Muslims. This anathema is even used against Muslims of the same confession simply because they express a differing political or personal opinion! But, in reality, the noble Qur’an describes Christians as believers and praises its priests and its monks. The Prophet Muhammad established relations with them both before and after the start of his mission. He concluded agreements with them based on the principle that “our rights are their rights, our obligations are their obligations,” and prohibited his followers from violating their people, their churches and their monasteries, defining such places as houses of God where His name resonates and is praised.
This is confirmed by the covenant between the Prophet and the Christians of Najran, and the covenant between ‘Umar and the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The monopolisation of the faith, and the exclusion of those who adhere to other religions and creeds from God’s mercy, contrast with the Islamic notion of faith, which extends to all the People of the Book. Indeed, this notion is not limited to Christians and Jews, but may also be extended to others. In fact, as the Almighty affirms in the Qur’an, He holds men to account only after sending a Messenger, that is to say after the way that leads to faith in Him has been revealed. The Almighty has also stated that many of His prophets and messengers are not mentioned in the Qur’an.
Extremists limit the right to human dignity to adherents of the Muslim faith. For this reason they do not accord the Christians, members of the united Arab family and nation, the right to dignity. But the Qur’an says: “Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam” (17:70) meaning that Man is honoured by God as a human being, not for his faith in a religion or his beliefs. God has chosen men (above all other creatures) as His representatives on earth, without making it a condition that they be Muslims or adherents of a particular religion or doctrine.
The restrictive practice of limiting dignity to a specific group of human beings is a mistake. It is at odds with the openness of Islam, which teaches us that dignity is a gift for everyone, and that all men have the right to it. So, how do we safeguard these people, the children of one nation and one family? It is the rights that come with citizenship that make everyone equal, without distinction.
“Cleave all to the rope of God”
The concept of diversity, which, according to Islam, exists and persists because of the will and wisdom of God, contradicts the idea of a monopoly on truth claimed by the extremists and fanatics, who consider any thought other than their own disbelief and, as such, a deviation from true religion. People are different, this is a natural fact. And only God, on the Day of Resurrection, may judge human beings, taking into account the way in which they have differed from one another. It follows that no one has the right to scrutinise the conscience of another, in order to judge him. The right to judge is reserved exclusively for the Almighty, on the day of resurrection, as is clearly explained in the Qur’an. It is true that Islam and Christianity differ on their understanding and definition of the Unity of God, but it is equally true that Christianity no longer affirms that God is the third of three. Christianity states that God is one, merciful and compassionate.
Islam itself distinguishes between diversity, which it calls upon its followers to welcome and respect, and fragmentation, which it rejects and warns against. As we have already cited above, the Qur’an says: “Cleave all to the Rope of God and be not divided among yourselves” (3:103). He did not say “let there be no difference between you.”
One can hardly deny that Arab and Eastern Christians show big concerns about sharia, which places non-Muslims outside the sphere of citizenship, or renders them second-class citizens. And once again, the Christians are right. In principle, the obligation to apply the Islamic sharia to Christians contradicts the Qur’an, which states: “Let the people of the Gospel judge by what God hath revealed therein” (5:47). Hence, the offenders are those who have not judged according to what God has revealed to them.
The Noble Qur’an did not tell the people of the Gospel to judge according to what God has revealed in the Qur’an! In light of this, how is it possible to contemplate imposing sharia on those who should not be subject to it, when Islam states “for each We have made for you a law and a clear way” (5:48)? How can a religion that professes non-compulsion, as taught by 2:256, force Christians to follow sharia?
Caliphate: Qur’anic or post-Qur’anic origins?
Today, with the advent of the so-called Islamic State, talk has again turned to the idea of the Caliphate. It is understood as a religious state that would marginalise Christians. However, the institution, as such, is not mentioned in the Qur’an, neither can it be considered a legacy of the Prophet.
Basically, in Islam, there is no such thing as a clerical religious state, as recently reiterated by al-Azhar. The Caliphate is an institution that was established upon the death of the Prophet, in order to confer authority on the Muslim ruler as successor to Muhammad. The successors of Abū Bakr al-Siddīq, successor to God’s Messenger, bore the title Commander of the Faithful. Even before the death of Muhammad, his companions differed on who should assume power after the Prophet, and how this power should be conferred. They certainly would not have needed to gather to discuss this matter if a text on the Caliphate had existed. Three of the four rightly guided Caliphs (‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali) were assassinated and their differences generated a schism (fitna) that has not yet been resolved. Over time, the differences have continued to multiply and accumulate, one upon the ruins of the other.
To give a religious dimension to the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan, who was neither an Arab, nor a descendant of the Quraysh (the Prophet’s tribe), took the title of Caliph. Subsequently the British, who wanted to punish the Sultan for having sided with Germany during World War I, attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish a new caliphate in the Arab world or in India, which was then under their control. At this point, they successfully campaigned to abolish the Caliphate as an institution.
But Islam did not suffer the same fate, persisting as a religion protected by the will of God. This proves that the fall of the caliphate system does not necessarily mean the fall of Islam; and similarly, that the return to the caliphate system does not mean the return of Islam. Islam is not a political system for Muslims, but the message of the Lord of the worlds intended for all men.
Islamophobia and Christianophobia
The phenomena of fanaticism and extremism – of such great concern for Eastern Christians – constitute the main reasons for their emigration. In addition to damaging the fragile foundations of citizenship, extremism – with its deviation from the fundamentals of sharia and Islamic law, and its claim to a monopoly on truth – is an important factor that lends its weight to the elements responsible for the political and economic emigration, which are having such a negative impact on our national societies.
This emigration is, in itself, one of the causes of Islamophobia, because it helps to reinforce the conception held in the West that it is not possible to co-exist with Islam, because Islam rejects the “other.” The West responds with the same logic: if Islam rejects the other, how can it accept us? And if, by its very nature, it refuses to accept us, why should we accept it? Consequently, the emigration of Christians from the East not only causes the collapse of the national social fabric and the loss of irreplaceable cultural, scientific and economic skills, but also harms the Islamic presence in the West and in the rest of the world, impacting negatively on relationships between Muslims and Christians in Europe, North America, Australia, Canada, etc., accentuating the feeling of rejection of Islam and fomenting discrimination against Muslims.
Islamophobia has repercussions in Muslim countries where Eastern Christians are victims, generating in turn what we may term Christianophobia. And this, as we have already affirmed, is due to the failure to distinguish between the West and Christianity. The result is an increase of extremism not only in the East, but also in the West, which further undermines Muslim-Christian relations.
In light of all this, it is not possible, or perhaps it is no longer possible, to isolate and resolve these three phenomena on an individual basis, since they have reached the point where they are interdependent. Halting this Christian exodus – a goal shared by Christians and Muslims alike – depends on the ability to curb extremism and fanaticism in Islamic societies. Arab and Eastern Christians and Muslims have the unique responsibility of maintaining Christian-Muslim relations by setting aside mutual provocations.
Christians can convey to the world an image of constructive coexistence with Muslims, but to make this possible they must be permitted to lead peaceful, constructive lives in their own countries. But this will never happen until they are accorded the rights of full citizenship. For their part, Muslims can help their fellow Christians to fulfil this role, but to do so must also be able to live peaceful, constructive lives. These aims can only be achieved by eradicating the culture of rejection, and promoting a culture of respect for individual and collective freedoms, in order to achieve full citizenship based on rights and duties.
Our Arab societies suffer from a lack of democracy and an excess of extremism and fanaticism. The absence of democracy, imposed by suffocating tyrannical regimes, contrasts with the requirements necessary to manage religiously and ethnically diverse and sectarian societies, reinforces fanaticism, and fans the flames of division and strife. Naturally, this impacts negatively on the rights of citizenship, and the religious freedoms that are implicit in such rights, which are systematically violated.
In summary, we can affirm that Eastern Christians are original citizens of the region. They do not belong to Western culture, nor are they a political extension of Europe, but must be numbered among the architects of Arab culture and the guardians of its language, as well as active participants in the development of Arab countries and defenders of their sovereignty. Their suffering is an aspect of the suffering of all of the peoples of the region. Western Islamophobia generates Christianophobia in the East, as a reaction to political and human injustices, as evidenced by the West’s support of Israel. These two negative phenomena are closely intertwined, because they augment each other. The only way out of this situation is citizenship, with respect for human rights, communities and the reinforcement of Christian-Muslim relations at all levels.
Today these relations are going through a very critical phase, which, as we have noted, is driving mass emigration and the rise of fanaticism.
Opposing this wave of extremism with “a good word” is both a right and a duty. It is a right of society and the duty of every man of faith to aspire to unity, security and peace in his society, both in Lebanon and other Arab states. In an age when fanatical slogans resound, “a good word is like a good tree, its root set firm and its branches reaching into heaven” (14:24).
To stay on the straight path
Muslim men and women perform the five daily prayers. The faithful are expected to perform at least 17 raka‘āt [prostrations performed during the ritual prayer] during prayers. As they perform each rak‘a, the faithful recite the Opening sura: “Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your grace, not the path of those who earn Your anger nor of those who go astray!” Who are those on whom God has bestowed His grace? Who are those who have earned God’s anger? And who are those that go astray? From the context of the sura it is clear that those on whom God has bestowed His grace are the men who are led on the right way, and that remain within the limits set by Him. Therefore those with whom God is angry are the men who have left the right path and have overstepped his bounds, while those who wander in error are the men who have been radicalised, have abandoned the middle way and embraced excess.
Reciting the Opening sura while performing each rak‘a, at every prayer, every day, is an extremely sensible obligation, because it reminds the faithful of the importance of staying on the right path, never leaving it, in order to avoid finding oneself among those who go astray, nor rejecting it, in order to avoid being among those with whom God is angry.
Yet the Islam of the 21st century is suffering from the growing influence of those who have moved away – those with whom God is angry and those who wander in error – with respect to the community of the faithful who keep firmly to the right path.
The term “righteousness” (istiqāma) and its derivatives occur 46 times in the noble Qur’an, in 34 suras. The rectitude that Islam demands is related to, and derives from, faith since it expresses the need to respect the values and principles of Islam. The noble Qur’an states: “Verily those who say, ‘Our Lord is God!’ and stand straight and steadfast, the angels shall descend on them” (41:30). Faith is the gateway to righteousness. Righteousness is the fruit of faith. To turn away from this path generates confusion, rebellion awakens the wrath of God.
Despite the fact that the community of true believers far outnumbers them, the voice of the fanatics is heard ever more frequently, and the quarrelsome play an increasingly negative role. These two groups presume to speak on behalf of Islam, placing false words in its mouth, and this damages the image of Islam, relations with non-Muslims and even relations with Muslims of other denominations or even the same confession!
In a sound hadīth, God’s Messenger, peace be upon Him, states: “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, and his heart is not upright until his tongue is upright.” This hadīth is completed by another saying. To the question “Who is a Muslim?,” the Prophet replied: “a true Muslim is one whom the people need not fear either by word or deed.”
Christians and Muslims together in diversity
In order to overcome the crisis of confidence that has shaken and dominated Muslim-Christian relations, it is necessary to rediscover the conciliatory – and not simply tolerant – spirit that typifies Islam. This rediscovery is complementary to the rediscovery of the spirit of Christianity sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council in the declaration Nostra Aetate in 1965.
For the first time, the Council not only expressed its esteem for Muslims, who profess the uniqueness of God, honour the mother of the Messiah and the Messiah Himself, worshiping Him as a prophet, but also stated that “the differences with Muslims constitute a danger to the faith in the one God, who created all men and called them to redemption and happiness.” It set a basic principle:
“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men. They take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”
It is true that, in the Middle East in general, but in particular in Lebanon, even before the Second Vatican Council, Muslims and Christians shared feelings of brotherhood. However, the Council lent a theological basis to this brotherhood, so that national fraternity was joined by the brotherhood of faith in the one God. This brotherhood should not be just a slogan, but should be reflected in individual and collective attitudes and in public life. This explains the insistence of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in the Middle East (n 25) on the right and the duty of Christians to “participate fully in national life, working to build up their country,” specifying that “they should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers.”
Muslims in the Middle East, and particularly in Lebanon, have no need of Christians when practising their religious rituals and consolidating their spiritual relationship with God. Likewise, or perhaps even more so, Christians can do without Muslims; but neither can do without the other in his life. Life, in fact, as Martin Buber says, is the encounter with the other.
And this encounter does not take place between the similar, it takes place between the different.
Mohammed Sammak is adviser to the Grand Mufti of the Republic of the Lebanon and secretary of the Committee for Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the Lebanon. In 1995 he represented the Sunnite community at the Special Synod for the Lebanon convened in the Vatican by John Paul II. He is the author of various books, including Minorities between Arabness and Islam. This article first appeared in Oasis, a Milan-based magazine of Christian outreach to the Muslim world, and has been republished with permission.