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Islam Versus Christendom
Sep 2012

In terms of world population, Christianity leads, followed by Islam. Islam entered Christian Europe in early 8th century and the continent faced the threat of conversion and annexation. Eventually, 10 centuries later Christendom reconquered their own lands from Muslim occupation. The write-up that follows traces the similarities and differences between the two religions. This is largely based on the material contained in Islam and the West by Bernard Lewis and The Oxford History of Islam, Oxford University Press. 

At various times and in different places, Europeans called the Muslims Saracens, Moors, Turks, or Tatars, according to which of the Muslim peoples they had encountered,� Medieval Muslim writers show a similar, differentiations as to their Christian opponents like Romans, Slavs or Franks depending on who and where they encountered them. When religious designations were used, they were either wholly negative - such as paynim, kafir, or, more generally, unbeliever. Parallel example is the common Christian practice of referring to Muslims as Mohammedans, and the common Muslim habit of referring to Christians as Nazarenes - in Arabic Nasara, from Nazareth. The most common religious term which each applied to the other was, however, infidel. This was openly accepted that the two sides were adversaries.

Quranic Revelations :

Muslims on the basis of Quranic revelations, found it impossible to understand why Christians disputed the oneness of God by their insistence on Jesus being the son of God and along with His father and the Ghost as the divine trinity. In the beginning of his career, Prophet Muhammad seems to have understood his role as the final prophet of a monotheistic faith of which Jews and Christians, before their perversion of the original revelations of God. It was only when Muhammad encountered unexpected resistance from these communities and their refusal to recognize his status as the final prophet of true monotheism that his community came to understand itself as the bearers of a faith that was related to, but different from, the extant religions of the Jews and Christians. This faith became known as Islam, submission to the one God. 

Early Islam and Christianity :

Arabia was the home of significant Jewish and Christian communities, particularly in the south. During the Muhammad's lifetime, Christians were living in Medina, Mecca, Khyber, Yemen, and Najran, although their numbers were small in the areas in which the prophet carried on his preaching mission. ...They were nonetheless held in esteem insofar as they were the recipient of God's original revelation, and the peoples to whom they were given are thus considered in special category, namely the People of the Book. All prophets are said to have taught the identical message that came from God to Muhammad.

Perhaps because of their greater resistance to the presence of the Muslim community in Medina, Jews are treated more harshly in the Quran than are Christians. The primary offense of the Christians is that they hold on to a Trinitarian doctrine of God and the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is referred to in ninety-three verses of the Quran, affirming that he was born of Mary the Virgin, that he was a righteous prophet, that he was given clear signs from God. That he had disciples(helpers), that he performed miracles. Blind and the lepers and raising the dead by the power of God, and that he will provide a signal of the coming of Dooms day or Qayaamat. The Quran also says very specifically that those who refer to Jesus as God were blasphemers, and that Christians saying that Christ was the son of God was an imitation of the Jews, who had said that Ezra was the son of God. According to the Quran, Jesus was only a servant; Jesus the son of Mary was no more than an apostle of God. � After engaging the Christians in discussion, the Prophet is said to have realized that Christian teachings are indeed incompatible with those of Islam, after which the revelation followed that only Islam is acceptable to God as a religion. People of the Book, Christians and Jews, along with Magians, Samaritans, Sabians, and later Zoroastrians and others, were treated as minorities under the protection of Islam, believers in God despite their refusal to accept the prophethood of Muhammad. Adult male Christians were thus not required to convert (although that option was always open to them), but they were required to pay a poll tax ala jaziya the price for this protection. Because of the income that accrued from this tax, Muslims in general preferred that Christians (and Jews) not convert to Islam but maintain their status as protected minorities (Dhimmis)� They were granted the right to practice their religion in private, be defended against external aggression, and allowed to govern their own communities. 

The Covenant of Umar :

The specifics of the requirements for Christians who enjoyed dhimmi status were spelled out in what has come to be referred to as �the covenant of Umar,�. The covenant stipulated prohibition of the building of new churches or repair of those in towns inhabited by Muslims, although in some cases Beating the wooden clapper that Christians used to call people to prayer was forbidden, as was loud chanting or carrying the cross or the Bible in processions. Dhimmis were allowed to keep their own communal laws, although they could apply to Muslim judge if they wished. They were not, however, allowed to give testimony concerning a Muslim in a court of law. The recruiting of new Christians was forbidden, as was any insult about Islam or its Prophet. As a means of identification, particular dress, such a special girdle, was required for Christians. Over the first several centuries of Islam, dress stipulations grew increasingly stringent for Christian men and a women. A Muslim woman was not allowed to marry a Christian man, although the Quran does allow marriage of a Muslim man to a Christian woman. Neverthless, Islamic law from early on stipulated a great range of conditions under which such a marriage might take place. The children of a mixed marriage were always considered Muslim. A Muslim could own a dhimmi slave, but never the opposite. Dhimmis were allowed to live anywhere except in Mecca and Medina. 

Expansion of Islam : 

Christian world into which Islam moved with such rapidity was not a united community. The Church was divided into five apostolic sects, located in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The Roman Church of the West was in uneasy compromise with the Byzantines. Within 20 years of the Prophet's death, the Byzantine Empire lost the provinces of Palestine, Egypt, and Syria. The grandfather of John of Damascus, for example, was instrumental in the capitulation of his domain to the forces of the Muslim commander Khalid ibn al- Walid in 635, signaling the end of Byzantine rule in Syria. � It was because of a combination of several factors then, that Islam spread so rapidly after the Prophet's death. The two major empires in the Middle East, the Persian Sasanian and the Greek Byzantine, were exhausted after decades of struggle, and Islam was able to occupy what amounted to a power vacuum in many of the areas to which it spread.

Capture of Jerusalem :

Of the many victories achieved by Muslims in Christian territories soon after the Prophet's death none was to have more significance for the relationship of Islam and Christendom than the taking of Jerusalem shortly after the defeat of the Byzantine troops at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636. Always considered the Holy City by Christians, Jerusalem was equally venerated by Muslims. Originally it was the place towards which the Prophet Muhammad asked his followers to turn in prayer. Although he later changed the prayer direction to Mecca, the city continued to be a site of pilgrimage and prayer. For Christians, Jerusalem is the place of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims it is venerated as the location from which Muhammad is said to have ascended on his miraculous �night journey� through the heavens. 

Christians and Muslims in Andalusia : 

In the Iberian peninsula the establishment of a Muslim presence did not take place without serious difficulties. The ruling group was composed of Arabs, Syrians, and Egyptians with Berber troops, all uncertain of the trustworthiness of the other. Aside from the Berbers, the actual number of invaders from the east was very small. Nonetheless, in the forty years it took to set up a stable administration in Spain, it was clear that the Islamic presence was a reality and that their successes were not to be reversed for a long time. In 756, six years after the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids in the eastern Islamic territories, an Umayyad prince named Abd al Rahman fled west to escape Abbasid persecution. He established the emirate of Cordoba, forming an administration that would last for two and a half centuries.

During the rule of Abd al-Rahman III in Cordoba (912-61), the first Andulsian caliphate officially beginning in 929, the Spanish Islamic state reached the zenith of its power and fame. It was a time of opulence and achievement, in which intellectual circles of Muslims, Jews, and Christians under Abd al-Rahman's patronage contributed to a flourishing of the arts, literature, astronomy, medicine and other cultural and scientific disciplines. Muslim tolerance of the so-called people of the Book was high, and social intercourse at the upper levels was easy and constant. It was also a period during which a significant number of Christians chose to convert to Islam, although Christians continued to outnumber Muslims in Andalusia until the second half of the tenth century. 

Arabization of Spain :

Christians living in Andalusia gradually became Arabized, adopting certain elements of the speech and dress of their rulers, often including Arabic names. They were thus known by the designation of Mozarabs. This was not always received well by the jurists of Islam, who saw in this a danger of contamination and a threat to the faith of Muslim societies. Arabs, whether for reasons of pride or disdain, refused to learn the language of the populations they conquered, forcing the westerners to learn Arabic. Arabization did not stop with the language. Mozarab women of a certain social status became accustomed to going out with their faces veiled. Many Christians living in Muslim Spain gave up the practice of eating pork and often refused even to raise pigs. Records indicate that actual contacts between Muslims and Christians were relatively limited. As assimilated as he or she might be, the dhimmi always remained an infidel in the eyes of the Muslim. No mater how integrated Christians were in the Arabo-Islamic culture, by virtue of their Christian identity, they remained strangers in their own land. This became more evident as the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain passed. 

Campaigns against Spainish Christians :

In the days of the high Cordoban caliphate under Abd al-Rahman III, Christians generally were tolerated, protected, and treated with consideration. This began to change with the rule of Abu Amir al-Mansur (Almsnzor) in the late tenth century, who began a series of ruthless campaigns against Christians, including the plundering of churches and other Christian sites. Almanzor was regarded by Christian writers as a kind of satanic scourge. The most pious Muslims refrained from speaking to the infidels except from a distance. If a Muslim and a Christian met on a public road, the Christian always had to give way to the Muslim. Houses of Christians had to be lower than those of Muslims. An �infidel� Christian could never employ a Muslim in service. It was forbidden for Christians to learn the Quran or to speak about it to their children, as it was forbidden for them to speak about Christ with Muslims. Christians could not build new churches or monasteries or repair old ones if they deteriorated, although they could provide minimal maintenance, Churches and chapels had to be kept open day and night should a Muslim traveler wish to find lodging. Church bells could only be sounded softly, voices could not be raised in prayer, and no cross could be placed outside of any building. A priest could not carry a cross or gospel in a visible manner in case he should pass a Muslim. Christians were buried in their own cemeteries, far from Muslims, and funeral processions could not pass through Muslim areas. A Muslim who converted to Christianity was immediately sentenced to death, even if he had formerly been a Christian who had converted to Islam. Islamic authorities, concerned that Muslim society not be contaminated and in an effort to contain rebellions, forced Mozarabs to live in special quarters. 

Medieval Christian View of Islam : 

It is clear that from the earliest encounters of the West, the Arab(Saracen) invaders were not seen as essentially different from any other marauders or predators. The names by which Christians knew and referred to Muslims changed over the centuries. During the early period they were often referred to as Agarenes, a rough identification for Arab descendants of Hagar. Later the Greek word Saracen became more popular. This was a term that had been used from the early centuries of Christianity for all nomadic people but came to be applied specifically to Arabs. From the 12th century, when with the Crusades the �enemy� became better known to the Franks, the term Saracen was an umbrella term for any Muslim. The term Moor was used both generally for Muslims and specifically to refer to those who came directly from Africa. Later, with the advances of the Turkish armies, Turk was the general term applied to the followers of �Mahomet� or Muhammad. At times when anger at Muslim aggression was at its highest, as in western Europe, the term used to identify the aggressors was not Saracen but Barbari, meaning both barbarian and enemy. 

Summing up :

For almost a thousand years, from the first Moorish landing in 710 AD in Spain to the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 AD, Europe was under constant threat from Islam. In the early centuries, it was a double threat - not only of invasion and conquest, but also conversion and assimilation. All but the eastern most provinces like Syria, Egypt had been taken from Christian rulers, and the vast majority of the first Muslims West of Iran and Arabia were converts from Christianity. Their loss was sorely felt and heightened the fear that a similar fate was in store for Europe. In Spain and in Sicily, Muslim faith and Arab culture exercised a powerful attraction, and even those who remained faithful to the Christian religion often adopted the Arab language.

It was this fear, more than any other single factor, which led to the beginnings of Arabic scholarship in Europe, to the discipline which centuries later came to be known as Orientalism. In the monasteries of Western Europe, studious monks learned Arabic, translated the Quran, and studied Muslim texts, with a double purpose. First, the immediate aim of saving Christian souls from conversion to Islam and, second, the more distant hope of converting Muslims to Christianity. It look some centuries before they decided that the first was no longer necessary and that the second was impossible. In the see-saw of attack and counter attack between Christendom and Islam, the Crusades were launched by Christendom. They began with an inconclusive Christian victory and ended with a conclusive defeat.

Muslims Versus Chinese and Indians :

The European and the Muslim knew a great deal about each other. The European image of the Muslim was very different from the image of the Indian or the Chinese. The Indians, after all had never invaded Spain or crossed the Pyrenees; the Chinese had never conquered Constantinople or besieged Vienna.

Clash of Islam and Christendom :

Europe and Islam were old acquaintances, intimate enemies, whose continuing conflict derived a special virulence from their shared origins and common aims of conversion. Indeed, the whole complex process of European expansion and empire, in the last five centuries has its roots in the clash of Islam and Christendom.It began with the long and bitter struggle of the conquered peoples of Europe, in east and west, to restore their homelands to Christendom and expel the Muslim people who had invaded and subjugated them. It was hardly to be expected that the triumphant Spaniards, and Portugese would stop at the straits of Gibraltar, or that the Russians would allow the Tatars to retire in peace and regroup in their bases on the upper and lower Volga. However, in the central arena of Christian - Muslim warfare, on the European mainland, this Ottoman threat to Vienna and to the heart of Europe seemed as imminent as ever. 17th,18th and 19th centuries saw the reconquest of Christian lands under the occupation of the Ottomans. The conclusion of the World War I resulted in the defeat and end of the German, the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian empires and the Kingdom of Bulgaria.


Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution say :

14: Equality before law._ The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.

15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. 

21: Protection of life and personal liberty._ No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.

However, in practice the Articles are infringed time and again. One example is that a Muslim man is permitted to marry up to four wives whereas every other community is denied this privilege except those who can live under tribal traditions and rules.

Here is a quote from HELLO magazine (July, 2012) wherein the eldest queen of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan, has reportedly said that in North Bhutan���

This report highlights the glaring incidence of inequalities and discrimination in our country. While Muslim men are permitted polygamy, all women, including Muslim, are denied the right to have more than one spouse. In Hegelian terms, equality can be taken as the thesis. Discrimination between man and man and all women and Muslim men, amounts to anti-thesis. Synthesis would be polygamy for all men and polyandry a la Draupadi of Mahabharat fame, all women are allowed to have up to five husbands. 

Incidentally, polyandry would not only prevent land fragmentation but also foster natural birth control. Moreover, it would help to save on expensive accommodation in a city like Mumbai to enable young men to marry and lead a domestic life. Young men earning Rs.30,000/- a month can hardly afford their own accommodation in that metropolis.


November 2017


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