We have been witnessing in the past years, maybe since the tragic events of September eleven, the birth of an interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Daughters of Abraham groups were created, mosques as well as synagogues and churches opened their doors to different faiths and started talking to each other. People’s hearts opened to others and to other faiths. Men and women from the three faiths look at it with admiration and a feeling of peace, but a lot are witnessing it for the first time.
The energy and good will put into this are wonderful, a deep belief in the cause of communicating, spreading the feeling of peace and tolerance are admirable. From that praiseworthy work, a lot of monotheistic people discover the two other religions as well as knowledge they ignored before. Other than the learning they also build friendship, socialize, break the bread together and it is such a pleasure to see the hope of peace and tolerance when Jews, Christians, and Muslims eat at the same table, in a church, a synagogue or a mosque, sharing the food and the same faith in God. People are looking at this interfaith dialogue as a new phenomenon, but this is wrong because interfaith dialogue or cooperation is actually not new, it is centuries old.
Interfaith has very old roots in history. When the prophet Mohammed received the revelation, in the seventh century, 610 AD, his wife’s Christian cousin informed her that her husband was indeed a prophet chosen by God. He referred to the Gospel announcing the coming of a new prophet. When the first Muslims were persecuted by their own, the prophet sent them to the king of Abyssinia to live under his protection because he was a Christian. Also, the Roman war referred to in the Quran, when the Muslims felt defeated, because the Persians who were pagans defeated the Christians. A feeling of belonging to the same word and message was already in the believers’ minds.
We all recall the story of the Christians from Najran visiting prophet Mohammed in Madina. They wanted to leave because their prayer time came and he invited them to pray in his mosque instead. That was actually a proof of a successful interfaith dialogue, fifteen centuries ago. We also recall the agreement the prophet signed as a covenant with the monks of the Saint Catherine monastery in Sinai. The monks kept the parchment, with his seal granting protection to the monks and the community of the Saint Catherine for centuries until the Ottoman Sultan Selim I took it to Istanbul. It is now on display at the Topkapi Museum as well as one of the first written compilations of the Quranic text. That covenant, granting respect, protection and privileges to the monks is also an example of interfaith dialogue:
English Translation of the covenant:
“This is a letter which was issued by Mohammed, Ibn Abdullah, the Messenger, the Prophet, the Faithful, who is sent to all the people as a trust on the part of God to all His creatures, that they may have no plea against God hereafter. Verily God is Omnipotent, the Wise. This letter is directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.This letter contains the oath given unto them, and he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam. Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.I shall exempt them from that which may disturb them; of the burdens which are paid by others as an oath of allegiance. They must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, nor the monks disturbed in exercising their religious order, or the people of seclusion be stopped from dwelling in their cells. No one is allowed to plunder these Christians, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam. And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger. Jizya should not be put upon their judges, monks, and those whose occupation is the worship of God; nor is any other thing to be taken from them, whether it be a fine, a tax or any unjust right. Verily I shall keep their compact, wherever they may be, in the sea or on the land, in the East or West, in the North or South, for they are under My Protection and the testament of My Safety, against all things, which they abhor. No taxes or tithes should be received from those who devote themselves to the worship of God in the mountains, or from those who cultivate the Holy Lands. No one has the right to interfere with their affairs, or bring any action against them. Verily this is for aught else and not for them; rather, in the seasons of crops, they should be given a Kadah for each Ardab of wheat (about five bushels and a half) as provision for them, and no one has the right to say to them ‘this is too much’, or ask them to pay any tax. As to those who possess properties, the wealthy and merchants, the poll-tax to be taken from them must not exceed twelve drachmas a head per year. They shall not be imposed upon by anyone to undertake a journey, or to be forced to go to wars or to carry arms; for the Muslims have to fight for them. Do no dispute or argue with them, but deal according to the verse recorded in the Quran, to wit: ‘Do not dispute or argue with the People of the Book but in that which is best’ [29:46]. Thus they will live favored and protected from everything, which may offend them by the Callers to religion (Islam), wherever they may be and in any place they may dwell.
Should any Christian woman be married to a Muslim, such marriage must not take place except after her consent, and she must not be prevented from going to her church for prayer. Their churches must be honored and they must not be withheld from building churches or repairing convents. They must not be forced to carry arms or stones; but the Muslims must protect them and defend them against others. It is positively incumbent upon every one of the followers of Islam not to contradict or disobey this oath until the Day of Resurrection and the end of the world.”
Later in history, after the death of the prophet, the Khalifa Omar Ibn Khattab, also had very good relations with the Christian community. He met with them in the vicinity of the Kaaba and solved their problems including repairs needed for their church. Omar also showed all respect and consideration to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when he arrived to Jerusalem and met the archbishop in charge of the holy site. When Saladin defeated the crusaders and entered Jerusalem, he respected and protected the churches and the synagogues and allowed the Jews who escaped the crusaders to come back to their homes and places of worship. The agreement he made and the rules of religious coexistence are still in effect in Jerusalem. An interfaith dialogue that is hard to reach nowadays.
When the Arabs ruled what is now Spain, Al Andalous from the beginning of the eight century to the end of the fifteenth century, was a peaceful community where Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted under the same culture with three religions. Synagogues, churches and mosques were open to worshippers and neighborhoods included people from the three faiths with no differences or distinction. Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together in that haven of knowledge, peace and tolerance. In the house of wisdom in Baghdad in the tenth century, Muslim scholars worked with Christian and Jewish scholars on the famous works and inventions.
In Algeria in the nineteen century, El Amir Abdelkader had on purpose Muslims, Jews and Christians in his government working together for a same and common cause. Historians of all faiths wrote about his friendship with religious leaders of the three faiths and his good treatment and releasing of the prisoners of war, way before The Geneva convention. He later saved the Christians of Damascus in 1860. An accomplishment that owed him the gratitude of all kings and presidents of the time, from the Tsar of Russia, to the rulers of France, Greece, Turkey, Great Britain, The Vatican to President Abraham Lincoln. It represents a very good nineteenth century example of interfaith and brotherhood between the people of the book and Muslims. Inside the dome of the Christian cathedral, “Our Lady of Africa” built in 1858 in Algiers we can read the inscription: “Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims” . The cathedral is still a place of worship and prayer visited by Christians and Muslims as well as the Saint Augustine Basilica built in 1881, in Bone or Hippone.
We all remember with a bit of emotion the nice effort Pope John Paul the second made when he reached out to Jews and Muslims and his visit to Middle- East. His pilgrimage to the holy sites of the three religions and the dialogue of peace and tolerance he opened by building bridges of knowledge and brotherhood. We can go on and on with examples of interfaith dialogue through centuries, but the lesson we should learn is that we know more than we did centuries ago, which should make us more tolerant and more capable of peaceful accomplishments than the generations that preceded us.