Middle East Resources

Chapter 11 -- Early Christian - Muslim Encounters

The Historical Context

Christian-Muslim encounters and “dialogues,” have been going on for several centuries; thy have revolved around three crucial points, namely, the Bible, the Trinity, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

A scholarly study of the historical context of the Christian-Muslim discussions is found in the works of J. W. Sweetman, a British missionary who labored among the Muslims of India before the Partition of 1947. I refer to his nearly-encyclopedic book, ISLAM AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: A Study of the Interpretation of Theological Ideas in the Two Religions, Part II, Volume I; by J. Windrow Sweetman, D.D. Professor of Islamic Studies at the Selly Oak Colleges. It was published by the Lutterworth Press, London, 1955. Unfortunately, Professor Sweetman passed away before the completion of his project.  Only four of the six volumes of his work have been published. Still, they contain invaluable treasures for students of “Early Christian-Muslim Encounters.”

I quote from several relevant passages of Volume One, Part Two, as they show that the Christian message was made known to the Muslims in the East and the West (Spain), for quite a long time. This will contradict the claim of some modern Western Christians that missions to Islam have failed because the message was not contextualized!

Sweetman highlights our indebtedness to the Eastern Church and its apologia for the Christian faith. Under the heading of “The Eastern Church and Islam,” he wrote:

“Christendom owes a debt to Christians in the East for a fidelity to their faith which has survived through the long centuries, and for the valuable contacts which were maintained with Islam at a time when there was a possibility that the primary conditions of reconciliation, namely understanding and knowledge of each other, might have been denied by frontier barriers to the lands of Christendom and Islam. Perforce, the Eastern Church remained in the closest contact with Islam down through the years. P. 6

Dr. Sweetman proceeds with the subject of “The Christian through Muslim Eyes.”

Ibn Hazm’s account in his Fisal deserves to be recorded in full. He was writing c. A.D. 1049, probably in Spain: ‘Though Christians are People of the Book (Ahlu’l Kitab) and also accept some of the prophets, the majority of them and their sects do not accept the Unity in its purity (mujarradan), but profess the Trinity (tathlith) and so here is the place for them to be discussed.’ P. 18, 19

Ibn Hazm was a second-generation Muslim, as his grandfather was a Christian. He became one of the bitterest enemies of the Christian faith in Europe, and embarked on a detailed critique of the Christian Scriptures. 

“If we include the knowledge that Ibn Hazm had of Scripture, its various versions and other matters at this early period, we find him possessed of a body of information about Christianity (and Judaism) which, however perverse in some particulars, compares most favourably with the meager and often faulty acquaintance with Islam possessed by Latin Europe. However much the Christians of the East knew about Islam, Western Christendom had suffered from the schism of the Church and was cut of from potential sources of information about Islam. It is also quite clear that the chief knowledge of Christianity even in European Islam had an Eastern origin. The reason for this is that the barrier of language was there non-existent, whereas in the West much linguistic study had to be undertaken before there could be an easy familiarity with Islamic beliefs and practice. Ibn Hazm’s Western additions are, however, not without interest and it is possible that Ibn Hazm may have had Western sources of information about Christianity through family associations, since his grandfather had been a Christian.”  P. 22

After several quotations from both Christian and Muslim sources showing the degree of knowledge that Christians possessed of the Muslim faith, and vice versa, J. W. Sweetman concluded with this observation:

“This should be sufficient to show the kind of mutual acquaintances there was between Islam and Christianity in the East, and it will be seen that there was no such parallel acquaintance in the West until the proximity of Muslims and Christians in Spain and Sicily helped to dispel the ignorance of the Latin world. Naturally, since the Muslims of Spain were less cut off from the East than the greater part of Western Europe, it was more likely that the Muslims in Spain would have sounder knowledge of Christianity there than the Christians of Latin lands had of Islam. But that was a temporary phase.” P. 32

These quotations indicate that quite early in the history of Islam, Muslims did become acquainted with the major beliefs of the Christian faith, especially in the area of Christology. Their rejection of the Christian message was due to the tenacity of their belief that Muhammad was Allah’s last rasool, and the Book that descended on him, was the very Word of Allah!

The Polemics of Ibn Hazm

Sweetman tells us that “Ibn Hazm was of Spanish origins and was born at Cordoba towards the end of the tenth century and he was living till about A.D. 1064. In his book entitled Al Fisal fi’l Milal wa’l Afwa’ wa’n Nihal, a work of four volumes, incorporates a devastating attack on the integrity of the Bible. … It may be said that Ibn Hazm seems to have had considerable equipment for the task in which he employed himself. He had knowledge of various translations of the Old Testament and New. He knew the divergences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew. There were some fragments of the Old Testament translated into Arabic as early as the eighth century, most of which were perhaps unknown to Ibn Hazm, with the exception of the translation of the Scripture from the Latin version into Arabic which is attributed to John of Seville in that century, and which has been known in Spain in Ibn Hazm’s days.

“Ibn Hazm has now to answer the question which must have trembled on the lips of his interlocutor for some time. Supposing that his case for the untrustworthy character of the Jewish Scriptures is made out, what then becomes of the Quranic confirmation of these books, and what about the Muslim argument that the former Scriptures bear witness to Muhammad? P. 223

Ibn Hazm’s argument is:

“It is quite right for us to accept the Torah and the Injil. We have never denied it, but we call him an unbeliever who rejects these two books. But we merely hold that the sending down of the Torah on Moses by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Psalms on David by Allah is true, that the sending down of the Injil on Christ is true and the sending down of Scriptures on Abraham is true… We believe in all of these. … But we have already said and say again now, that the unbelieving children of Israel changed the Torah and the Injil. They increased it and decreased it, but Allah left surviving some parts as he pleased, in order to set up an argument against them.”  P. 224

Muslims in general, whether they were learned scholars such as Ibn Hazm was, or present-day ordinary Muslims, subscribe to a specific view of the origin and nature of the Scriptures or Books of Allah. They claim that all prophets or rasools received books from Allah containing specific messages (laws) for their particular people. Literally, those Kutob, (plural of Kitab,) descended upon the prophets, containing divine speech with specific instruction as to what to do, and what not to do. Muslims then precede to project backwards this concept of revelation, by imposing it on all the previous scriptures, such as the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Injil of the Messiah. Should a different view of the origin or nature of a Kitab (that preceded the Qur’an) is held, then it is judged as invalid; and its contents must have undergone alterations and falsifications. 

“Having satisfied himself with this attack on the Jews and Judaism and the Scriptures which are now in the hands of the Jews, Ibn Hazm turns his attention to the books of the New Testament and in particular to the Gospels. He anticipates no difficulty in showing the untruth of Christianity, which, says he, must be apparent to the meanest intelligence. He starts by saying that in the case of the New Testament he has no need to establish that it is not from God, as he has done in the case of the Torah. Christians themselves have relieved him from this necessity, because they do not claim that the Gospels were ‘sent down upon’ Christ by Allah, and neither do they claim that Christ brought these to them, but all without exception, … do not dispute that the four Gospels were compilations by the four whose names they bear.” Pp. 231, 232

Ibn Hazm in these criticisms overreaches himself and proves too much. He leaves no conceivable motive to any of the writers except a desire to deceive. What this deception was supposed to achieve is left in complete obscurity and why these people should endure the persecutions, which Ibn Hazm himself relates in another place, in defence of such a deception is not explained. Ibn Hazm’s position is not of a man who considers the whole story to be a fable. He is by his own faith committed to belief in the historical character of Christ and of much that is recorded in the Gospel. He has to explain why an imposture such as this could succeed unless there were absolutely no people to protest. He cannot bring the testimony of any one of the true hawariyun, [Disciples of Christ] to whom he admits the Qur’an gives a witness. He thinks Allah preserved the corrupt scriptures as a testimony against Christians, having as much of the original true Gospel to support the alleged prophecies about Muhammad, and yet is committed to the view that Allah did not preserve any protest from the true followers of Christ. All He did was to preserve the productions of Matthew and the rest, upon whom Ibn Hazm pours out his scorn. The account which Ibn Hazm gives is therefore incredible to the Christian.” Pp. 253, 254

“[Ibn Hazm] shows a remarkable erudition but a peculiarly literalist mind, and he makes no attempt to question whether the material he has gathered is not capable of an entirely different interpretation which has eluded him. Considering the date in the eleventh century when he wrote, his work must be regarded as a great achievement even when one feels that much of it is beating the air. It serves here to illustrate the most uncompromising attack on the Christian position at any rate as far as the Scriptures are concerned. It is not to be regarded as an excursion into a bygone age which might well have been left in oblivion… This is, important because it reveals what is being taught to Muslims even to-day, and its arguments may well be one of the forces to be reckoned with by those who seek an understanding between Islam and Christianity. That it does not increase the understanding but rather accentuates the misunderstanding will be obvious to the Christian who reads this account of its theses. Pp. 259, 260

Dr. Sweetman turned to the great Eastern Muslim scholar, Al Ghazzali. In contrast with the radical polemics of Ibn Hazm, Al Ghazzali’s work (Ar Raddul’l Jamil) may be considered as an irenical critique of Christianity.

“He starts his work by saying that what he has seen of the arguments of the Christians for their belief are very feeble, and yet that the most thoughtful of Christians do not hesitate to accept them in spite of the obscurities and ambiguities which they present. In these arguments Christians rely on a blind allegiance to authority (taqlid), holding tenaciously to the literal meaning which their ancients laid down dogmatically.”  P. 262


“It will be seen that Al Ghazzali is here proposing that the passages in the Gospels which attribute humanity to Christ should be taken literally and that any other passages which apparently predicate divinity to Him should be interpreted allegorically. This indicates that Al Ghazzali has prejudged the question. His creed is that it is impossible that there should be a union of divinity and humanity in Christ, and the method of interpretation he has adopted must lead to this result. So in spite of the appearance of fairness which we have here, it must be admitted that Al Ghazzali’s argument is to support a foregone conclusion. It is, however, very interesting to find he is prepared to argue the case on the assumption that the Gospels are genuine, and this in marked contrast to what we have seen in the case of Ibn Hazm’s attack.” P. 267

“After these attempts to reinterpret the sayings of Christ recorded in the Scripture, in which one of the classic texts has been left without some consideration, but which suffers to a certain extent from lack of an ampler consideration of the whole context, Al Ghazzali turns his attention to the use of the word ‘Kalima’ in the Qur’an. He says that Christians think that this term used of Christ in the Qur’an bears the same connotation as in their own technical use of it. He says, ‘This is a great illusion and blindness, which has made the Christians think that this technical meaning (istilah) which they have postulated … must be what is meant by the people of every dispensation (Shari’a), and that what is found in the honourable book (the Qur’an) necessarily indicates the divinity of Jesus, which is, ‘O people of the Book, do not exaggerate in your religion and speak of Allah nothing but the truth. The Christ, Jesus son of Maryam, is only the apostle of Allah and His Word which he has cast into Maryam and a spirit from him. So believe in Allah and His messengers and do not say: Three (thaltha --- trinity). Stop! It would be better for you! Allah is only one God!’ (Sura iv. 170)  Pp. 304,305

In closing, Dr. Sweetman referred to the time in the life of Al Ghazzali when he was seeking the true meaning of life and its mysteries, and was wandering in many parts of the Eastern Islamic world. The Eastern Christians that this Muslim scholar knew were preoccupied with Christological subjects. They had not benefited from the works of Saint Augustine, the Western Church father. While Augustine had been a staunch defender of Orthodox doctrine, he did not restrict his concerns with the doctrines of the Trinity, and the Person of Jesus Christ. His own life-experiences, as well as his encounter with the British monk Pelagius who was spreading an unbiblical anthropology, led him to emphasize the Pauline doctrines of the sinfulness of man and of sovereign grace of God. It is very sad that the Christian East had too little of Augustine, and indulged in too many metaphysical speculations!

In conclusion, Sweetman wrote:

“As one reads these pages one feels how sad it is, that this truly great soul had not deeper and clearer instruction during those days of his wanderings in search of peace of soul, and one may remark on the absence of any evidence in these pages, that the doctrines of grace had been shown to him, in the matter which is all important to the Christian evangel. Apparently Al Ghazzali was looked upon as in intellect to convince, rather than as soul in quest of peace and salvation, as indeed he was.” Pp. 307,308

These quotations from the work of J. W. Sweetman show that both Muslims and Christians, when they came in contact with each other, gained a considerable knowledge of the beliefs of the other side. This doesn’t imply that Muslims, for example, accepted or even understood the Christian concept of revelation. But they knew what the Christian belief about this subject was all about; even though they rejected it resolutely. And while Western Christians in the Middle Ages were, at first, slow to learn about Islam, nevertheless, they eventually accomplished an adequate knowledge of their opponents’ faith.

Unfortunately, several Evangelical missiologist have lately concerned themselves to a great extent with Culture Anthropology, while at the same time manifesting little interest in the theological and confessional aspects of the Christian Tradition. Professor Gerald Bray dealt with this matter in his book, Creeds, Councils & Christ, published by the Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1984.

Dr. Bray is a Canadian scholar, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. He teaches at Beeson Divinity School in the areas of church history, historical theology and Latin. Before coming to Beeson, he lectured at Oak Hill College in London, England.

Describing some of the changes that have taken place in Biblical Studies, Dr. Bray wrote:

 “Anthropological influence has been felt in the work of Structuralist interpreters like Paul Ricoeur, which has highlighted the symbolical richness of biblical language and imagery. At a more prosaic level it has led to the search for ‘dynamic equivalence’ in translating the Scriptures. These are expressions and symbols which can convey the original force of the Greek New Testament in contemporary idiom. Ideas of this kind have been influential among missionary translators attempting to bridge the enormous gap between a primitive culture and the relatively sophisticated world of the New Testament.” P. 24, 25

“The fundamental assertion of the Bible is that God can and does speak to mankind in a way which enables us to make an intelligent response. God and man are not so much cut off from each other by their mutually incompatible natures as united by spiritual characteristics which make communion between them possible. The need for all mankind to find a purpose in existence, to create a metaphysic, is the testimony of nature to this fundamental reality. The Christian revelation is God’s answer to this need, fulfilling and replacing aspirations half-hidden in the mythologies and cosmologies of the world. In this sense it is related to them by a kind of generic affinity, but at the same time it is radically different. The message of the Bible is a message of spiritual truth addressed to the human mind. Dogmatic definitions of its content are not an aberration, but the logical outcome of the process of revelation itself. Salvation for the whole man cannot bypass the mind, but must use it for the powerful weapon which it is. [Emphasis added]

“Properly understood in this way, Christian dogmatism is the greatest force for freedom which mankind has ever known. By claiming the mind for God, dogmatism shatters the bounds of the natural world which imprison the creative imagination and distort scientific analysis. … The early centuries of the Christian Church were a time of great hardship for those who followed the way of the cross. Christians had little cause to indulge in activities which might sidetrack them in their race for the prize of eternal salvation. Yet it was in those very centuries that the dogmatic foundation of Christian theology was laid, to be built upon later in the great struggle against paganism and Greek philosophy. Today, a dispirited and non-dogmatic Church is in retreat everywhere in the Western world. It is time we looked again at our heritage and re-examined our attitudes toward it, so that we too, like our forefathers in the faith, may bear a true witness to the God who has spoken to mankind and sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins.” Pp. 37, 38 [Emphasis added]

In Chapter 3, Gerald Bray dealt with the subject of “The Sanctification of the Mind.”

“The first principle which had to be established was that the human mind (nous) was corrupted by the fall of man, and that human reason (logos) could not function properly in its fallen state. Here it was necessary to maintain a delicate balance between two opposing tendencies in pagan thought. On the one hand, it was essential to reject the idea that a man could know God by a process of deductive reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:21). The gospel was folly to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23; Acts 17:32) precisely because it could not be explained by a process relying on logical argument. The intellect of man had to be crucified on the cross and born again.” P. 73 [Emphasis added]

Islamic Anthropology, a Clue to a Proper Missionary Approach to Muslims

It is indeed very sad, if not tragic, that in the early years of the Third Millennium when Christians and Muslims are coming in close contact with each other in many parts of the world, that cultural considerations have taken center stage in several missionary circles, in lieu of those important theological considerations that are necessary for a proper missiological approach to Islam.

In Islam, man does not need redemption from without, since “Man's salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices.” Man is weak and prone to forget the demands of God’s Law (Shari’a); therefore, it becomes necessary to remind him, time and again, of the contents and demands of this Law. God accomplishes this by sending messengers (rasools) with specific revelations to deliver to mankind. These revelations “descend” upon them in the form of a Book. As to the content of these divine books, they are purely and simply laws that give “Hidayat” (Guidance) enabling mankind to find and walk on Al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem.  This “Straight Path” is a basic tenet in Islam and appears in the form of a prayer address to Allah in the first chapter or Surah of the Qur’an, “Al-Fatiha.”

Taking the above into consideration, it becomes evident that the main obstacle in reaching Muslims is not cultural, but doctrinal. Actually, the Islamic anthropology does not differ that much from the Christian heresy of Pelagianism, or its modern type known as modernism.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, Arab Christians are engaged in witnessing to Muslims. They tell them that the Gospel has a real message of liberation from the bondage of legalism. They exhibit a spirit of love and genuine concern for the eternal welfare of their (virtual) Muslim neighbors. This agape love for one’s neighbor cannot but melt down the hearts of some of those who read the Christians’ marturia. This love is a reflection of God’s prior love for lost sinners, and is the powerful reason for the conversion of Muslims to Jesus Christ.

It’s high time that more attention be accorded to the Biblical directives for missions, especially those of Saint Paul. For notwithstanding the Jewish and Gentile outright rejection of the gospel of the cross, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” As he put it in First Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved, it is the power of God, (dunamis Theou estin).” (1:18) The foundation of salvation is built on the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ; while the instrumental means of salvation is found in the kerygma, i.e., the “Word of the Cross”, whether it is formally preached by a minister of the Gospel, or given as a marturia (testimony) by a Christian. Paul expressed this basic missionary doctrine in verse 21: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, it pleased God, through the foolishness of the preached message (kerygmatos) to save those who believe.” I Corinthians 1:21