Pope Francis will arrive in the UAE at a time when relations between Muslims and Christians are both complex and contradictory. Yet ambiguity has characterised the relationship between the world’s two biggest faiths ever since the time that the Prophet Mohammed entered into discussions with a group of Christians who visited him in Makkah almost 1500 years ago. Muslim-Christian relations have, over the centuries, oscillated between conflict, coexistence and conversation.
Ours is a time in which tensions between the two faiths – whose members constitute almost half the world’s population – have reached a low point that has seen some reaching for comparisons with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire or the excesses of European colonialism. And yet – thanks to the goodwill of men such as Pope Francis, together with a host of leaders of Muslim and Christian communities at the local level – it is also the time of a new global friendship between members of the two religions.
Christianity and the Prophet Mohammed
Muslims and Christians have never been quite able to make up their minds about one another. In his early years the Prophet Mohammed saw his teaching as very much in continuity with the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. He expected that Jews and Christians, having Abraham and Moses as common ancestors, would accept his prophetic message as a continuation of their own. All were “People of the Book” who had received revelations of God in written texts.
Christian writers disagreed, often vehemently, but the disagreements were largely theological. In practice, relations between Muslims and Christians were good. While pagans in conquered territories were expected to convert to Islam, Christians and Jews were given the status of “dhimmi”, which allowed them to practise their religion in private and govern their own communities. In return they paid a poll tax. Though Byzantine polemicists insisted that Islam was a plot to destroy the Christian faith, other Christians saw Islam as “the rod of God’s anger” to deliver them from the oppressive rule of the Orthodox in Byzantium.