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Islamo-Christian Civilization
Richard W. Bulliet

Date: 12/14/2012

The phrase “Islamo-Christian civilization” first appeared in 2004 in the book The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization by historian Richard W. Bulliet. It was coined with a two-fold purpose. First, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was proposed as a way of focusing on the shared history and characteristics of the Islamic and Christian religious communities, rather than on past and current episodes of enmity between them. It followed the pattern of “Judeo-Christian civilization,” a phrase that came into vogue in the 1950s as an oblique avowal of the post-Holocaust mood of interfaith reconciliation in Europe and America. Second, it was proposed as a way of encouraging historical and conceptual investigation of the great extent of overlap and parallel growth between the two religions that had manifested itself in myriad ways over many centuries. It took as an axiom this notion: The greater the recognition of a sibling relationship between Islam and Christianity, the better the prospects for peaceful coexistence in future years.


Half of the people in the world profess either Christianity or Islam. Each of these vast communities contain variant interpretations the stray far from the earliest versions of the faith. As a rule, believers who define their faith by adherence to what they understand those earliest versions to be, exhibit hostility toward, or at most grudging toleration of, interpretations that came into being at a later point in time. Within Christianity, Catholics went through centuries of militant opposition to Protestants, and many Protestants and Catholics find it difficult to grant full acceptance to Mormonism, Christian Science, and other comparatively recent interpretations of Christianity. Within Islam, it is difficult to assign chronological priority to either Sunnism or Shi‘ism; however, Sufi organizations and branches of Shi‘ism that emerged at comparatively late dates, such as the Nusairis and the Druze, initially encountered hostility from the older versions of the faith. Interpretations that have emerged even more recently, such as the Baha’is and the Ahmadis, still face widespread rejection as versions of Islam.


For later versions of a faith to encounter difficulty in establishing their legitimacy in the eyes of those who adhere to earlier versions is normal in religious history. But this generally does not prevent the sundry versions being gathered under a single umbrella for purposes of identification. That is to say, when people speak of Christianity today they group Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants together despite the undeniable histories of enmity within Christendom, just as estimates of the world Muslim population group Sunnis and Shi‘is together despite their manifest differences and, in some contexts, murderous hostility. This being the case, how difficult can it be to look beyond the historical episodes of Muslim-Christian warfare and vilification, which were no greater in dogmatic intensity or bloodthirstiness than those between Catholics and Protestants or between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, and group Christianity and Islam together as a single Islamo-Christian civilization that encompasses half the world?

If we go back to the early days of Islam, it is apparent that the first Muslims were no more certain that they were pioneers of a new religion than were the first followers of Jesus. Scholars sometimes use the term “believers” (Arabic: mu’minun) for Muhammad’s earliest followers and refer to the early community that formed around Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion as “the Jesus movement.” In this way, they seek to account for the time that elapsed before the words “Muslim” and “Christian” became fixed as the signifiers of new faith communities.


Exactly when Islam’s distinctiveness became universally recognized remains a matter of debate. In fact, medieval sources reflecting Christian viewpoints on the matter expressed ambivalence for several centuries. To medieval Christians, it seemed quite possible that Islam was a Christian heresy, just as Protestantism would seem to be to Roman Catholics a millennium later. After all, many Germanic peoples followed the Egyptian bishop Arius in his Unitarian teaching that Jesus was not truly or fully God, but rather a man who became divinized at the time of his baptism. Yet the Arians are always classified as Christians, albeit of heretical belief.


The Gospel of Barnabas, an account of Jesus’ life dating in the extant Italian and Spanish versions to the sixteenth century, provides evidence that some Christians and/or Muslims—the actual author is unknown—never gave up the idea that the two religions were one. Not only does this “gospel” mirror the details about Jesus’ life contained in the Qur’an while including the substance of the New Testament gospels, but it explicitly “predicts” the coming of Muhammad, as when God says: “When I shall send thee into the world I shall send thee as my messenger of salvation, and thy word shall be true, insomuch that heaven and earth shall fail, but thy faith shall never fail.”


Mohammed is his blessed name (Barnabas 97:10). Was it political and military success that reified Islam’s position as a separate faith? O r was it perhaps t he Christians’ bewilderment and fear who saw the majority of their brothers and sisters in faith absorbed within the Muslim caliphate, ultimately to convert in large numbers to Islam over a period of some four centuries? There is no way of telling. If one looks, however, at the earliest widespread public avowal of Islam accessible to people of all faiths, namely, the gold and silver coinage in Arabic script that began to be issued in 76 AH, it is easier to see the caliphate as an economic power focused on the Arab people than as the institutional embodiment of a new religion. There was no iconic equivalent of the cross to symbolize doctrinal difference, and the words of the Qur’an that appeared on the coins would have conveyed very little to most people in an era when fewer than five percent of the caliphate’s population could actually read the Arabic script.


What would have made Islam seem like a branch of Christianity rather than an absolutely separate religion? First and foremost, the Qur’anic revelation portrayed Jesus as a divine messenger who brought a sacred book to the Israelites and predicted the coming of Muhammad: Jesus, the son of Mary, said: “O children of Israel! Behold, I am an apostle of God unto you, [sent] to confirm the truth of whatever there still remains of the Torah, and to give [you] glad tidings of an apostle who shall come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad [i.e., Muhammad]” (Sura 61: 6). The virginity of Mary was similarly affirmed.


Jesus’ death on the cross was denied, but that was not an unheard of view among early Christians who followed the so-called Docetist heresy. Muslim readers who read the New Testament closely further pointed to passages that could be taken to imply that Jesus would send another “Comforter” or “Intercessor.” The Greek used here is parakletos, sometimes taken as a misspelling of periklytos, meaning “praised one” (i.e., Muhammad) to care for people after his own departure. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. (John 16:7–8) And again: If you love Me, keep My commandments. Then I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, for it does not see Him nor know Him, but you know Him, for He is ever with you and will be in you (John 14: 16–17).

Eminent Muslim scholars repeatedly interpreted these passages as predictions of the coming of Muhammad, or as intimations of the End Times, when a Messiah (“anointed one”), known to both Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims as the Mahdi (“the right guide”), would come to redeem a sinful world. In that eschatological context, which was elaborated upon extensively in the collections of Muhammad’s sayings (the Hadith literature), Muslim tradition strongly affirmed that Jesus would return in the End Times to combat and defeat the demonic Antichrist, known to Muslims as the Dajjal, and thus pave the way for the arrival of the Mahdi, who would preside over a millennium of peace and justice.


Christian theologians, naturally, did not share these Muslim interpretations. Instead, they saw John’s verses dealing with the Paraclete as references to the Holy Spirit, one of the three components of the Trinity, despite the implication in the cited verses that the Paraclete had not yet arrived while the Holy Spirit had already figured in Jesus’s baptism. But the effort of the Muslims to see Muhammad’s coming as something predicted in the Bible, both in the old and the new testaments, was parallel to the systematic Christian effort to interpret the Old Testament as a prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ and his church. Both Muslims and Christians, in other words, sought to portray their spiritual founders as fulfilling prophecies found in earlier scripture.  In hindsight, it seems apparent that Islam was not just a new version of Christianity. Rather, they did indeed become separate religions regardless of any ambiguity or efforts at doctrinal reconciliation that may have existed in the first centuries after Muhammad. Yet hindsight changes, depending upon how far past the history is that one is scrutinizing. It is easy to find Protestant and Catholic leaders around the year 1600 who denied the validity of one another’s faith, just as it is easy to find Catholic and Orthodox leaders in 1100 who rejected one another’s version of Christianity or Protestant preachers today who cannot accept the Mormon brand of Christianity. Eventually, however, once many battles had been fought, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians grudgingly came to accept one another as Christians. And they may all eventually agree to accept under the Christian umbrella the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and Korea’s Unification Church, established by the late Sun Myung Moon (d.2012), who represented himself as the Messiah and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.


By some measures, Islam is closer to Christianity doctrinally than either the Mormons or the Unification Church. To be sure, Islam denies the Trinity, as have various Christian sects over the centuries from the Arians to the Unitarians. But the revelations contained in the Qur’an and the traditions preserved in the Hadith literature echo and reiterate the traditions of the Jews and Christians who were living at the time of Muhammad and thus contain almost none of extra-Biblical content that pervades the Book of Mormon, especially its account of Jesus appearing in the Americas after his resurrection and his establishment there of a community of believers. Nor is there any Qur’anic parallel to Sun Myung Moon’s claim that he is the Messiah who has come to complete the unfinished mission of Jesus. Muhammad is one of God’s messengers, not a messiah. If a sufficient degree of hindsight someday allows the Mormons and the Unification Church to be fully accepted as parts of the world Christian community, then it would be absurd to deny the possibility of a similar reconceptualization of Islam.


Except that Muslims would thereby lose their independent identity and history as a separate and remarkably successful religion. There are Muslims who do, in fact, consider themselves Christians by virtue of the reverence they feel for Jesus as a messenger of God. Yet they do not subordinate this sort of affiliation to their primary identity as Muslims. Are there Christians who feel that they a re also Muslims? Perhaps, particularly among those individuals who are attracted to Sufism. But no amount of hindsight is likely to see the concept of Christianity engrossed into the concept of Islam, if only because the former is six centuries older than the latter.


The term “Islamo-Christian” conveys the vast degree of overlap between the two faiths, a degree of overlap that is significantly greater than the overlap suggested by the commonplace term “Judeo-Christian.” Use of this term encourages a comparison between Islam and Christianity that can yield valuable insights into each religion’s history and institutional structure. What follows outlines some of the lessons that can be learned by exploring the common characteristics of Islamo-Christian civilization.

A joint publication from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the British Council

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