Islamo-Christian Civilization

Islamo-Christian Civilization

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
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
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
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
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
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

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