At a recent Donald Trump rally in Rock Hill, S.C., a Muslim woman stood silently amid the crowd. She was wearing a traditional white hijab and a blue T-shirt engraved with the words “Salam, I come in peace.” Suddenly, she was escorted out by a police officer while some in the crowd jeered and booed.
When asked about why she went to this rally, she replied that she wanted to stand against the hateful rhetoric spewed by a candidate aspiring to the highest office in the land. A yellow Star of David glued on her T-shirt and inscribed with the word “Muslim” was a powerful reminder of what happens when someone in a leadership position starts to classify people as “us versus them.”
There is a perception out there that relations between Christians and Muslims have always been this tense for the last 1,400 years. If we take a journey into the past, we discover a different reality.
In the beginning of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad had the support of Waraqa ibn Nawfal, the paternal first cousin of his first wife Khadija. According to Islamic tradition, Waraqa was a Nestorian priest credited for being one of the first believers in the prophecy of Muhammad. By some other accounts, he was also a distant cousin of the Prophet.
During the next few years, early Muslims faced persecution at the hands of the pagan Meccans, which prompted Muhammad to send them and seek refuge with the Negus of Abyssinia in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. He advised them with the following reported words: “If you were to go to Abyssinia, it would be better for you, for the Christian king there will not tolerate injustice, and it is a friendly country, until such time as God shall relieve you from your distress.”
The early Muslims also perceived the Greeks of the Christian Byzantine Empire as closer to their religion while the polytheist Meccans felt more inclination toward the Persian Sassanid Empire and their religion.
In the Quran, Verses 2 to 4 of Chapter 30 entitled “The Romans,” we read: “The Byzantines have been vanquished in a nearby land and, after being vanquished, they shall be victorious. Within a few years, for with God rests all power of decision, first and last, and on that day the believers too shall rejoice.”
The Meccans taunted the Muslims by referring to the recent military defeats of the Romans by the Persians. This saddened the Prophet until these prophetic verses were revealed, predicting that the Romans would triumph over the Persians in a few years, possibly in AD 615.
In Chapter 5, The Table Spread, Verse 82 describes relations of love and respect among true Christians and Muslims: “… and you will surely find that, of all people, they who say ‘Behold, we are Christians,’ come closest to feeling affection for those who believe in this divine writ. This is so because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not given to arrogance.”
Another historical example is the golden age during the Moorish presence in Spain known as “La Convivencia” where Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully. In Toledo, for example, mosques were used by Muslims on Friday, by Jews on Saturdays, and by Christians on Sunday. These early generations were able to heal and reconcile despite the major rifts caused by the Crusades.
Nowadays, a rabbi, an imam and a pastor are planning to pull off an interfaith miracle by creating a shared space under one roof in Berlin, Germany. The “House of One” as it will be called will be dedicated to the city’s Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities as a shared place for worship.
Berlin is widely known for the peaceful fall of the wall separating one nation and one people. It is also befitting that it be a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of believers from three different faiths who want to better understand each other. Since the kickoff of a fundraising campaign, this project is one step closer to becoming a reality.
Current political events in the Middle East feed a perception that relations among Muslims, Christians and Jews have always been tense in the last 1,400 years. In order to combat this erroneous perception, I would recommend an excellent book entitled “Peace Be Upon You” by award-winning historian Zachary Karabell. In this excellent read, the author reveals several periods of peaceful coexistence and even cooperation among the three Abrahamic faiths.
In spite of current tensions around the world, those of us in the interfaith movement are optimist enough to believe that we can regenerate other prosperous moments of respect and tolerance among all three faiths.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.