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Smith, Jane I. . "Islam and Christendom." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Mar 7, 2021. <>.


Smith, Jane I. . "Islam and Christendom." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Mar 7, 2021).

Islam and Christendom


Jane I. Smith

The Christian world into which Islam so unexpectedly burst in the seventh century c.e. had undergone a succession of divisions, controversies, and power struggles such that east and west were at serious odds, and each contained within its regions deep tensions and disagreements. It is little wonder that the new religion of Islam, arising out of the heart of Arabia, appeared to those who knew of its existence as another Christian heresy, not unlike the many other heresies that had wrinkled the face of Christendom since its inception. The fact that within a century of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 Islam had spread across much of the known world was for many Christians inexplicable, frightening, and theologically incomprehensible.

Muslims, for their part, on the basis of the Quranic revelations, found it impossible to understand why Christians insisted on impugning the oneness of God by their affirmation of the divinity of Jesus and use of Trinitarian formulas. In the beginning of his career, Muhammad seems to have understood his role as the final prophet of a monotheistic faith of which Jews and Christians, before their perversion of the original revelations given to them by God, were the earlier members. It was only when Muhammad encountered unexpected resistance from these communities and their refusal to recognize his status as the final prophet of true monotheism that his community came to understand itself as the bearers of a faith that was related to, but different from, the extant religions of the Jews and Christians. This faith became known as Islam, submission to the one God.

Islam and Christendom

(Left) After the Christians reconquered Spain from Muslim rule, many mosques were changed into churches. In Seville, for example, the top of the fifty-meter-high minaret of the Almohed mosque, built from 1184 to 1198, was remodeled and transformed into a cathedral belltower.

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The Effect of Early Islam on Christians and Christianity

Arabia was the home of significant Jewish and Christian communities, particularly in the south. During the Prophet's lifetime, Christians were living in Medina, Mecca, Khyber, Yemen, and Najran, although their numbers were small in the areas in which Muhammad carried on his preaching mission. Although Muslim doctrine attests to the fact that the Prophet could not read or write, thus ensuring that he did not “copy” from the scriptures or writings of Christians and Jews, there is also a record of his interaction with Christians throughout his life. One popular tradition records a meeting in Syria between a young Muhammad and a Christian monk named Bahira. The monk recognized the seal of prophethood between the boy's shoulders as attested to by scripture. The use of Christian scripture to confirm Muhammad's prophethood was also evidenced when a Christian cousin of his first wife Khadijah, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, acknowledged Muhammad's recitation of the revelation to be identical with that sent down to Moses. During the early prophetic period in Mecca, Muhammad's small community was often persecuted by the Quaraysh tribe, which was concerned for the maintenance of its hold over the city's ancient and lucrative holy places. At one point the Prophet sent a number of his followers to Abyssinia (what is how Ethiopia) to find shelter. The Abyssinians are reported to have listened to the preaching Prophet with great respect and awe, especially the description of Mary, mother of Jesus, leading them to affirm that this indeed was God's revelation.

These and other incidents confirm for Muslims their belief that Islam is not a derivative of Christianity but a divine revelation, a fact that at least some of the Christians of Muhammad's lifetime recognized. The Quran itself identifies Jews and Christians as the recipients of earlier revealed books or scriptures, namely the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel. These scriptures are believed to have been corrupted by the communities to which they were sent and are thus abrogated and in some senses superseded by the Quran. They are nonetheless held in esteem insofar as they were originally God's revelation, and the peoples to whom they were given are thus considered in a special category, namely the People of the Book. All prophets are said to have taught the identical message that came from God to Muhammad.

Perhaps because of their greater resistance to the presence of the Muslim community in Medina, Jews are treated more harshly in the Quran than are Christians. The primary offense of the Christians is that they hold to a Trinitarian doctrine of God and the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is referred to in ninety-three verses of the Quran, affirming that he was born of Mary the Virgin, that he was a righteous prophet, that he was given clear signs from God, that he had disciples (helpers), that he performed such miracles as healing the blind and the lepers and raising the dead by the power of God, and that he will be a sign of the coming of the hour of judgment. The Quran also says very specifically that those who refer to Jesus as God are blasphemers, and that Christians saying that Christ is the son of God is an imitation of Jews, who earlier had said that Ezra is the son of God. According to the Quran Jesus was only a servant; Jesus the son of Mary was no more than an apostle of God. Quranic verses dealing with Jesus' death have been interpreted differently by commentators, but generally they have been taken to mean that Jesus did not die by crucifixion. For Christians the Quran has thus served as a denial of Jesus' incarnation and death on the cross and of the reality of the Trinity.

About Christians themselves the Quran is quite charitable. Apart from accusations of heresy for their stand on the Trinity and some chiding for their conviction that theirs is the true religion, the Quran declares that Christians are people of compassion and mercy, that they will be able to enter paradise, and even that they are nearest in love to the (Muslim) believers. One Quranic verse is interpreted to mean that Jesus himself foretold the coming of a prophet called Ahmad (from the same root as Muhammad). In 632, only months before he died, Muhammad apparently met for the first time with a Christian community as such. An official delegation of Christians, probably led by a bishop, came to Mecca from Najran in Yemen. After engaging the Christians in discussion, the Prophet is said to have realized that Christian teachings are indeed incompatible with Islam, after which the revelation followed that only Islam is acceptable to God as a religion.

The early community of Muslims in Medina established its presence and extended its domain primarily through carrying out a series of razzias or marauding expeditions against hostile tribes. These led to more serious encounters, during which Muslims were not always the aggressors. In any case, it was only the pagans to whom the choice of becoming Muslim or suffering serious consequences was given. As the so-called People of the Book, Christians and Jews, along with Magians, Samaritans, Sabians, and later Zoroastrians and others, were treated as minorities under the protection of Islam (dhimmis), believers in God despite their refusal to accept the prophethood of Muhammad. Adult male Christians were thus not required to convert (although that option was always open to them), but they were required to pay a poll tax as the price for this protection. Because of the income accrued from this tax, Muslims in general preferred that Christians (and Jews) not convert to Islam but maintain their status as protected minorities. Dhimmis were granted the right to practice their religion in private, to defend themselves against external aggression, and to govern their own communities. Later they were exempted from military service, although some Christians fought on the side of Muslims in the early expansion of Islam. In fact, Christian subjects were often allowed a good deal of latitude in paying their poll and other taxes.

The specifics of the requirements for Christians who enjoyed dhimmi status were spelled out in what has come to be referred to as “the covenant of Umar,” which exists in several versions and most likely was attributed to rather than designed by the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–44). The covenant stipulated prohibition of the building of new churches or repair of those in towns inhabited by Muslims, although in some cases when financing was available Christians did construct new places of worship. Beating the wooden clapper that Christians used to call people to prayer was forbidden, as was loud chanting or carrying the cross or the Bible in processions. Dhimmis were allowed to keep their own communal laws, although they could apply to a Muslim judge if they wished. They were not, however, allowed to give testimony concerning a Muslim in a court of law. The recruiting of new Christians was forbidden, as was any insult about Islam or its Prophet. As a means of identification, particular dress, such as a special girdle, was required for Christians. Over the first several centuries of Islam, dress stipulations grew increasingly stringent for Christian men and women. A Christian woman was not allowed to marry a Christian man, although the Quran does allow marriage of a Muslim man to a Christian woman. Nevertheless, Islamic law from early on stipulated a great range of conditions under which such a marriage might take place. The children of a mixed marriage were always considered Muslim. A Muslim could own a dhimmi slave, but never the opposite.

Some of the judges and lawyers of Islam were strict in the interpretation of dhimmi status, especially in reaction against Christians and Jews occupying high administrative positions, while others showed more flexibility. The different legal schools were not in complete agreement as to what privileges should be allowed to dhimmis, and customs differed from one place to another. The strictest interpretations were applied in Baghdad and other major Islamic cities, while enforcement of regulations in small towns and rural areas was often more lenient. Dhimmis were allowed to live anywhere except in Mecca and Medina. In actual practice, Christians and Muslims often had very friendly relations. Muslims, for example, are said to have especially enjoyed the hospitality of monks in Christian monasteries. Christians occupied high positions in the caliphal courts as physicians, engineers, architects, and translators, and sometimes they were treated as having virtually equal rights with Muslims. Muslim writers and poets sometimes gave great tribute to Christians in their literature.

The dhimmi status seems to have been a changing one, in that laws were made and either broken or forgotten, and relations between Christians and Muslims obviously were dependent on individual whim and personal advantage as well as on what was stipulated by the law. Although Christians and Jews were often in positions of public service in Muslim communities, and sometimes were among the ranks of the very wealthy, they were never free from the whims of individual rulers who might choose to enforce strict regulations, or from the caprice of mobs expressing their passions in prejudicial and harmful ways. In general, the first Arab Muslim dynasty, that of the Umayyads, was fairly flexible in terms of its Christian citizens, but in Islam's second century the laws became more stringent. Under the reign of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–61), laws against dhimmis were most severe, sometimes resulting in persecution of Christians as well as of Mutazilis, Shiites, and others considered opponents of the state. Through the Middle Ages there was a hardening of attitudes against dhimmis, due more to political than to religious reasons, especially after the period of the Crusades.

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