Muslim-Christian Relations: A New Chapter, Made in Canada

The modern image of Islam -” as seen through Christian eyes -” usually bears little resemblance to the truth. In fact, in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Islam was often depicted as representing the opposite of its core message.

Through ingrained traditions of misperception, the faith was misunderstood even by Christian theologians. Many portrayed Islam as a religious heresy or fraud, and a dangerous distortion of the "true Church;" or proclaimed Muhammad an imposter and false prophet and dismissed Islam’s foundational scripture, the Holy Qur’an, as a blasphemous collection of errors and lies.

The Antichrist character in the New Testament Book of Revelation was often identified with the Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, Islam, as the collective Other, was read as a manifestation of demonic darkness and barbaric ignorance. This led to more stereotyping, in which Muslims came to represent the embodiment of evil on earth.

An early translation of the Qur’an into English directly from its original Arabic (rather than Latin), was made by George Sale during the 1700s. Sale opened his translation with this commentary, entitled "To the Reader":

"I imagine it almost needless either to make an apology for publishing the following translation, or to go about to prove it a work of use as well as curiosity," he wrote. "They must have a mean opinion of the Christian religion, or be but ill-grounded therein, who can apprehend any danger from so manifest a forgery: and if the religious and civil institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so; whether we consider their extensive obtaining, or our frequent intercourse with those who are governed thereby.”

Whenever Christians praised the Qur’an, which was rarely done, such praise was generally subdued or qualified. For example, Sale remarks: "The Koran gives necessary laws and directions, in frequent admonitions to moral and divine virtues, and above all to the worshipping and reverencing of the only true God and resignation to his will; among which are many excellent things intermixed, not unworthy even a Christian’s perusal.”

Throughout history, misunderstanding has led to intolerance and discrimination. But the time is now for Muslims and Christians to break down the old barriers and build new bridges of trust and understanding. To this end, the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada approved a statement on Muslim-Christian dialogue.

I feel strongly that this is a truly historic and ground-breaking document. Canadian Muslims welcome it heartily and consider it a collective milestone in interfaith relations in this country. I feel just as strongly that it should be emulated by other churches, not only in Canada but around the world.

Key points contained in the General Council’s statement on the relationship of the Church and Islam say that the United Church of Canada:

– acknowledges a long history within Christianity of hostility and misunderstanding toward Muslims and Islam and seeks to commit itself to a journey of reconciliation with Muslim neighbours;

– acknowledges the prophetic witness of Muhammad and that the mercy, compassion and justice of God is expressed in the Qur’an, regarded by Muslims as the authoritative word of God;

– affirms that God, whose love we have found in Jesus Christ to be boundless, creative, and resourceful, and who creatively and redemptively works in us, also works in others;

– affirms that God is creatively and redemptively at work in the religious life of Muslims and that we share with Muslims a belief in one God and a common spiritual origin in the faith of Abraham;

– affirms that Jesus is accorded immense honour as a prophet in the Qur’an and by Muslims (this affirmation was added by the Council);

– affirms the self-witness of Islam as a religion of peace, mercy, justice, and compassion;

– affirms with Muslims a vision of a common humanity that leads us into collaboration for peace and justice in the world;

– affirms a vision of Muslim and Christian relationships no longer bound by past histories of ignorance, indifference, and ill will;

– invites the church to participate in dialogue that upholds the integrity of each tradition, while allowing the faithful witness of each tradition, and is characterized by careful listening to each other;

– invites the church to seek out opportunities to strive together with Muslims to seek justice and resist evil.