Friday, April 2, 2010

Between Military and Missionary Models: Islam and Christianity

Islam historically has operated within an openly military political process where the faith is spread by direct military conquest. This likely is connected to the nature of Islam and its origins. Islam, unlike Christianity, spread by direct military conquest. In the course of a single century, between 632 and 732, Islam went from tribesmen in Arabia to Muslim armies marching into France. Thus the Islamic tradition inherited a different model of spreading itself from that of Christianity. To be fair to Muslims it should be noted that, while pagans had no choice but to convert or die, Jews and Christians were protected as “people of the book,” a relationship encoded into official policy by the pact of Umar in 637. History is certainly far more complex than fanatical barbarous Muslims putting all who would not embrace their faith to the sword and meek Christians converting through rational argument. Nevertheless, there are certain differences in how Muslims and Christians conceive of spreading their religions and this has practical ramifications.

Christianity was born out of the destruction of a failed political messianic movement. (Whether or not the historical Jesus intended to lead a political movement to physically overthrow the Romans in Palestine, even from the New Testament it is clear that his followers, particularly Simon Peter, thought that they taking part in a political movement.) Christianity went through the first several centuries of its existence as a persecuted minority. It was never in a position to spread itself through military conquest and thus developed an ideology that denigrated the military model. Instead Christianity developed a missionary model of spreading the faith. Here an individual or a small group would go out to a territory dominated by unbelievers and attempt to spread the faith by argument or displays of miracles. Crucial to this model is the fact that the missionary is not backed by physical arms and is not the one in the position of physical strength. On the contrary, there is every expectation that the missionary will be harassed, persecuted and even executed for his actions.

It is within this model that the concept of martyrdom could arise. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.” The martyr by willingly dying for his faith testifies to its truth even to non-believers. It is likely because martyrdom is the product of the missionary model that Islam never developed a concept of martyrdom in the classical sense. Yes Islamic thought, from the beginning, developed a concept of dying in battle with unbelievers in the cause of spreading the religion and those who did so could expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. What Islam never developed was a notion of dying for the cause in a situation where doing so would accomplish nothing beyond dying for dying’s sake. There is nothing in traditional Islamic Law about marching up to pagan or Christian authorities and saying “I am a Muslim,” refuse to drop a pinch of incense on an altar and willingly allow oneself to be executed or thrown to the lions. On the contrary, Islam, particularly Shi’i Islam developed a theology of dissimulation; that it could be acceptable and even laudable to lie to non-believers who would seek to kill you.

This is not to say that Christians are incapable of using armed force and military conquest to spread their beliefs nor that Muslims are incapable of trying to convince non-Muslims, through preaching, reasoned arguments and miracle claims, of the truth of Islam. Rather each of these religions developed a certain model and developed a theology around it and thus it becomes the primary go to model, regardless of the sort of pragmatic actions done on the ground in particular circumstances.

Take for example the two most prominent cases of the Christian use of armed force to spread their faith, the Crusades and the Spanish conquest of the New World. While in both these situations it cannot be denied that non-Christians were de facto led to the baptismal fonts by dint of Christian military conquest, neither case involved a specific plan of using military force as a conversion tool, drawing a direct line between Christians conquering a non-Christian area and these non-Christians accepting baptism either at the point of a sword or simply as a matter of accepting the new political reality of Christian rule. Pope Urban II, in preaching the Crusade on the fields of Clermont, did not argue for a Crusade as a means of converting Muslims. Rather his primary concerns were protecting Christians and Christian holy sites in the Holy Land. The Spanish conquest of the New World also operated, in practice according to a missionary model. Military conquest was closely followed by missionary preachers, particularly Franciscans. We are dealing once again with missionaries seeking places where the people “did not know Christ” and attempting to persuade them to accept baptism. Many of these Franciscans seem to have taken a particular tack of searching out the most isolated groups of natives and the ones most likely to bring about their martyrdom. It was certainly clear that military conquest would aid in conversion, but the scenario here is that of a military presence designed to protect the lives of missionaries and their converts.

Individual Muslims were certainly capable of writing missionary literature. The Jewish convert to Islam, Samual Ibn Abbas al-Magribi, wrote Silencing the Jews and the Christians through Rational Arguments. That being said, this is not the product of any large scale institutional thinking, plan or societal ideology. The Ismaili Shi’i, who laid the foundation for the Fatimid dynasty engaged in missionary work to prepare the groundwork for the coming Mahdi, but there is no question that once the Mahdi arrived he would triumph through military power as the underground network of believers rose up to join him and cast of the rule of the Sunni Caliphate.

Again it is critical to distinguish between a Christian or a Muslim engaging in activity that might be classified as using military force or missionary activity to spread their beliefs and the conscious decision to adopt such activities as part of a clearly laid out ideological program. Where are the medieval Islamic translation centers like Peter the Venerable’s Toledo, with Muslim scholars, with the possible help of some Jews, translating the Bible into Arabic in order to refute it or learning Latin in order to better debate Christians? Find me the Muslim Raymond Lull, crossing the Mediterranean, risking life and limb to preach the Koran to Christians? Where there Muslim children in sixteenth century North Africa, like the young St. Teresa de Avila and her brother, dreaming of crossing over to Spain to proclaim their faith and die at the hands of the Inquisition?


Garnel Ironheart said...

There is a fundamental difference between the basic philosophies of the two.
Chrisianity does not, as a religion, believe in political unity, only religious. Chrisian thought desires the whole world to embrace their faith but there is no crisis if two Chrisian countries go to war with one another as history clearly shows.
Islam, however, believes in territorial control. You don't have to become Muslim but Islam must politically control your life. Thus there is a desire for a single Islamic umma and the fact that Muslim are constantly at each other's throats and doing more to harm each other than any enemies could ever dream of creates a huge spiritual crisis for them.

Izgad said...

Christianity from early on had the tradition of “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and Augustine’s doctrine of “two cities.” This built into Christianity a notion of Church and State as distinct entities, setting the stage for modern separation of Church and State.

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