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Religion is just one of many factors that lead humankind to war

Thabit A.J. Abdullah

Faith and the Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict

Alan G. Jamieson

Reaktion Books

256 pages, hardcover

With the depressing post-9/11 climate of extremist and xenophobic posturing currently dominating international affairs, any attempt to deal with the history of Muslim-Christian relations must surely be a hazardous undertaking. Prior efforts have tended to vacillate between finding some irreconcilable unchanging “essence” in either or both societies (with Islam usually appearing the worse) and arguing that the whole conflict is some sort of lamentable cultural misunderstanding. Alan Jamieson’s present work, Faith and the Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict, does its best to evade either approach, but in so doing it completely fails in its back cover’s claim of “revealing the essence of this enduring struggle.” Despite a dramatic opening and a cautious introduction, the book neglects to meaningfully examine the central question of causality. It never really ventures beyond a selected chronology of battles and wars between some western powers and various peoples and countries of the Middle East, with an occasional nod to India and Central Asia. Even the cover photo seems to add to the confusion in that it depicts Shiite Muslims mourning, through self-mortification, the seventh-century killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson by fellow Muslims. Men with raised swords and blood dripping down their foreheads are certain to attract attention, but the scene itself has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the book.

Mr. Jamieson begins with the first major battle between the Arab Muslims and Byzantium in the seventh century. After a couple of quick words on the rise of Islam and the troubles afflicting the Byzantine Empire, the narrative takes on a descriptive form and repeats it throughout the book:

In 636 Heraclius assembled a large army at Antioch and then forced the Arabs out of Syria. The Byzantines pursued their enemy, but at the River Yarmuk in August 636 an Arab army under Khalid ibn al-Walid chose to confront them. The Byzantine army … outnumbered the Arabs, but was composed of a mixture of forces … Thanks to a sandstorm that temporarily blinded their enemies, and the alleged defection of Christian Arabs … Khalid’s army won a major victory.

By the next page the army has reached Egypt and another battle is described, and on and on we go until we arrive at the modern period (Chapter 10) where Mr. Jamieson is a bit more careful with his terms. He correctly notes that due to the secular reforms of the West, the confrontation changes from one of religion to one pitting imperialism against nationalism. The chronology of battles and conflicts, however, is relentless and the picture is further blurred at the end because it is unclear how the modern struggle ties in with the older one.

There are snippets hinting at a more complex picture, such as the author’s assertion that “with regard to Iran, the USA was a bitter opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, but in Afghanistan the Americans were to support and supply Islamic resistance fighters in their jihad against the Soviet invaders.” But such prudent comments remain rare and they are not really woven into the main theme of the work. The closing remarks also appear contradictory. On page 208, the author writes, “is [the current conflict] really just a renewal of the centuries-old Christian–Muslim religious war? Probably not.” By page 215, however, he seems to indicate that it is. Speaking of the current situation he writes: “In all the long centuries of Christian–Muslim conflict, never has the military imbalance between the two sides been greater.” Like the introduction, the conclusion is cautious and thoughtful, but due to the paucity of analysis, it is still unable to shake the impression of an essential hostility between the two faiths.

A common problem in many works dealing with the Islamic world is the tendency to avoid a clear definition of the relevant terms. Such phrases as “Christian-Muslim conflict” or “Islamic fundamentalism” might appear self-evident, but on closer inspection are in fact so broad that they lose any functionality. In many of the wars and battles listed by Jamieson, Christian and Muslim groups constantly shifted their allegiances, shifts that raise doubts over whether the religious element was the most important source of tension. During the Crusades and the battles over the Iberian peninsula, opposing armies were sometimes so mixed that it was difficult to know which side represented which religion. In modern Kosovo, most of the western countries supported Albanian Muslims against Serbian Christians, who, in turn, received some backing from Muslim Iraq; in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian leadership contained many who were Christian; and in the Middle East, the staunchly Islamist state of Saudi Arabia remains one of the closest allies of the United States. Such complexities also emerge when one considers the incredible variety of Islamist movements, both politically and ideologically. In this regard it is crucial to fully explain which Muslims and which Christians are involved. Throughout history, Islamic societies (like their Christian counterparts) have been divided between Shiah and Sunni, mystics and jurists, those who favoured allegorical interpretations and those insisting on the literal meaning of texts, pacifists and jihadists, populist and egalitarian groups against elitists, those who favoured tolerance and accommodation against a more intolerant vision. Such diversity can be found even in the so-called modern “fundamentalist” tendency that appeared as a mass movement in the 1970s. This tendency had its roots in the 19th-century Salafiyya ideological movement, which called for a return to the supposed pristine origins of early Islam. To some extent, the Salafiyya movement developed as a reaction to European colonialism and the declining power of Islamic states. Yet far from it being an anti-western or anti-Christian tendency, many of its leaders, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu, never hid their deep admiration for western civilization. Such nuances had a direct and massive bearing on the manner in which Muslim-Christian relations were viewed, but Jamieson ignores them.

Another problem relating to the study of Muslim-Christian relations is the tendency to avoid dealing with historical context. Simply stating that religions claiming universality are bound to clash raises the question of why societies seem intent on adopting conflicting faiths. The answer could lie in examining the broader historical contexts of various conflicts, which, in turn, allows for a more rigorous consideration of the role of religion. A good example is the generally tense relations predominating between the Muslim Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire, which Jamieson gives as an example of religious conflict. The Middle East has had a long history of rivalry between the different powers that controlled Mesopotamia and Iran on the one hand and the eastern Mediterranean on the other. A thousand years prior to the rise of Islam, pagan Greeks fought the Mazda-worshipping Achaemenid Persians, Romans clashed with Parthia and the early Christian Byzantine Empire nearly fell to the Zoroastrian Sasanians of Iran. Even after the Arab conquests had brought Islamic dominance to the Middle East, this ancient dynamic continued as Egypt and Syria competed (often violently) with Iraq and Iran over mastery of the region. This competition naturally encouraged the elites of both regions to adopt differing religious beliefs within the general framework of Islam. Seen from this perspective, geopolitical and economic considerations seem to far outweigh religious divisions as the primary causes for conflict.

Conceptually, it is worth repeating that a particular culture remains vibrant so long as it serves a clear purpose. In other words, neither Christian nor Islamic societies nor the relationship between the two have ever remained static. So the reader is ill served when encountering such claims as this in Jamieson’s book: “Because of its all-embracing nature, Islam was harder to put aside than Christianity.” By the late 19th century the Ottoman empire had successfully reformed its administrative and judicial systems so that it was clearly more liberal than any of the Christian Balkan states or, in some respects, even Russia and Austria. This liberalism included the adoption of a constitution that restrained the power of the monarchy, and that allowed for limited elections, the establishment of a vigorous parliament, the development of a secular judiciary and greater press freedom. For much of the early modern period, the Ottomans were Christian Europe’s most implacable foes. This, however, did not prevent modern Turkey from developing into a staunchly secular state with universal suffrage (including women’s right to vote earlier than many European states), membership in NATO, a determined policy of joining the European Union and good relations with Israel. Other Muslim countries, for better or worse, abandoned age-old beliefs because of changing needs. During the late medieval period, for example, India evolved a form of Islamic interpretation that permitted joint Hindu-Muslim rule at a time when Hinduism was condemned as a polytheistic religion by the majority of Muslim jurists. Despite clear religious injunctions to the contrary, 19th-century Muslim jurists of Zanzibar found a way to sanction the enslavement of African Muslims and their sale to European merchants.

Given such complexities and apparent contradictions, how can historians deal with the undoubtedly important role played by religious convictions when considering events between Muslims and Christians? A propitious strategy to tackle this difficult subject is never to lose sight of causality and context in each specific case before trying to reach some general conclusions. If we consider the modern period, the tensions apparent in many Islamic countries bear the unmistakable marks of similar problems in other developing world societies. These include rapid population expansion, growing class divisions and harsh exploitation from local despots and foreign (often western) economic relations. Throughout the developing countries, demands for justice and development have been expressed in a variety of competing ideologies drawing on cultural discourses. In the Middle East, some socialists evoked the example of the Qaramita, a ninth-century branch of Islam that emphasized egalitarianism. Nationalists, such as the Christian Michel Aflaq, had no problem hailing the Prophet Muhammad as the foremost hero of Arabism. The leaders of the modern Islamist movement are not fundamentally different. They too promise justice and development while drawing on carefully selected images and examples from the past. Despite the differences in language and cultural motifs, even the radical Islamists of the al Qaeda type appear closer to the 19th-century nihilists of Europe and the Tamil suicide bombers of Sri Lanka than to the Islamic medieval warriors. By the same token, the tensions between North and South are far more evident in the similar stances taken by Iran, North Korea and Venezuela vis-à-vis the United States than any notion of age-old religious conflict.

Still, the religious element is important in that it facilitates or hinders dialogue. But its relative weight in defining conflict can only be understood when balanced against other factors. It is also imperative that the distinctive features of the various relevant religious movements be discussed before attempting to judge their importance. Here it is worth referring to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent study of the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Europe as an example of the detail and caution one needs before producing an argument on religious strife. In his work, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490–1700, MacCulloch goes into the details and specific historical contexts of theological debates without ignoring the important geographical social and political factors behind the religious conflicts of early modern Europe. The picture that emerges is one that carefully balances the impact of the many ideological and material factors involved, leading to conclusions about the historic depth and diversity of causes behind this conflict. By ignoring such a rigorous approach, Jamieson’s study leads, unintentionally perhaps, to only one conclusion: that Christianity and Islam are inherently incompatible and bound to clash. Such a claim is not only disturbing, it is also deeply flawed.

Thabit A.J. Abdullahis a history professor at York University and has published several articles and books on the history of Iraq including, most recently, A Short History of Iraq (Pearson-Longman, 2003) and Dictatorship, Imperialism and Chaos: Iraq Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2006).