Christians and Muslims: Believers Together in Politically Confusing Times

By Prof. Paul Heck

There are a lot of forces in the world that want us Muslims and Christians to see each other as enemies. This makes it important for us, along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, to think deeply about what it means to live together as believers who aim to love and please God.

Nicholas Doumanis, author of Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Co-Existence and its Destruction in Late Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford 2013), offers perspective. For centuries, the Muslims and Christians of Anatolia lived together in peace. And it was more than mere co-existence. They were a single people, sharing the same villages and the same customs and culture. Despite religious differences, they realized God’s care isn’t limited to any one group.

It’s important to emphasize this last point. They lived together in peace not despite but because of the faith. Religion taught them that they had a common destiny and that they were to interact on the basis of moral principles. How could they ever view each other as enemies?

Global events changed everything. Nationalist wars broke out at the start of the twentieth century. The Muslims and Christians of Anatolia were made to view one another not through the lens of moral principles but nationalist identity. Christians were to view Muslims as Turks, not as neighbors and friends, and Muslims were to view Christians as Greeks. The consequences were tragic. And yet even amidst nationalist clashes, trust persisted. Muslims and Christians of Anatolia remembered the goodness that bound them together for centuries. That goodness defined who they truly were as believers before God, not nationalist identities.

The lesson for today? It’s in our lived experiences with one another on the local level that we discover and live out our moral commitments. It’s easy for us Christians and Muslims to let global conflicts define how we view one another. We hear the horror stories—people killed for their beliefs, refugees washed up on foreign shores, ethnic conflict. And it’s easy to point the finger and pull the wagons around our group. But to do so is to risk our faith traditions that call us to a new life greater than ourselves. More than ever Christians and Muslims need to enter into pro-active relation with one another if they hope to preserve their moral commitments.

Too many forces today want us to see each other as enemies. And that puts our beliefs and values at risk. It’s going to take a lot of work to counter these forces. Are we ready? It’s so easy to fall into echo chambers of stereotypes and suspicions. And it’s in those echo chambers that enmity is fostered, giving Satan the opportunity to sow the lies by which he thrives. We Muslims and Christians help Satan do his work when we fail to recognize we need one another—not just for co-existence but to preserve a moral way of life pleasing to God.

Scripture warns us of this peril. The Qur’an speaks of unjust people who lie about God and seek to twist God’s way (sabīl Allah yabtaghūnahā ‘iwajan, Surat Hūd 19), and the Bible speaks of wicked people who pervert the truth (fa-yabruz al-haqqu mu‘awwajan, Habakkuk 1:4). There’s no shortage of examples of people who try to associate God’s way with their group and its way. And it’s often people who are supposed to be leaders. In every country today you can find those with power who sanction hatred because it serves their interests. But they claim it’s about the way of God. Or they say they’re defending the nation. So many people today, youth especially, are looking for leaders to inspire them, but that also means they can easily be drawn into a web of lies. Christians and Muslims need to be vigilant that public messaging doesn’t make us forget who we are as believers, believers together before God, seeking to act for the glory of God rather than our own glory. But it’s all too easy to confuse God’s way with our own.

History also speaks of religious scholars and sages who call us to be wary of worldly power. It’s not a call to rebellion. Muslims and Christian leaders have long valued the role of good governance in keeping peace and order in society. Rather, it’s a question of those in power trying to tap into our beliefs by making us think that power is truth. If power is truth, then the early Christians would have been wrong in not submitting to the gods of Rome. If power is truth, then the early Muslims would have been wrong in not submitting to the gods of Quraysh.

One religious leader who sought to expose this lie is Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī. He served as chief judge of Damascus in the fourteenth century when Syria and Egypt were ruled by a military dynasty known as the Mamelukes. Not unlike Saint Augustine, whose celebrated work, City of God, rejects any attempt to identify imperial glory with the work of the church, so, too, al-Subkī—a public official as well as a religious scholar—was keenly suspicious of the very nature of worldly power. He recognized the need for the sultan in his day, just as Augustine recognized the need for the emperor in his, but he called worldly power to task when it exalted its way as if God’s.

In a fascinating work called The Restorer of Blessings and the Dispeller of Chastisements (Muʿīd al-Niʿam wa-Mubīd al-Niqam), al-Subkī calls out those who would reduce God’s way—sharīʿa—to a blueprint for a political order apart from the centuries-long heritage of political wisdom in Islam. It was a time of confusion in Islam. The Mongols had swept across the Abode of Islam, putting to death the last caliph in Baghdad. Some people feared that the end was at hand.

And this is the question. Do we let our fears guide us? Do we panic and confuse power with truth? Do we think that political chaos is a sign of divine displeasure? Or do we pause and remind ourselves that our trust is in God—and so we have no cause to fear or sorrow? At that time some scholars saw the chaos as indication of God’s displeasure with the community. And so they took the unprecedented step of giving authority over God’s way to those in power in the hopes they’d implement it by force and thus restore the community to God’s good graces.

But they ended up recasting politics as a heavenly battle, warning that whoever fails to implement God’s way rules by idolatry (ṭaghūt). It sounds commonsensical but it rests on a precarious assumption: Those in power should rule as if mortal gods in battle against all that is not God. To be sure, Christians and Muslims are to raise questions about what is ungodly in society and lobby for what is godly, but the idea that the state rules in the name of God risks turning God’s way into a worldly agenda. This isn’t to imply that God’s way is a private affair. In a free society, Christians and Muslims have the right to struggle for the voice of religion to be heard in civic discourse. Why privatize anything that helps society flourish? But the public nature of religion is one thing, giving rulers the authority to determine God’s way is another.

And so along came Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī with his treatise on public life in Islam. He was no revolutionary, but he made it clear that sharīʿa is about morals, not worldly power. Much like Augustine, he argued that religion serves to check the abuses of worldly power. He certainly understood the moral purpose of government—to suppress crime and chaos and maintain order in society. But he also observed how some used it for their own glory. It’s one thing to have strong rule, another thing to use power to dominate others. This is where al-Subkī pushed back with sharīʿa—with God’s way. Whenever public officials use their power to lord it over others, to abuse and harm the weak, sharīʿa is there to constrain them. Indeed, just as all people, regardless of station in life, are obliged to be grateful for God’s blessings, so, too, public officials are to show gratitude to God by ruling not for their own interests but for the common interest. They are not to be rapacious, taking the possessions of others at whim. They are to be lenient when disciplining and punishing. The reason they’re in power is to rule with care for God’s creation. God hasn’t put them in power to eat, drink, and line their pockets with public money. The ruler shouldn’t think that being tough on people amounts to strong rule. And if he builds a mosque and hires poets to praise him for his generosity, he’s only confused his glory with the glory of God. In a remarkable statement for his day, al-Subkī says that public officials should be quick to defend the poor and always recall that the peasant is not a slave but is a freeman and his own master (amīr nafsihi)! However, the problem is not only with those in power. People also tend to confuse power with truth. They delight when rulers inflict harsh penalties beyond the limits of God’s way rather than helping transgressors repent and reform. Why do we often prefer displays of state violence to the leniency that God’s way encourages?

Augustine, too, recognized the violent side of power, but he didn’t call Christians to abandon public life. Those softened by God’s mercy have a duty to bring that mercy into public life.

What lesson are we to draw from all this? Those in power would do well to reflect on the writings of Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī and Augustine. Youth today seek leaders to inspire them to live for something greater than themselves, but all they see are oligarchies that never seem satiated. And all of us easily trick ourselves into equating truth with power. We want to be associated with worldly power, get led to mistake power for truth, and end by confusing God’s way with our race, our customs, or our nation over against other peoples of a different color or creed.

Group identity rather than moral commitment hangs over today’s global stage, and that makes us all vulnerable to lies. Are we prompted by group identities or God’s sovereign care for all?

And here’s where Christians and Muslims have important work to do. Both communities are large in numbers and resources. But it’s not just about condemning hatred. It’s about removing the hatred that’s a poison in our souls. It’s healing hearts—our own included—at a politically precarious moment, when news of identity conflict make us forget the goodness we know from our own lived experiences with one another. I suggest two things that Christians and Muslims can do to begin this work. Firstly, they can pray for one another. Muslims don’t pray in churches. Christians don’t pray in mosques. But they can pray for the needs of one another. It’s a simple practice with great fruit. I speak from my own experience. Muslims end up in Christian hearts, and Christians in Muslim hearts. Secondly, we can discover our common wisdom. Christians and Muslims can come together to read the works of scholars like Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī and Augustine, and that’ll help us discover our shared moral commitments, and that’s what will protect us from falling prey to identity battles—and from confusing our ways with God’s way.


Paul Heck is a Professor of Islamic Studies in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology and the founding director of The Study of Religions across Civilizations (SORAC)