Status of Christians in Islam

Truth seeker asked: I am confused as to the status of Christians in relation to Islam. I know there are several Surahs in praise or complement of Christians, but there are also many others that speak very harshly of them. How does this add up in relation to Abrogation? For example, there several verses that say the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) are saved from the judgment of hell, yet there are others, such as Surah 4.116 that says: “God (Allah) forgiveth not (the sin of) joining other gods with Him (which is Islam’s biggest claim against Christianity) but he forgiveth Whom He Pleaseth other sins than this: one who joins other gods with God, hath strayed far, far away (from the right).” We also have Surah 5.5: “… (Lawful for you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but also chaste women among the People of the Book (that was) sent down before your time…” On the other hand, there is Surah 5.54 that says: “O believers, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies (some translations render this “for your friends and protectors), they are only allies to each other. If anyone of you takes them as allies, he is one of them. Surely Allah does not guide unjust people.”

There are several other examples that I could list here, some in favor of Christians, other surahs calling them “the worst of creatures,” but I’m sure you know them all.

What is your opinion on this? It seems that the Qu’ran says that all sins can be forgiven except the sin of shirk, which is what all Christians are guilty of. And how can a Muslim man take a Christian woman as his wife, if by just taking a Christian as a friend or ally is reason enough to be judged along with him? This seems a blatant contradiction to me. Is abrogation responsible for this? Was it permissible for Muslim men to marry Christian women initially within Islam and it was later abrogated?

Okay, so as a warning, let me just start by saying that the status and role of Christianity and of Christians within Islam is the subject of any number of books and doctoral thesis (including mine!), so this is going to be more of a general primer than a detailed account.

You’re quite right that the Qur’an appears to give a complex view of Christianity, and this complexity is reflected in later Islamic theology.  This isn’t so much an issue of abrogation as it is one of interpretation, with many thinkers differing over what precisely is meant by these surahs.

Much of this complexity stems from the two ways in which Islam approached other religions – the first was political, the second was theological or doctrinal.  The first is older, and probably dates from the earliest period of Islam, in which political allegiance to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the caliphs was considered a religious obligation, one that could be performed by Christians and Jews as much as Muslims.  Modern scholars differ over how well integrated Christians and Jews were in the Muslim world, but all of the available evidence points to them making up a sizable portion of the population, for Christians possibly even being in the majority in many territories, with the Muslims serving as a ruling, minority elite.

In this political conception, the long-term outcome of religious participation (like salvation, damnation, purification of sins, etc) is only a limited consideration.  The Qur’an makes numerous references to the inhabitants of Hell, but these tend to refer to specific misdeeds, like murder, treachery, hypocrisy, etc, and not to general communities of people.

In the first three centuries from the rise of Islam (so the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries for the Christian era), Muslim thinkers began to debate the effect of different beliefs on an individual or community, and whether specific beliefs were necessary to be saved in the afterlife, and that’s how the second form of identification comes about, the theological/doctrinal one.  Perhaps the most extreme version of this distinction comes from the Shi’i scholar al-Shaykh al-Mufid, who argued that there were two kinds of kufr (nonbelief) – kufr al-ridda, the nonbelief of apostasy, participated in by those who fought against the Muslims and kufr al-milla, the protected nonbelief, eg. Christians, Jews and the other protected communities within the Muslim world.  Al-Mufid argued that although legally, the two groups were, and should be, treated differently, in terms of their salvation, they were the same.

Few people reached quite al-Mufid’s level of absolutism, particularly among the Sunni, who, as the community was in power for most of this period, always had a more complicated view of their relationship both to the protected communities of Christians and Jews and to the other communities of Muslims, but his work well-illustrates the essential dichotomy that develops in the Muslim perception of other religions, that there might be a difference between the legal status of a protected community and their salvation after death.

This same dichotomy plays out in a lot of the rules relating to interactions with Christians (and Jews, for that matter).  To start with marriage, it is accepted by the Sunni legal tradition that a Muslim man can always marry a Christian (or Jewish) woman, although he should encourage her to convert.  The Shi’a generally accept the same rule; however, in general, as I already said, the Shi’a tended to form more rigid definitions of religious identity, and there are some, albeit not-terribly mainstream scholars who were even uncomfortable with a Shi’a marrying a non-Shi’a Muslim.  But at the same time, the presumption in Islamic law is always that children with one Muslim parent should be raised Muslim, and so if the parents divorce, the children revert to the father’s family, so that they are raised within the Muslim community, which would seem to reveal a general discomfort with Christian belief, even within a system that defended Christian attachment to Muslim families.

A similar balancing act can be seen in many of the interpretations of the surahs you’ve cited.  As you’re probably aware, ‘shirk’, the division of God, or the attaching partners to God, is considered one of the worst sins in Islamic thought, and Muslim thinkers tend to remain unconvinced that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (which was already the dividing point between the Christian sects of the Near East, each of which had a slightly different definition) wasn’t shirk, and so a lot of the theological debates between Muslims and Christians focus, not surprisingly, on the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and on how Christians understood themselves to be monotheists.  However, at the same time, Christians worked in the caliphal court, served as scribes, acted as mediators to the Byzantine world and the Christian communities in India and Africa, and were generally good, productive parts of the Muslim state.  It wasn’t possible to divorce the theological considerations – the distinctions between Christianity and Islam – from the practical and legal considerations – the interactions between Christians and Muslims.  But nor did these theological distinctions prevent Christians and Muslims from living alongside each other and even intertwining their lives.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that these theological concerns aren’t unique to Islam, but rather crop up in every religion that has a conception of the afterlife – Christians of any stripe or from any time period would be equally hard-pressed to state without hesitation that a good, pious, generous and kind Muslim would be saved in the afterlife.  Like their Muslim counterparts, they would be more likely to draw on traditions of God as merciful and all-knowing, which, at least in my experience, is precisely what both sides do when faced directly with these concerns.

It is also the case that Islam and Christianity were pretty much destined to bump heads even more than most religions, because they share so many characteristics in common, in particular that they’re universalistic, offering salvation for the whole world, and finalistic, understanding themselves as the final revelation of God to humanity before the End.  These two elements are fundamental to both Christian and Muslim theology, but by definition, they couldn’t both be the universal, final religion.

Hope that helps, at least as a starting point!  If you’re interested in some reading on the subject, I’d recommend Hugh Goddard’s A History of Christian-Muslim Relations and J. Dammen McAuliffe’s Quranic Christians.  They’re both a bit technical (the latter, in particular, is really only readable if you also have a copy of the Qur’an in front of you), but they both do a very good job walking through all of the relevant material.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Status of Christians in Islam

  1. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much for the post! I appreciate the information and I look forward to reading the books you suggested! I’ll be thinking of my next question to ask!

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