Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History. Volume 7, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America (1500–1600)

Written by David Thomas and John A. Chesworth, eds. Reviewed By Brian J. Wright

At the moment, few observers of international Christian-Muslim affairs are upbeat about the trajectory. Many books have been written about the blood-soaked separation of Christians and Muslims throughout the centuries. Their irreconcilability has been endlessly debated. The current trend appears as though it is not going to be reversed anytime soon, if ever. This legacy of partition is grim.

This new volume, however, is cause for celebration among those who explore Christian-Muslim relations around the world and throughout time. Lucidly written and based on extensive scholarship, this volume details many aspects of these diverse and far-reaching religious movements. Shifting effortlessly over four continents and an entire century, this account moves briskly, ranging from Jesuits to Protestants, imams to caliphs. In fact, it is part biographical, part travelogue, part literary history, and part religious analysis.

The over 100 contributors collectively seem to have read every primary source (in these regions, at least) about Christian-Muslim relations during the 16th century; even though there are still several notable omissions, such as John Calvin. With hundreds of entries on display, this catalog is surprisingly even balanced. Each chapter follows a rigid organization: (1) basic biographical details concerning the author(s), (2) a sampling of primary and secondary sources for further reading, (3) a description of the contents, and (4) a discussion of how it affects the history of Christian-Muslim relations.

There are many parallels and echoes between the history of Christian-Muslim relations and the present situation. Limited by space considerations, only a few examples will be highlighted in this review. The first relates to Muslims following the model, mission, and mandate of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. They continued the tradition of mimicking the conquering state of Muhammad. War, slavery, and beheadings were the norm. Clear instructions and endorsements were given to Muslims for fighting Christians and non-Muslims until they paid the “jizya” (tax) with willing submission (Quran 9:26). In 1517, after trying to get a man who had previously accepted Islam to revert to his Muslim creed, “the Muslim populace collected wood and made a bonfire” in order to execute him. While being burned, he was decapitated. Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī compiled a work, “Forty Hadiths on the merits of jihad,” for the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in order to celebrate the conquest of Constantinople.

I found no entry of any Muslim standing up and stating that any of these acts or groups were not Islamic, or that they were just some radical version of Islam. The reality is that all of this is very Islamic, and derives from coherent and learned interpretations of Islam. Muslim voices opposing violence or making any peaceful concessions in the 16th century were lonely ones at best. Ibn Kemal, in one of his fatwas, stated that it was licit by necessity, not by honor, for a Muslim to greet a non-Muslim in daily interactions.

The next comparison relates to diplomacy. If bloodshed was inevitable, its shocking extent had much to do with stiff-necked countercharges and failed policies, which doomed millions to helter-skelter migration. The horrors—which amounted in many cases to massacres—are broadly set forth. Insults large and small, perceived and real, cut deep. Granted, not all the military conflicts between these groups were motivated by religious differences. Rather, many were due to competition for the control of trade and land. The Indian Muslims and Portuguese Christians provide one such case study.

While many people continued to fight, others attempted to mediate. Take the Jesuits. They often handled the violence of partition expertly. They did not get stuck in the weeds or fly too far overhead. One such instance was when the Jesuits went on a mission to the court of Akbar in the Mughal capital. The emperor ultimately listened to them and opened up the door for religious discussions between the Jesuit fathers and Muslim scholars.

Aside from public disputations, the priests also had private audiences with the emperor. . . . Muslim scholars were confounded by the priests’ knowledge of the Qur’an used in debate, particularly when they raised the issue of its contradictory remarks about the death of Christ. . . . Not all Muslims, however, approved of the presence of the Christian priests and Akbar’s generosity toward them. (p. 919)

Increasingly, the Jesuits were joined by other Christians, seeking ways in which to promote religious liberty, not to mention their Christian faith. In fact, other Christian leaders, like Martin Luther, openly opposed war against Muslims since God’s judgment could only be met with repentance, not with a sword. This missionary legacy continues among many Christians to this today.

Unfortunately, certain authors of this volume seem to lack an accurate—or at least more academically nuanced—understanding of the so-called “Christian crusades.” For example, Christians are negatively described on occasion as having a “crusading zeal/spirit/fervor,” without even considering or noting the broader context. The Christian crusades were often just (largely unsuccessful) attempts to turn back Muslim conquests and restore the lands back to their previous, non-Muslim owner(s). They were hardly ever a display of unprovoked aggression as several authors insinuate.

In sum, these stories of the past are fascinating, and people groups and countries still rely on some kind of interpretation of the accounts to set the rules by which they live. The elaboration of these narratives, and their collisions with reality, certainly deserve study. This offering, then, is timely and powerful. But it is probably too laborious for most readers. It is replete with so much minutiae that the general reader might become a bit bemused at times. Nevertheless, the committed reader comes away from this volume persuaded that what we see today is nothing new, and that the lack of religious liberty in Muslim dominated areas makes for intolerable conditions. But the questions of how far Christian-Muslim relations can be moderated without perverse consequences are still far from settled.

Brian J. Wright

Brian J. Wright
Ridley College
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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