Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Wars of Words and Images: Religious Polemics
Jews, Christians, and Muslims
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In addition to physical violence, Christians and Muslims, members of the world's leading monotheistic religions, have traded polemical attacks upon one another and upon Jews for centuries (with attacks by Christians on Jews in the great majority). At least some of these have had their basis in what theologians call "supersessionism": the claim that one faith has superseded all others and represents the final expression of divine will for all time. Some Christians felt that the Qur'an, while calling for the nominal protection of Jews and Christians as "People of the Book" (ahl al-kitab), argues the superiority and finality of Islam relative to the two earlier faiths and adopts a posture at best condescending and paternalistic toward them, at worst derisive and scornful (s. 2:138-140; s.5:59-66; s.5:82-85; s.60:3; s.62:6-7).  Moreover, Muslims appeared to believe that Judaism and Christianity had mixed the truth of divine revelation with “falsehood” (batil - s.3:71). On the other hand, Christians, some Muslims felt, were implacably hostile to Muslims and refused to recognize Islam as a legitimate religion in its own right. Attacks occurred within faiths as well: with Christians accusing one another of "heresy" (from a Greek word meaning "choice" or "sect"), and Muslims accusing one another of "heretical innovation" (bid'a), "unbelief" (kufr), or "apostasy" (ridda). (More related to Muslim supersessionism)

Many wondered whether in the end the three religions were so different. Was the rivalry authentic? Granted, Christianity and Judaism had long been regarded as pillars of the West and Islam had most often been seen as the exotic outsider. However, it was also the case that ties of kinship between the three were sometimes affirmed by the holy texts themselves. In Genesis 25:9, for example, Ishmael - ancestor of Muhammad - returns from Arabia to join his Israelite kinsmen and together they bury their common father Abraham. Folk cycles like the eleventh century Akrites” tradition suggested that, contrary to the established habit of separating Islam and Christianity into two exotically distinct religious and cultural worlds, the lines between the two cultures were far more porous than they appeared at first glance. Historian John Wansbrough argued (controversially) that prior to the eighth century Islam had been a Judeo-Christian sect, not a distinct religion. World leaders have on occasion been moved to call for accommodation on the part of all sides (see, for example, the UN appeal in 2006).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr (“Comments on a Few Theological Issues in Islamic-Christian Dialogue,” in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Z. Haddad (eds.), Christian-Muslim Encounters ( University Press of Florida:  Gainesville, FL, 1995), 464) pointed out that polemical attacks between Muslims and Christians in our own times had acquired a new and often “unnoticed partner": Modernism. The insertion of such widely read personalities as Salman Rushdie, Samuel Huntington, and Fahmy Huweidy into this discourse argued increasingly, in Nasr's view, for the claim that the term “Christian” in Christian-Muslim discourse had been displaced to some extent by the term “Secular Modernist.” Hence, the Ayatollah Khomeini could refer to the United States, which he saw as mainly secular and materialist, as "the Great Satan."

Notice the dependence on stereotypical distortions and outright falsehoods in many of the examples of polemical attacks below. Note also how often interlocutors on both sides resort to the rhetorical tactic (what Norman Daniel calls the "dialectical trick") of comparing one's own values with what one alleges is the opponent's practices, a move almost guaranteed every time to make you look good and make your opponent look bad. There is room for error in two specific areas with this tactic: first, there is the logical fallacy of comparing apples and oranges (the only valid comparison in this case is between each side's values or between each side's practices), and second, there is the possibility that your evidence about what the opponent's practices actually are may be flawed (or at least distorted), especially if you are relying on second-hand reports. (See Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Chatham, N.Y.: One World, 1993), 296)

692: Supersessionism in architecture - the Dome of the Rock.

Eighth Century: John of Damascus.

838 - 870 Ali Tabari.

Eleventh Century: Ibn Hazm - The Qur'an abrogates the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.

Eleventh Century: Akrites tale cycle.

ca. 1143: Robert of Ketton translates the Qur'an into Latin.

Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries: Chansons de Geste.

Fourteenth Century: Dante.

1550: Publication of the Reprobatio Quadruplex.

1601: William Percy publishes his play Mahomet and His Heaven.

1641: "Dirty Delicacies" - Michel Baudier's characterization of Islam.

1648: Peace of Westphalia asserts the principle of religious tolerance.

1751-1772: Diderot publishes Encyclopédie in France.

1741: Voltaire's play.

1796-1864: Life of Scottish painter David Roberts: his opinion of Islam and Muslims.

1801: Supersessionism on the high seas.

1803: Supersessionism in India.

1810: Chateaubriand on what he regarded as the salutary impact of the Crusades.

1829: Ottoman Empire abandons theology of jihad against non-Muslims.

1936-1937: Christian evangelical W. Wilson Cash on Islam.

1976, July: Al-Dawa's attacks on Jews and Christians.

1977: Muhammad ‘Ata ur-Rahim attempts to deconstruct Christianity.

1978: Edward Said publishes his book Orientalism.

1979: Iranian Revolution - Ayatollah Khomeini brands non-Muslim U.S. "the Great Satan."

1985, January 18: Sudanese sufi is hanged for apostasy in Sudan.

1989, February 14: Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issues fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie for slandering Islam.

1992, June: Egyptian activist Farag Foda is assassinated in Cairo.

1993: Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis.

1994, October 14: Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz is nearly killed in an attack in Cairo.

1995: Ibn Warraq publishes his book Why I am Not a Muslim.

1995-1997: Islamist writer Fahmy Huweidy on Christianity and the secular West.

1996, August: Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid's conviction for apostasy is upheld by Islamic courts.

1996, August: Osama bin Laden fatwa declaring war on U.S.

1997, June 27: Riot in Hebron (West Bank) over posters.

1998, February: Case of French Muslim philosopher Roger Garoudi.

1998, February: Bin Laden and Zawahiri fatwa on duty of Muslims to kill Americans and their allies.

2001, July: Case of Nawal al-Saadawi in Egypt.

2001, September 16: President Bush proclaims "war on terror." (See also)

2001, October 5: Muslim fatwa against joining "war on terror."

2002, March 6: Friedman writes on why supersessionism may not be good for Muslims.

2002, March 10: Saudi professor on "dangerous customs" of Jews.

2002, November 7: Case of Hashem Aghajari in Iran.

2002, April 4: Sheikh of al-Azhar's remarks about Jews.

2002, November: Egypt's Ramadan TV series.

2003, October: An American General's remarks about Islam and Mahathir Mohammed on Jews.

2003: Irshad Manji publishes her book The Trouble With Islam Today.

2006, Winter: The Cartoon Controversy.

2006, June: Pew survey on mistrust between Muslims and non-Muslims.

2006, September: The Pope causes a stir.

2006, October: The German opera flap, uproars in France and the U.K., and Islamist anger over the phrase "Apple Mecca." More on tensions in Europe

2006, October: An Australian Sheikh's description of unveiled women.

2006, November: Iran announces winner of Holocaust cartoon contest.

2006: UN Panel's "Alliance of Civilizations" report.

2006, November 29: Iranian cleric issues fatwa calling for the killing of a writer from Azerbaijan.

2006, December: Arguments over school textbooks in Israel, London, and Iran.

2006, December: Conference questioning the Holocaust opens in Iran.

2006, December: American Congressman criticizes colleague's choice to use Qur'an in private swearing in ceremony.

2007, spring and summer: Two new art shows challenge "clash of civilizations" thesis.

2007, summer: Taslima Nasreen is attacked in Hyderabad.

2007, summer: Tariq Ramadan comes in for criticism.

2007, October: New call for inter-religious dialogue.

2007, November 29: British teacher in Sudan is sentenced for insulting Islam.

2008, February: New controversy in Netherlands over alleged desecration of Qur'an. The same month, an art gallery in Berlin came under criticism for a controversial exhibit.

2008, March: Flap at a Paris book fair.

2008, March: Saudi king calls for interfaith dialogue.

2008, April: Was the war in Iraq a religious war after all?

2009, January: Dutch MP charged with defaming Islam.

2009, July: The Sherbini case in Germany and Egypt.

2009, August:  German song lyric controversy.


See also Christian Persecution of Jews and Overview of Islam.


Further Reading

William Dalrymple, "The Venetian Treasure Hunt," The New York Review of Books, vol. 54, no. 12, July 19, 2007

Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Chatham, N.Y.: One World, 1993)

The Economist, "Islam and the West: When Religions Talk, June 12, 2008

Holly Edwards, Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press and Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000)

Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Z. Haddad (eds.), Christian-Muslim Encounters (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995)

Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of the Orient (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986)

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979)

David Shipler, Arab and Jew (New York: Penguin Books, 1986)

Colin Thubron, "Madame Butterfly's Brothel," The New York Review of Books, vol. 56, no. 10, June 11, 2009, 24-27

Andrew Wheatcroft, The Conflict Between Christendom and Islam 638-2002 (New York: Viking, 2003)

** More sources at web site Bibliography -- see "Islam and the West."


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Last Revised: August 5, 2009