Historical Encounters

Note: This post accompanies the material for an online course in Christian-Muslim relations offered by staff at the University of Edinburgh. You can now join this course for free here.

Discussion on Week 3 of the course explored the significance of language within intercommunal relations. Learners commented on the way that language has affected both Christian-Muslim relations and the way that various different churches have engaged with each other and with Islam. To recap just a few:

  • While Syriac Christians in the Middle East were the first Christians to engage with Muslims historically, their experience was not shared with other Christians because of their theological and language differences with other Christians – both historically and now.
  • We read two texts in this course – a polemical text against Islam from John of Damascus and a dialogue between Timothy the Patriarch and the Caliph al-Mahdi, but the first was in Greek and the second in Syriac.
  • Some were surprised to learn that Christianity had an ancient centre in Baghdad, where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars also participated in a massive translation project of classic thinkers that assisted the broader dissemination of the Greek intellectual tradition.
  • We also discussed the way that the (at least) three languages of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek were used in different ways during the time of Jesus, which in turn affects the way that stories about his life and teachings were recorded.
  • Historical Christian-Muslim encounters often rested on the different ‘languages’ (to speak metaphorically) of touch and place, and we discussed the ways that different faith traditions have attached great importance to where and how believers offer prayers. A further discussion on this issue can be found here.

While we studied historical encounters during Week 3 of the course, language continues to play an important – and sometimes even determinative – role within Christian-Muslim relations. Here are a few questions to get you thinking about how language differences could continue to influence Christian-Muslim relations:

  1. How did your experience differ between hearing the Arabic poem recited in Arabic vs reading the transcript in English? Did one affect you more?
  2. In what ways do you hear differences in religion referred to within the social/political/religious discussions occurring in your area?
  3. If you were moving to a foreign country for the first time, would you be more likely to attend a social gathering filled with fellow speakers of your native language, but whose faith (or lack of faith) differs from yours, or would you choose a group who shares your views on faith, but with whom you would need to speak a second language?