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Between conflict and reconciliation

Sunday, June 05 2011 @ 11:59 AM CDT

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Muslim-Christian strife has no foundation in the Quran. Nader Habib reviews a timely book by Laila Takla

Each time I tried to start reviewing this book, there would be another act of sectarian violence that shattered the nation's equilibrium, and mine too. If anything, this goes to show the immense value of books such as Laila Takla's Christian-Islamic Heritage (Dar Al-Shorouk: 2010) when it comes to addressing relations between Egypt's Muslims and Christians.

The revolution of 25 January brought hope to this country. It revived the promise that every Egyptian would rally around the same flag, regardless of background and affiliation. But before long the ugly face of sectarian sedition surfaced to dash our dreams.

"Do not kill peace", an illustration by Wagdy Habashy

Sectarian differences are not new to our part of the world. In ancient times, the pharaoh, priests and people struggled with the question of whether Amun or Aten was the true deity. Much later, the followers of Christianity diverged over whether St Paul's teachings were truer than those of St Peter. In Islam, Ali's loyalists took up arms against the supporters of Othman. The story is familiar, despite the change of faces. So do we really need another book to tell us about the mistrust people feel towards those who hold different beliefs?

The short answer is yes, because Takla not only provides a meticulous insight into the relations between Muslims and Christians, but also draws on her personal experience of the events of the last few decades. Her book is not only a product of accomplished scholarship, but also a sympathetic account of the changes we have all seen take place in this country.

At the beginning of her book, Takla beseeches her readers: "Whether you are Christian or Muslim, allow no place in your heart, mind, and conduct for fanaticism, hate, and exclusion..."

Her words, kind and understanding, have a healing quality, one that is in contrast with the entrenched fanaticism that has taken root in this country -- one that turns a simple act of religious conversion into a fully-fledged confrontation that is completely alien to the true spirit of both Islam and Christianity.

For the past few decades a whole generation has grown up in an unhealthy climate, one in which sympathy between the followers of the country's main two religions has been supplanted with mistrust; gentility with crudeness. As a result, suspicions grow unchecked and tensions accumulate under the surface, ready to explode at the tiniest act of provocation.

Takla's short book, spanning just over 200 pages, comes with an introduction by politician and Islamic theorist Ahmed-Kamal Abul Maged. In Part I of Christian-Islamic Heritage, Takla reviews global political events leading to the 9/11 attacks. In Part II, she examines the common roots and shared ideals of both Christianity and Islam.

The book opens on a personal note. When she was only 12 years old, Takla found a book in her father's library. It was written by Father Ibrahim Luka and was entitled Christianity in Islam.

Luka was one of the greatest minds of the Coptic Church. Born to a prosperous family in Upper Egypt, he could afford to study abroad or have his own successful business. However, he preferred to join the clergy and to dedicate his life to working with the poor and sick, regardless of their religious affiliation. This was a vocation very much in keeping with the Christian tradition of love and giving.

So how did the mistrust between the followers of Islam and Christianity began? Takla, a famous Coptic author and the founding member of the Egyptian committee for safeguarding national unity, takes the view that it was a spin on the international rivalry between East and West. When the world's "two superpowers" of capitalism and communism began their campaign for global domination, war became a means not only of conquest, but also of profit. Soon rival powers discovered that they could employ faith as a tool of war and fanaticis, snd as an effective weapon.

As a result, Christian and Muslim places of worship became fighting arenas, as well as targets for destruction. Before long, the dividing line between liberation and terrorism began to erode.

Amid the chaos, doctrinaires concocted theories about the clash of civilisations. What started as a banal quest for power soon became an article of faith, some would say a destiny. Fact blended with fiction as the world suddenly bought this whole myth of the clash of civilisations, with the outcome being a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In Part II, Takla focuses on the common heritage of Islam and Christianity. First, however, she warns the reader, prudently of course, that her interpretation of certain verses of the Qur'an is highly personal, and therefore subject to debate. She then argues that there are no grounds in Islam for the anti-Christian sentiments we have seen recently among Muslim fanatics. In fact, Islam has a profound respect for all Abrahaimic religions, and for Christianity in particular. A true Muslims, she notes, is religiously committed to recognising all the prophets who came before Mohamed.

Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. (Bakara: 136)

Indeed, the Quran praises Christians for their sympathy and kindness:

Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. (Maeda: 82)

Discussing the erroneous belief that Islam is opposed to Christians building churches or practising their rites, Takla cites verses from the Quran as well as sayings by Prophet Mohamed:

For had it not been for Allah's repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. (Haj: 40)

In the history of the prophet (Al-Sira al-Nabawiya) written by Ibn Hisham, a story is told of how Mohamed allowed a delegation of Najran Christians to pray in his mosque at Medina. Some Muslims saw the Christians praying in the mosque and were about to stop them, but the prophet told them to let them continue with their prayers.

Imagine what today's extremists would have had to say had they been present at this seventh-century scene? Takla notes that two of Egypt's oldest churches were built in the first decades of Muslim presence in Egypt. The Mar Morkos (St Mark's) Church in Alexandria was built in 45 Hegira (AD 665), and a church in Fustat was built during the rule of Maslamma Bin Mokhallad in about 60 Hegira (AD 679).

Takla then examines some religious tenets from both the Christian and Muslim points of view, showing that the two religions are less discordant than some make them out to be. Among the tenets she reviews are the birth of Jesus, the biblical accounts retold in the Quran, the miracles of Jesus, and how the Trinity can be reconciled with monotheism.

She then recounts the Holy Family's journey to Egypt and the impression that Amr Ibn al-As, the Muslim general who conquered Egypt, had of that country prior to the conquest. Al-As is cited as saying, "He who wants to see paradise on earth should have a look at Egypt."

Prophet Mohamed is on record as having said this about Egypt: "The best of soldiers are the people who live to your west, so be kind to the Copts and don't devour them like grass."

The book ends, as it begins, on a personal note. "I say goodbye to you dear reader. We have travelled together through a mental journey seeking to reconcile the believers and bring together the humankind. I have recorded what I thought and believed and my research was not always easy but always fulfilling. It gave me a sense of purity and peace ... and enhanced my appreciation of two great religions."


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