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More a family falling out than a clash of civilisations

Many intricate links bind Christianity, Judaism and Islam

William Dalrymple Tuesday December 24, 2002 The Guardian

In late December, the plains of North India turn suddenly cold and grey. Towards evening, as the sun is beginning to set over the village mosques, smoke from the cooking-fires begins to mass in a layer at the level of the tree tops. By dusk, the layer has turned into a vaporous mist which thickens and curdles overnight to form by morning a dense fog.

Some 15 years ago, on just such a bleak dawn, I climbed the steps leading to the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri. It was just before Christmas, I kept thinking, but not only was there not a Christmas tree in sight, there was nothing remotely Christian to be seen – or so I thought.

For when I reached the top of the steps that rose to the Buland Darwaza – the arched gateway leading into the mosque – I saw something that utterly confused me. The calligraphy which framed the arch read as follows: “Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.”

The inscription was doubly surprising: not only was I taken aback to find an apparently Christian quotation given centre stage in a Muslim monument, but the inscription itself was unfamiliar. It sounded the sort of thing Jesus might have said, but did he really say that the world was like a bridge? And even if he had, why would a Muslim emperor place such a phrase over the entrance to the main mosque in his capital city?

It was only much later that I began to be able to answer these questions. The phrase emblazoned over the gateway was, I learned, one of hundreds of sayings of Jesus that fill Islamic literature. Some derive from the four gospels, others from now rejected Christian texts like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, others again from the wider oral culture of the near East – possibly authentic stories which Islam has retained but which western Christianity has lost.

They fill out the reverential picture of Christ painted in the Koran where Jesus is called the Messiah, the Prophet, Word and Spirit of God, though – as in some currents of Christian thought of the period – his outright divinity is questioned.

I have been thinking a lot about that quotation over the last few months. Ever since September 11 the rightwing press here have been united in a virulent Islamophobia. After that atrocity perhaps this is inevitable; but it doesn’t alter the fact that the image these writers are projecting of Islam is ludicrously unbalanced. For the links that bind Christianity, Judaism and Islam are so deep, and so intricately woven, that the more you learn about them, the more the occasional confrontations between them begin to seem like a civil war between different streams of the same tradition than any clash of civilisations.

When the Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet’s armies, they assumed that Islam was merely a form of Christianity: Islam of course accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, and venerates both Jesus and the Jewish prophets. The early Life of Mohammed relates how, when Mohammed entered Mecca and ordered the destruction of all images, he came upon an icon of the Virgin and Child. Reverently covering it with his cloak, he ordered the icon to be looked on as sacrosanct.

Indeed, the greatest theologian of the early church, Saint John of Damascus, was convinced that Islam was not a new religion, but a variation on a Christian theme. This perception is particularly remarkable as Saint John grew up in Damascus, the hub of the young Islamic world, where he was an intimate friend of the future Caliph al-Yazid; the two boys’ drinking bouts were the subject of much gossip. But, in his old age, Saint John took the habit at the desert monastery of Mar Saba, where he began work on his masterpiece, the Fount of Knowledge. It was here that John wrote his critique of Islam, the first ever penned by a Christian. Intriguingly, John regarded Islam as a form of Christianity related to Arianism which, like Islam, took as its starting point the idea that on Christmas day God could not have become fully human without compromising his divinity.

Used to the often surrealistic scriptures of the Gnostics, John was unworried by the points where the Koran diverges from the gospels – such as the unfamiliar description it gives of the first Christmas. In this version, Jesus is born under a palm tree, shortly after which the Christ child sits up and says: “I am the servant of God. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me a prophet. I was blessed on the day I was born; and blessed I shall be on the day of my death; and may peace be upon me on the day when I shall be raised to life.”

The longer you spend in the Christian communities of India and the Middle East, the more you realise the extent to which eastern Christian practice formed the template for the basic conventions of Islam. Ramadan, for example, bears startling similarities to Lent, which in the eastern Christian churches still involves a gruelling fast. Certainly if a monk from Byzantium were to come back today he would find more that was familiar in the practices and beliefs of a Muslim sufi than he would with an American evangelical. Yet this surprises us because we insist on thinking of Christianity as a thoroughly western religion rather than the oriental faith it actually is.

Last month I came across a Mughal miniature which was painted soon after the Buland Darwaza had been built. It is a nativity scene, but the wise men are Mughal courtiers, Mary is attended by a Mughal serving girl, and the Christ child and his mother are sitting under a palm tree. As this miniature shows, there are certainly major differences between the two faiths – not least the central fact, in mainstream Christianity, of Jesus’s divinity. But Christmas is a feast which Muslims and Christians can share together without reservation. At this moment, in the shadow of an immoral and entirely unnecessary war with Iraq, when the Christian west and Islamic east seem to be engaged in another major confrontation, there has never been a greater need for both sides to realise what they have in common and, as in this miniature, to gather around the Christ child, to pray for peace.

· William Dalrymple, author of From the Holy Mountain, will be speaking at Visions of Palestine on January 9 2003, 6.30pm, at the Royal Geographical Society, London. To reserve a ticket, send a SAE and cheque for £20 to CAABU, 1 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE, or phone 020-7832 1310