Photo: Lothar Boris Piltz, Unsplash

How to arrive at a judaeo-christian-islamic culture and civilisation


I am delighted to be invited to speak at this gathering, even though I am not very familiar with many of the subjects to be discussed here.

The organizer of these meetings of yours in Sarajevo gave me the title Christianity and Islam: An Islamic Perspective for my talk. I must admit that this is a difficult subject for me to address, as if I were standing at the foot of a mountain range of which the peaks are now lost in the clouds, now silhouetted against a blue sky. And besides, what is Islam these days if not what Muslims make it? And what is Christianity these days, if not what Christians make it?

And who is capable of a comprehensive overview of their doings these days, and of predicting their possible consequences?

There is, however, also another entirely different order of facts that encouraged me to address you to day. First, there is the city of Sarajevo, where this meeting is being held. Sarajevo is a city with a multi-religious history about which much that is true has been written, but so too, perhaps, have neatly phrased fallacies and untruths come from the pen of historians of all the confessions represented here.

Sarajevo is also a helpful metaphor, not to say paradigm, for both fruitful and unhelpful discussions, dialogue and debates between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I believe there is no particular need to reiterate that the history of Sarajevo is an integral part of European history, but also of the history of Muslims and, in the wider context, of Islam itself. The most recent history of Sarajevo, in particular the difficult days of the 1992-1995 siege, has been good news for nobody, and in particular for the Muslims of and in Europe.

I sometimes think, however, that I am one of those optimists who regarded that seemingly interminable siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces as an unforeseen, unplanned disjunction in the overall course of modern European democracy, a kind of unexpected rockfall blocking a wide road, which sensible, diligent and well-meaning people soon cleared away, leaving the road open again.

Although we cannot banish from our minds the besieged towns and cities, it is better to base our hopes on the concept of the open city. In 1683, Ottoman imperial forces laid siege to Vienna, but this should not now dictate our attitude towards the modern Republic of Turkey, any more than should the citizens of Sarajevo view the modern Republic of Austria through the lens of the suffering inflicted on this city by the Austrian military leader Prince Eugene of Savoy, who burned the city down in 1697.

Between now and the day after tomorrow we could simply recall the sad history of cities under siege and the unpredictable twists of fate that people are faced with; but I believe that we shall not blaze a trail to peace by eternally bewailing the sufferings of cities under siege. And anyway, this eminent gathering of yours in Sarajevo is not designed to address history, though it is no bad thing, for the sake of peace, to remember the horrific bloodshed of the 1992 to 1995 war against Bosnia and to draw the moral from it – a war that we never believed would happen, and even when it did, and as it dragged on interminably, we often thought, crushed by the siege as we were, that the world is in fact perpetually at war, and that peace between people is the exception.

Nowadays, with the 1992-1995 war more than a decade behind us, and thanks to this peace of a sort in Bosnia (still largely under the auspices of Europe and the USA), we are increasingly inclined to say that there was no religious conflict in Bosnia. And yet the war cannot be properly explained without taking into account the religious dimension of the war.

Another fact that encouraged me to address you has to do with Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am convinced that what I have said of Sarajevo could equally well be said of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, and of the encounter between Christianity, Judaism and Islam in this country.

It should go without saying that this encounter was often peaceful and, like many peaceful matters, sincere, to the good fortune of all. True, the encounter between Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Bosnia and Herzegovina often ceased to be a happy one; at times, the faiths began to compete for ill rather than good, even to the point of competing in conflicts, hatred and enmity. We have seen something similar in present-day Europe from time to time: disturbingly provocative words and actions, the media stigmatizing certain groups, political discrimination, the rejection of the secular system by certain Muslim groups, and so on.

In the generally peaceful atmosphere being encouraged in Europe nowadays, however, we soon forget these incidental features. One cannot, of course, say that all European countries aspire equally to peace at home, in Europe, and beyond it. Suffice it to look at what their armed forces are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How can the history of world religions be read through the lens of continuity?

I assume that the Balkans has appealed to you so far as a region of Europe that has borne witness for more than a millennium to ever-increasing encounters between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Bearing in mind that you are here in Sarajevo, I maintain that the Balkan experience of common living, of convivencia among the followers of different faiths, or even the experience of conflict between them with all its tragic consequences, is of great importance for the Europe of today, or for the Europe that was proposed and has advanced as a democratic megastate project ever since 1945 and the end of World War II.

I know you are aware that many people in Europe have in the past described the Balkans as a region that has yet to become part of Europe, or as a powder keg, or even as a country in which everything is topsy-turvy. Even now one quite often hears such phrases used to describe the Balkans in certain western European circles.

Does one of the reasons for these adverse views of the Balkans lie in the fact that indigenous Islam in Europe took root and has been expressed in such a distinctive manner in this very region?

Would the Balkans have been so denigrated by various theories if there had been no Muslims living here – Muslims who were here in the past, and who now have such a high profile in the region’s demography, geography, history, culture and civilization?

These are questions that we need not answer now, but as we seek answers, we shall be dogged by doubts and misgivings.

And yet, given what is likely to happen in the 21st century in the Mediterranean and Europe, the Balkans is an extremely important region, a vein of European soil that will certainly yield good crops in the years of European peace. All the way from Istanbul to Zagreb, many cityscapes resembling those of Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Jerusalem can be seen – cityscapes with mosques and churches, as well as the occasional synagogue as a faithful escort. Such high standards of communal culture have yet to be reached elsewhere in the world. Unless our ideologists of globalization are deluding themselves, globalization itself should help to disseminate all traditional faiths throughout this earth.

Like the Mediterranean, the Balkans is not an area dominated by a single faith. The Balkans is the spacious homeland for centuries’ old indigenous Orthodox, Catholic, Islamic and, in places, Jewish microcultures. As well as recalling the bitter experiences of conflict and war, we should never forget the long periods of peace in the Balkans.

It is of particular interest to analyze the presence of inter-religious peace, cooperation and tolerance at times when the Balkans were ruled by great empires. Discord between the different faiths and their followers in the Balkans arose when these empires began to weaken or when, as happened from time to time, they treated the religion that was not that of the court, crown, king, sultan or emperor in a segregatory manner. 

It is my view that in the Balkans of today, with its many small states, part of the reason for most of the region’s peoples and countries wanting to join the European Union is that they see it as a modern empire (although, luckily or unluckily, one without a crown, emperor, king or sultan). Throughout the Balkans, we hope that the European Union will bring with it the chance of peace not only for Christians but also for Muslims, a chance for law and order for all of us and every nation in the Balkans, for all religions, all believers and non-believers.

Of course, this optimistic view of mine of the Balkans holds good only if we view the region through the lens of the philosophy of continuity.

If, though, we view the religions of the Balkans and the Mediterranean by reading and (or) seeing their history as discontinuity, there will be nothing to prevent us from acting like the worst kind of xenophobes and beginning to designate one faith here in Bosnia (and elsewhere) as an import and the others as indigenous; one culture as non-European and the others as European.

The Balkans, like every other region where the traditional world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have met and mingled, has not lost but greatly gained in the wealth of its spiritual continuity. These continuities, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, have by the nature of things persisted, together creating transient acculturations of space and syncretisms, and then complementing one another.

To put it metaphorically, the space marked the day before yesterday by Judaism gained even greater spiritual continuity with the arrival, yesterday, of Christianity and, today, of Islam. But equally, no one who observes the Balkans, the Mediterranean and Europe with the eyes of continuity would ever claim that Judaism vanished the day before yesterday, or Christianity yesterday, or that Islam ceased to exist today. It is the task of peace-loving people to promote the coexistence of different times in the same space and of different spaces or corners of the world at one time. Historically, it has been shown that the emergence of the Christian East did not mean the eradication of the Jewish East, nor did the Muslim East eradicate the Jewish or Christian East. And we could, indeed we should, say the same for the Jewish, Christian and Islamic West.

The tradition of Islam in the Balkans and in Bosnia is not a matter of discontinuity, but of continuity, just as is the tradition of Christianity in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and so on. It is a continuity built up over many centuries, just as those many centuries are embedded in that diverse and distinctive continuity.

Gentlemen, what is definitely undermining the traditional and religious space and continuity of enduring Europe and the Mediterranean (and indeed of the world at large) is rebellion against the limits set for humankind by the Bible and the Qur’an. Among these limits are the fact that men are men, and women are women; that marriage and family are essential to ensuring the harmony of one’s descendants; that all have the right to a natural birth and to a father and mother; that all have the right to preserve the integrity of their person and personality (and not to have them copied by cloning); and that all have the right to die with dignity. All traditional Muslim and Christian believers could be allies in the worthy defense of these principles; and this alliance would be good for every other believer, and indeed for all non-believers.

As long as we remain at the mercy of ever more powerful weaponry, the greatest discontinuity of humankind and one that is capable of destroying this world as if it were a mere trifle, what chance have we of giving a voice to these Biblical and Qur’anic limits that have been bestowed on humankind?

I believe it is now much more important, in this age of the machine and of ozone holes, an age when nature itself is rebelling against the works of man of the industrial revolution, that we begin to concern ourselves with this kind of discontinuity.

History as a pitfall for inter-religious dialogue

It is not my intention here to deal with history, with the remote or recent times when everyone, Christian and Muslim, could with equal justification and on sound evidence identify their good and their bad centuries, their good and their evil face.

Those who live perpetually in the past are at risk of treating their history as an age of glory, even though they are often unaware that it has been conceived by projecting backwards into the past.

A selective reading of history is a snare and a delusion that often arises in dialogue, and perhaps the most dangerous of traps for our present understanding between religions and believers of different faiths, particularly in Europe and in the West as a whole, since it is the West and Europe that form the present-day military, economic, cultural and civilizational mainstay of the world. For the very reason that they possess such immense secular power, Europe and the West now bear the greatest responsibility for ensuring world peace.

In this age of globalization, which it is claimed will open up the entire world to everyone and to all religions, it is especially dangerous to exploit history and historical rights irresponsibly. If the wish is for all to be open to everyone else, shall we find ourselves impeded in that intention by our separate, distinct (micro)histories, that were often not global but confined to a small area?

Where the religious geography of our European continent is concerned, I should merely like to note that neither Christianity nor Islam came to Europe from Europe. Their original homeland and their roots are in the Semitic Middle Eastern triangle formed by the Red Sea, Jerusalem and Mecca. From there they reached Europe in much the same way – disseminated by local or conquering empires, missionaries, and their cultures, civilizations and philosophies. And why not admit, too, that they were disseminated by their worldly wealth, power and influence. 

As regards the European continent, permit me to remind you that the Byzantine Empire helped to spread Orthodoxy and the Ottoman Empire to spread Islam, but also facilitated the demographic expansion of Orthodox nations and of Jewish colonies. And to consider only the century closest to us, the Austrian Empire, and later Austria-Hungary, helped to spread and give stability to Catholicism.

No believers in Europe (or anywhere else in the world), be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim, could have spread their views of the world to come without the blessing and the resources of this world, however transient this world and eternal the world to come. Each has known times when its followers were unable to resist the charms of the golden calf, regardless of the warnings of our scriptures that it is pagan, and accursed.

I say all this for a variety of reasons, but one in particular: we Muslims feel a sense of trepidation whenever we hear it said that Europe as a mega-state should be defined as a solely and exclusively Christian continent.

It is proper to say that Europe is a Christian continent, but not only that; for it is also a Jewish continent and a Muslim continent, as well as being a secular continent. Just now I spoke of the shared existence of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic East; and this is just as true of the West.

We should all make every effort nowadays to ensure that the phrase the Judaeo-Christian heritage is given its third component, to become the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. Only thus shall we be fair and equitable towards our shared future; and only thus shall we recognize what has been the reality for centuries, on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Christianity and Islam today – the danger of identity monism

You are eminent leaders of the Franciscan order, which has been actively conveying the message and voice of Christianity world wide and throughout Europe – and Bosnia and Herzegovina, naturally – for centuries. It is precisely because you have had a feeling for distinctive local and regional features that it is good to remind you, now that you are here in Sarajevo, of the multitude of human identities, not only in the present but also in the past.

You have also promoted dialogue within Catholicism. Orders such as yours promoted internal pluralism, pluralism within Catholicism. They have proved to be forces for encouraging dialogue within their faith as well as inclined towards dialogue between different faiths. There is much in your Franciscan tradition that reminds us Muslims of the tradition of the Sufi orders in Islam.

This brings us to an important issue, that of identity – or identities. Kindly allow me at leisure to explain my views on this matter.

These days the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina describe you as Franciscans in Europe, European Franciscans, or the like. Little or nothing is said of the fact that you include Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans, Austrians and so on. Nor does the media here refer to your regional identity, as Catalonians, say, or Bavarians, or Provençal. The dry-as-dust information provided about you in the news tells us nothing about your personal identities; we do not know if any of you are vegetarian, for example, or whether you are fans of Bayern, Real or Ajax.

It is possible, of course, that to some of you your Franciscan or Catholic identity is what is most important to you, but it is equally possible that for some of you, some other aspect of your identity is what comes first.

It is important to reflect on our multiple identities in the context of the encounters and clashes of historical Christianity and Islam.

Denoting or reducing a group or a people to just one identity is the worst thing one can do to that group or people, and often entails stigmatizing it. I say this for the sake of the truism that no one has only one identity.

Muslims in Europe, European Muslims, just like Christians on the African and Asian sides of the Mediterranean, have certain mutually complementary identities. Just as it is not a good thing to consider Christians there as Christians and nothing else, so it is not a good thing to think of Muslims in Europe as nothing but Muslim.

To stay with the Muslim question in the Europe of today, there is much with which to reproach Muslims themselves. There are many number of Muslim associations, forums and institutions that identify and promote themselves in their activities as Muslims and nothing else. This is not a bad thing in itself if it is affirming universalized Islam, or if the wealth of local, national and even tribal microcultures imbued with Islam is demonstrated within local societies.

However, just as the assertion that Europe equals Christianity is unfounded, because the universalism of Christianity transcends Europe and because there is also a civic Europe, a secular Europe, a Europe of regions, and so on, so too it is unwise of the Muslims in and of Europe to emphasize solely their Islamic identity, and not to develop other identities.

Politically speaking, there is a democratic Europe, a liberal Europe, a social democratic Europe and here and there, most regrettably, even covert segments of fascist Europe. For the Muslim minority, western Europe is not only an opportunity for them to migrate but also a place where they can develop their own indigenous European political identities, cultural identities, world views and so on. They can develop and share these identities in association with Europeans of other faiths, world views and so on.

For the Muslims in Europe, supplementary identities are not a mimicry, nor do they mean introducing the principal identity through the back door. A democratic, civic Europe is no threat to Muslim identities as long as the Muslims themselves accept such a Europe as their homeland, its states as their states, its civil rights and freedoms as their own civil rights and freedoms.

Many of the identities of Muslims and Christians do not coincide with religious identities, but neither do they desecrate, taint or deny them. A multiplicity of identities constitutes an opportunity for people of different faiths – Christians and Muslims, for instance – to work together.

* * *

Finally, I would say that in this 21st century, Christian-Muslim dialogue is perhaps the most important global issue. These two world religions constitute a single entity at the planetary level, their followers intermingled and often living together in the same society.

It has been demonstrated that social patterns for the peaceful coexistence of different people and nations, different believers and non-believers, cannot be taken from the remote past. Those times are long gone, and we cannot now turn the clock back. We need to turn our attention to creating new patterns of coexistence. Europe’s democratic development since 1945 could be a good model for societies and states in the Middle East where there is a Muslim majority.

On the other hand, much of humankind is now responding to the messages of Islam and Christianity. Even in this technological age, nothing can replace God – not nuclear weapons, nor the global village of the media, nor the promises and resources to be gained from cloning.

World peace must now seek its resources in the messages of Islam and Christianity. Hence the tough but noble task imposed on those who interpret Islam and Christianity, of presenting the fundamental teachings of their faiths peaceably, and of affirming within them the principles of peace and human dignity.

 Thank you!

* Text of a talk held on 11 October 2007 in Sarajevo at the 8th Assembly of the Union of Friars Minor in Europe.

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