Elizabeth Foster: Pre-Modern Muslim Interfaith Relations

Elizabeth Foster

Response Paper #2

Question: Question: What were significant characteristics of the Muslim interfaith relations in pre-modern societies?


The root of the similarities between Christianity and Islam are rooted in the basis of their beliefs, first stemming from the fact that they are both Abrahamic faiths. In particular, Muslims and Christians shared the beliefs of Jesus as one of God’s messengers and in the virgin birth1 Further, Muslims even celebrate and venerate Jesus’ birthday. The largest discrepancy between the two faiths comes from the Muslim belief in the seal of the prophet, meaning that while Jesus was indeed on of God’s messengers, Mohammad was the final, supreme, and superior prophet. Muslims themselves can actually be traced back to the Arians, a Christian group whose beliefs differed from the greater, dominant Christianity only so far as they didn’t believe that Jesus was God, and they did not believe in the Holy trinity. While the greater Christian society viewed these Arians as heretics, they were still considered Christians. This can lead to the view of Christians that Muslims are just Christians led astray from their doctrine, i.e. Christian heretics. This differs greatly from the Christian view of Jews, the other Abrahamic faith, at the time, writing about them labeling them as Christ killers who were completely outside and separate from the Christian faith. This points out the great difference between Jews and Muslims in the eyes of Christians, for while Jews were not worthy of being saved, Muslims actually inspired the first Christian missionaries based on their view that Muslims could be led back to the righteous path. Thomas Arnold, writer of the first account of the Middle East’s conversion to Islam, wrote that, “…Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians were at the bottom of the religious hierarchy; Muslims were in the middle; and Protestants were at the top.”2 Further similarities between Christians and Muslims can be found in that they both have a language of faith and depend on clerical establishments. A point of contention between Christians and Muslims is often their differing conceptions of the crucifixion. Muslims, while agreeing the event occurred, believe that it was no in fact Jesus who was crucified but a substitution. While this may point to a huge difference between the two traditions, in fact this belief was a part of the Christian ideologies of the time in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria, and was therefore “a current and very popular Christian belief in the area in which Islam was coming into being.”3

In terms of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims, current history has painted a picture of violence and oppression. While this may be a stance that colors our modern understanding of the issue, history instead shows a longstanding history of cooperation and inter-religious communication. Under the Mughal empire, Hinduism and Islam worked in tandem, creating a cultural cross pollination. “Finally in 1192 C.E.  Muslim rulers from Afghanistan and the Punjab established joint control of northern India through various alliances with Hindu princes from the southern plateau.”4 Despite expansion and taking ownership of their land, the Muslims never put forth any efforts towards conversion. Instead the empire put in work to assimilate and learn from the Hindus, creating a culture that was a fusion of both traditions. The Mughal empire even went so far at to put forth many translations of Hindu texts into Persian. In doing so, the Mughals made Hindu texts available to Muslims, one again fostering and encouraging assimilation.5 The current image we have of fighting amongst Hindus and Muslims came with colonization. During the colonial period, the colonizers found it beneficial to foster conflict between the two, cementing their power and hold over the region.



1Richard Bulliet, “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice.” (lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series, Craig Auditorium, Oberlin, March 9, 2010).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Greg Sarafan, “Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture,” Sensiblereason.com, November 6, 2011

5 Ibid.





Bulliet, Richard. “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice.” Lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series, Craig Auditorium, Oberlin, March 9, 2010.

Sarafan, Greg. “Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture.” Sensiblereason.com. November 6, 2011.

Truschke, Audrey. “Cosmopolitan Encounters : Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2012.