The purpose of this article is to invite you to consider the meaning of a phrase that’s all but unknown to our media: “Abrahamic ecumene.” But let’s begin with a word that has been in the news during the past month. President Bush used the term “crusade” in emotively responding to the attacks of Sept. 11, but then, presumably at the urging of advisors more cognizant of world history, retracted it. His original locution was, however, duly noted across the Islamic world, where it supports the extremist analyses offered by figures like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mulla Omar.
They say that the West, America especially, is engaged in a new crusade against Islam, one so menacing that it justifies even the most desperate counter-measures. Since we generally use the word in vague and banal ways–we mount crusades against drunk driving and littering–we’re likely to react to such a charge with baffled shrugs. Sure, the Crusades happened back when, and were probably awful, but what’s to get upset about now? We might well ask.
The armies of “Christ Militant” that comprised the First Crusade captured Jerusalem, their primary objective, on July 15, 1099. For centuries previous, the city’s Arab rulers, honoring the Prophet Mohammad’s command to respect Christians and Jews as fellow “Peoples of the Book,” had allowed members of all faiths to live and worship in the city. Though a tax was levied on non-Muslim residents, Jerusalem housed numerous churches, synagogues and mosques, and pilgrims visited from all over the civilized world. But the Crusaders were not interested in the existing atmosphere of tolerance. They had other plans for Jerusalem.
When their siege proved victorious, they allowed the governor and his garrison to depart. They then entered the city and methodically slaughtered the Muslim and Jewish civilians who remained. How long does it take to kill 40,000 defenseless Muslims without the aid of guns or artillery? Apparently it took the soldiers of Christ two days to do the job with their swords and axes. One Frankish witness recalled that when he visited the city’s Temple area he was obliged to wade through corpses and blood that were ankle-deep. The Jews took refuge in their chief synagogue, and were butchered there.
These were hardly the grisliest outrages. In Syria, the Crusaders practiced cannibalism on their captives. A Frankish chronicler admitted, “Our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.” The Crusades, which lasted two centuries, are full of such scenes. Yet it was the initial violence committed in and against the Holy City that had the deepest and most lasting impact on Muslims. According to the renowned Crusades historian Sir Stephen Runciman:
The massacres at Jerusalem profoundly impressed all the world. … Many even of the Christians were horrified at what had been done; and amongst the Moslems, who had been ready hitherto to accept the Franks as another factor in the tangled politics of the time, there was henceforward a clear determination that the Franks must be driven out. It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that recreated the fanaticism of Islam. When, later, wiser Latins sought to find some basis on which Christian and Moslem could work together, the memory of the massacre stood always in their way.
For anyone hoping to understand the Islamic fanaticism of the present moment, that paragraph offers more insight than any dozen newscasts of the past month. As their own statements attest, bin Laden and his allies aren’t out to conquer the world, “destroy our way of life,” or anything similarly ludicrous. Their goal is to expel the West from the lands of Islam which, in their view, have been subjected in recent decades to invasive political and cultural assaults as injurious as the Crusades. The Franks must be driven out again, in their eyes. In attacking targets in the U.S., they’ve not only struck a blow toward this expulsion but also shown Americans–or at least non-Southerners–what it feels like to have foreigners invade and desecrate one’s home.
By now, Americans who’ve been following the news should know that the Sept. 11 attacks don’t reflect either the political sentiments or the religious beliefs of the majority of Muslims. And President Bush and other leaders deserve credit for emphatically stating that any U.S. counteroffensive will be a campaign against terror, not a war on Islam. Yet all this leaves out something the terrorists implicitly recognize: The struggle between the West and Islam cannot be understood outside the context of a very long political, cultural and (above all) spiritual history, of which our ignorance seems as deliberate as it is, at the moment, debilitating.
The first time I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran, I was struck by how much they know of us compared to what we know of them. Indeed, educated Iranians appear better versed in Western culture than most U.S. college graduates. They know their Plato, their Shakespeare and Goethe and Lincoln, and so on right down to the minutiae of recent history and pop culture. By contrast, how many Americans could even distinguish a Persian from an Arab, or tell you anything about the Iranian influence on Jewish and Christian thought?
On the face of it, our ignorance indicts both our media and our educational systems. Television gives us interchangeable 10-second clips of Iranians shaking their fists at the Great Satan, and we think we’ve learned about the world, rather than witnessed the flimsiest, most self-serving substitute for actual knowledge. When the first Crusaders thought to direct their bloodlust toward the East, Islam possessed the most sophisticated and magnificent civilization the world had yet seen; and when Europe finally emerged from the Dark Ages, it reconstructed itself largely on the basis of Islamic innovations and refinements in fields ranging from mathematics and astronomy to philosophy and literature. Yet our universities, which both teach and honor our inheritances from Greece and Rome, reduce Islam’s contributions to a series of footnotes at best. Why?
Most current academics, if they even bothered with such a question, would no doubt offer only acceptably materialist explanations; they would invoke “Eurocentrism,” colonialism, the dialectics of geopolitical power. Such fundamentally incomplete analyses are one of our greatest weaknesses, because they point in precisely the wrong direction. The West isn’t ignorant of Islam because of competition over land, wealth or human bodies. It is ignorant because it has spent a thousand years constructing all manner of cultural, intellectual and social barriers to protect it from a competition over Truth, the ultimate dispensation of a common God.
Islam, unlike any other culture to face the West from beyond its borders, in one crucial sense is not really Other at all. It belongs to the same religious tradition, the tradition of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Like Christians, Muslims revere Jesus as an essential messenger from God, yet he is only the penultimate; Mohammad is the final one. (And Mohammad is not divine; the Koran, God’s word, is.) Of course this is unnervingly objectionable to Christians, because it regards them as they regard the Jews: as exemplars of an earlier, valuable but incomplete revelation, since displaced by Islam’s. No wonder medieval Christian authorities regarded Islam not as a new or different religion, but as a Christian heresy.
That line was dropped long ago, of course. Today Islam is understood not only as a religion unto itself, but as the fastest growing one on the planet. Much closer historically to its founding revelations than Judaism and Christianity are to theirs, it retains the dynamism and conviction of youth, and the devoutness of its adherents can easily remind observers of Jewish and Christian cultures before they were transformed by scientific modernity. In fact, Islamic theology comprises a critique of Christianity, especially, for leading Hebraic monotheism toward the corruption of materialism–with all that word implies–by asserting that human flesh was once divinized. Naturally, you haven’t heard Nightline debate that one yet.
Just wait. In one of those sweeping ironies that history prizes, the tragedies of Sept. 11 ultimately may not drive the Islamic world further from the West, as the terrorists evidently wish, but bring the two cultures closer together. Islamic-American speakers are in demand all over the U.S., and my local bookstore’s Islamic section has tripled in size in the last month. What’s striking about all this is that the cross-cultural conversation it presupposes must focus first and foremost on issues not of politics or society but of religion and spirituality. Is it possible that all sides might learn something, especially about subject number one–their ties to each other?
I encountered the term “Abrahamic ecumene” in the 1995 book Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims, by Karl-Josef Kuschel, a German professor of ecumenical theology and theological aesthetics (I’d love to know what the latter term means). Kuschel may be a theologian, but he’s also enough of a realist to recognize that the dialogue he proposes will be long and difficult at best. He traces a history of division that goes back nearly 4000 years, to the point where Abraham’s sons Ishmael (by his maidservant Hagar) and Isaac (by his wife Sarah) split the Semitic race, respectively, between Arab and Jew. All three monotheistic religions have claimed to be the true inheritors of the God of Abraham, and Kuschel does not imagine that three faiths will ever merge, as might happen to different strains of Christianity.
Rather, he urges an ecumenical dialogue based on an active awareness of the fundamental kinship between Jews, Christians and Muslims. He writes of all three:
Only out of a deep religious conviction can that change of heart come about which is so necessary in the face of all the political, social and religious conflicts. And this change of heart can come about above all if we listen again to the primal history, the history of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah. In its spirit, the religions should show the way for politics, instead of constantly limping behind the politics of the day.
If Kuschel’s attempt to span these vastly different traditions meets with even the least bit of success, perhaps he can turn his energies to another form of schism, which is not quite as modern as it sounds. More than a half-century before the First Crusade made its murderous entry into Jerusalem, the Arab poet al-Maarri lamented: “The world is divided into two sects: Those with religion but no brains, And those with brains but no religion.”