The White Nationalist Fantasy of Ancient Christian-Muslim Conflict Would Get an ‘F’ in History Class

When I first heard the tragic news of the shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was preparing a lecture for my Introduction to Western Religions course on Jesus in the Qur’an. This lecture asks a deceptively simple question: How was Islam different from Christianity in the 7th century? As a historian of religion, I like to use questions like this to challenge my students to interrogate the definitions of religion that we use and how we understand the borders between religions like Christianity and Islam. Who built these borders, and when did they first appear?

The terrorist charged with waging a calculated, hateful attack on Muslims in their place of worship fancies himself a historian, but it will come as little shock to learn that, given his writings, it’s clear that he’s never really read the texts of ancient Muslims and Christians or studied the artifacts they left behind.

His 74-page manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” parrots the deeply flawed historical claims of white nationalist pseudo-intellectuals and their trolling internet henchmen. The manifesto smacks of white fragility. It spews vitriolic rhetoric about the malleable Other who seeks to invade and replace; the non-white bogeyman who threatens white identity. In this case, the Other takes the shape of Muslims, with devastating consequences.

As has been widely reported, the shooter’s firearms were bedecked with the graffitied names of a veritable who’s who of white supremacists’ heroes. These men represent the Christian West in a clash of civilizations with the Muslim East. There are references to the Crusades, of course, but also to lesser known skirmishes between European Christians and Muslims such as Charles Martel’s campaign at the Battle of Tours (France) in 732. A power-hungry duke, Martel won a minor victory over Arabs who sought, at the urging of the Spanish Christian Duke Eudo of Aquitaine, to reclaim land Charles’s uncle seized from them. Tours was, in fact, a power struggle between Christian aristocrats.

The Battle of Tours was neither an epic clash between Western and Eastern civilizations, as the influential eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon spun it, nor was it a battle between the Christian West and Eastern invaders, as French nationalists and white nationalists like Steve Bannon have argued. James Palmer, a medieval historian, has noted that Martel was no defender of Christendom, and his ecclesiastical peers denounced his actions. In the historical imagination of white nationalists, however, this event looms large as the earliest example of Euro-Christian resistance against hostile Arab-Muslim invaders. It’s made to fit a preconceived model in which Muslims have always posed a threat to Christians.

Global white nationalism appears to be focused exclusively on race. Yet, again and again, its adherents equate Christianity with the West and the West with a fanciful white pan-European identity that they claim is under attack. For this reason, Murali Balaji describes forms of white nationalism as Christian nationalism, even though these terrorists aren’t theologians or Bible-thumpers. Sometimes they conflate the West with “Judeo-Christianity,” but this really just nods to “Christian Zionism” and a fig leaf against charges of Christian supremacy. The white supremacist shooter who wreaked havoc at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October reminds us that these hate-mongers also don’t give a damn about Jews, except maybe as the sovereign guardians of the land where Christ will return to save Christians.

Egged on by Trump’s racializing protectionism, white nationalists continue to commit atrocities against not only people of color but also non-Christians regardless of race. They rely on fake history that’s wrong in its details, narrow in its scope, and susceptible to cherry-picked sources and warped interpretations. This methodology is a great recipe for a big fat “F” on a paper in most university history courses.

Early Christian-Muslim Interactions

It’s typical to think of Christianity as a “Western religion”—a product of Rome, Wittenberg, and Vienna. But it originated in the Middle East and was still thriving there when the Qur’an was produced in the early 600s. “Eastern” (or, from a different angle, “West Asian”) Christianity was diverse, and many of its varieties differed in theology from so-called “orthodox” Christianity.

At ecumenical Christian councils such as the famous ones at Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451), wealthy and powerful male bishops got together to vote on Christ’s divinity. Was he a human who appeared divine or a god who appeared human? Was he both god and human at the same time? Of the same substance as God the Father? There were major differences of opinion, but the victors of those councils determined in the end that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as God, that he had two natures (human and divine), and that his virgin mother, Mary, was the Theotokos (“God-bearer”).

Some Christians in places like Syria, Persia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Arabian peninsula resisted these doctrines. In these regions, there were two main theological camps—the Monophysites, who spoke of Christ as having “one nature of the incarnate Word” (Logos), and the Nestorians who accepted that Christ had two harmonious natures but refused to attribute human sufferings to the divine nature. They also called Mary the Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”) instead of the Theotokos. (Additional theological currents were represented by various types of Docetists who believed that Christ was fully God and only took on the appearance of a human; Apollinarians, who believed that God was fully human but had the Word of God implanted in him; and Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ.)

Although these differences may seem to amount to Christian theologians splitting hairs over terminology, they are significant because they show how fluid Christian understandings of Christ’s divinity were when Islam emerged. The Qur’an’s portrayal of Jesus fits within the spectrum of alternative understandings of Jesus in the East. Qur’an 4:171 states that “the Messiah, ‘Īsā ibn Maryam (Arabic for “Jesus son of Mary”), was nothing more than a messenger of God, His Word, directed to Maryam, a Spirit from Him.”

In his book, The Islamic Jesus, Mustafa Akyol has remarked that this description of Jesus as the Word of God engages in longstanding Christian debates over Christ’s divinity sparked by the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). Elsewhere in its telling of the story of ‘Īsā and Maryam, the Qur’an transmits traditions that were popular in Christian texts that circulated widely in the East, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.

The earliest Muslims resembled Eastern Christians not only in theology but also in practice. For instance, Athanasius of Balad (in modern Iraq), patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church from 684 to 687, required Christians to abide by the Noahide laws: “those believing in Christ…should abstain from fornication, from what is strangled, from blood, and from meals of pagan sacrifice.” These laws are based on Genesis 9:3-6 and are required of Gentiles according to Acts of the Apostles 15:19-20 in the Syriac version of the Bible and other texts popular among Syriac Christians. They are also stipulated in the Qur’an (5:3). Based on this and other common practices, scholar Holger Zellentin has described Syriac Christianity and early Islam as sharing a common legal culture.

Earliest Islam fit within the spectrum of Eastern forms of Christianity so much that legends circulated among ancient Muslim historians that Muhammad was influenced by an Arian or Nestorian monk named Bahira when traveling through Syria as a boy.

Whether this is true or not, Muhammad clearly interacted regularly and positively with Christians. In the midst of battles with the dominant tribe in Mecca, Muhammad’s community (umma) took refuge in the Christian kingdom of Aksum in Ethiopia. About a decade later, the prophet established his community in Medina (Yathrib) in Arabia. The historian Fred Donner has argued that this community was significantly ecumenical, including Jews and Christians together with those Muhammad converted from polytheism. Together, this group was known as the “Believers.” Remarkably, inscriptions as late as the reign of the Umayyad caliph Mu‘awiya I (661 to 680) speak of the caliph as “Commander of the Believers” rather than “Commander of the Muslims.”

Archaeological evidence reveals churches in lands under Arab rule flourishing during the first centuries of Islam, and Syriac Christian writings often speak of Arabs expanding their rule through diplomatic treaties with cities, but never of “conquest” as such. To recognize this is not to deny that the expansion of Arab rule sometimes involved violence, but rather to acknowledge that this was not always the case and that religion was not always the motivating force. As Edward Curtis IV reminds us in his piece here on RD, “Muslims were as likely to fight for and with Christian-led European militaries as they were against them.” Universals are never correct, and they’re often dangerous.

The Making of Christian-Muslim Borders

It was during the tenure of the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685 to 705) that a distinctive Muslim identity started to be shaped in contrast to Christianity. The coins minted in this time and the inscriptions installed in the new Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem all emphasize that “God begets not and was not begotten.” The Dome of the Rock inscriptions are anti-trinitarian and mince no words in proclaiming that “the religion of God is Islam.” The overt anti-trinitarian language used in ‘Abd al-Malik’s propaganda reflects growing hostilities not with Christianity in general, but with the “orthodox” Christianity of the Byzantine empire in modern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa.

In his book on Syriac Christian sources on early Islam, Envisioning Islam, Michael Penn has demonstrated that the boundaries between Christianity and Islam remained porous in the East into the 9th century. As they adapted to the changing realities of Muslim rule, Eastern Christians increasingly sought to articulate their own identities in contrast to Muslims (and other Christians). This gradual process of identity formation was mutual: Muslim and Christian authorities constructed a religious border between one another in order to galvanize their identities amid shifts that had much more to do with geopolitics than religion.

Men of power developed these Christian and Muslim discourses of difference in order to police border-crossings, to block the bridges between Muslims and Christians that had been used for generations. But these discursive borders were not always realized in practice. Since antiquity, there have always been Muslims and Christians who lived in harmony in the Middle East, and around the world, abiding peacefully in their religious borderlands.

Resisting the Clash of Civilizations Narrative

The question of how Islam differed from Christianity in antiquity depends entirely on how we define religion, Christianity, and Islam, as well as how we assign meaning to difference. We might choose to define Christianity and Islam as separate religions from the beginning of Muhammad’s career, but this makes little sense of the ancient traces of more gradual “partings of the ways.” Or, we could define them as two varieties of a broadly defined religion of Abrahamic monotheism. But this obscures the ways that these groups increasingly defined themselves as “Christians” or “Muslims” in contrast to one another. What matters the most, historically, is that we don’t juxtapose Islam against a homogenous, Western, European image of Christianity as part of some clash of civilizations narrative. There was as much difference and conflict among the varieties of Christianity as there was between Christianity and Islam.

White nationalists like the Christchurch shooter rely on simplistic narratives of cultural conflict, but careful historical analysis always betrays more complicated processes of identity formation, negotiation, and contestation. When we reproduce these problematic narratives, we defend borders built by the Powerful on foundations of fear and exploitation. Identities are not nations—they’re not bounded entities, they’re not invaded, they’re not replaced. Only when we resist the words and actions of corrupt leaders who seek to shape and reshape identities for their own benefit can we reclaim our religious borderlands as sites of interaction, learning, and collaboration instead of ignorance, segregation, and violence.