The Prophet Mohammed's many encounters with Christians have been well-documented, beginning, as a 12-year-old, with a warm meeting with a Syrian monk during a trade expedition.
During heightened persecution of the nascent Muslim community in Mecca, Mohammed advised some of his followers to migrate to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), then ruled by the Christian king Negus. Mohammed had full confidence in the righteous nature of Negus, who provided refuge to the persecuted Muslims, allowing them to practise their faith. Interestingly, these first Muslim emigrants feared charges of apostasy by the majority polytheistic Meccans.
Two notable encounters occurred toward the end of his life, which should give Muslims pause to reflect in view of the recent violence orchestrated in Egypt and Pakistan.
While in Medina, Mohammed sent letters to many rulers and tribal chiefs, inviting each to accept Islam. The head of the Copts in Egypt politely declined. In accordance with custom at the time, he sent the Prophet some presents and Maria al-Qibtiyya, a slave. The Prophet married the Coptic Christian woman, and she was accorded the honorific title Mother of the Believers. She gave birth to a son, Ibrahim, who died in infancy. As with his other wives, she was (and is) held in high esteem.
A few years before his death, Mohammed granted security to a group of monks from St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. He pronounced the following covenant "to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens." The covenant also said they should be under no compulsion; Christian judges and monks should not be removed; no one should destroy or damage their houses of religion, or steal from them; Christians should not be forced to travel or fight - Muslims were to fight for them; their churches were not to be prevented from being repaired. This covenant was to be obeyed by Muslims till the end of time.
The Koran itself prohibits the desecration of houses of worship, suicide and murder, in no uncertain terms. It also advocates a special bond with Jews and Christians (regarded as People of the Book).
All of this is to highlight the fact that murderous zealotry against Christians (such as that in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria) is condemned by the very faith itself. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda use theological rhetoric as cover for their murderous actions.
In Egypt and Pakistan, the recent violence has caused much soul-searching - with very different reactions.
Egyptian Muslims overwhelmingly rallied to the side of Coptic Christians, condemning the violence, under the slogan "We either live together, or we die together." Muslims formed human shields to protect Coptic churches during Christmas Eve celebrations. Dutch Muslims also vowed to protect Dutch Coptic churches. The Canadian Council of Imams and the Canadian Arab Federation each condemned the violence, and expressed support for the Coptic community.
In Pakistan, the response to the assassination of Salman Taseer, the liberal governor of Punjab province, reflected the growing divide within Pakistani society between moderation and zealotry. While hundreds of thousands condemned the murder, thousands have come out in support of the assassin, arguing that any opposition to the anti-blasphemy laws is akin to blasphemy itself. There is no middle ground, making one wonder where this split will lead.
According to New York Times columnist Matt Bai, Saturday's Arizona shooting "will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come." The same can be said of the murders in Egypt and Pakistan.
Canadian Muslims should play an active role in shaping the direction of Islam as a tolerant, inclusive faith exemplified by the Prophet. Otherwise, the ignorant will continue to propagate their murderous, intolerant message in the guise of faith. Silence is not an option in this struggle for the soul of Islam.