The situation of Christians in the Muslim world has always been complicated, because they have never been considered citizens. We know, for example, that in Egypt the Copts are “more Egyptian” than anyone else, since the word “copts” is pronounced ‘gypti’, Egyptian. Conceived in the 7th century in Arabia, the local judicial system however, states that Muslims “are” the state, and they are the ones allowing Jews and Christians to live together. No one else. Those who do not believe – they say – “cannot live with us”. This is the judicial system according to Islamic Sharia. In the Koran, it is clearly stated that Jews and Christians are ‘dhimmi’, meaning “protected”, and they can live with Muslims. However, the Koran also specifies that they have to pay a tribute, the ‘jizya’, since they are “humiliated”. Jews and Christians can then live together with Muslims, but as second-class citizens. There are exceptions. In Syria, for example, things were different: the Constitution is not Sharia, rather a text written in the 1950’s by a Christian, Michel ‘Aflaq. The text was adopted by Assad the father and confirmed by Assad the son. Saddam Hussein enacted the same Constitution in Iraq. It is a neutral charter that recognizes all religions: equal rights for all citizens and the freedom to build churches, mosques, and synagogues. The situation is rather different in Egypt, where to build a church one needs the personal permission of the President of the Republic. This permit is hardly ever granted, in part due to the long bureaucratic procedure. Similar limitations exist also in other fields. In the army, a Christian knows that he will never reach command positions. As for the education system, teaching Arabic to Christians was forbidden in the Sixties, under the pretext that in order to learn that language one needs to know the Koran well. Things like these happen in every-day life. Obtaining a job is more difficult for a Christian than a Muslim. Certainly, they will not say that you did not obtain the job “because you are Christian”, they will simply tell you that there are no vacancies. And I speak from personal experience. I told one of my Muslim friends: “You try asking; as soon as they heard my name, they said there were no vacancies”. We have to start by saying that we have three names (first name, our father’s name and our grandfather’s name). If one of those three names is not typical Muslim (Mohammed, Mahmoud, Mustafa), then it is clear that one is not a Muslim. My friend did as I told him and the answer was immediately positive: there was a vacancy. This happens every day, it is routine. If dealing with radical, fundamentalist movements, opposed to everything that is not traditionalist Islam, then the situation becomes even more serious: churches are destroyed, crosses are taken down. Christians ask for a neutral constitution. In other words, a charter that deals not in Muslims and Christians, men and women, but in citizens only. This is what the Synod for the Middle East has asked in the apostolic exhortation, but that it has not yet been achieved.
The main problem concerns Islamic conversions to Christianity. It is impossible, and it puts one’s life at risk. If a Muslim decides to publicly abandon Islam and became atheist or Christian, he/she can be put to death. The only option for people who change religion is to leave the country. I am not talking only of countries on the Arabic peninsula, but also countries like Jordan, which is quite tolerant: the King is said to be against conversion, but stated that he has to take into account the mentality of his people. I am thinking of a case I followed in recent months. In Paris, a Moroccan lady became Christian. She told me she would like to be baptized, but she knows she risks not being able to return to Morocco, because she would appear Christian. Therefore, she behaves as if she still was a Muslim. Her family knows it but without it all being official. This is just an example, but it shows how situations are never easy nor peaceful.
It is a lie to say that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. I can understand why people say it, because they mean that they do not recognize those behaviors. That is true, many Muslims support the true Islam, which instead should be peaceful. However, when it is an imam who says it, it becomes rather serious. What the so-called Islamic State does, as a matter of fact, is always supported by a Muslim jurist, who states how a certain action is consistent with a certain Islamic precept. First and foremost, we must ask ourselves which sources Muslims, including Isis militia, are using. The first of such sources is the Koran, the second one is tradition, which includes the facts of Muhammad’s life and his teachings. There are thousands of such collections, and among them (compiled in the 9th and 10th century) 9 are considered authentic. Essentially, when a sentence is found in one of those collections, it is considered to be absolutely true. Within these sources, we find everything that has been done by the Islamic State: either in the Koran, in the oral tradition or in Muhammad’s life. This is clearly exemplified by the burning of the Jordan pilot. Shortly after, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, which prepares thousands of imams every year, observed how that action was contrary to Islam: according to a saying attributed to the prophet - burning a person is not permitted to men, this being a feature of God, the ‘Geenna’: punishment by fire belongs to God. This is a sentence uttered by Muhammad. The problem is that the pilot was burned on the basis of another fact: when Muhammad was faced with two homosexuals, the Prophet said that they should be “burned, killed by fire”. It may sound contradictory, but this is the truth. And this is not the only case. I think, for example, of the verse that states, “kill them wherever you find them” (Koran: Mecca, 2:191) and of the ones that deny the religious compulsion (Koran: Mecca, 2:256). Therefore, when one asks why Islam does not allow converting to another religion, the answer is to look at the second chapter of the Koran, where it is stated that there is no religious compulsion. That is indeed true, unfortunately elsewhere the opposite is found.
These contradictions in the Koran text are well known to all Muslims. Today, these fanatic jihadists always have a religious representative at their side, an imam or an scholar, who finds a justification for their actions, or who says a certain action cannot be carried out, since there is no mention of it in the Koran or Muhammad’s life. I understand Muslims when they say that the behavior of Isis members has nothing to do with Islam. The problem lies in understanding who decides what is true and what is false. The Koran too recognizes that there are contradictions. When an opposition comes to light, one tries to understand which is the most recent element. The lesson of the abrogated and “abrogratee”. To abrogate means to cancel: the verse that was revealed later cancels out the opposite verse revealed earlier. The Koran is divided into two parts, and every chapter is classified as “Meccan” or “Medinan”, depending on whether it was revealed in Mecca (610-622) or in Medina (622-632). Therefore, the verses of Medina essentially cancel the opposite ones of the Mecca. However, everyone knows that the Meccan verses, revealed first, refer to a time when Muhammad was faced with strong opposition to the point that he fled and emigrated, and they are more “peaceful”. In Mecca, he had to be kind and patient, because he was at the beginning of his preaching. In Medina, on the other hand, it was a time of war. Here, he carried out about sixty attacks and raids. The most authentic Islamic tradition says so. The Medinan verses are therefore the harshest ones, and they abrogate the preceding ones. For an authentic Muslim, the most violent verses then dominate over the most peaceful ones. These are the facts and this is the source of problems. I tell my Muslim friends that it is necessary to re-think this vision and to contextualize it to modern times. A text is valid in its context, and Muhammed’s context was war, a time when one would promote their word not only by preaching, but also with weapons. In the 7th century, the Arab-Bedouin culture was rife with such context, where everything was achieved by force. Agreement was reached after armed conflicts, obviously violence was allowed. Sometimes, it was predominant.
[**Video_box_2**]But is this necessary today? This is what Egyptian President General Fattah al Sisi wondered in his December 2014 speech in front of a crowd of imams at the Al-Azhar University. President Sisi concluded his remarks saying “we absolutely must re-think Islam”. He used the sentence “make a revolution in Islam”. A few weeks later, the Dean stated that he was ready and engaged in preparing this revolution. I believe one needs to re-interpret the text of the Koran and the whole Islamic system. All religions and schools of thought had to do that, because the world evolves towards peace and not war, I hope. Civil society too had to (and has to) re-calibrate previous norms. Islam has not done that, and that is its tragedy. We, Christians, had to do that: with almost two thousand years of traditions on our shoulders, we learned. There were wars among Christians, between Christians and Protestants. We cannot deny that. However, these were not wars based on the Gospel, they were “human things”. We did learn, though, that problems are solved through debates, reflection and compromises. We had to re-interpret the Old Testament. Muslims are no longer embarking on this journey of re-examination. It did take place in the Middle Ages, as shown by many clear examples of philosophers and theologians in those centuries. Here is a practical example: the Koran states that there will be different types of fruits in Paradise, abundant fresh-water rivers, and virgins forever. Today, these phrases can be seen repeatedly on YouTube, as if they were true, especially the sexual elements. “I had a vision of Paradise” - is said in front of hundreds of Imams. And the features of these virgins are described in details, and how long-lasting their virginity is. A thousand years ago, Muslim Persian Philosopher Avicenna, who wrote predominantly in Arabic, stated that “after death, the body is reduced to dust, and only the soul (as Aristotle believed) is immortal”. In Paradise there will be no body, only soul. Therefore, if the soul is the only thing in Paradise, then there is nothing to eat or to drink, no sex. These verses are not false, they should be considered as metaphors, like the most beautiful thing a Bedouin in the desert may dream of. It was to say that Paradise would be a thousand times better than anything we can think of on Earth. A thousand years later, we took a thousand steps backwards. This is our tragedy. It is crucial to help each other go forward. Not towards fighting, but towards symbiosis. Not towards war, but towards reconciliation.
Father Samir Khalil Samir S.I. is a world-famous Islam expert. Professor and deputy Dean of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, he was the Advisor to Pope Benedict XVI for Relations with Islam. He has written and published over 60 books.