Christianity and Islam

In 1660, western Europe, free from a Muslim political presence since the fall of Granada, saw Islam primarily in terms of the threat to its security posed by the powerful Ottoman Empire. The reality of this threat was confirmed when, in 1683, Ottoman armies reached the gates of Vienna. Soon after this dramatic event, however, Ottoman power entered a period of decline and both Catholic Austria and Orthodox Russia began to make significant military advances against the Turks. It was these conflicts which characterized Christian-Muslim relations in the eighteenth century, with the result that the relations should be perceived as those between two hostile powers rather than those between one religion and another. In the popular mind of the Catholic and Protestant communities of Europe, the Muslim was seen in the guise of the Barbary corsair or the Ottoman janissary

Some genuine, if limited, religious encounter between Latin Christianity and Islam had taken place, however, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Society of Jesus, as part of its worldwide missionary effort, had placed missions at the court of the Shah in Persia and at the court of the great Moghul in Delhi. As a result of such encounters, a number of western Christians became experts in Arabic and Persian and attempted to engage in a dialogue of sorts with Muslim intellectuals and to produce books aimed at a Muslim readership. By 1660, however, that kind of dialogical encounter was over. The last piece of serious writing in Arabic or Persian which attempted to explain the Christian faith to the Muslim was written by Fr Aime Chesaud in 1656. This missionary effort did, nevertheless, leave one important legacy -that is, there was now agreement that the days of crusade and forced conversion were over.

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