Merely a Line in the Sand: A Model for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Robert Todd Wise

The development of the church in Ethiopia has parallels in the Western world that fascinate any student of church history. The separate, similar relationship between ecclesiastical and secular authorities is one such parallel, and it resembles interactions that have taken place time and again in the history of Western Christianity. As well, the growth of Protestant movements in Ethiopia in recent times has the character of reformation movements, creating lively discourse among differing traditions. The complex meetings of Ethiopian Christians with “pagan,” or tribal, groups mirror past encounters by the Western church with indigenous peoples, including Native Americans. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Christian history in Ethiopia is in the Ethiopian church’s earliest encounter with Islam, recorded in several eighth- and ninth-century accounts.

Each church tradition has long-standing, extrabiblical stories that shape and determine its communal expression in a particular part of the world. In the Reformed Church in America, we have the founding witness of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli; the events of the Heidelberg Catechism; the struggles at Dordt with Gomarus and Arminius; and the courageous account of Guido de Bres and the Belgic Confession. Closer to home, community epics were forged in New Jersey, Michigan, and Iowa with such fi gures as Theodorus Frelinghuysen, Albertus Van Raalte, and Hendrik Scholte . A larger story eventually is shaped from these stories of a people committed to the Christian faith, with a particular perspective and a place to stand that carries a specifi city and uniqueness within the vast history of Christian cultural expression.

The ancient manuscript of the Kebra Nagast is such a story for Ethiopia. Reaching as far back as the fi fth century into an oral history that predates the birth of Christianity, the text provides an account of national identity and consciousness for all Ethiopians, but it is particularly signifi cant for Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The Kebra Nagast chronicles the journey of the Queen of Sheba, known as Makeda to Ethiopians, from Axum in northern Ethiopia to the court of Solomon in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. The text records that after an extended visit in Jerusalem, she returned home expecting a child reported to be the son of Solomon. This child, Menyelek, is said by the Kebra Nagast to have returned as an adult to his father’s court in Jerusalem. Upon Menyelek’s arrival in Jerusalem, Solomon urged him to stay and live there, but Menyelek refused. Although Palestine is described by the Bible as a land “flowing with milk and honey,” Menyelek reported that the land in Ethiopia was “far better.”

The Kebra Nagast then reports that Menyelek was accompanied back to Ethiopia by the first-born sons of several important leaders in Solomon’s court, including the son of the high priest Zadok, who served the temple at Jerusalem, the one and only “temple of Solomon” that housed the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Kebra Nagast, Azariah, the son of Zadok, switched the much-revered tablets of the Ten Commandments with pieces of wood and took the actual engraved Ten Commandments with him to Axum in Ethiopia! The account says Azariah believed that Ethiopia, under the protection of Solomon’s son Menyelek, was the safest, most appropriate resting place for the most sacred artifacts in the Jerusalem temple.

This story provides a powerful, formative identity for Ethiopia. Armed with the lineage of a king that extends from the House of David and with the hiding place of the Ten Commandments, the Tigray, an Ethiopian tribe of Semitic origins, advanced the story even further after the arrival of Christianity. It was the Tigray who produced the Kebra Nagast, forever distinguishing the Ethiopian heritage in written form. The ancient text laments how, after the arrival home of Menyelek and the reception of the Ten Commandments, the Solomonic heritage in ancient Israel gradually weakens, culminating in the shameful crucifixion of Jesus.

After shifting the spotlight from the ancient Israelites with the confiscation of the Ten Commandments and the securing of a lineage of the House of David, the Kebra Nagast then distinguishes Ethiopia as a nation with a distinctive Christian people. It does so in part by differentiating Ethiopian Christianity from the powerful yet corrupt heritage of the Roman Church to the north. Claiming apostolic succession through the early Coptic Church in Egypt, Ethiopian Orthodoxy foundationally rejected the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., believing that the church of Rome had steered itself into untenable, unbiblical formulas about the nature of Jesus. This rejection of the vast authority and influence of the Roman Church has to be seen as an ingenious self-demarcation for Ethiopian Christians. As it concludes, the Kebra Nagast blesses itself with the authoritative agreement of the “318 Church Fathers” at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

FIRST MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE

This founding story of a Christian group, believed by the majority of practicing Ethiopian Orthodox Christians today, carries an enduring import for the church historian and the contemporary Christian when seen as the backdrop for the first interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam. Given the growing contemporary interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue, Reformed Christians might appreciate the first recorded account of a formal meeting between Christians and Muslims, which occurred in 615 at Axum in Ethiopia, the home of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. To appreciate the importance of this gathering, it is essential to note some key interactions by other Christians during the first days of Islam, with specific attention to the significance of these encounters for the developing Muslim religion. To understand what the meeting meant for Muslims is crucial, particularly because Islamic historians regularly note the central role of Christians in the spreading of Islam in a way that is often ignored from the Christian side.

One moment basic to the early history of Islam occurs in the Year of the Elephant, in 570, when the Islamic prophet Mohammed was born. In that year, an Ethiopian Christian general named Abraxa traveled north from Yemen to destroy the pagan shrine at Mecca. Abraxa had been commissioned by the Christian center at Axum in Ethiopia to build a large cathedral in Yemen, but the shrine at Mecca (al Kabba) had been grabbing all the attention as a major center of trade. On orders from Axum, Abraxa marched toward Mecca by elephant to destroy the shrine—but he was stopped just outside the city. According to the Quran and other historical sources, Abraxa and his army were pelted by fire pellets thrown from birds and by rocks from the sky and ended up being turned back to Yemen. The Ethiopian effort to take Mecca for Christianity had failed.

Other, more personal accounts regarding the role of Christians in the development of the Islamic faith took place before the interfaith meeting at Axum. In one such story, the adolescent Mohammed journeyed from Mecca to Syria with his Uncle Abu Talib. The young Mohammed was an apprentice to his uncle as a tradesman, and their business trips regularly led past a Nestorian Christian monastery on the King’s Highway north to Damascus. The remains of this monastery are still present at Um al Rasas in Jordan. There a Christian monk named Bahira, after visiting with Mohammed, said Mohammed had the “mark of a prophet” and predicted that he would be a prophet for his people as an adult.

Another startling Christian affirmation of Mohammed as an adult followed. In his 20s, Mohammed married the owner of his trade business, a woman named Kadesha. Kadesha’s cousin, Waraqa Ibn Naufal, who promoted the marriage, is described by all sources as hanifi, or a worshiper of the one God, but also as a Christian! Several sources describe him as a Christian Ebionite priest who understood Aramaic and who possessed a Syriac version of the New Testament. After Mohammed’s initial call to recite (ekra), leading to the first recorded revelation of the Quran, both Kadesha and her Christian cousin affirmed that Mohammed’s claim to a message, or revelation, was no different from that of any other biblical prophet. Hearing of Mohammed’s witness, Waraqa Ibn Naufal affirmed, “There has come to him [Mohammed] the greatest Law that came to Moses; surely he is the prophet of this people.”

But what kind of Christians were the Waraqa Ibn Naufals of that time? That question often has been asked in the Christian church. Reformed Christians can cast a critical eye on any church tradition that doesn’t have a solidly literate grasp of Scripture. Identifying genuine Christians continues today via church denominationalism and the vast hermeneutical disputes within Christendom. A cautionary note about distinguishing “real” Christians from false ones: Every Christian group has, at one time or another, engaged in fingerpointing at different yet continuing Christian faith expressions. Many groups that have been labeled as false or misguided have ongoing presences and witnesses that have lasted for centuries. In our post-Reformation, post-Vatican II, post-modern world, isn’t it enough to accept the people and groups that call themselves Christian as Christian, particularly if they uphold the Scriptures in ways that their consciences and cultural traditions believe to be true?

Certainly, something significant took place for Christians in Ethiopia during the seventh century—and it is as significant for anyone concerned with the relationship of Christianity and Islam today. In 615, King Ashamah Negus or Al Najashi, the Christian king of Ethiopia, gave an official Christian response to Islam that might find sympathy among contemporary Christians. This meeting of Ethiopian Christian leadership with Muslim representatives was the first formal Christian investigation of Islam in recorded history. The Quran, along with many other historical sources, reports that early Muslim converts from Mecca were urged by their prophet to flee the Arabian Peninsula and travel to Ethiopia to plead with the Christian king in Axum for protection. The timing of the meeting was critical because it took place before the Al Hijra, or flight of all Muslims from Mecca to Medina in 622. Some Islamic scholars even refer to the flight to Ethiopia in 615 as the first hijra. By 615, Muslim converts had come into severe danger in Mecca because of their public proclamation that there was only one God. Additionally, tribalism and general anger proved a threat for all early Muslims, largely because of the economic role that polytheism played in Mecca. As a result, the earliest Muslim converts emigrated to Ethiopia and at Mohammed’s request stayed for several years.

LINE IN THE SAND

The importance of this event for Christian and Muslim history rests in the reaction of the Christian king Najashi and his court of theologians and priests. The Kebra Nagast and other historical sources describe the Christian character of this court: The Ethiopian Church had founded itself on orthodoxy—right teaching. It had carved out a unique identity that reached far back into Old Testament times, extended through the New Testament period, and finally distinguished itself from the majority Roman Christianity. Najashi and his priestly court knew who they were as Christians and where they stood as representatives of a Christian people grounded in an ancient history.

Upon arrival in Ethiopia, the Muslim refugees were apprehended as possible subversives and immediately brought to Najashi’s court for judgment. If pronounced as heretical or blasphemous, the Muslims could have been exiled, but more likely they would have been summarily put to death. The king and his priestly advisers also received them under grave warnings from other Arabian visitors. Najashi heard the Muslims’ confession while under the influence of another contingent from Mecca that came with the express purpose of exposing the Muslims and having the Christian king kill them. Rather than killing them, though, Najashi questioned, deliberated, and then questioned again. The Muslims’ beliefs were checked against the Bible and church teachings. It was a difficult situation because in the Quran Jesus is not considered the son of God.

Some later Islamic theologians, such as Al Ghazali in the 12th century, accept the New Testament title of Son of God for Jesus as strictly metaphorical, in the sense that all people are children of God and that Jesus was the one who got it right among all of God’s children. But in sixth-century Ethiopia, refusing to acknowledge Jesus as Son of God could easily have enraged a devout Christian such as Najashi. The Muslim refugees in Axum told the king that Jesus is considered to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary.

Finally Najashi and his counselors reached a decision. Exhausting all queries on key points of the Christian faith, the king and his priestly council’s opinion was this: After drawing a simple line in the sand with a stick, Najashi proclaimed the “difference between the message of Mohammed and Christianity is the difference between this thin line.” He further stated that the Muslims could remain in Ethiopia to live in peace and that he would protect them as much as he would the Christian citizens of his realm.

While holding firmly to the history and tenets of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Najashi could not refute the claims of Islam. What other conclusion could be drawn? The small group of Muslims had no power and was no threat to Najashi or Ethiopia. He responded as a Christian who recognized theological legitimacy in Islam. Najashi did not busy himself with charges of heresy or with attempts to extinguish Islam through Christian conversion. He also felt no compulsion to leave his Christian faith. It seems that Najashi and his theologians believed both faith expressions stemmed from the same God. No one charged that Muslims “worshipped a different God.” The Arabic Allah was the same God referred to as Elohim and known to Christians in Ethiopia (Allah is the Arabic variant of the Hebrew term). The God of Abraham was recognized as the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

King Najashi was a midwife for the birth of the new religious expression of Islam. Rather than nipping the new bud of the Islamic faith at a critical juncture, Najashi accepted its existence. Fearing God, Najashi drew a slight boundary, a line in the sand, to mark the differences between his Christian faith and Islam. No one can really say how Najashi would explain his line in the sand, but we can be sure it was not meant to be much. Such a line can be blurred or easily stepped over—or its trace deepened when needed. With his sand-line formula, Najashi deserves a place in Christian history books and within Christian theology. At a fateful moment for the growing faith of Islam, an authoritative Christian source recognized it was here to stay and that the distinction between Muslims and Christians should be made in the “slightest” of terms. That seems quite an important contribution to consider for Christians of all times and settings.

Robert Todd Wise is ordained in the Reformed Church in America and teaches at the University of Balamand, El-Koura, Lebanon.
Editor’s note: This is a Dec. 19, 2014, correction of the original version of this article, which incorrectly identified the source of the story of the Ethiopian church’s first encounter with Islam.