Fourteen hundred years ago Muhammad toured the Arabian peninsula preaching his innovative version of monotheism and morality. The movement he inspired has become a cultural and religious force of global significance.
Recent events have put Islam on the defensive, especially in America. People see the religion as narrow, intolerant and prone to violence. Stories of Islamic persecution of Christians and other “infidels” continue to fly through the media.
While the Taliban has been widely condemned by those inside and outside of Islam, many of its harsh practices flourish in slightly less intense forms in Muslim-dominated countries around the world.
As a result, street people and scholars are debating such issues as: Can Islam coexist with Christianity? Is there violence at the core of Islam? Can Muslim faith be distinguished from Arabic culture? How will Islam handle modern patterns of religious and political freedom?
An equally important question is this: Is Islam susceptible to a broad-ranging reformation, the same sort of shake-up that launched the transformation of Christianity five hundred years ago?
Consider this: When Christianity was 1400 years old, it bore many of the marks that make present day Islam so troublesome.
Christianity was violent. The Crusades had sought to drive all Muslims from Europe and free the Holy Land from the “infidels.” All this was still recent, in 1400.
In addition, the Inquisition was at its height. Thousands of “heretics” were accused, confined, tortured and killed. Many were “converted” under duress.
Christianity was narrow. The official doctrine was: “We declare, we say, we define and pronounce to every creature it is absolutely necessary to salvation to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Dissenters were burned at the stake.
Ignorance of the faith was endemic; superstition was rampant. The Bible and the liturgy were in a language few of the faithful understood.
Christianity also had problems beyond the parallels to modern Islam.
The Church was riddled with corruption, as unqualified individuals bought and sold high office. One historian, speaking of congregational life in Christian Europe, described it as “an age renowned for shepherds who fleeced rather than fed their flocks.”
Christianity was divided many times over, with patriarchs in Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Russia and Jerusalem, and popes in Rome and Avignon. The factions of the Christian movement routinely condemned and excommunicated all the others.
Fourteen hundred years into its history, Christianity had a shape and substance few today would recognize let alone embrace.
In those days, many prayed and worked for change; in our day, many give thanks for the transformation that has reshaped almost every element of the Christian movement.
What came was renaissance and reformation. In its exposure to the social and intellectual forces of the 15th and 16th centuries, Christianity experienced a transformation that fueled its evolution into the formidable, multi-faceted faith that is known today around the world.
Things change, even religions.
Understanding Christianity 600 years ago helps us understand Islam today. It cultivates a sense of humility as we consider our own sins and shortcomings.
It also encourages us to think and to hope: perhaps a similar renaissance awaits the Muslim world; perhaps a similar reformation is possible for the Islamic people.
As they celebrate 1400 years of life and faith, the gift they need may just be very much like one Christians received when we were that age: spiritual and systemic transformation.
Dwight A. Moody is Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. E-mail him at email@example.com.