[ by Charles Cameron — when is a sword just a metaphor, when does it spill blood, and what can be done about it when it does? ]
Hayder al-Khoei is presently in Rome for an interfaith conference on “Religions and Cultures in Dialogue” organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, attended Mass this morning at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and posted this fascinating comment on Twitter:
I assumed Saint Paul was a warrior-saint like Imam Ali. Turns out the sword only symbolises the word of God. #pt pic.twitter.com/9Wd71ENFbL
— Hayder al-Khoei (@Hayder_alKhoei) September 29, 2013
According to one of his recent bio notes, Hayder al-Khoei is “an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs. He holds a masters degree in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.” He’s generally considered highly qualified to speak on issues relating to Shi’a Islam — he’s also the scion of an illustrious clerical family, son of Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei and the grandson of Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim Al-Khoei.
I can’t tell whether it was just the sight of St Paul’s sword in this particular statue that gave al-Khoei this thought, or whether it’s an idea more generally found among Muslims — that the early Christians in general were a militant bunch, or St Paul in particular. But al-Khoei’s comment is worth reflecting on.
Here are two counter-factuals to consider — not as statements of belief or historical fact, but as historical fictions that may yet give us glimpses ointo tje parallelisms and divergences between the two religions.
What of Christianity if Christ had not been crucified?
What would Christianity have looked like at 100 CE — or look like today, perhaps — if Christ hadn’t died on the cross (Muslims believe he didn’t), but had lived to see his followers persecuted and killed and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed by the Romans ikn 70 CE? Might his instructions gto his disciples have moved from an emphasis on peace to instructions for insurrection andd self defence over that period of time? See Luke 22. 35-36:
And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
In the Gospel narrative, this instruction lasts for only a short while — Luke 22 continues:
And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. mAnd they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.
and then, after the episode called agony in the garden, in verse s 47-51 of the same chapter:
And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.
And what of Islam, if Muhammad had not been persecuted in Mecca?
And what might Islam have looked like in 710 CE — or look like today, maybe — if the persecution of the Prophet and his disciples had not driven him from Mecca to Medina, and his teachings had continued to be peaceable as they were in his earlier Meccan suras of the Qur’an?
To my mind, each of these stories of what never happened opens a possibility for mutual understanding between the two faith narratives: I offer them for this purpose.
Swords have been drawn, and blood spilled, in matters of conflict between religions. It is my hope and prayer, and that of those at the conference al-Khoei is attending, that the time will not be long in coming when the swords are sheathed and healings performed…