One of the ideas repeatedly expressed by those who oppose Muslims building mosques and community centers in the US and Europe is that Christian churches are not allowed to be built in Muslim countries. But that idea is false. According to Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church in the Arabian gulf country of Qatar, which borders Saudie Arabia, there has been a permanent Catholic missionary presence there since before the country declared its independence in 1971. Qatar is a primarily Muslim Arab country ruled by a traditional monarchy. The community is made up of members from throughout the Middle East and Asia, including Arabs, Pakistanis, Tamils, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Malays, and others. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Arabian gulf without a Catholic chruch, and even that country has been negotiating with the Vatican to build a church there. The presence of Christian churches is not limited to Arabian gulf. A blogger who has traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world has posted an article that includes pictures of Christian churches from Algeria to the UAE, in order to debunk the widespread misconception that they are not allowed.
According to the mainstream Muslim understanding of Islamic history, Christian/Muslim relations began in 619 CE, several years before Muhammad was able to successfully establish a community in the city of Yathrib, now known as Medina. Severe persecution by the pagan Meccans forced a group of Muhammad’s followers to flee to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), where they sought and were granted asylum by the Christian ruler.
Under the Ottoman millet system, each religious community governed its own internal affairs. This is in keeping with the Quranic understanding of the different religious communities, which had each received revelation from God.
In chapter 5, there is an extended discussion of God’s scripture, in verses 44-48. Verse 44, says of the the Torah, “Certainly, we sent down the Torah, in which there is guidance and light” (Quran 5:44). In verse 45, it says of Jesus, “We gave him the Gospel, in which there is guidance and light] (Quran 5:45). Those who received the previous scripture are not commanded to abandon what they received in favor of the Quran; rather, they are urged in verses 44 and 47 to rule according to what God has sent down in what they have. Verse 48 declares that the Qur’an has been sent down, not to replace previous scripture, but as a confirmation and validation of it: “We have sent down the scripture to you in truth, as a confirmation and validation of what came before it” (Quran 5:48). The Quran thus directs Jews, Christians, and Muslims to follow the guidance that God has sent down to them and promises that those who do so will have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve. After declaring that God has sent down the Torah and the Gospel containing guidance and that the Qur’an confirms and validates them and urging people to follow what God has sent down, the Qur’an goes on to say:
For each among you we have ordained a law and a way of doing things. If God had willed, He would have made you a single community. But he wishes to test you with that which he has given you. So compete with one another in good things. It is to God that all of you will return, and then He will inform you of that about which you used to differ (Quran 5:48)
Traditionally, non-Muslims living in Muslim lands were not subject to Islamic law. Each community governed its own internal affairs. The Christians and Jews built and maintained their own houses of worship, which the Muslims who were in power were duty-bound to protect, according to the Quran: ” If God did not check one people by means of another, certainly, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is frequently commemorated would have been destroyed” (Quran 22:40).
The fact that some Muslims do not adhere to the Quranic principles as they have been traditionally understood is the result of incorporating distinctly Western, Christian ideas into their notions of statecraft and politics, as Daniel Pipes has observed:
It’s certainly not their intent, but militant Muslims have introduced some distinctly Christian notions into their Islam. Traditional Islam was characterized by informal organizations. Virtually every major decision-establishing a canonical text of the Qur’an, excluding philosophical inquiry, or choosing which religious scholars to heed-was reached in an unstructured and consensual way. This has been the genius of the religion, and it meant that rulers who tried to control the religious institution usually failed.
Ingorance and fear are the problems, and the only solution to overcoming fear is to overcome the ignorance in which it is based.