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West and the Role of the Christian Church
Matthew Geijels


By way of introduction, I like to make a few remarks about this subject for it is so vast.

Islam in the West

Islam has four faces. Islam can be seen as the self-realization of the Arab Nation, as a great monotheistic religion, as a body politic, and as a civilization.1 I will deal with all these ‘faces’, but especially with Islam as a great monotheistic religion and as a body politic. Moreover, Islam can be divided into three majority groups: the Sunnis, the Shiites (the latter comprising the zaydi, isma‘ili and the imamiyyah) and the Extremists: the Druzes, the nusayri and others. Since about 85% of all Muslims are Sunnis, most of the expansion in the West was undertaken by Sunni Muslims.

Role of the Christian Church

In Christianity there are many churches. I mention the largest denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox (Eastern) Churches, the Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches. With regard to the Roman Catholic Church, I shall refer to the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue (formerly called the Secretariat for Non-Christians) and with regard to the other Churches I shall refer to the sub-Unit of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies of the World Council of Churches, which represents very many, if not all, of the churches of the Reformation.


Between 643 and 683, the Arab Muslims conquered the whole of North Africa. The western part they called the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and the eastern part Ifriqiyyah (Libya, Tripolitania, Egypt).

Islam in the West

When we say ‘Islam in the West’, we can think of Islam in southern Europe (Spain), Islam in western Europe (England), Islam in eastern Europe (Turkey, the Balkans, Russia) and Islam in central Europe (France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands). It is not possible to deal with all these topics. I have decided to take two topics: Islam in southern Europe and Islam in central Europe, with special reference to the Netherlands.

a.  Islam in Southern Europe2

i. The Muslims in al-Andalus (Moorish Spain)

At the turn of the seventh century, the Visigoth Kingdom in Europe (the present Spain) was in decay. Troupes of Berbers, led by Arab commanders, used to cross the strait between the Maghrib and al-Andalus to raid the country. In 711, Musa Ibn Nusayr decided to try an attack. He did not go himself, but sent one of his lieutenants, Tariq Ibn Ziyad. The question of Tariq’s existence is a matter of discussion. But even if he did not exist, somebody must have been sent. Tariq landed at Gibraltar (it is derived from Jabl-i-Tariq (mountain of Tariq). The Visigoth King Rodrigo received a crushing defeat at the hands of the Muslims. Having captured Cordoba with difficulty, Tariq pushed on to the capital Toledo, which he easily conquered. Then he proceeded to Saragossa.

In 712, Musa entered al-Andalus with an army and via Merida and Talavera met Tariq at Saragossa. From there, both went westwards; Tariq to Astarga and Musa to Gijon. Thus, with lightning speed, the Moors (Arab-Berber Muslims) conquered practically the whole of al-Andalus. From the North they crossed the Pyrenees to make raids into France. In 732, they got nearly as far as the river Loire, but were stopped and put to flight by Charles Martel at a place in between Poitiers and Tours. For the Moors, the march was only a raid: for the Christians the victory a great feat and the beginning of the Reconquista, the recapture of al-Andalus. The presence of the Muslims in al-Andalus was to last almost eight centuries, from 712 to 1492.

In 750, the Abbasids snatched the caliphate from the Umayyids and exterminated the members of the reigning Umayyid family. One of them, ‘Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape. Via Ifriqiyyah and the Maghrib, he arrived in al-Andalus. Immediately, he claimed the emirate of Cordoba and founded a dynasty. In 929, he had himself appointed caliph. Although the conquered territory of al-Andalus was nominally subject to Damascus and later on to Baghdad, it soon attributed to itself a great measure of independence. Under ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Andalus flourished. At his time, Cordoba was probably the greatest and the richest city in the western world. Many Christians converted to Islam.

By the middle of the tenth century, Muslims were in majority in al-Andalus. However, the glory faded. Because of the machinations of the viziers and the internal divisions caused by the rivalry of small states (in the 10th century there were 15 of them), the unity was destroyed. In the twelfth century, the Almoravids and the Almohads tried to restore unity, but did not succeed. In the beginning of the 13th century, the greater part of al-Andalus was again in Christian hands. Only the emirate of Granada remained in the hands of the Nasrids. After a long siege the emirate fell. On 2 January 1492, the Roman Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabel, received the keys of the city from Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler in al-Andalus. The Reconquista was completed. The Jews were expelled. The Muslims were forced to become Christians (Moriscos). Between 1609-1614 about 300,000 Moriscos were expelled. Thus, the ‘ethnic cleansing’ was complete and the Muslims disappeared from Spain.

ii. The Muslims in Sicily (827-1090)

When Ifriqiyyah was no longer a direct subject-province of the Caliphate, but had become an independent emirate, only nominally dependent on the Abbasids of Baghdad, the Aghlabid emir at Qayrawan decided to send an expedition into Sicily. At the head of a small fleet, he landed at Mazara in June 827. He easily defeated the Byzantine army and advanced into the interior of eastern Sicily. He conquered the principal towns of Palermo (831) and Mesian (842). Syracuse fell after a long siege in 878 and Taormina was captured in 1901. Thus by 902 the whole of Sicily was in Moorish hands. From Sicily, the Moors made raids into Italy. Two Italian provinces, Calabria and Apullia, were from 840-880 in Moorish hands. From there, the Muslims raided Italy. Rome was not forgotten. In 846, the Muslims landed at Ostia. They failed to penetrate into the Vatican, but sacked the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul. Afraid of the continued threat of the Muslims, Pope John VIII (872-882) paid tribute for two years.

The recapture of Bari by the Christians in 871 marked the beginning of the end of the Muslim threat to Italy and Central Europe. In 880, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I captured Taranto. A few years later, he expelled the Muslims from Calabria and brought the Muslim presence in Italy to an end. In Sicily, it lasted longer.

The Shiite fatimid Dynasty (909-1171) took over control of Sicily from the Aghlabids in 909. Besides the old feuds between the northern and southern Arabs, there was also friction and rivalry between Spanish and African elements among the Muslim population of Sicily. The third Caliph, al-Mansur, appointed Hasan al-Kalbi as governor of Sicily in 948. Under him and his successors the Island flourished until it was gradually conquered in 1090. During the Norman occupation we see the strange phenomenon that Sicily experienced an efflorescence of Christian-Islamic culture, especially during the reign of Roger II (1130-1154) and Roger’s grandson, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1215-1250), who together were called ‘the two baptised sultans of Sicily’ (Hitti).

iii. The Islamic Legacy

The Muslims had a great influence on the culture of al-Andalus (Spain) and Sicily. As far as I know, the influence was similar, but longer and deeper in al-Andalus than in Sicily. Therefore, I confine my attention to the former. The following description I have derived mostly from Bernard Lewis.

Moorish Spain at its peak presented a proud spectacle in many ways. It contributed to:

Agriculture: The moors repaired and extended the Roman irrigation system. They introduced new crops; aubergine, artichoke, apricots, sugarcane, almonds, henna, madder and saffran. Probably the greatest gift was the Merino sheep.

Industry: The Moors developed many industries: textiles, pottery, paper, silk and sugar refining. They opened mines of gold, silver and other metals. Textiles were the chief industry.

Trade: The Moors carried on an extensive trade with the Middle East and even the Far East.

Politics: Arab terms still persist in the local administration and the military vocabulary.

Art and Architecture: Perhaps the most distinguished contribution was art and architecture. They succeeded in finding a happy mixture of Arab and Byzantine models. The most famous examples are: the mosque of Cordoba, the Ciralda Tower and the Alcazar in Sevilla, and the Alhambra of Granada.

Science and Religion: The Arab heritage in science and religion must be regarded as of great importance to Spain and indeed to all western Europe. A great part of the legacy of Greece came to the West in the translations from Arabic into Latin made in Spain. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Toledo School of Translation, where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-operated, translated works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen and Hippocrates, enriched by their Arabic commentators.

Political Fragmentation: The Moorish conquests destroyed the political unification furthered by the Roman rule and the piecemeal manner of the re-conquest obstructed full reunification causing political fragmentation.

Political Alienation: Nine centuries of Moorish occupation alienated Spain from the rest of Europe.

Economic Backwardness: The Spaniards invested most energy in the re-conquest, neglecting the country’s economic development.

Warlike Mentality: The sustained effort of the re-conquest engendered a warlike mentality.

Clerical Influence: The religious character of the Reconquista enhanced the power of the clergy and clerical influence, which has been harmful to Spanish politics.

Occasional Religious Intolerance: This concerned the Mudejars, Muslims under Christian rule, as well as the Mozarabs, Christians under Muslim rule. It was manifested in several programs of Jews. ‘Even when this (the negative aspect) has been taken into consideration, says Gabrieli, ‘the impartial observer cannot fail to recognize that the long centuries of Arab domination were a time of long-lasting glory for Arabism, and made a positive contribution to the general history of civilization… we cannot say as much for Arab dominion in Sicily’ (p.207).

iv. The Present Situation

Since the seventies of this century, Spain has again a growing community of Muslims, which consists of both legal and illegal immigrants, mostly from Morocco, and some Spanish converts to Islam. The Yamaa Islamica de al-Andalus tries to achieve the re-islamization and independence of Andalusia, The church in Spain encourages dialogue between Christians and Muslims, recommends the study of Islam and co-operation between Christians and Muslims. The progress is slow.

Though the Moorish occupation of Spain has left many traces in the language, architecture, science, agricultural technology and the art-and-crafts, the Reconquista is still seen as a holy war of Christian Spain against the Muslim hordes. This myth is still celebrated every year in southern Spain in the form of sham fights between the Cross and the Crescent. (Fiestas de Moros y Christianos). History has a long memory.

b. Islam in Central Europe (The Netherlands)3

After World War II, Europe soon recovered from the pangs of war. An economic boom started. The labour force was not large enough to cope with it. In the fifties, the central European countries imported labourers from Spain and Italy. Whenever that supply was not sufficient, they began to recruit labourers in Turkey and Northern Africa. These labourers were Muslims. Thus, the number of Muslims began to grow considerably. In 1971, the number of Muslims in the Netherlands was 50,000. Originally, the plan was that they would stay for a few years and then return to their home countries. In the seventies, the Muslim labourers, mostly Turks and Moroccans, began to send for their families. In 1975, the number of Muslims in Netherlands was about 100,000; in 1992, more than 414,000, and their present number is estimated to be about 630,000. By now, the number of Muslims in Central Europe is more than seven million, and they use about 6000 mosques or prayer rooms.

As their numbers grew, the Muslims began to organize themselves in order to demand the recognition of their own culture, and to obtain the rights granted to them in the Dutch Constitution. They requested permission for financing of their mosques or prayer rooms, permits for imams, burial facilities, ritual slaughtering of animals, facilities for circumcision for boys, recognition of Islamic festivals, permission for the teaching of religion in and outside schools, permission for establishing their own schools, their own broadcasting station, and special time on radio and television, observance of their own dietary laws in the forces, prisons and hospitals, recognition of their own family laws and opportunities to participate in advisory bodies and committees.

i. Places of worship

Permission to build mosques and furnish prayer rooms was readily given. Financial support for the same was not easily obtainable, since in the Netherlands there is a constitutional separation of church and state. In the beginning, a few exceptions were made, but since 1984 no more grant-in-aid was given. Even so the Muslim community has built some beautiful mosques in the Netherlands. There are about 400 Muslim places of worship.

ii. Imams

The basic meaning of imam is leader of the institutional prayer especially on Friday afternoon. Besides this function, the imam gives religious instruction, teaches recitation of the Qur’an, settles disputes and does some pastoral work. There are about 400 imams; half of them are qualified, the others are not qualified. The qualified imams are generally imported. The Turkish community (on 1st January 1995, the number of non-naturalized Turks was 158, 653) has about 120 qualified imams, sent out and paid by the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs Diyanat. The Moroccan community (on 1st January 1995 the number of non-naturalized Moroccans was 182,089) has fifty qualified imams from Morocco and the Surinam-Hindustani community has fifteen imams from India and Pakistan. The number of unqualified imams is about 200. In general, the imams function badly because they have either language problems or do not know the local situation.

iii. Undertaking

Undertakers could easily adapt themselves to Islamic burial rites. Two difficulties remain: a deceased person may only be buried after 36 hours by law and the number of Islamic burial places is not sufficient. Many Muslims of Turkish or Moroccan origin prefer to be buried in their home countries.

iv. Ritual Slaughter

After much discussion and several court cases the secretary of State for Internal Affairs allowed the Islamic way of slaughter in 1975, by analogy with the Jewish manner. When, in 1981, the European community wanted to make a treaty to this effect and also allow the export of such meat, some political parties objected wanting the practice to be outlawed. They did not succeed. The treaty was ratified in 1986.

v. Circumcision

As contrasted with the circumcision of girls, circumcision of boys has not met with any opposition. It is regularly practiced in hospitals as well as homes.

vi. Festivals

The Islamic festivals have not yet been recognized officially. Working Muslims have to ask leave if they wish to celebrate them.

vii. Schools and Religious Instruction

Muslims are allowed to build and run their own schools, provided they comply with all the government rules and regulations. In most non-Muslim schools, religious instruction in Islam is given. If parents desire, Muslim pupils can receive instruction outside school hours in their own language and culture.

viii. The media

The Muslim Information Centre (MIC) publishes a quarterly ‘Qiblah’. The Islamic foundation Soera publishes, the quarterly ‘Soera’, a journal about the Middle East: The women publish ‘al-Nisa’. There is an Islamic Broadcasting Organisation, the Nederlandse Moslim Omroep (NMO), which provides a TV presentation in Dutch every Sunday from 12:30 to 13:00 hours, and broadcasts on the radio: every Monday to Friday from 18:00 to 18:30 hours in Dutch, from 18:30 to 1900 in Turkish, and from 19:00 to 19:30 hours in Arabic, dealing with religious or socio-economic questions of the Muslim community.

ix. Organizations

Because of social and psychological differences, the Muslims in the Netherlands have organized themselves along religious, political and ethnical lines. We can distinguish along religious lines: Sunnis, Shiites and the marginal group of the ‘alawi and the ahmadi; along ethnical lines; the Moroccans, Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Surinams, Africans; along political lines: among the Moroccans (1) members of the Union of Moroccan Muslim Organizations in the Netherlands (UMMON), Moroccan government sponsored, and (2) the Netherlands Federation of Maghriban Islamic Organisations (NFMIO) independent; among the Turks; (1) those associated with the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanat), government sponsored, but non-political; (2) the two other organizations: the Turkish Islamic Cultural Federation (TICF) and the Islamitische Stichting Nederland (Islamic Foundation of the Netherlands), the purpose of which is not very clear; (3) the Sulaymanci and Milli Gorus, fundamentalist organizations. Surinam Muslims have joined either the World Islamic Mission (WIM) or the International Muslims Organization (IMO). It should be evident that these divisions are great obstacles to the efficiency and integration of the Muslim community in the Netherlands.

The Role of the Church(es)

Already4 during the first generation of Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad’s death (632), misunderstandings, prejudice and enmity between Christians and Muslims started and have continued – of course, with laudable exceptions – till the twentieth century. The first time the Church issued official positive statements about Islam was during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The Islamic Religion

The Church regards Muslims with esteem. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-power, the creator of the heavens and the earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter 21 to Anzir, King of Mauritania [PL 148, cols. 450f.]), who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham (sws), with whom the faith of Islam is gladly linked submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus (sws) as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, his virgin mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. Moreover, they look forward to the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those raised up form the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God, especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. In the course of centuries, there have indeed been many quarrels and hostilities between Christians and Muslims. But now the Council exhorts everyone to forget the past, to make sincere effort for mutual understanding, and so to work together for the preservation and fostering of social justice, moral welfare, and peace and freedom for all mankind. (Nostra Aetate, 3).

On 17th May 1964, Pope Paul VI established an institute for inter-religious dialogue, called Secretariate for non-Christians (Secretariatus pro no-Christianis), since 1989 called the Pontifical Council for the Dialogue among the Religions (Pontificium Concilium pro Dialogo inter-Religious). It has a special department for dialogue between Christians and Muslims. In January 1971, the World Council of Churches set up the Sub-unit of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies (DFI). Both institutions have done much to promote and improve relationships between Christians and People of other Faiths, including Muslims. The Pontifical Council in Rome publishes a journal for inter-religious dialogue: The Bulletin, and the Office on Inter-religious Dialogue of the World Council of Churches in Geneva a monthly ‘Current Dialogue’. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church has in Rome the Pontifical Institute for the study of Arabic and Islam, which publishes the important yearly issue of Islamo-Christiana. Furthermore, the Christian churches have started centres for the study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations in many countries: e.g. in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Indonesia. On the international ecumenical level, the Christians have formed a Council of European Churches (CEC), in which the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Church and the Churches of the Reformation co-operate to develop common policies, also with regard to people of other faiths. On the national and local levels, various institutions and organizations have been established. In the Netherlands, the Christians have started a National Council of Churches which has various sub-units, one for Christian-Muslim relations.

The three main churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands and the Dutch-Reformed Church have each an ‘Islam-office’, which provides information about Islam and tries to suggest ways and means for improving relations between Christians and Muslims. Together the three churches publish the journal ‘Begrip’ (Understanding).


Dialogue, in all its different forms, has apparently become a very important – probably the most important way in human relationships and community living. There will be no peace in the world without peace among the religions is a favourite thesis of Hans Kung. This can only be achieved through dialogue, when people keep on talking, not to one another, but with one another. To quote Dr. Kamil Husain:

 Beyond the field of doctrinal conflicts, there exists on earth a place of meeting for all people who believe, namely the Sacred Valley. There is heard the truth without hesitation, as if God Himself were speaking.5









1. Goitin, S.D. Studies in Islamic History (Leiden: Brill, 1968), 4.

2. Driessen, H. In het huis van de Islam. Nijmegen; Uitgeverij SUN 1997 The Arabs; Gabrieli, Francesco, Muhammad and the Conquests of Islam, London. Weidenfels and Nicholson, 1968; Goodwin, Godfrey, Moors Spanje. La riviere en Voorhoeve, 1992; Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs, London: Macmillan, 1968 (10); Lewis, Bernard. The Arabs in History. London: Hutchinson and Co, 1966.

3.Landman, Nico. Van mat tot minaret De institutionalisering van de islam in Nederland, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij VU, 1992; Idem, ‘Wagwijs in islamitisch Nederland’ in de Bazuin, 23 oktober 1992; Shadid W.A.R. en P.S. van Koningsveld. Moslims in Nederland, Minderhedem en religie in eeen multicultureel samenlevin. Alphen aan de Rijn: Samson Stafleu, ontstaan van een geloofsgemeenschip. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1996. Slomp, Jan, ‘Muslims and Christians in Europe’ in Al-Ma’arif, Lahore, April-June, 1997.

4.Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1979; Non-Christian Religions, Boston: St. Pauls Eidtions, 1996; Speelman, G.a.o. Muslims and Christians in Europe. Breaking New Ground, Essays in honour of Jan Slomp, Kok: Kampen, 1993.

5. Quoted by G.C.Anawati ‘Le dialogue islamo-chretien en Egypte’ in Buttetin 10 (1975) 2, p. 229

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