An old Arab tradition tells of Abraha, a powerful Christian warrior from Abyssinia, who was set to besiege Mecca just after the middle of the sixth century. Abraha wanted to destroy the ka'ba, the main shrine of Mecca, along with its idols.

When soldiers tried to get Abraha's elephant, Mahmud, to join in the campaign, Mahmud refused. Instead, he bowed in prayer toward the holy shrine, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham.

Despite the embellishment, this story illustrates that the Arabian peninsula was home to Christian, Jewish, and pagan traditions prior to the birth of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. While this tale ends with a peaceful twist, contact between the faiths has more often involved searing conflict.

Mobile melting pot

By the fourth century, Christianity had a major presence in Africa and a lesser presence in southern Arabia. By the fifth century, a sizeable Jewish population also lived throughout Arabia. In the early sixth century, Dhu Nuwas, a Jewish leader, ruled part of Arabia, and Christians were at peril under his reign. In the town of Zafar, 200 Christians were burned inside their church. Paganism thrived outside the enclaves of the two monotheistic faiths.

Muhammad was born about 570. His father died near the time of his birth, and he lost his mother when he was 6. He was cared for briefly by his grandfather and then raised by Abu Talib, his uncle, who was also head of the prominent Hashim clan in Mecca.

In the closing decades of the sixth century, a thriving trade network spread from Saudi Arabia north to Syria, east as far as India, and into northern Africa. Early Muslim histories report that Muhammad traveled with his uncle on trading journeys as far as Syria.

Muhammad most likely learned about Christianity through contacts with Christians along the trade routes of the Middle East. Unfortunately, traders were seldom reliable theologians. Muhammad gained a grasp of monotheism from his Christian and Jewish acquaintances, but he never understood the orthodoxies of either religion.

Marked for greatness

Muslims, of course, do not believe that any earthly influences tainted Muhammad's message. He was a prophet and spoke solely for God, though only a prescient few recognized this at first.

In one famous Muslim legend, Muhammad encountered a Syrian Christian monk named Bahira on the caravan trail. According to Ibn Ishaq, the famous biographer of Muhammad, Bahira was expecting to see a prophet when Abu Talib's company visited him.

No one seemed to fit the prophetic description, though, so Bahira implored everyone from the caravan to come to the feast he had prepared. Bahira called in Muhammad and questioned him about his spiritual life. Then the monk "looked at his back and saw the seal of prophethood [some physical mark] between his shoulders." Bahira then told Abu Talib to take his nephew home "and guard him carefully against the Jews." He also reportedly told him that "a great future lies before this nephew of yours."

According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad's life changed forever in the year 610, on the seventeenth night of the Arabic month Ramadan, when the angel Gabriel called him to be a prophet of God (Allah). Muhammad's first wife, the wealthy widow Khadijah, and a few friends affirmed his newfound monotheism, but he met fierce resistance in polytheistic Mecca.

Allah confirmed Muhammad's prophethood in 620, bringing him by night to Jerusalem. There he conversed with Jesus, Moses, and Abraham. Then, according to the Qur'an, Muhammad and his angel companion were taken by ladder (called a miraj) to the seventh heaven. Muslims believe that the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of his ascension.

Meccans, however, still rejected Muhammad's message and persecuted the messenger. So, in 622 (year 1 of the Muslim calendar), Muhammad fled to Medina, about 250 miles north of Mecca.

For eight long and bitter years, the prophet and his small but growing cohort battled his Meccan enemies. He experienced significant victories, notably on March 15, 624, at Badr, and major setbacks, including a battle at Uhud just a year later.

By January 630, Muhammad triumphed, took control of Mecca, and destroyed the idols in the ka'ba—except, according to tradition, the statues of Jesus and Mary, which he left untouched. Medina, however, continued to be his home base. From there he launched a major military campaign into Syria and arranged treaties with Christian tribes.

Muhammad made a final pilgrimage to Mecca in early 632. He was in poor health but made it back to Medina. He died there on June 8, 632, in the embrace of Aisha, his favorite wife.

A garbled gospel

Though Muhammad had regular (and often hostile) contact with Jewish tribes, particularly in Medina, there is no evidence that he had sustained interaction with Christians. Likewise, there is no hard evidence that the Gospels were translated into Arabic during his lifetime. F.E. Peters states in his work Muhammad and the Origins of Islam that most of the Christian terms in the Qur'an are from an Aramaic dialect.

Muhammad's unfamiliarity with orthodox Christians or with their Scriptures is evident throughout the Qur'an. The text refutes Christian claims that Jesus died on the cross, that he was the son of God, and that God is a triune being. It also refutes claims Christians have never made, including that Mary was a sister of Aaron and Moses (Sura 19:28) and that Mary was part of the Trinity.

Muslims do not accept the prophet's ignorance as the reason for these discrepancies. They argue that Muhammad and his text are correct, but Christians and Jews corrupted their Scriptures—every single copy.

Cultural factors also contributed to Muhammad's misunderstanding of Christianity. Given the common Arab view in his time that success signals divine blessing, it would have been very difficult for him to believe that Allah would let any of his prophets die by crucifixion. The Qur'an scoffs at the very idea.

Sura 4:157 contains the famous denial. After reference to those who attack God's prophets, it talks about those who boast "we killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of God."

The text goes on to say: "but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not."

From this one verse comes Muslim objection to the Christian redemption narrative.

Ahmed Deedat, a popular Muslim apologist, goes to great lengths to argue that the New Testament actually teaches what was revealed to Muhammad on the topic. Deedat's pamphlet Crucifixion or Crucifiction? claims that abandoning belief in Calvary will free the Christian "from his infatuation and will have freed the Muslim world from missionary aggression and harassment."

Peoples of the Book

Whatever mistakes Muhammad may have made about the Bible, his ideology is largely framed in terms of Jewish and Christian concepts and practices. He considered himself the heir to both traditions, and early portions of the Qur'an express a clear hope that the "peoples of the Book" would accept Muhammad as a prophet. When they did not, Muhammad's patience wore thin.

Later portions of the Qur'an build a strong polemic against both Jews and Christians, condemning the former for their unbelief and the latter for their confusing and erroneous views about Jesus' death and identity. Still, Muhammad retained a positive outlook toward Christians in general. This is illustrated along several lines.

First, Muhammad decreed that Christians (and Jews) were to receive protection under Muslim rule. Pagan Arabs faced a much harder reality: convert or die.

Muhammad extended personal hospitality to Christians on at least one occasion. When he was in Medina, he received a delegation of Christian leaders, led by Abu Harith, the bishop of Najran. Given contemporary Muslim anger over the American presence in Saudi Arabia, it is more than significant that Muhammad met the Christians in the mosque in Medina, and that he allowed them to pray there facing Jerusalem, as was the Christian custom.

Muhammad also sent a letter to assure Christian groups of protection under his rule. Muslim historian Abu Abd Allah ibn Sa'ad, who died in 845, preserved two versions of the letter, which reads somewhat like the famous pact that Umar, a later Muslim leader, made with a Christian tribe.

One version of Muhammad's letter states: "All their churches, services and monastic practices had the protection of God and His messenger. No bishop will be removed from his episcopate, no monk from his monastic state, no priest from his priesthood. There will be no alteration of any right or authority or circumstance, so long as they are loyal and perform their obligations well."

Muhammad showed less tolerance for Jews. He forced two powerful Jewish tribes out of Medina after they rejected his prophetic claims. A third tribe, the Qurayza, was dealt with more harshly.

When the Qurayza did not come to the aid of the prophet, he confined them in a compound, then dug a trench in the market area. In the words of Ibn Ishaq, the Islamic biographer, the prophet "then sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches."

Muhammad took no similar action against any Christian groups, but the prophet's military campaigns against fellow Arabs, the massacre of the Qurayza, and the raid into Syria near the end of his life laid the ideological groundwork for Muslim persecution of Christians. Likewise, the polemic of the Qur'an provided theological justification for the later jihad against Christians as the Muslim empire expanded west to Spain, north to Constantinople, and east to the farthest corners of Asia.

Neither the Qur'an nor Muhammad's legacy is unequivocal on the proper relationship between Muslims and members of other faiths. Muslims still internally debate whether Allah would approve of all the steps the prophet's followers have taken along his path.

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. Information on Dr. Beverley and his latest book, Understanding Islam (Nelson), can be found at

Night vision.

Led by the angel Jabril (Gabriel) and carried by the mythical creature Buraq, Muhammad journeys from "the sacred place of worship" (Mecca) to "the further place of worship" (Jerusalem) and finally to heaven, where beautiful maidens offer him gifts. The vision was Muhammad's reward for withstanding persecution. Islamic martyrs are promised the same treatment.