At one point in the late 1990's, I had a penpal (email pal) in Egypt. Not surprisingly he was Muslim, and some of our discussions were about religion. He had little understanding of Christianity, and I'm sure the same could be said of me and Islam back then. I think we learned a few things from each other. I decided it was past time that I should read the Qur'an for myself. It was my first look into Islam at anything more than a superficial level, and my first look into the culture of Arabia around 600 A.D.
Mohammed, in the Qur'an, shows more awareness of Christianity than I had expected. Granted, some of his comments on Christianity seemed off-the-mark. But he was aware of a few points of Jesus' life: that he was born of the virgin Mary and was crucified (though Mohammed denied this). He was aware of some Christian teachings, though in crude form: that Jesus is the Messiah, and part of the Trinity. He believed that Christians had promoted a mere human to equality with God, and so considered Christianity to be badly and dangerously wrong.
Between references in the Qur'an and some background reading, I found that Mohammed had more contact with Christians and Jews than I would have expected. Mohammed had a relative who was supposed to have been working on a translation of New Testament materials into Arabic. One of the slaves that Mohammed owned as part of his harem was a Coptic Christian from Egypt. There was reported to have been a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus in Mecca at the Kaba, which Mohammed reportedly forbade his followers from destroying as they were destroying many pagan images. In his earlier days, Mohammed had been a trader, had visited Jewish settlements, and had discussed religion with members of some Jewish tribes, possibly even attending religious services with them. He was aware that the Jews expected a great prophet (as they were still awaiting the Messiah).
In my background reading, I came across information about some Christian regions in Africa and Yemen, of an infamous massacre of Jewish Christians by anti-Christian Jews, of the help sent to the persecuted Christians of the Arabian peninsula from the Christian regions of Africa, of how at one time Mohammed was said to have fled to the Christians for refuge from his pagan opponents, and stayed with them for awhile.
I'm focusing here on the Christian aspects of this "forgotten history"; I have discussed a number of the things I discovered about Islam elsewhere. Between the material I had not learned elsewhere about Christianity and about Islam, I had a growing sense that history was taught very badly in our schools. And I'm not talking about teaching methods or teaching competence, I'm talking about the deep and pervasive defects in the materials that would make it almost irrelevant how well it was taught -- or how well it was learned. The items I read were very much missing pieces in a puzzle, providing the missing background that helped make sense of many of the things that I had been taught. I could see how the gaps in knowledge had compromised whether I really understood even the material that I had aced in history classes, since what I had been taught was taken out of its historical context.
While I consider this kind of thing interesting in its own right, in my next post I plan to come around to the point for this blog's themes of loving God, loving our neighbor, and Christian reconciliation.