The Papal Mass in the Arabian Peninsula Was a Big Deal
But it wasn’t the first…that would be at the time of the Prophet Muhammad
The trip was touted as a way to improve Christian-Muslim relations. Pope Francis — my favorite Pontiff thus far — made his first trip to the Middle East this past week, and the culmination of the trip was his mass in the UAE:
Pope Francis became the first pontiff to celebrate Mass in the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, on Tuesday, delivering an address to tens of thousands of people in Abu Dhabi at the end of a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates.
The ceremony took place inside and around Zayed Sports City stadium, where a large crucifix — a rare sight in an Arab Gulf state — loomed above the makeshift steeple.
It was a great moment for Christian-Muslim relations. I long for good relations between Muslims and all people of faith — and those of no faith as well. The first-ever mass in the UAE was a big deal. Yet, the news media got it wrong.
While Pope Francis may have been the first Roman Catholic Pontiff to celebrate mass in the Arabian Peninsula — the birthplace of Islam — it certainly was not the first mass in the Arabian Peninsula. Not by a long shot.
The first mass celebrated in the Arabian Peninsula took place more than 15 centuries ago, in Medina, in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):
The visit of the Christians of Narjan to the city of Medina in 631CE is perhaps the most important noted interfaith interaction between Christians and Prophet Muhammad. At this time Muhammad had sent letters to different communities and their leaders, encouraging them to embrace Islam. In the case of the Narjans, who lived near Yemen, about 450 miles south of Medina, the Prophet sent Khaled ibn al-Walid and Ali ibn Abi Talib to deliver the letter.
At the time of this diplomatic endeavor, Najran Christians had a highly organized religious system. As such, after considering Muhammad’s letter, it is unsurprising that few Christians embraced Islam. In reaction to this “failed attempt” of conversion, Prophet Muhammad sent another representative to Najran, Mughira Ibn Shu’ba, who was meant to elaborate on this new religion called Islam. Intrigued by Ibn Shu’ba’s message, the Najran Christians sent a delegation of sixty people to visit the Prophet in Medina. The delegation consisted of about forty-five scholars and fifteen assistants.
When the Christians of Najran arrived to Medina, Muhammad allowed them to pray in Nabawi mosque where the Muslims also prayed. This invitation was not only the first example of Christian-Muslim dialogue, but it was the first time that Christians prayed in a mosque. While Prophet Muhammad and the Najrans were not able to reach common ground on all theological issues, he nonetheless gave them a place to stay near his home, and even ordered Muslims to pitch their tent.
Upon leaving Medina, the Najran Christian leaders told Muhammad: “O, Abu al-Qasim, we decided to leave you as you are and you leave us as we are. But send with us a man who can adjudicate things on our properties, because we accept you”. The Christians left Medina with a written guarantee that Prophet Muhammad would protect their lives, property, and freedom to practice Christianity.
This may be little known among many Christians in our world, but this is a fact. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) allowed Christians to pray in his own mosque.
And so, when Muslims attack Christians and their places of worship around the world — thinking that Islam teaches them to do so — they betray the letter and spirit of Islam and defile the legacy and memory of the beloved Prophet (pbuh).
The Qur’an further teaches that Christians and Muslims should be natural allies, because:
nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, “We are Christians,” because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. (5:82)
Relations between Muslims and Christians around the world are not perfect. There is much to be desired. And I appreciated the gesture of Pope Francis in his visit to the Middle East (hence he is my favorite Pope).
At the same time, the much touted Papal Mass in the UAE — while a major event — was not the first time Christians worshiped in the “birthplace of Islam.” That happened at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), in his very mosque.