When it comes to religion and politics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims find themselves in the same predicament. Both of these religions adhere to a particularly strong concept of sacred tradition. This tradition is distinct from revelation itself, but revelation can only be properly interpreted through this tradition. Theological thought, detailed practices of corporate worship, and ascetic disciplines of individual spiritual striving are the key components of both faiths- and crucially, all of these key components must be understood using the words written by their religious ancestors. Moreover, because both communities are globally decentralized—neither of these faiths has a single person to whom all believers look for authoritative guidance—this concept of tradition is absolutely crucial for keeping the integrity of the faith itself, especially in the tumultuous modern context.
This means that both faiths have an historically rich and consistent tradition of belief and practice, and have both conveyed immense spiritual riches across the sometimes-harrowing journey of modernity. But this concept of tradition has one major drawback: the premodern political and social context, during which all of the texts through which we understand the core of our faith were written, was radically different from our own. This is a dilemma common to all religious believers, but I believe it is especially serious in the case of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, given just how strong and all-encompassing our notion of tradition is. When it comes to politics, the contours of the dilemma are particularly clear: nearly all of the central texts of our authoritative and interpretive traditions were written in the context of empire.
In 2019, I had the pleasure of immersing myself in the history of both Christianity and Islam, where they are woven together in the beautiful and magnificent architecture of the Hagia Sophia.
During my trip, numerous Christian icons, which were plastered over during the Ottoman Empire, were being uncovered and restored, bringing back to life its true Christian history. I remember thinking to myself, Turkey should be proud of this heritage and of its efforts to preserve and to further uncover the Christian heritage of this building. Only a country and leader secure in its identity would invest in such an effort.
It was, therefore, very disappointing to read about the effort underway to convert the Church commissioned by the emperor Justinian I in 537—turned mosque by Mehmed II in 1453, turned museum in 1934 by Turkish President Kemal Atatürk—back to a mosque by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
When I first read paragraph 56 ofFor the Life of the World: Toward A Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, I immediately had the sense that it represented a major step forward in Muslim-Orthodox relations. I think it is important to call special attention to this part of the text, because this paragraph is perhaps the most effective discussion of Islam I have encountered in a modern Orthodox ecclesiastical document. This paragraph is an excellent guide for Orthodox Christians when thinking about Islam because it describes Islam in ways that reflect how Muslims themselves understand their faith. At the same time, it also remains true to Orthodox self-understanding by accurately identifying where these two faiths differ from each other.