My Story – World Christianity and Thanksgiving Day

Shaded relief Map of the Mediterranean Sea – and its Basin and Landforms

Professor Lamin Sanneh and World Christianity

Four days before the North American Thanksgiving Day, I finished reading The Christian Movement in Islamic Perspective, chapter two of Professor Lamin Sanneh’s book, Disciples of All Nations – Pillars of World Christianity. I could not disagree with Philip Jenkins that one can be lost in admiration for Professor Sanneh’s magnificent writing; a wordsmith who articulately pour-out the breadth of his scholarship, and the depth of his geographical scope and historical sweep. What a genius.

His insurmountable view on crusade danced back and forth in my brain. It was provocative and well worded:

“After all, fear of Islam was a major motivation in New World exploration. On his voyage to the New World in 1492, Christopher Columbus remembered that his assignment was to keep alive the spirit of the Crusades.”

Then he quoted, Christopher Columbus’s words to the king and queen of the Spanish monarch after the surrender of the Almoravids in Granada:

“Your Highness, as good Christian and Catholic princes, devout and propagators of the Christian faith, as well as enemies of the sect Mahomet…conceived the plan of sending me, Christopher Columbus, to this country of the Indies, there to see the princes, the peoples, the territory, their disposition and all things else, and the way in which one might proceed to convert these regions to our holy faith.”

Why was I appalled, or perhaps disturbed? The reason was because Professor Sanneh’s writing highlighted my naïve comprehension on Christianity’s stalemate with the Muslim world during medieval period. I simply thought that the ninth or the last major medieval Crusades, hurūb al-sālibiyya,ended in 1291 right in the Middle East, when Acre was recaptured by the Mamluk Muslims.

Theoretically, it was true that the Crusades were over 208 years since Pope Urban II called for the first holy wars to liberate Jerusalem, the Holy Land, from Muslims. But, Professor Sanneh evoked a new conscience; the ethos of crusade that went beyond the Mediterranean basin, the far flung regions outside the Holy Land. This ‘crusade,’ a repositioning of Europe, its faith and power after the collapse of Christendom to the ‘sect Mahomet’ – as what Columbus denoted – was made possible by the strategic vision and leadership of Portugal’s Prince Henry (1394-1460) who bench marked the principal architect of early modern maritime expansion. A new fervor of crusade was born.

The Ethos of Crusades in the New World  

One hundred and sixty one years after Christopher Columbus first launched his exploration to the New World under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. This was in North America. The year was 1621. Their first landfall was actually at Cape Cod Bay and the Indians saved them from famine and severity of cold weather until they eventually landed at Plymouth in 1620.

For the next centuries, days of thanksgiving were continuously celebrated by individual colonies and states. It was celebrated for the good harvest and also for their safe voyage and peace in the new country. Many of the Pilgrims to the New World came from Leiden a village located about 25 miles from Amsterdam.

In the early 1600s, they were known as the Separatists who fled England for religious freedom. Prior returning to England, they boarded on Mayflower for America. Some said that the values the Pilgrims cherished, free market capitalism, civil marriage and separation church and state came from their time in Holland. Till today, there is a non-denominational service held in Pieterskerk every Thanksgiving day to commemorate the Pilgrims and the role Leiden played in their lives.

It was, however, the “personal crusade” of Sarah Josepha Hale who wrote laboriously to President Abraham Lincoln urging for the establishment of a national day of thanksgiving that led to its official celebration in the U.S.A in 1846. And it wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the 4th Thursday of November.

Where do I stand in this big picture?

I wonder if I still owed a reflection paper on my trip to Saudi Arabia to Professor Lamin Sanneh? If I do, it was in fact long overdue. In Spring 2010, I took my first course with him on Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Understanding – The Cultural and Theological Dimensions. I could not understand why the honorable Vatican consulted Professor Sanneh, ‘another’ history professor, until we went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There, I began to notice his exceptional intelligence, passion and dedication as a scholar.

Perhaps, he did appreciate my presence in his class, in spite of me occasionally being so antagonistic with the man so master in his field; a true educator. He who demanded Prince Turki al-Faizal of Saudi Arabia to invite ten of his students to accompany him to cross-cultural trip to Riyadh. Otherwise, there will be no visit!

Here I am in the early morning of Thanksgiving day, in my apartment  located about forty minutes away from Cape Cod, reflecting my October 2010 trip to Saudi Arabia. Of course, the hard-copy of this writing will not reach his hands.  I cannot bear knowing that my ‘midnight’ Malaysian English will be ‘crucified’ by this language master. Technically, as I have graduated I do not owe him any paper. But, my conscience keeps reminding me that a promise is a promise. So, here it is!

In this big picture, I presumed that it was also God’s plan that I was in Cairo the day Arab Spring began, and a week later, was evacuated to Leiden, Holland; the town where many of the 1600s Pilgrims came from. There, I heard the story about the Pilgrims from a taxi driver that claimed to be their descendant. He who believed having everything and no longer need God. It is hard to reason how Leiden, a city with a great harbor where Christians left to the New World for ‘post-14th Century crusade’ about 400 year ago, today have a populace who mainly celebrate Jesus Christ’s life only once a year, i.e. on the 25th December.


Reflection on Saudi Arabia – the cradle of Islam

My thought on Saudi and Islam compelled me to rebut Professor Sanneh’s quotation on:

“Had the Christian Ethiopians been successful in maintaining their power in Arabia before the Persian toppled them, they would have been able to crush Islam at its cradle, and thus prevent a religious revolution that changed the world. (Ref: Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2:626).”

This is my question to this statement. Doesn’t God know the man named Muhammad, the ummat Muslims’ prophet ever since he was in his mother’s womb, just like you and me? Of course, God knows him. It is also God’s predestined plan not to crush Islam at its cradle; otherwise there would be no Muslim today. So, the presence of 1.5 billion Muslims in this 21st Century has very little to do with the seventh century Arab Christians and Ethiopian Christians being adrift. Likewise, it is also predestined that on the sea Muslims forfeited their power to the Europeans, and that through the sea Christianity spread globally since 14th century.

The writing of Hugh Goddard of the University of Edinburg, who is also the Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, in his book A History of Christian-Muslim Relations resonates with my perception on the Christians and Muslims’ stalemate:

“Over the course of the centuries, the balance of power has swung in pendulum fashion – at times the initiative seems to have lain with the Muslim community, with the Christian world simply being compelled to react to developments outside itself; at other times Muslims have found themselves having to respond to Christian challenges.”

I wrote my opinion on God’s blessings to mankind in my writing, Appreciating Eid al-Adha through Biblical Texts. What I would like to add to the reading of Genesis 15 to 21, was what happened after Abraham died (Genesis 25)? In this chapter, the narrative on Sarah, the ‘barren wife’ of Abraham was echoed in Rebekah’s life, Isaac’s wife, who eventually gave birth to two twins. Then, the familiar strife between brothers unfolded. Here we saw a pattern of repetitive themes; first, on the barren wives; then, the fight between step brothers Ishmael and Isaac, and twin brothers, Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 25:23, it was written:

“And the Lord said to her (Rebekah), “The nations are in your womb. Two people shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger”.”

Jacob was always depicted as stronger and more favored by his father compared to Esau. However, towards the end of the narrative on Jacob and Esau’s relationship (Genesis 32 and 33), Jacob was having a weaker position. Being fearful of Esau, he cowardly put women and children at the front of their group to prevent him from being attacked first.

Esau, who was interpreted by many readers as a self-centered brother was eventually depicted as being more matured. When the twins met after years of separation, Esau embraced Jacob and forgave him immediately for deceiving him in the past. We can imagine, great things that can happen if both learn and live in peace much sooner. Muslims and Christians are indeed just like Esau and Jacob.

Indeed, we could learn a lot from the pilgrim lady – ‘the female crusader’ – Sarah Josepha Hale, who did her ‘jihad for benevolent’ with her pen and ink, pressing others to be thankful to God and God’s blessings for mankind throughout our life pilgrimage. Malicious crusades, jihad, and animosity would only put Muslims and Christians into stalemate. Regardless of the differences in doctrines, we are still brothers and sisters created by Almighty – God the Creator. Both experience ups and down in life, but could not isolate themselves from interacting and serving one another.

This is indeed God’s predestination for us. Like Esau and Jacob, the goodness of God’s creation in our lives will draw us towards reconciliation and hospitality with one another. With this revealed knowledge, we can always rejoice our days with thanksgiving to God the creator.

Thanksgiving Dinner with Professor Cumming’s Family

Our wonderful Thanksgiving Dinner ended with corporate reflection on Psalm 100.  Based on Psalm 100:3, I shared on how one can be grateful to eminent God who created all mankind regardless of whether he or she has a faith tradition or not. The resurgent of  religion in this God’ century is globally accepted that even sociologist Peter Berger who used to advocate secularization admitted that ‘God the creator is still here’ in the U.S.A and other parts of the world.

Psalm100:3 “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

Hannah Marie Cumming, Professor Cumming’s daughter then shared that her family member, a descend from one of the Pilgrims of Mayflower ship, was chained when the Pilgrims first boarded at Plymouth. He was one of those caught for attempt to escape. As she was talking, I saw an old looking book on the bookshelf just behind her, titled “Pilgrims Hymn.” I asked her to pull out the book from the shelf and to our surprise, we found song number four, that was based on Psalm 100, written in the book. It was composed in 1581.

This was the first time I heard about the story behind this hymn. I believed this was the same hymn that the families of the Pilgrims had been singing for generations every Thanksgiving since 1621. While the family sang, I was amazed that all Cummings; Joseph, Michele, Hannah and James, knew the lyrics and the melody by heart even after almost four hundred years had passed since their descendent first arrived in Plymouth, North America.

As I reflect my time in Riyadh, Leiden and New England,  I give thanks for the journey of life that God blesses me with. Being immersed in both religious traditions, I appreciate the goodness of both faiths and will not stop praying and building peace between the two faith adherents. When I see my great spiritual grandfather Abraham/ Ibrahim in the later life, the first question I will ask will be, “what actually happened?”

Till then, please join me meditating on a passage from book of Mazmur, a common book of Abrahamic faiths. May our life be filled with thanks and praises to God:

“Let us enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His court with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name” (Psalm/ Mazmur 100:4).


2 thoughts on “My Story – World Christianity and Thanksgiving Day

  1. This is as God intended. It is a beautiful thing to see and read.

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