William Dalrymple: Christianity and Islam are not as far apart as Bin Laden and the neocons would like us to believe

In the year that Islamist terrorism finally reached London, when the Christian west and Islamic east are engaged in another major confrontation, there has never been a greater need for both sides to realise what they have in common.

There is a 16th-century manuscript in the British Museum which contains a painting of what - at first - looks like a traditional Nativity scene. In the middle is Mary holding the Christ child, whose arms are wrapped lovingly around his mother's neck. In the foreground, hovering nervously, are the Three Wise Men, ready to offer their gifts. So far, so conventional.

But look a little closer and you begin to notice just how strange the picture is. For the wise men are dressed as Jesuits, Mary is leaning back against the bolster of a musnud, a low Indian throne, and she is attended by Mughal serving girls wearing saris and dupattas. Moreover, the Christ child and his mother are sitting under a tree outside a wooden garden pavilion - all strictly in keeping with the convention of Islamic lore, which maintains that Jesus was born not in a stable, but in an oasis beneath a palm tree, whose branches bent down so that the Virgin could pluck fruit during her labour.

In this Koranic version of the Nativity, the Christ child, still in his swaddling clothes, sits up and addresses Mary's family with the words: "I am the servant of God. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me a prophet. His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and he has commanded me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms to the poor as long as I shall live."

The miniature illustrating this Nativity scene was one of a great number commissioned by the Mughal court under the emperors Akbar and Jehangir. It is one of the many moments in the history of Islamo-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory, for both Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Jehangir (1569-1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith or with ruling one of the most powerful Islamic empires ever to exist. Indeed, scholars are only now beginning to realise the extent to which the Mughal emperors adopted what most would assume to be outrightly Christian devotions.

In 1580, Akbar began this process by inviting to his court near Agra a party of Portuguese Jesuit priests from Goa, and allowing them to set up a chapel in his palace. There they exhibited two paintings of the Madonna and Child before a large and excited crowd. To the astonishment of the Jesuits, Akbar promptly prostrated himself before the images of Jesus, and later showed a particular pleasure in the Jesuits' Christmas festival, when a crib was set up in the palace, adorned with satin and velvet and sculptures of the Christ child, and accompanied by placards proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo", in Persian.

Akbar took a particular interest in Jesus's function as Messiah and questioned the Jesuits closely about the Last Judgement and whether Christ would be the judge. In addition, Akbar showed his appreciation of his Jesuit guests by going as far, on one occasion, as donning Portuguese garb and listening to madrigals.

Subsequent Portuguese clerics found that the gospel books brought by their predecessors had led to murals of Christ, his mother and the Christian saints being painted on the walls not only of the palace but also on Mughal tombs and caravanserais: "[The emperor] has painted images of Christ our Lord and our Lady in various places in the palace," wrote one Jesuit father, "and there are so many saints that . . . you would say it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one." By the end of Akbar's reign, a mural of the Nativity filled a wall of the imperial khwabgah, or sleeping chamber, and Christian devotional images had become a major part of the Mughal scriptorium's output. A copy of an image of the Virgin of Loreto was said to be a particular favourite of Akbar's.

Such enthusiasm for Catholic devotional images naturally irritated both the more orthodox members of Akbar's ulema (scholars) and the English Protestant envoys to the court, notably the East India Company's factor Thomas Kerridge, who wrote with irritation about the popularity of "those prattling juggling Jesuits". Akbar's son Jehangir, however, continued the tradition, competing with his father to collect Christian images, and also keeping large-framed pictures of Jesus and the Madonna in his sleeping chamber, "which one day he exhibited at his window to prove that this was so". He also owned a "carved image of our saviour on the cross" - a particular surprise as the Koran maintains that Christ was, uniquely, returned to God alive and not crucified.

This unexpected Mughal enthusiasm for Christian devotions is a highly significant moment in the history of Islamo-Christian relations and one which has, of course, largely been forgotten today in the polarised world that has emerged from the Islamist attacks on America. For in the US the dominant narrative is that of Bernard Lewis, the guru of the neo-cons and America's most influential commentator on matters Islamic, who believes that relations between the Muslim east and Christian west have always been entirely adversarial and who lectured the White House on this - and the dangers he believed to be posed by Islam - the week after 9/11. As Lewis wrote in a widely quoted essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage": "The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted some 14 centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the 7th century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counter-attacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests." It was this essay that contained the phrase "the clash of civilisations", later borrowed by Samuel Huntington for his controversial Foreign Affairs essay and book.

That religious identity and belief could be as porous and syncretic as they seem to have been in the Mughal court seems also to be news to many contemporary British Hindus who, as do Lewis and Huntington, look on religious identity as something with clearly fixed boundaries and highly strung sensitivities. In October, when the Royal Mail issued an 18th-century Mughal miniature of the Nativity as a Christmas stamp, the Hindu Forum of Britain demanded its withdrawal, as the sight of Mary with a kumkum in the centre of her forehead, and one of the shepherds with a Vaishnavite tilak, was judged to be offensive: "It is the equivalent of having a vicar in a dog collar bowing down to Lord Ram on a Diwali stamp," Ramesh Kallidai, the forum's general secretary, told the Daily Telegraph, before doubting the authenticity of the age of the painting.

Clearly no one had told Kallidai that this much-illustrated painting was once the prized possession of the great Maratha statesman and Hindu nationalist hero Nana Phadnavis (1742-1800), who included it with his most highly valued artworks in his own muraqqa (albums); nor that it now hangs, much admired, in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum in Mumbai, a city controlled by the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena, none of whose citizens ever seems to have viewed the painting with anything except pleasure. Nor does the Hindu Forum seem to be aware of the whole tradition of Hindu and Mughal artists copying, adapting and appropriating for their own purposes Christian devotional prints: the Nana Phadnavis image borrowed by the Royal Mail is one of no fewer than three surviving Mughal adaptations of a single print of the Nativity by the artist Aegidius Sadeler, while large numbers of copies exist, mostly by Hindu artists, of Durer's celebrated Madonna.

Indeed, three of the very greatest Hindu artists of the past 400 years, Kesu Das, Basawan and his son Manohar, specialised in Christian subject matter. Manohar seems to have been particular about what work he chose to adapt, given that almost all his Christian subjects are female - and he was especially obsessed with images of the Virgin. It is as if, scholars have speculated, he was making a particular theological point about the parallels between the cult of Mary the Mother of God and that of the Hindu Devi, or Mother Goddess.

I first came across the Mughals' surprising veneration of Jesus and his mother 21 years ago. I remember climbing, on a bleak December morning in 1984, the great flight of steps leading to the Friday Mosque at Fatehpur Sikri in northern India.

I was an 18-year-old backpacker fresh out of school, and was enjoying the sensation of disorientation. It was just before Christmas, but not only was there not a Christmas tree in sight, there was nothing remotely Christian to be seen, or so I thought.

But when I reached the top of the steps that rose to the Buland Darwaza - the arched victory gateway leading into the principal mosque - I saw something that startled me. Here was one of the greatest pieces of Muslim architecture, but the Naskh calligraphy that lined the inside of the arch leading to the mosque read as follows: "Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen."

The inscription was doubly surprising: not only was I taken aback to find an apparently Christian quotation given centre stage in a Muslim monument, but the inscription itself was unfamiliar. It certainly sounded like the sort of thing Jesus might have said, but did Jesus really say that the world was like a bridge? And even if he had, why would a Muslim emperor want to place such a phrase on the entrance to the main mosque in his capital city?

It was only much later, after I had lived and travelled in India and the Middle East for several years, that I began to be able to answer some of these questions. The phrase emblazoned over the gateway was, I learned, one of several hundred sayings and stories of Jesus that fill Arabic and Islamic literature. Some of these derive from the four canonical Gospels, others from now rejected early Christian texts such as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, others again from the wider oral Christian culture-compost of the Near East - possibly authentic sayings and stories, in other words, that Islam has retained but which western Christianity has lost.

These sayings of Jesus circulated around the Muslim world from Spain to China, and many are still familiar to educated Muslims today. They fill out and augment the profoundly reverential picture of Christ painted in the Koran where Jesus is called the Messiah, the Messenger, the Prophet, Word and Spirit of God, though - in common with some currents of heterodox Christian thought of the period - his outright divinity is questioned. There are also frequent mentions of his mother Mary who appears in no fewer than 13 surahs (chapters) and who is said to be exalted "above the women of the two [celestial and temporal] worlds" and, like Jesus, a "model" for Muslims. Mary is in fact the only woman mentioned by her proper name in the entire Koran, and appears more often in the Koran (34 times) than she does in the Gospels, where she is mentioned only 19 times.

This should not be a surprise. After all, both Islam and Christianity grew out of the same culture-compost of the late-antique Middle East, and Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments, and obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions. Indeed, the Koran goes as far as calling Christians the "nearest in love" to Muslims, whom it instructs in Surah 29 to "dispute not with the People of the Book [that is, Jews and Christians] save in the most courteous manner . . . and say, 'We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one, and to him we have surrendered.'" As in the Gospels, the Jesus of Muslim tradition is seen as a healer and a miracle-worker, as well as a model of good conduct, gentleness and compassion. But he is also portrayed as the Lord of Nature, who can talk with animals and command the hills and stones to obey him. First and foremost, however, the Muslim Jesus is the patron saint of asceticism, who renounces the world, lives in abandoned ruins, identifies with the poor and champions the virtues of poverty, humility and patience.

"Jesus was a constant traveller in the land," reads one saying, "never abiding in a house or a village. His clothing consisted of a cloak made of coarse hair or camel stub. Whenever night fell, his lamp was the moonlight, his shade the blackness of the night, his bed the earth, his pillow a stone, his food the plants of the fields." "Jesus used to eat the leaves of the trees," reads another, "dress in hair shirts, and sleep wherever night found him. He did not save his lunch for his dinner or his dinner for his lunch. He used to say, 'Each day brings with it its own sustenance.'" In this ascetic role, he was seen across the Islamic world as a sort of Sufi grandmaster: understanding the mysteries of the heart beyond the reach of human intellect.

The emperor Akbar, who founded and built Fatehpur Sikri, was particularly fond of this tradition of the Sayings of Jesus. The emperor was a Sufi mystic and believed that all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality. Love of God and one's brethren, he believed, were more important than narrow religious affiliation. Guided by this enlightened philosophy, Akbar's rule succeeded as much through conciliation as by war. His method, which he came to as much from religious conviction as realpolitik, was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the empire's overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.

He issued an edict of sulh-i kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives - whose magnificent zenana (women's) palaces I had seen at Fatehpur Sikri that cold December morning. He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration: indeed, he even entrusted his army to a Hindu - his former enemy Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, whom he had defeated in battle - and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.

I recently came across Akbar again in the pages of a remarkable collection of essays by Amartya Sen. Sen is a Nobel Prizewinner for economics, a former master of Trinity College Cambridge, and now a professor at Harvard. His new collection is entitled The Argumentative Indian, and in this he credits Akbar with laying part of the foundations of modern Indian secularism and democracy. It is an appropriately intriguing argument.

Sen takes issue with the commonplace that the west is the home of religious freedom and democracy: when George Bush talks of bringing these values to the Muslim world, he envisages exporting them from their home in the west to the east. But Sen argues that the east has its own traditions of public participation in decision-making, of government by discussion, and of religious tolerance. Indeed, at the same time as most of Catholic Europe - and Portuguese Goa - was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burned for heresy in the Campo dei Fiori, in Fatehpur Sikri Akbar was declaring that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him".

It made me want to revisit Fatehpur Sikri, and inspired by Amartya Sen's book I recently set off to see the place again. Driving out of Agra early in the morning, I passed the crumbling cupolas of the old imperial gardens, as families of monkeys lolloped across the road. After less than an hour, the dark walls of Fatehpur Sikri reared out of the flat plain as impressive today as they must have been five centuries earlier - though today the traffic consists of trucks and rickety buses rather than the caparisoned elephants and the imperial Mughal cavalry who once lined this road.

I left the taxi at the city's old Agra Gate and climbed up on top of the battlements. Immediately under the gate crouches a vil- lage of mud huts - some of them red-roofed from the chillies left out to dry. Beyond stretches the wreckage of the ruined city: dismantled caravanserais and collapsing hammams (baths), empty bazaars and ruined streets, octagonal fountains and elaborate archways leading into gutted mansions.

Akbar built his new city intending very consciously to trans-late his spiritual ideas into stone; thus the emperor consciously combined Hindu and Muslim elements in a highly syncretic fusion style. This mixed the arch and dome of Islam with Hindu Indian elements such as delicate latticed jali screens, sharp chajja eaves and chattri pavilions. To carve such details in an authentic manner, he shipped over a team of specialist Hindu temple carvers from Gujarat.

The city rose in less than five years. The chronicles record the speed with which it prospered: trade blossomed, merchants from all over Asia set up bases here, and the caravanserais were so packed that a party of visiting Portuguese fathers complained of the noise. But as well as being a centre of trade, Fatehpur Sikri soon became a philosophical laboratory for Akbar's spiritual inquiries. Holy men from all India's different religions were invited to the city to make the case for their particular understanding of the metaphysical.

In this way, Akbar set up the earliest known multi-religious discussion group, where rep-resentatives of Muslims (Sunni and Shia, as well as Sufi), Hindus (both Shaivite and Vaishnavite), Christians, Jains, Jews and Zoroastrian Parsees came together to discuss where and why they differed and how they could live together. There was also a party of atheists represented in the discussion: the sceptical Charvaka school, dating back to the 6th century BC, which denied the existence of any transcendental deity.

It was like a more ambitious version of Lorenzo de Medici's Platonic Academy in Florence a century earlier, and astonished many more orthodox contemporaries such as the Sheikh Nur al-Haq: "Learned men from Khorasan and Iraq and Transoxiania and India, both doctors and theologians, Shia and Sunnis, Christians, philosophers and Brahmins assembled together at the sublime court," wrote the sheikh. "Here they discussed the rational and traditional methods of discourse, travel and histories and each other's prophecies. They widened the circle of debate and each attempted to prove his own claim and desired the propagation of his school. Outstanding thinkers appeared . . . The lofty Lord [Akbar] declared before the people: 'O learned ones! Our purpose is to seek the truth . . .'"

The room where these remarkable debates took place - the diwan-i-khas, or hall of private audience - still stands, intact, and is covered with intricate interlace designs that appear to have been transferred from the wooden architecture of Gujarat to the red sandstone of Fatehpur Sikri. At the centre of the room stands a tall decorated pillar on which rests a round platform; under it cascade the serpentine pendentives of one of the most elaborate capitals ever carved. From this pillar, four walkways branch out to the corners of the building where there are four smaller platforms. Though academics continue to argue about the purpose of this strange structure, most agree that Akbar would sit on silken cushions raised on the central platform - so proclaiming his position as the axis mundi, the central pillar of the Mughal empire - as holy men of different faiths knelt at the ends of the different walkways debating the merits of their different conceptions of spirituality.

Akbar's thesis was that "the pursuit of reason" rather than "reliance on the marshy land of tradition" was the proper way to address religious disputes. Attacked by traditionalists, Akbar told his trusted lieutenant Abu'l Fazl: "The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders [and not come with new messages]."

By respecting the full diversity of Indian religious beliefs, Akbar in a real sense laid the true foundations for the non-denominational religious neutrality of the modern, secular Indian state. Today, in a world as divided on religious grounds as it has ever been, the emperor's belief that different faiths could learn from each other by listening, and that listening neutrally to different faith traditions was crucial to the health of the state, is an intuition that is more important than ever - and not just in India.

Moreover, in the year that Islamist terrorism finally reached London, it is important to emphasise that Christianity and Islam are not nearly so far apart as both Bin Laden and the neo-cons would like us to believe. As the British Museum miniature of the Nativity under the tree shows, there are certainly big differences between the two faiths - not least the central fact, in mainstream Christianity, of Jesus's divinity. But Christmas - the ultimate celebration of Christ's humanity - is a feast which Muslims and Christians can share without reservation. At this moment, when the Christian west and Islamic east are engaged in another major confrontation, there has never been a greater need for both sides to realise what they have in common and, as in this miniature, to gather around the Christ child to pray for peace.

William Dalrymple's most recent book, White Mughals, won the Wolfson Prize for History. He is now at work on a Mughal quartet, four books telling the story of the Great Mughals from the time of Babur to the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The first volume will be published by Bloomsbury next autumn