photo blog_head_zpsfzwide7v.jpg
Valar Qringaomis

Get email updates of new posts:        (Delivered by FeedBurner)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Islam and Religious Tolerance (1/3)

"Two stereotypes dominate most of what has been written on tolerance and intolerance in the Islamic world. The first depicts a fanatical warrior, an Arab horseman riding out of the desert with a sword in one hand and the Qur'an in the other, offering his victims the choice between the two. This picture, made famous by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is not only false but impossible—unless we are to assume a race of left-handed swordsmen. In Muslim practice, the left hand is reserved for unclean purposes, and no self-respecting Muslim, then or now, would use it to raise the Qur'an. The other image, almost equally preposterous, is that of an interfaith, interracial utopia, in which men and women belonging to different races, professing different creeds, lived side by side in a golden age of unbroken harmony, enjoying equality of rights and of opportunities, and toiling together for the advancement of civilization. To put the two stereotypes in Jewish terms, in one version classical Islam was like modern America, only better; in the other it was like Hitler's Germany, only worse, if such can be imagined.

Both images are of course wildly distorted; yet both contain, as stereotypes often do, some elements of truth. Two features they have in common are that they are relatively recent, and that they are of Western and not Islamic origin. For Christians and Muslims alike, tolerance is a new virtue, intolerance a new crime. For the greater part of the history of both communities, tolerance was not valued nor was intolerance condemned. Until comparatively modern times, Christian Europe neither prized nor practiced tolerance itself, and was not greatly offended by its absence in others. The charge that was always brought against Islam was not that its doctrines were imposed by force—something seen as normal and natural—but that its doctrines were false. Similarly on the Muslim side, the claim to tolerance, now much heard from Muslim apologists and more especially from apologists for Islam, is also new and of alien origin. It is only very recently that some defenders of Islam have begun to assert that their society in the past accorded equal status to non-Muslims. No such claim is made by spokesmen for resurgent Islam, and historically there is no doubt that they are right. Traditional Islamic societies neither accorded such equality nor pretended that they were so doing. Indeed, in the old order, this would have been regarded not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty. How could one accord the same treatment to those who follow the true faith and those who willfully reject it? This would be a theological as well as a logical absurdity.

The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing and contrasting stereotypes, and is more complex, more varied, more shaded than either of them.

How tolerant has Islam been in the past? The answers we may give to this question depend very much on the definitions we assign to its terms. What do we mean by Islam? This is neither as easy nor as obvious as might at first sight appear. What do we mean by tolerance? This again has many different definitions and raises many questions, not least of which is our standard of comparison...

I recall reading a delightful little pamphlet proving that the Islamic caliphate was superior to the American presidency. This was done by the simple device of defining the caliphate in terms of theological and juridical treatises and the presidency in terms of the latest scandals from Washington. It would of course be equally easy, if anyone thought it worth the trouble, to demonstrate the reverse by the same method—by defining the presidency in terms of the constitution, and the caliphate in terms of gossip from medieval Baghdad, which is not lacking in the sources at our disposal.

This kind of comparison, however common, is not very helpful. It may be emotionally satisfying, but it is intellectually dishonest to compare one's theory with the other's practice. It is equally misleading to compare one's best with the other's worst. If, as the term of comparison for Christendom, we take the Spanish Inquisition or the German death camps, then it is easy to prove almost any society tolerant. There is nothing like Auschwitz in Islamic history, but it would not be difficult to name Muslim rulers or leaders worthy to rank with Cotton Mather or Torquemada and thus demonstrate Christian tolerance.

Other, more subtle, forms of loaded comparisons can be achieved by comparing discrepant times, places, and situations. For example, we can compare a medieval society with a modern one, or a believing society in which religion is profoundly important and religious tolerance is a searching test with a secular society in which religion is of minor interest. Tolerance is easy in matters of indifference; it is much more difficult in those that deeply concern us. A glance at the effective limits on freedom of expression in academic life even in the most advanced present-day democracies will illustrate this point...

How did Islam in power treat other religions?...

If by tolerance we mean the absence of discrimination, there is one answer; if the absence of persecution, quite another. Discrimination was always there, permanent and indeed necessary, inherent in the system and institutionalized in law and practice. Persecution, that is to say, violent and active repression, was rare and atypical. Jews and Christians under Muslim rule were not normally called upon to suffer martyrdom for their faith. They were not often obliged to make the choice, which confronted Muslims and Jews in reconquered Spain, between exile, apostasy, and death. They were not subject to any major territorial or occupational restrictions, such as were the common lot of Jews in premodern Europe. There are some exceptions to these statements, but they do not affect the broad pattern until comparatively modern times and even then only in special areas, periods, and cases...

All in all there was far greater social mobility in Islam than was permitted either in Christian Europe or Hindu India. But this equality of status and opportunity was limited in certain important respects. The rank of a full member of society was restricted to free male Muslims. Those who lacked any of these three essential qualifications—that is, the slave, the woman, or the unbeliever—were not equal. The three basic inequalities of master and slave, man and woman, believer and unbeliever, were not merely admitted; they were established and regulated by holy law. All three groups of inferiors were seen as necessary, or at least as useful, and all had their places and functions, even if occasional doubts were expressed about the third. Though there was general agreement on the need for slaves and women, there was at times some question about the need for unbelievers. The common view, however, was that they served a variety of useful purposes, mostly economic.

A major difference between the three is the element of choice. A woman cannot choose to become a man. A slave can be freed, but by the choice of his master, not his own. Both the woman and the slave are thus in a position of involuntary— for the woman also immutable—inferiority. The inferiority of the unbeliever, however, is entirely optional, and he can end it at any time by a simple act of will. By adopting Islam he becomes a member of the dominant community, and his status of legal inferiority is at an end... The status of inferiority to which the unbeliever was subject was thus entirely voluntary; from a Muslim point of view it might indeed be described as willful. For the Muslim, Jews and Christians were people who had been offered God's truth in its final and perfect form, of which their own religions were earlier, imperfect, and abrogated forms, and yet had willfully and foolishly rejected it...

At an early stage in his career as ruler of Medina, the Prophet came into conflict with the three resident Jewish tribes. All three were overcome and, according to the Muslim tradition, two were given the choice between conversion and exile, and the third, the Banu Qurayza, between conversion and death. The bitterness generated by the opposition of the Jewish tribes to Muhammad is reflected in the mostly negative references to Jews in the Qur'an and in the biography and traditions of the Prophet...

Contacts with Christians during the lifetime of the Prophet were rather less important and very much less contentious than with Jews... Toward the end of the Prophet's life, the expansion of the Muslim state brought it into contact and sometimes into conflict with Christian tribes, and a somewhat less benign attitude toward Christians is reflected in Muslim scripture and tradition. But in general, while these on the whole express a far more sympathetic attitude toward Christians than toward Jews, the subsequent development of Islamic law makes no such distinction between the two...

Far more important than the rejection of Christianity or Judaism, however, was the rejection of paganism—the main enemy against which the Prophet fought and from which he won the main body of his converts. Inevitably, the struggle against paganism brought Islam closer to Judaism and Christianity, seen, if not as allies, then as kindred faiths opposed to a common adversary...

The Qur'an recognizes Judaism, Christianity, and a rather problematic third party, the religion of the Sabians, as earlier, incomplete, and imperfect forms of Islam itself, and therefore as containing a genuine if distorted divine revelation. The inclusion of the not very precisely identified Sabians made it possible, by legal interpretation, to extend the kind of tolerance accorded to Jews and Christians much more widely, first to Zoroastrians in Persia, later to Hindus in India and other groups elsewhere. Communities professing recognized religions were allowed the tolerance of the Islamic state. They were allowed to practice their religions, subject to certain conditions, and to enjoy a measure of communal autonomy. Those who were not so qualified, in other words those classified as polytheists and idolators, were not eligible to receive the toleration of the Islamic state; for them, indeed, according to the law, the choice was the Qur'an, the sword, or slavery.

A difficult problem is presented by monotheistic religions that arose after the advent of Islam, especially those that emerged from within the Muslim community, such as the Baha'is in Iran and the Ahmadiyya in India. The followers of such religions cannot be dismissed either as benighted heathens, like the polytheists of Asia and the animists of Africa, nor as outdated precursors, like the Jews and Christians, and their very existence presents a challenge to the Islamic doctrine of the perfection and finality of Muhammad's revelation. Muslim piety and Islamic authority have always had great difficulty in accommodating such post-Islamic monotheistic religions."

--- The Jews of Islam / Bernard Lewis

Continued:
Islam and Religious Tolerance (2/3)
Islam and Religious Tolerance (3/3)
blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Latest posts (which you might not see on this page)

powered by Blogger | WordPress by Newwpthemes