Alana Barrington Dye: Interfaith Relations in the Pre-Modern Muslim World

Pre-modern Muslim societies have been characterized by remarkable advances in art, science, technology, and literature. In addition, these societies can also be characterized by their incredible tolerance of and collaboration with other religions. In examining the examples of Al-Andalus and the Delhi sultanate, the interfaith relations of pre-modern Muslim societies can be characterized by the facilitation of an exchange of ideas between groups, through language and literature, claiming shared histories, and the active desire on the part of the Muslim rulers to establish good relations.

Since its inception, Islam has been seen, at least by some, as more of an extension of Abrahamic traditions than an entirely new religion. In the Jewish tradition, Abraham is depicted as a great patriarch, a “Jew before the Torah”; in the Islamic tradition Ibrahim is a “Muslim before the Qur’an.” He was the father of both traditions and the builder of the kaaba.[i] Because of this shared tradition, the Constitution of Medina considers Jewish people to be part of the umma, the specific community of the early followers of the prophet Muhammad.[ii] Jews and Christians are considered Ahl al-Kitab, or people of the book.[iii] The people of the book had the status of dhimmi and were granted protection by the Qur’an.[iv] Scholar Snouck Hurgronje has affirmed: “There is in Islam something inter-religious.”[v] That is, there is a deep and inherent connection between Islam and other religions, especially Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as the three Abrahamic religions. Richard Bulliet states: “All Muslims know that Islam and Christianity are pretty much the same.”[vi] By this he means that Islam and the other religions of the book share the same history and stories. Essentially, Muhammad was a continuer of religion, not the creator of one.[vii] The shared history of the religions of the book creates a connection between these three traditions so deep that throughout history, it has led to one shared civilization for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds.

Much of the civilization that the three religions of the book created was under Muslim rule in the pre-modern world. This specific power dynamic allowed for an atmosphere of tolerance and collaboration that had not been as prevalent before the expansion of Islam. The Qur’an gives the people of the book “freedom of conscience and the inalienable right…to worship the Eternal in their own fashions.”[viii] The freedom of religion that was given to Jews and Christians under Muslim rule was central to the formation of one Judeo-Islamo-Christian civilization. A prime example of this civilization is Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. Known as the “ornament of the world,” Al-Andalus is renowned for its “vast intellectual wealth”[ix] that came with the collaboration of the multiple religious communities in the region. In the shared language of Arabic,[x] the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities worked together to create a vibrant culture in the flourishing region. As Al-Andalus flourished, the region experienced a political stability, a growth in the economy as well as the population of urban and surrounding rural areas. The expansive trade led to the introduction of new crops and irrigation technology, which created an agricultural boom in the area. Trade with surrounding regions also established connections between the people of Al-Andalus and other cultures,[xi] from which an exchange of ideas led to an interfaith focus on ethics and philosophy, centered in Cordoba. In fact, between 1050 and 1428, all major Jewish works on ethics and philosophy were published in Arabic in Muslim Spain. Jewish scholars were not thought of as scholars of a separate culture; they were considered to be among the great scholars of Al-Andalus.[xii] The religious tolerance and collaboration in Al-Andalus was central to the interfaith society of the region that Isidore Epstein described as, “a culture in which richness and depth is comparable to the best produced by any people at any time.”[xiii]

Muslim rulers did not limit their tolerance and collaboration to Jews and Christians as other peoples of the book. In the pre-modern era, Muslim-Hindu relations were “marked by collaborative encounters across linguistic and religious lines.”[xiv] A large variety of literary, cultural, and political forces came together to create a culture in which there were many Persian-Sanskrit interactions in the Mughal court.[xv] The Mughals “supported and engaged with Indian thinkers and ideas”[xvi] so much that the Delhi sultanate was considered a mixing of two cultures.[xvii] Translations of Sanskrit into Persian were central to the political atmosphere and the culture of the Mughal court in Delhi. The Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire, in coming from a Islamo-Judeo-Christian civilization, did not share the stories and philosophies of their Indian, largely Hindu, subjects. The Mughals’ translation of Sanskrit works into Persian “helped the Persian-speaking imperialists forge a new hybrid political identity.”[xviii] This political identity is revealed in the actions of rulers such as Akbar Shah. Akbar Shah established and governed with a new doctrine called Din Ilahi, which was a mixture of Zoroastrian, Islamic, Christian, and Jain ideologies, and supported the statement by Abulfazl that Hindus are not idol worshipers, thereby allowing for the coexistence of Muslims and Hindus in the Mughal Empire. In addition, he abolished non-Muslim taxes that had previously been established in the Hindu-majority country.[xix] The court of the Delhi sultanate was a space of interfaith collaboration and learning so successful that it established a hybrid political identity between the Hindu and Islamo-Judeo-Christian civilizations.

The pre-modern societies in Delhi and Cordoba can be analyzed to fully understand the significant characteristics of Muslim interfaith relations at the time. The Muslim rulers of these regions clearly sought out good relationships with other religious groups. Although as dhimmi, Christian and Jewish communities were protected under the Qur’an, the Hindu majority in the Mughal Empire did not fall into this category. But instead of persecuting the Hindus, rulers such as Akbar Shah established good relations with the community. By supporting the idea that Hindus were not idol worshippers, Akbar chose to continue the pattern of religious tolerance previously revealed in Al-Andalus and across the Muslim world. This pattern of tolerance can be seen most clearly in the relationships formed through language. The translations of stories and philosophy from Sanskrit into Persian allowed for the unique political identity in the Mughal court. In Al-Andalus, the use of Arabic as the common language for Muslims, Christians, and Jews added to the establishment of a single civilization for all three religious communities. Having important religious and political texts, translations or otherwise, from all groups allowed for a greater understanding between the three religious traditions. Finally, the Muslim communities managed good interfaith relations by not setting strict boundaries between different religious traditions. The deep religious pluralism in the Mughal Empire and the shared Abrahamic traditions with Christianity and Judaism were significant in establishing good faith between all religious groups in the pre-modern Muslim world.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice,” Oberlin, Ohio. March 9, 2010.

Bunzl, John, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Islamo-Jewish Convivencia.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 12, 2016.

——-. “Muslim-Hindu Relations.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 16, 2016.

Mendocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Rigoglioso, Marguerite. “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations.” Stanford Report. Last modified September 9, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2016. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/09/09/sanskrit-mughal-empire-090915/.

Truschke, Audrey. “Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2012.

 

 

 

[i] M. Jafar Mahallati, “The Islamo-Jewish Convivencia.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 12, 2016.

            [ii] John Bunzl, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004), 35.

[iii] Bunzl, 34.

[iv] Maria Rosa Mendocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 29-30.

[v] Mahallati, “The Islamo-Jewish Convivencia,” 9/12/16.

            [vi] Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice,” Oberlin, Ohio. March 9, 2010.

[vii] Mahallati, “The Islamo-Jewish Convivencia,” 9/12/16.

[viii] Bunzl, 32.

[ix] Mendocal, 33.

[x] Bunzl, 44.

[xi] Mendocal, 27.

[xii] Mahallati, “The Islamo-Jewish Convivencia,” 9/12/16.

[xiii] Bunzl, 37.

[xiv] “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations.” Stanford Report, last modified September 9, 2015, accessed September 15, 2016, http://news.stanford.edu/2015/09/09/sanskrit-mughal-empire-090915/

[xv] Audrey Truschke, “Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2012), 11.

[xvi] Rigoglioso, “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations.”

[xvii] M. Jafar Mahallati, “Muslim-Hindu Relations.” Religion and Politics in the Modern Muslim World, Oberlin, Ohio. September 16, 2016.

[xviii] Rigoglioso, “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations.”

[xix] Mahallati, “Muslim-Hindu Relations,” 9/16/16.