Ashley Belohlavek: Muslim Interfaith Relations in Pre-Modern Times

While the Crusades have gone down in history as the longest and most famous holy wars, Muslims have had a long record of having very peaceful relations with those of differing religions, specifically Christians, Jews, and Hindus. Despite its strict monotheism, Islam is adamant about religious tolerance and respects the beliefs of non-Muslims and their right to believe in whatever they do.


Jews and Muslims had a bit of a rocky start when Muhammad first began spreading Islam in Medina, as Muhammad and his followers would clash with the local Jewish tribes who antagonized them. Despite this, Muslims have had a recurring history of supporting their Jewish brethren in times of religious intolerance. An example of this is when Muslims first came to Spain in the early 8th century and they saved Jews from the constant oppression from the Christian Kings in power.[i] Along this line, during the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire opened its doors to Spanish Jews escaping persecution.[ii] This religious tolerance and acceptance is incredible, considering that this kind of support is something that not even people today can muster up for refugees fleeing fundamentalist terrorists. It is also notable that in Muslim Spain, Jewish citizens became well acquainted with the Arabic language and would even write and speak in Arabic, embracing the language and Muslim culture as well.[iii] This display of harmony and integration is something that Jacob Bender talks about in his documentary, Out of Cordoba, about the unity of Muslims and Jews in the medieval Iberian Peninsula, targeting the misconception that there is an unstoppable “clash of civilizations” between differing religious groups. For some unknown reason, it is a popular misunderstanding that Muslims are somehow anti-Semite, which is completely false. While Jews and Christians do not recognize Muhammad’s mission as Prophet or believe in the words of the Quran, Muslims mainly care that they all worship the same God, though in different fashions.[iv]


Muslims and Christians, on the other hand, seem to have had a wishy-washy past. While the two religions actually share an incredible number of beliefs, Christians have not been as tolerant of Muslims as Muslims have been of Christians. For example, while Muslims accepted that Christians believed in some very different things that they didn’t, such as the Holy Trinity and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Christians saw Muslims as misguided Christians, and that they just needed to be converted to Christianity (and in this same manner, Protestants saw Muslims as lost Christians-to-be).[v] Another source of Christian animosity towards Muslims was that because the Muslim Empire was picking up previously Christian controlled land, Christians were terrified that they would be wiped out, despite the fact that Muslims never showed particular desire to recruit Christians to Islam.[vi] Christians viewed Islam as a soft, believable religion and they were worried they would lose followers to Islam, even though people didn’t really start converting until about four centuries after major expansion of the Muslim empire, and even then, the conversion was very gradual.[vii] During most interactions between Muslims and Christians, Christians have felt threatened by Muslim presence and power, and this fear has created many problems and brought tension between the two groups, and this is even an irrational fear that is still alive in modern day society.


Similar to the history of Muslim-Jewish relations, Muslim-Hindu relations of the past have been widely portrayed as hostile and intolerant, but Muslim treatment of Hindus has actually been rather benevolent and supportive. With this “master narrative,” British imperialists found it advantageous to convince the various peoples of India that the two religions could not coexist in peace without their mediation, and thus, the false narrative of animosity between the two religious groups was born.[viii] The truth, however, is that the Muslim rulers of India from around the mid-16th through the late 17th century, the early Mughal emperors, were quite encouraging of Hindi culture and scholarship.[ix] Many scholars have inaccurately confused expansion of the Muslim Empire with Islamic conquest itself. While the Mughals sought to gain land and power, they were very intent on recruiting upper-caste Hindus for their court and welcoming Indian culture and literatures to their new hybrid society of intermingling Muslims and Hindus.[x] Perhaps the Mughal Empire’s most admired ruler, Akbar the Great, was highly famous for his religious tolerance and values of equality. However, this golden age of interfaith harmony did not last, as the final emperor of the Mughal Empire, Aurangzeb, established a regime of religious intolerance towards non-Muslims, which actively discriminated against and subjugated Hindus, something absolutely unheard of under the rule of his not so distant ancestors. This brought the age of religious tolerance and harmony between the Hindus and Muslims within the Mughal Empire to an end at the dawn of the 18th century.[xi] This birth of religious intolerance within the Empire led to its downfall in the mid-19th century, due to division during British colonial rule and fragmentation of the state.[xii]


While various master narratives have been told about Islamic relations with other religious groups, when looking carefully at the actual history of interactions Muslims have had with these groups, it is clear that Muslims are not looking for conquest or an influx of followers, but for friendship and peaceful coexistence. For some ungodly reason, Muslims have been given an extremely violent and inaccurate reputation as religiously intolerant, power-mongering fundamentalists, when this is just clearly not the case. Even during the expansion of the Muslim Empire in the first millennium, Muslims, time and time again, accepted their fellow Christians, Jews, and Hindus, as brethren, despite any differences they had in religious beliefs or customs. It just goes to show that these dangerous master narratives do not serve to tell the truth, but only to exploit fears and resentment.


Works Cited:

Rejwan, Nissim. “Cultural Relations and Interaction Through the Ages.” In Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East, edited by John Bunzl. Florida: University Press of Florida.

Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Lecture at Columbia University. March 9, 2010.

Rigoglioso, Marguerite. “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations,” Stanford News, September 9, 2015.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 3b lecture. September 14, 2016.

Sarafan, Greg. “Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture,” Sensible Reason, November 6, 2011.


[i] Rejwan pg 37

[ii] Rejwan pg 36

[iii] Rejwan pg 42

[iv] Rejwan pg 34

[v] Bulliet pg 10

[vi] Bulliet pg 11

[vii] Bulliet pg 11

[viii] Rigoglioso

[ix] Rigoglioso

[x] Rigoglioso

[xi] Mahallati

[xii] Sarafan