Delaney Meyers: Interfaith Communication and Hierarchy

I would argue that some of the factors of Islam as a religion that lead to it’s speedy successful expansion are also leading factors of Islam’s early potential for interfaith communication. For example, the attractive quality of the eternal afterlife was a significant factor in conquered people’s acceptance of Islam because it meant that their toiling and suffering in their lives on earth would not be in vain, and it emphasized personal relationship with god as a key factor in this after life. Bulliet argues that, at the time of the early Muslim conquest and expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries, Christians were scared that the rich and successful culture and the logical “easy to believe” aspects of Islam were going to cause mass conversion of the weaker Christians to Islam because it was so appealing (Bulliet 11). While the Christians civilizations lost their ties to one another under the Islamic empire, there was no organized coalition of civilizations. Therefore the military protection offered under Muslim rule was also an attractive factor, though granted this must have been complicated for conquered groups.

Christians at the time did not characterize Islam as evil or “viscous”, something I find especially intriguing especially seeing as they had just been conquered by a very powerful and ever expanding Muslim empire. During the 7th and 8th century, the majority of Christians in the world lived under Muslim Rule.

I find the connection between Protestantism and Islam fascinating. The main point of Luther’s 95 Theses addressed to the Catholic Church is that one need only have faith in God in order to reach salvation and cannot bring about one’s salvation through works or actions (such as the unethical purchasing of indulgences). This concept is also at the core of the Islam, as the relationship between an individual and God is most important and does not need to be intercepted, interpreted, and directed by an ordained priest. I though it was very interesting that the English Protestant Thomas Arnold held the idea that “Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians were at the bottom of the religious hierarchy; Muslims were in the middle; and Protestants were on top” (Bulliet 10). The Ulama play an interesting role here, however, as in Muslim philosophy deference too or consultation of interpretive religious scholars does not render an individual’s relationship to God less important whereas according to Luther the clergy are often agents of corruption.

There were also periods of state sanctioned and sometimes mandated religious tolerance in the Muslim empire. This reached it’s peak under the Mughal empire. Akbar Shah implemented a doctrine of religious tolerance, Din Ilahi, which was an attempt at creating a sort of state religion that would be a mix of the traditions of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism.  He ordered his governors to read Rumi and Ghazel, both of whom poets whose texts are love based and encourage understanding among different people. In the Akbarnama written by Akbar Shah’s official biographer, Abul Fazl, he writes that Hindus are not idol worshipers, something not accepted in Islam. This show and understanding of the way Hindus worship the many faces of God. His successor, Shah Jahan, had wives who were Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. Under his rule, the first dialogue in Persian between Muslim and Hindus was also produced.

The intellectual expansion of Greek thought and translations across cultures was also a factor in the positive interfaith relations. This intellectual expansion became am important part of government, giving more importance to factors outside of religion (Watt 126). Under the Safavid empire, the Ulama became a more important factor in terms of being a source for political legitimacy. I wonder if this development leads to the compartmentalization of Islam, and particularly of Shari’a, as the sole religious ideal connected with politics. This could lead to increased intolerance of other religions and/or morals if they are seen as illegitimate and potential delegitimizing to the standards of political power at the time. In other words, it is possible that when the ulama become state functionaries things go downhill in terms of acceptance of other religions and distinct religious influence in the political sphere increases, alienating practitioners of other religions.

I am left with some questions: When did the dichotomy between Muslim/Christian relations become so vehement and ideologically controlling? How did various rulers’ interpretations of poets and artists influence attempts at bringing perennial values into actualization?

Works Cited

Watts, William Montgomery. “The Basic Concepts” in Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christion Civilization.” Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice. Craig Auditorium, Obelrin, OH. 9 Mar. 2010. Lecture.