Eli Hovland: Islam and the gift of Cultural Assimilation

The question of religious interactions is by its very nature tied in with political interactionl Muslim political power, most prominently in the form of empire, integrating non muslim populations and creating a mutually informed and culturally distinct product. As Maria Rosa Menocal phrases it “The virtue of Arab-Islamic lay precisely in its being able to assimilate and even revive of earlier and indigenous cultures.”

One set of examples of this pattern of cultural commingling can be seen in the interactions between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian sub-continent. Hindu Muslim interactions date back to the earliest periods of Islam. At first this came through interactions between neighboring Persian Muslim and Indian Hindu empires. This period of mutual-experience laid the grown work for for a deeper level of interaction when Muslim rulers came to control much of the Indian sub-continent, first through the Delhi Sultinate and later through the Mogul Empire. As with Muslim empires in the Mid-East and Europe there is strong evidence presented by Truschke of contributions to the distinct culture to emerge from these empires from both the Muslim and non-muslim subjects. This mutual contribution can be seen in the role of the Muslim rulers in sponsoring Jain religious orders and rituals. Additional evidence can be seen in the attempts to bring the linguistic divides in the empires, with the ruling Muslim courts using Persian and the majority of the scholarship taken on by the Hindu upper classes occurring in Sanskrit.

Truschke finds evidence of translations of Sanksirt texts, especially on philosophy. These translations were part of a pattern of inviting non-muslim scholars into the courts of Muslim rulers. Additional evidence of this scholastic interaction can be seen in the dedications of Sanskrit texts to Muslim sovereigns, indicating their sponsorship of the works.1

In Muslim Spain Jewish and Christian cultures were allowed to interplay with Muslim ideas all stimulated with the vast wealth that was being created by the period of political stability its germinated in. An additional element was present in Muslim Spain, Gaul had stood at the heart of the Western Roman empire and so Roman and through it Greek philosophy was integrated into the emerging cultural melting point formed by the interaction of Jewish, Muslim and Christian ideas. These connections were not solely intellectual or ideological but as Maria Rosa Menocal makes clear were also the product of concrete political decisions. Menocal details the interactions between Christian and Muslim cities within Spain, to flows of tribute and implied dominance shifted back and forward throughout the period. This ability for religiously distinct powers to exist in proximity but for the majority of the period stability with one another is testate to their ability to forge connection across cultures2.

One area that has helped contribute to the ability of Muslim societies to integrate non-muslim cultures and create cohesive new cultures is the ability to develop on religious overlaps between Islam and other faiths. One pattern that has informed religious interaction between Islamic Christian and Jewish communities has been the significant degree of overlap in religious teachings within these communities.

One area in which Richard Bulliet lays out these overlaps as having significant impact on setting the tone of pre-modern interfaith interaction is in the response to early islam by the existing Christian world at the time. While Jews and Christians had grown apart from each other and therefor by the time of the emergence of Islam had developed intrenched concepts of each other, Islam presented an open question for the Christian powers, notably the Orthodox Catholics in the Byzantine Empire but later as Islam expanded Catholics in the Mediterranean and Western Europe as well. Bulliet notes that while polemics agains the Jews were common in this period and depicted them as permanently outside the Christian community a status earned by their purported role in the crucifixion of Jesus the approach taken to Muslims was considerably more nuanced. Muslims and Islam as a whole was seen by Christian writers as being an offshoot of Christian ideas a state of affairs that while far from ideal, Muslims were seen as heretical, was possible to remedy. 

Two factors are sighted as contributing to this belief in the reconcilability of Muslim and Christian Ideas. The first was the substantial role that Jesus played in the religious narrative of Islam. Jesus was honored in Islam as a prophet and his role in the eschatological future, a combatant against the anti-christ and force for the redemption of man kind. Islam did not see Jesus as either the son of God or as part of a trinitarian vision of divinity, however the role of Jesus within Islam was still more significant that his role within Judaism and made Muslims an appealing target for “returning” to Christian orthodox practice. The other contributing factor to this feeling of closeness between the two faiths was the fact that Christian orthodoxy had been laboriously established over the centuries. Within the memory of Seventh Century Christians were periods in which the role and understanding of Christ within the Christian faith was hotly debated. During the centuries between the emergence of the Jesus movement within Judaism and the emergence of the Prophet Mohammed it would not have been hard to find groups of Christian who considered themselves to be practicing the correct and orthodox version of their faith who held that Jesus was a prophet of God rather than his son or part of a trinitarian manifestation. To the Christian viewer of the emergence of Islam it would not have seemed less rational to believe that these new followers of a religious tradition incorporating the words of Jesus could be brought into the emerging Christian orthodoxy in the same way that any number of Donatists, Gnostics, or any other heretical sects with differing views of Jesus that had risen before the Seventh Century3.


1 University, Stanford. “Stanford Scholar Casts New Light on Hindu-Muslim Relations.” Stanford News, Stanford University Communications, 8 Apr. 2016, news.stanford.edu/2015/09/09/sanskrit-mughal-empire-090915/.

2 Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books, 2012.

3Bulliet, Richard. “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice.” Mead-Swing Lecture Series, 9 Mar. 2010, Oberlin, Oberlin College