Interfaith Relations in the Premodern Muslim World

The perception that Islam’s attitude towards other religions is one of either dismissal or outright disdain could not be further from the truth. Islam has historically been a religion of respect towards the other major religions of the world. Discussions of religious coexistence in the modern world are misleading as they paint an overly positive view of Christianity and have the opposite effect on the perception of Islam. This does not reflect the nature of Islam since the pre-modern Islamic world emphasized the sustainability of Islam and the formation of great societies. Oftentimes the best way of achieving this was through secularization.

Religious dialogue is skewed by the utilization of a few widely accepted terms including “Judeo-Christian civilization” and “clash of civilizations.”[1] Both terms are misleading as they portray Islam as an outside force that antagonizes the peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Judaism. The term “Judeo-Christian society” emerged after the Holocaust to assuage Jewish fear of an ethnic cleansing occurring again. This undermines the positive relationship between Jews and Muslims historically had, as the two religions coexisted fruitfully in several regions.

Islam and Judaism have more in common with one another than either does with Christianity. The similarities between the two religions include strict dietary laws, similar roles of the Rabbinate in Judaism and the Ulama in Islam, and how each group views their founder.[2]. Muhammad was interested in converting Jews in the early Muslim World as their numbers in the region declined and Islam gained popularity, so some of these similarities are intentional.[3] This can perhaps be attributed to the threat that Christianity posed to both religions. This effort to ensure peace and tolerance can be seen in one of Muhammad’s major works of mediation, the Constitution of Medina, which says, “The Jews of various groups belong to the community and are to retain their own religion.”[4] This gives credence to the notion that Islam is not anti-Semitic in nature, but the political circumstances in the Muslim world give the appearance of a “clash of civilizations.”

Islam’s ability to thrive with other religions is also evident in Muslim Spain under the Umayyad Empire, where peaceful cohabitation and cohesion of cultures were perhaps at their height. The Muslim polity ensured tolerance by emphasizing protecting the “dhimmi” or “Peoples of the Book.”[5] This led to a culture of both political unity and cultural cohesion that produced great acheivements such as the Alhambra. It was also remarkable for the knowledge housed in its incredible libraries, which served as a place of intellectual exchange among educated people of all three religions.[6] Additionally, Christians and Jews became high ranking political officials, most notably the Jewish foreign minister for the Caliph in the 10th century.[7] This was a period of peaceful coexistence leading to intellectual, political, and cultural prosperity. This is similar to the Muslim relationship to Indian Hindus, another relationship that is unstable today.

India is a nation with religion ingrained into every facet of society, not dissimilar to the Islamic world. It features deep Buddhist and Hindu traditions that shape the region still. This is why the reign of the Mughal Empire from the 16th – 18th c. was such a drastic change in the nature of the region. This period is considered the Golden Age for Islamic-Hindu relations, a direct result of the actions of Akbar the Great and his Grand Vizier Abu Fazl.[8] The two understood that it would be impossible to convert all Hindus to Islam, so instead they tried to sow tolerance in the Empire. They were nervous that Muslims would use the Qur’anic verse “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah and worship is for Allah alone” to justify the killing of Hindus. [9] This was a concern that didn’t exist for Jews or Christians because “dhimmi” are protected in the Qur’an. In the Akbarnama, Abu Fazl justified polytheism by saying that all the Hindu deities make up one God and justified idolatry by saying that Hindi idol worship is prayer to the Supreme Being in a more direct form.[10] Akbar went even further, attempting to establish his own religion that incorporated all others, but this did not catch on. This character of tolerance led to cross-cultural fertilization, like the Mughal court’s attempt to engage with Indian culture by translating Sanskrit into Arabic, or the high rate of Brahmins and Jains in the high Mughal Court.[11] It also led to great cultural achievements, with the most remarkable being the Taj Mahal, which was built by an Islamic leader in honor of his Christian wife.[12]

As Islam expanded, it naturally encroached on areas that were not majority Muslim, so coexistence was a crucial issue facing empires. With regards to Judaism and Christianity, tolerance is sown into the fabric of Islam, with the scripture mandating an acceptance for “dhimmi”. Islam and Judaism could get along better than Christianity because of the similarities between the two religions, but in Spain, all three existed together. Hinduism in India was more complicated, but the leaders of the Mughal Empire took measures to ensure that conflict would not define their relationship. Understanding the history of these relationships is crucial when considering the religious climate today. Islam is often described as a religion of intolerance that serves as an enemy to “Judeo-Christian society,” however Islam has historically been a religion of peace and tolerance towards others. This attribute allowed Islam to flourish in numerous regions around the globe.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

 

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

 

Bunzl, John. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. University Press of Florida. Print. 2004.

 

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.

 

Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968,

 

“Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture.” Sensible Reason. http://sensiblereason.com/muslim-hindu-religious-interactions-in-the-mughal-empire-the-birth-and-death-off-a-cohesive-culture/

 

The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics). Trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem. USA: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

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/.

[1] Bulliet, Richard, “Islamo-Christian Civilization.” Lecture, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, March 9, 2010.

[2] Bunzl, John. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. University Press of Florida. Print. 2004. 7

[3] Bunzl, John. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. University Press of Florida. Print. 2004. 30

[4] Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1968, 5.

[5] Menocal, Maria Rosa. 2002. The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 29.

[6] Menocal, Maria Rosa. 2002. The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 34.

[7] Menocal, Maria Rosa. 2002. The ornament of the world: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 30

[8] Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture

[9] Qur’an 2:191

[10] Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture

[11] “Stanford scholar casts new light on Hindu-Muslim relations.” Stanford Report, last modified September 9, 2015, accessed September 23, 2017, http://news.stanford.edu/2015/09/09/sanskrit-mughal-empire-090915/

[12] Ibid