Michael Kennedy: The Creation of Interfaith Societies Under Muslim Rule

Although the term “Muslim World” often renders images of the Middle East, historically and contemporarily, this is not accurate. Not only were Muslim governments in power from Europe to southeast Asia, but long-lasting Muslim empires highly influenced generations of politics, culture, and advances in the sciences and arts. Spaces of interreligious co-existence and cooperation not only ensured peace for their subjects, but fostered some of the most influential golden ages in history.

Protection of People of the Book

While the interactions between Muslims and people of other faiths have occurred over hundreds of years across a broad geographic spectrum, most scholars recognize Quranic teachings in guiding these interactions. The Islamic approach to interfaith relations, in comparison to those of other faiths, stems from clear scriptural references. Mainly, the Qur’an emphasizes the sanctity of “People of the Book,” those who believe in the same Monotheistic God, and avoiding interreligious dispute with them. The 29th Sura of the Qur’an (The Spider) provides a definitive framework for interreligious interaction:

29: 46-48 “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book except with means better (than mere disputation) unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say ‘We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).’”[i]

In many prominent cases, this interfaith commitment went beyond toleration and into forms of protection and cooperation. The Qur’an banned forced conversion of these people and thus respected religious difference in ways that other scriptures did not. For this reason, while many did convert to Islam, there were significant populations living within Muslim political spheres that maintained their non-Muslim religious identity. This allowed for the creation of unique interreligious communities and interactions that did not exist in other parts of the world that coerced religious homogeneity.

The Constitution of Medina, written by the Prophet Muhammad in the formation of Medina as a political state, created the foundation for interreligious community governed by Muslims. W. Montgomery Watt summarizes the document:

“The believers and their dependents constitute a single community (umma)” and “The Jews of various groups belong to the community, and are to retain their own religion; they and the Muslims are to render ‘help’ (including military aid) to one another when it is needed.”[ii]

From the onset of Islam, “Peoples of the Book” were respected and theorized as able to co-exist and cooperate with Muslims within a shared community. Over the course of several hundred years, across a global landscape, interreligious communities existed within Muslim empire and were crucial in creating new forms of philosophy.

Jews and Muslims in Spain

One site of particularly collaborative and innovative interfaith relations was Muslim-ruled Spain. The Ummayid Empire ruled a significant portion of Iberia in southern Spain from the mid-8th century until 1031.[iii] Maria Rosa Menocal, in her study of medieval Spain, argues that Muslim rule changed the conditions for Jews in the region considerably:

“Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister. Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the dhimmi were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries.”[iv]

Even a critic of Menocal’s argument admits that “Generally, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. Furthermore, the restrictions to which they were subject were social and symbolic rather than tangible and practical in character. That is to say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.”[v]

Many scholars argue that the free religious practice under Muslim rule, coupled with access to scholarly volumes in numbers vastly exceeding the largest libraries of Christian Europe, allowed for multiple Golden Ages for Jewish scholarship. Out of Cordoba came Maimonides, one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Not only did he greatly influence Jewish philosophy across Europe, but came to support Jews living in other Muslim governments and served as personal physician to the Egyptian Sultan in his late life. The Jewish Golden Age in al-Andalus is a prime example of the cooperative and respectful interfaith relations that had existed at a certain historical point.

Islamo-Christian Relations

It may be difficult for even well-versed historians to conjure a place and time to best represent an “Islamo-Christian” civilization. According to Richard Bulliet, a professor of Islamic History, master narratives of western civilization and post WWII constructions of Judeo-Christian identities have clouded understandings of history with modern notions of identity. There has been significant interaction and cooperation between Christians and Muslims within Islamic political boundaries.

“At the time of the Arab conquest that took place in the seventh century and had its culmination in the first quarter of the eighth century, a majority of all the Christians in the world, by dint of military action, were living in areas ruled by Muslims. Not only did the most populated Christian areas come under Muslim rule… but the creation of an Islamic Empire stretching from Spain to Pakistan had the effect of severing what had previously been continuous links between Christian populations.”[vi]

Bulliet argues that rather than the two religions conflicting, Christian subjects of Muslim political rule did not view Islam as a conflicting “other” religion. Regarding written histories of Muslim conversion, he points out that certain early Protestants argued that Islam was more similar to their religious beliefs than Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. He summarizes, “…Islam and Christianity were not seen as poles apart. A very different view is now embodied in the ‘clash of civilizations’ master narrative, one of warfare, invasion, and jihad… the Muslims who came to rule had no interest in converting people to Islam. They had great interest in collecting taxes and exercising military power, but we have no evidence of any substantial character that there was a missionary movement among… Christians in the first four centuries of Islam.” [vii]

Like the Jews of Cordoba, the religious freedom granted to Christian subjects allowed them to engage more deeply in scholarship in both faith and philosophy. The Muslim known as Averroes, although a scholar of Islamic law, highly influenced Christian Europe. In fact, many scholars contend that translations of his work led to the popularization of Aristotle in Europe, fueling their developments in philosophies. Jacob Bender’s film, Out of Cordoba, explores the extent of both Averroes and Maimonides’ legacies and discovers their broad philosophical and political impacts upon Jews, Christians, and Muslims across political geographies and time. Not only did interfaith communities allow for the freedom of religion, but encouraged critical philosophical developments that broadly influenced scholars for hundreds of years and continue to be influential to this day.

Islamic-Hindu Relations in Southeast Asia: New People of the Book

As mentioned earlier, followers of Islam are supposed to respect the religious beliefs of People of the Book. Today, Hindus are not often considered followers of a Monotheistic, Abrahamic religion. However by the early 19th century, the Muslim Mughal Empire- encompassing modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of China- would come to incorporate majority Hindu subjects and include them into this category of protection. The Mughal Empire was extremely heterogenous in composition; mostly Hindu subjects were ruled by a Muslim government that spoke Persian and incorporated a diverse population of religious and ethnic groups. The Islamic rulers and their political philosophy played a significant role in promoting interreligious relations and appreciation.

During the early founding of the empire in 1582, the religious diversity of the empire’s population was reconfigured as The Din-I Illahi (“The Religion of God”) a re-understanding of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. This attempt to reconcile religious differences may not have lasted in name, but promoted interreligious co-existence in the new empire. The fourth Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, was quoted as saying, “God bestows the blessings… upon all his creatures… with all the human race. Why then should I permit myself to be the cause of molestation or aggression to any one?” [viii] The Mughal Emperors ruled with an understanding of the diversity of their subjects, yet using a religious notion to unite them as one political entity.

Of many Mughal accomplishments, the interactions and co-existence of multiple religious backgrounds spawned creations in arts and philosophies similar in nature to those of Muslim Spain. Women in the Mughal Empire made significant strides in poetry and the arts. The Taj Mahal, one of the great testimonies to the Mughal creativity, was a dedication of a Mughal Shah to his Christian wife. It was also in this mix of religious and ethnic norms that certain women found themselves in political power or at least equal social standing to their political husbands.

It is not merely coincidence that societies across different geographies and times were able to create new influential modes of thinking. The interfaith relationships allowed and fostered by Islamic empire governments proved mutually beneficial for people across faiths and ethnic backgrounds. An understanding of Islamic history not only reveals the realities of the time period, but offers a glimpse at the positive interactions that can occur between people of different faiths and inspire people now to learn from one another and create new golden ages of intellectual and philosophical

[i] “O People of the Book! Verses from The Glorious Qur’an” web.  p://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/peopleq.htm#some

[ii] W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 1968. Pg. 5

[iii] Class Lecture 9/18

[iv] Maria Rosa Menocal The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2002. Pg. 30

[v] Bernard W. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, 1984.

[vi] Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization”, Department of Religion Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice.” Pgs. 10-11

[vii] Bulliet, 10-11.

[viii] Class, Sept. 15


Works Cited

Bernard W. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, 1984.

Maria Rosa Menocal The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2002.

“O People of the Book! Verses from The Glorious Qur’an” web.

Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization”, Department of Religion Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice.”

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

*Picture taken from: http://www.vivacepanorama.com/din-e-ilahi/