Marina S – Response Paper #2

Compared to others of their kind, the multiple Islamic Empires stood out for their stances on religious tolerance. The co-existence of Jewish, Christian, and Hindu minorities alongside Muslim majorities was due to the fact that Islam actively searched out common ground with these religions, and used it as a foundation for institutional tolerance. Because these empires, for the most part, based their laws off of theological ideals, social progress would have required theological justification as well. At times, Islamic rulers would go to great lengths to make such claims in order to maintain an order of peace and unity within the populace.

Judaism arguably has the oldest relationship with Islam, dating back to well before the days of Muhammad. In his time, Jewish tribes were settled all over the peninsula, and newly organized Muslim clans interacted with and at times even converted the people in these groups. (Bunzle 29). Although initially Jews who refused to convert to Islam were forced to leave the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic rulers saw that Jews, who had many foreign connections via trade and intra-religious relations, could be of great use to their empire (Bunzle 31). Therefore they were accepted in Islamic society as “People of the Book” alongside Christians. This would prove to be the most fundamental link, but similarities between the two religions go deeper, exceeding those with Christianity. This is possibly because of the long history of Jewish involvement in the Arab world. There was little theological conflict: Muslims revered Moses, the most important prophet in the Jewish Torah, and Jews acknowledged Muhammad as an important prophet of the Muslim faith, just not as the Messiah. In terms of characteristics of the religion itself, both stressed the importance of religious law, both had a legion of devoted scholars of the texts in place of a clergy (the rabbi and ulama), and both were very strictly monotheistic. In many cases throughout the various Islamic Golden Ages, Jews not only survived, but excelled. Muslim Spain was a particularly strong example of this, with Jewish communities having a presence in art, literature, science, trade, and the military. It was a Golden Age of their own, in a sense. After Spain was reconquered by the Christians in 1492, the Ottoman Empire became a haven for the Jews who were violently expelled by Queen Isabella (Bunzle 37).

Christians, the other “People of the Book,” experienced similar levels of tolerance as minorities living within Islamic Empires. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the majority of the world’s Christians lived under Islamic rule, and similar to their Jewish counterparts, Christian communities thrived in Muslim Spain, assimilating to the language and culture with ease (Menoca 29). In a theological sense, there were no glaring contradictions, in spite of what today’s master narrative of the “Clash of Civilizations” would suggest. In fact, early Protestants viewed Muslims as closer to their views than Catholics, and simply saw Islam as a “softer” version of Christianity. Like Islam, Protestantism was non-hierarchical, incorporated rationalism, and emphasized a personal interpretation and relationship with God. Once again, related theology was used as a uniting force. It is possible that in the earliest centuries of Islam, when the Byzantine Empire fell to Muslim forces, their existing understanding of Christianity strengthened Islam’s appeal and ease of conversion. However, there was also the issue of relations with the competing Christian Empires to the north of the Muslim world. The most prominent conflict being the advent of the Crusades and Jihadism. In this case, the true motivations were political, but were branded by a religious justification, with each side having their own definition of a “Holy War.” The result was mostly destructive, although there was a significant amount gained by each from cultural transference, though the Islamic Empires had more to offer as they were still in the midst of their “Golden Age”. It appears that the Christian disposition towards Islam had more to do with cultural or political circumstances, while theological proximity remained a positive factor.

Finally, one of the most tumultuous interfaith relationships existed between Muslims and Hindus in the years before, during, and after the advent of the Mughal Empire. Their initial interactions tended towards violence. During the period from the 8th to the 14th century, there was continuous warfare as Islamic forces repeatedly attempted to take control of Indian lands. Estimates of Hindu casualties during this time ranged between 20 and 80 million persons. Although extreme, this conflict was most likely not religiously motivated (Sarafan 2011). The situation changed with the defeat of the Delhi Sultanate by the Mongols, and the subsequent creation of the Mughal Empire. In the interest of maintaining a stable society with a Muslim minority holding disproportionate power over a Hindu majority, most Mughal emperors adopted policies of the utmost religious tolerance. The greatest champion of this tolerance was Akbur the Great, who wrote the book “Akbarnama”, which alongside other things, elaborated on similarities between the two religions. He explained the two most glaring disparities, polytheism and idolatry, by saying that the Hindu gods were merely differing representations of the singular God, and idols are expressions and tributes to God, both of which are acceptable from the Islamic perspective. This led to many years of peaceful, productive coexistence. It wasn’t until the ascension of the more conservative Aurangzeb that this pattern of tolerance faded, religious differences were exploited, and the empire was therefore weakened enough to be conquered by colonizing British forces.

Essentially, the most pragmatic Islamic rulers understood that religion, which was one of the most present aspects of life under Islamic rule, was an extremely powerful uniting force. And a united state is a strong state. When commonalities between religions were highlighted as a means of relating individuals, societies flourished and remained strong. Meanwhile, intolerance of minorities or outside forces, which was almost always backed with theological justification, always led to disaster. Therefore, the religious tolerance that was so unique to the Islamic “Golden Ages” was also one of its greatest strengths and the key to their longevity.