Priyanka Sen: The things Master Narratives won’t tell you about Muslim inter-faith interactions in the pre-modern era

In modern consciousness, interfaith relations amongst Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Hindus are undercut and often impeded by specific socio-political circumstances, much of which is tied to the continuing processes of the ‘politicisation of religion, and the sacralisation of politics’. In other words, there appears to be a significant ‘re-writing’ or ‘misrepresentation’ of the historical facts of religious coexistence and interactions, wherein differences are amplified to a point of mutual hostility, similarities are either exaggerated or overlooked altogether—all in service of building what Richard Bulliet calls ‘Master Narratives’ which can serve political ends in modern times. Therefore, Hindu Nationalists in modern-day India build a master narrative of extreme cruelty and injustice practiced towards Indian Hindus during the Muslim Mughal Empire, in order to isolate the muslim minority communities in the Indian political arena, and to win votes in elections by inflaming Anti-Muslim communal fervour. But an unbiased investigation of history reveals the fiction in this particular master narrative—Muslim empires in India haven’t been thoroughly Anti-Hindu; on the contrary, there was a considerable degree of both peaceful and violent exchanges between Hindus and Muslims. Similarly, the pre-modern era is not composed of a long line of strict polemical/dichotomised relations between Muslims and Christians, or Muslims and Jews. Interfaith cultural and spiritual interactions have shaped significant aspects of each of these religions—language, ritual, literary expression, sacred text and law of each have all been influenced in return. In other words, one couldn’t have existed in it’s present form without having come in harmonious contact with the other.

The Orientalist Snouk Hurgronje once said: “There is in Islam something interreligious” 1. Indeed, the very birth of Islam and the establishment of the umma which called for the coexistence of Muslims and Jews, in the Arabian Peninsula. Jewish settlements in the Arabian peninsula predates the arrival of Prophet Muhammad, and there was a long history of interaction between Jews and Arabs. “Mohammed… found vigorous Jewish tribes in …Northern Arabia “ 2. In other words, the first Muslims and Jewish tribes were ethnically related, one couldn’t logically be Anti-Semitic towards their ethnic relations. With the arrival of Prophet Muhammad and the establishment of the umma, inter-faith interactions intensified; Jews were not excluded from this community but stood protected under it (Medina Constitution 625 CE). On the other hand, in its formative years, the growth of Islam as a cultural and social entity was influenced by Muhammad’s quest to win over Arab Jews. He adopted several Jewish rituals and practices in the processes, and these later found expression in the Quran itself, inherently connecting the two faiths 3. Many Jewish and Islamic tenets, the Law of Moses and Shari’a, the Talmud and the Hadith thus stand virtually connected, due to the simple fact of open interfaith interactions at the point of the birth of Islam. Of course, the unity wasn’t a perfect one—persecutions and disagreements arose in the course of historical progress. But wherever Islam established its rule, wherever “the Crescent had hegemony, the lot of the Jews began to improve”, such as in the arrival of Islam in Babylonia 4. The characteristic aspect of these interactions so far seems to be the willingness of Islam as a growing, blooming faith to accommodate and adopt Jewish beliefs and practices—one wasn’t closed up entirely to the world-views of the other, thereby leading to an essential harmony between the two. Jews and Christians were considered by Islam to be the ‘People of the Book’, and the Quran recognises their religious freedom and identity— they could live in the Islamic state but had to pay a poll tax called jizya which could be seen as a substitute for the zakat paid by Muslims. This religious belief, along with several others, contributed in part to later cultural interactions between Jews and Muslims. For example: Islam’s theology was developed in Baghdad, Mesopotamia, which was a “fortress of Jewish tradition”, where Jewish converts to Islam added to the better understanding of Islam itself and the development of its tradition of ‘religious folklore’ 5. It can be concluded thus that historically, while Jews and Muslims did have several points of disagreements, their harmonious relations were considerably in contrast with the massive persecution of Jews elsewhere, especially in other Christian civilisations.

The other example of extensive Muslim, Jewish and Christian harmony and cultural change can be found in the 500 years of Islamic Spain in al-Andalusia (8th—13th Century CE). It is said that it was during the Umayyad rule, Jewish culture reached its pinnacle. The Christian Visigothic rulers were unpopular amongst their Jewish subjects, and the Muslim takeover proved to be the beginning of a period of inter-religious and inter-cultural harmony, the exemplification of which was the city of Cordova in al-Andalusia, the capital of the Umayyad Caliphs (the Caliphate dissolved in 1031 CE). There was a considerable period of stability in that part of the Iberian peninsula under Umayyad rule, and it was here that the products of inter-religious interaction flourished. There was a large rate of both conversion from pagan Christianity to Islam at the time, and cultural exchanges, such that the resultant Muslim community was a vibrant mixture of ethnicities, and practices and hybrid communities such as the Mozarabs (Arabized Christians who lived under Islamic rule). But the practice of conversion wasn’t exactly on the model of forced conquests in a hegemonic empire; while both could co-exist in a thoroughly Arabised culture, the actual proximity of their essences as religions, and other factors helped several Christians willingly convert. Richard Bulliet said:
“The irony was that the Muslims who came to rule had no interest in converting people to Islam….In some of the earliest      post-conquest Christian writings, the authors would say, “You know, Islam really is a danger, because the Muslims are so rich and their culture is so advanced and they are so successful and their religion is so easy to believe that some of our weak   sisters are converting to Islam.” 6.
The shift from Latin to Arabic as the Christian and Muslim communities intermingled was a natural product; Arabic became the language of renewal and poetic sustenance. In other words, there was an embrace of the ‘vital secular culture’ 7 of Islam and Arabic in the same breath for some, for both religious and cultural purposes 8, while other Christians simply used Arabic while believing that it couldn’t be a ‘betrayal of their faith’ since they were in the midst of cultural ‘Arabization’ or ‘Assimilation’ that was taking place. Here too, it becomes apparent that the most important things being transmitted in these interactions was, more often than not, deeply cultural. Further, violent trends against this assimilation, like the ‘Mozarab Martyrdoms’ were not supported by most Cordoban Muslims or Christians.

The building of the Cordoba ‘cathedral mosque’ under Umayyad tutelage is an example of the spirit of the Islamic empire at the time which sought to preserve the “multiethnic and religiously pluralistic state” 9. The architectural influences were drawn from “the indigenous church-building tradition of pre-Muslim Spain” 10. Muslim Spain as exemplified in Cordoba, with its multiple Jewish and Christian communities was not monolithic. Rather, it was an example of a religious empire was capable of in its positive and open interactions with different cultures.The Umayyads were reflecting the essence of the umma in the Prophet’s time, that is, the coexistence of independent yet culturally entwined people who, practiced different faiths but were collectively the ‘People of the Book’. Jewish religious, civic and political life improved greatly (one Head of Army in the Arab caliphate was Jewish) as Jews embraced the Arabic culture, practicing piety on their own terms and participating the intellectual sphere simultaneously. Jewish culture experienced a revival in its interactions with the Islamo-Arabic culture, in the arts, sciences, and in the study of Hebrew grammar and composition of Hebrew poetry 11. Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher, wrote in Arabic. The idea and stream of ‘Romantic Literature’ was a collaboration between these diverse groups in Muslim Spain, which, in the post-Enlightenment era found its way to European consciousness. The Renaissance “began in Spain and North Africa” and is thus a combined “Islamo-Christian” civilisational product 12. These, among several other facts of the actual once-existing Islamo-Christian-Jewish cultural relations which have been largely ignored in modern day master narratives about these religions.

After the Reconquista, expelled Spanish Jewish refugees found a haven by the 19th century in the Ottoman empire. The rest is history, or at least half of it, according to master narratives. The one thing that stands out to me in this discussion is, aside from the essential religious closeness of the three faiths, in terms of beliefs, tenets and practices, a fact partly rooted in their historical origins, is the impact of this fact in their social and political interactions throughout the pre-modern era. Did this fact consciously help in their cultural contacts, facilitating both harmony and disagreements? Or were the cultural contacts more the product of specific historical and political circumstances in the broader process of conquests, displacements of large groups of people, and empire-building? Were the essential similarities driving forces (and impetus for) the contacts themselves, or was it the other way around? In any case mixture of both religious identity and secular cultural exchanges presents a more complex picture than modern day dichotomising master narratives can ever hope to portray.


  1. John Bunzle, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East, (Gainesville,Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004), p. 33
  2. Ibid 29.
  3. Ibid 30.
  4. Ibid 31.
  5. Ibid 33.
  6. Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization” (lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice” Oberlin College, OH, Craig Auditorium, March 9, 2010, Transcription by Rachel Bouer), p.11.
  7. Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, (New York: Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 2002), p. 74.
  8. Ibid 68.
  9. Ibid 59.
  10. Ibid 60.
  11. John Bunzle, ed. Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religion in the Middle East, (Gainesville,Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004), p. 38.
  12. Richard Bulliet, “Islamo-Christian Civilization” (lecture, Department of Religion Mead-Swing Lecture Series on “Ethics of Friendship in Muslim Cultures: Theory and Practice” Oberlin College, OH, Craig Auditorium, March 9, 2010, Transcription by Rachel Bouer), p. 14.