AgainstTheGrain: Putting into practice Islam’s tolerance and understanding towards other religions

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 28, 2019 - February 03, 2019.
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Recently in Malaysia, some Muslims voiced anger against lights displayed on a building in Penang that appeared to them to look like a cross. This incident must be understood in terms of the larger context of hostility towards Christianity.

Some years ago, forces fighting under the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after having captured large areas of Iraq and Syria, not only fought against and killed Muslims who stood in their way but also carried out barbaric acts of violence against Christians and other religious minorities.

Many Christians were threatened with their lives for not converting to Islam. They had to endure harassment, arrests and various forms of violence. As a result, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian men, women and children have fled from what had become a genocide against an ancient Christian community. Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox Church said ISIS had burnt churches, old religious texts, damaged crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, and converted churches into mosques.

How is it that a group that claims to rule in the name of Islam can be so brutal to fellow human beings? Many would claim that Islam is a religion of peace and that violence perpetrated in the name of Islam is actually due to distortions or misunderstandings of the religion. There are those, however, who would say Islam is not innocent of its militant and murderous adherents. They often cite verses of the Quran such as Al-Tawbah [9]:5, which says, “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)”.

To make matters worse, it is always possible to find historical cases of the brutal treatment of Christians by Muslims. A case in point is the 11th-century Fatimid ruler, Abu Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim. Al-Hakim was known in the West as the “Mad Caliph” because of the brutal manner in which he treated religious minorities. The persecution of Christians and Jews began under his reign in 1004 AD when he decreed that Christians would no longer be allowed to celebrate Easter. Al-Hakim is also known to have forced Jews and Christians to become Muslims at the point of a sword, destroyed numerous churches and other Christian holy sites in Palestine and Egypt, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009.

How do we reconcile the verses of the Quran that appear to support the violence perpetrated against Christians such as during Al-Hakim’s and Al-Baghdadi’s reigns?

The episodes of violence and intolerance of Muslims towards Christians and other Muslims have always been regarded by historians as exceptions. Al-Hakim’s persecution of Christians and Jews was seen as a rarity in Islam. Historian Michael Foss noted that “for more than 350 years, from the time when the Caliph Omar made a treaty with the Patriarch Sophronius until 1009, when mad al-Hakim began attacks on Christians and Jews, the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land were open to the West, with an easy welcome …”.

The question still remains as to what we are supposed to make of the Quranic verses that appear to support intolerance and violence against non-Muslims. There are two ways in which we can deal with this question. One is to show that these verses are to be interpreted in terms of their historical contexts. The other is to demonstrate how Muslims in history were guided by Islamic ideals and acted towards non-Muslim minorities.

The Quran in Al-Tawbah [9]:13 asks, “Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you?” This makes it clear that the exhortation to fight mentioned a few verses earlier referred to cases of defence against aggressors. However, even this was highly regulated as Muslims were forbidden to fight during four sacred months.

Furthermore, the historical fact is that Muslims in general adhered to the Quranic ideal of showing tolerance and compassion to Jews and Christians who lived in Muslim-ruled lands. The Quran in Al-Mumtahanah [60]:8 says, “Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.” It was in this spirit that the Prophet Muhammad dealt with the Christians of his time.

The Prophet had made many covenants with the Christians of his time. His view was that any Muslim who failed to protect the life, property and honour of Christians was violating the oath that he made.

Another historical event worthy of mention is the surrender of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar in 637 AD. The caliph travelled to Jerusalem to accept the surrender of the city from the Patriarch Sophronius. Sophronius then invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Omar declined the invitation for fear that his praying there might set a precedent that may eventually lead to the conversion of the church to a mosque.

These early historical examples of the gracious treatment of Christians by Muslims were not exceptions, but the rule. They continued throughout Islamic history. Spain under Muslim rule, Al-Andalus, particularly between the eighth and 11th centuries, was known as a golden age of Jewish history, a period of flourishing for Jewish philosophy and culture. During a time when Jews were persecuted elsewhere in Europe, Andalusia’s Jews made advances intellectually and culturally and also took up high positions in government.

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), that ruled over large parts of Europe by the 16th century, also went beyond tolerance and displayed a great deal of acceptance of its non-Muslim minorities, granting them protection and religious freedoms. Each religious community, known as a millet, elected its own leader and enforced its own religious laws. Orthodox Christians constituted a millet while the Jews made up another millet.

A proper approach to the interpretation of Quranic texts, involving a correct contextual understanding of its meanings and the study of Islamic history, will reveal that tolerance and acceptance of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities were the norm. Deviations from the norm were treated as violations by most Muslim themselves. This was true of Al-Hakim and is certainly the case with ISIS in our times. The problem is not religion but ideology and immorality. The purest of ideas in a text can be reinterpreted in line with evil interests. All ideologies, religious or secular, have been subjected to this.

It is clear that Muslims in the past were sufficiently rooted in their tradition such that they put into practice the Islamic ideal of not just tolerance but also understanding towards those of other religions. This is something that Malaysian Muslims ought to learn from instead of displaying a sense of insecurity that has become all too familiar to us.


Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore

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