By Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall
One of the commonest charges brought against Islam historically, and as a religion, by Western writers is that it is intolerant. This is turning the tables with a vengeance when one remembers various facts: One remembers that no Muslim was left alive in Spain, Sicily or Apulia. One remembers that no Muslim was left alive and not a mosque left standing in Greece after the great rebellion in l821. One remembers how the Muslims of the Balkan peninsula, once the majority, have been systematically reduced with the approval of the whole of Europe, how the Christians under Muslim rule have in recent times been urged on to rebel and massacre Muslims, and how reprisals by the latter have been condemned as quite uncalled-for.
In Spain, under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphs, Christians and Jews, equally with Muslims, were admitted to schools and universities – not only that, but were boarded and lodged in hostels at the cost of the state. When the Moors were driven out of Spain, the Christian conquerors held a terrific persecution of Jews. Those who were fortunate enough to escape fled, some of them to Morocco and many hundreds to the Turkish empire, where their descendants still live in separate communities, and still speak among themselves an antiquated form of Spanish. The Muslim empire was a refuge for all those who fled from persecution by the Inquisition.
The Western Christians, till the arrival of the Encyclopaedists in the eighteenth century, did not know and did not care to know, what the Muslims believed, nor did the Western Christian seek to know the views of the Eastern Christians with regard to them. The Christian Church was already split in two, and at the end, it came to such a pass that the Eastern Christians, as Gibbon shows, preferred the Muslim rule, which allowed them to practice their own form of religion and adhere to their peculiar dogmas, to the rule of fellow Christians who would have made them Roman Catholics or wiped them out.
The Western Christians called Muslims pagans, paynims, even idolaters – there are plenty of books in which they are described as worshiping an idol called Mahomet or Mahound, and in the accounts of the conquest of Granada, there are even descriptions of the monstrous idols which they were alleged to worship – whereas the Muslims knew what Christianity was, and in what respects it differed from Islam. If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in this days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension. I will quote a learned French author:
Every poet in Christendom considered a Mohammedan to be an infidel, and an idolater, and his gods to be three; mentioned in order, they were: Mahomet, Mahound or Mohammad, Opolane and the third Termogond. It was said that when in Spain the Christians overpowered the Mohammadans and drove them as far as the gates of the city of Saragossa, the Mohammadans went back and broke their idols.
A Christian poet of the period says that Opolane the “god” of the Mohammadans, which was kept there in a den was awfully belabored and abused by the Mohammadans, who, binding it hand and foot, crucified it on a pillar, trampled it under their feet and broke it to pieces by beating it with sticks; that their second god Mahound they threw in a pit and caused to be torn to pieces by pigs and dogs, and that never were gods so ignominiously treated; but that afterwards the Mohammadans repented of their sins, and once more reinstated their gods for the accustomed worship, and that when Emperor Charles entered the city of Saragossa he had every mosque in the city searched and had “Muhammad” and all their Gods broken with iron hammers.
That was the kind of “history” on which the populace in Western Europe used to be fed. Those were the ideas which inspired the rank and file of the crusaders in their attacks on the most civilized peoples of those days. Christendom regarded the outside world as damned eternally, but Islam did not. There were good and tender-hearted men in Christendom who thought it sad that any people should be damned eternally, and wished to save them by the only way they knew – conversion to the Christian faith.
It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture. Therefore, the difference evident in that anecdote is not of manners only but of religion. Of old, tolerance had existed here and there in the world, among enlightened individuals; but those individuals had always been against the prevalent religion. Tolerance was regarded un-religious, if not irreligious. Before the coming of Islam, it had never been preached as an essential part of religion.
For Muslims, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are but three forms of one religion, which, in its original purity, was the religion of Abraham: Al-Islam, that perfect Self-Surrender to the Will of God, which is the basis of Theocracy. The Jews, in their religion, after Moses, limited God’s mercy to their chosen nation and thought of His kingdom as the dominion of their race.
Even Christ himself, as several of his sayings show, declared that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and seemed to regard his mission as to the Hebrews only; and it was only after a special vision vouchsafed to St. Peter that his followers in after days considered themselves authorized to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. The Christians limited God’s mercy to those who believed certain dogmas. Everyone who failed to hold the dogmas was an outcast or a miscreant, to be persecuted for his or her soul’s good. In Islam only is manifest the real nature of the Kingdom of God.
The two verses (Al-Baqarah 2:255-256) of the Qur’an are supplementary. Where there is that realization of the majesty and dominion of Allah, the Almighty, there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their path – allegiance or opposition – and it is sufficient punishment for those who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of truth.
What Muslims do not generally consider is that this law applies to our own community just as much as to the folk outside, the laws of Allah being universal; and that intolerance of Muslims for other men’s opinions and beliefs is evidence that they themselves have, at the moment, forgotten the vision of the majesty and mercy of Allah, the Almighty, which the Qur’an presents to them.
In the Qur’an I find two meanings (of a Kafir), which become one the moment that we try to realize the divine standpoint. The Kafir in the first place, is not the follower of any religion. He is the opponent of Allah’s benevolent will and purpose for mankind – therefore the disbeliever in the truth of all religions, the disbeliever in all Scriptures as of divine revelation, the disbeliever to the point of active opposition in all the Prophets (peace be upon them) whom the Muslims are bidden to regard, without distinction, as messengers of Allah.
The Qur’an repeatedly claims to be the confirmation of the truth of all religions. The former Scriptures had become obscure, the former Prophets appeared mythical, so extravagant were the legends which were told concerning them, so that people doubted whether there was any truth in the old Scriptures, whether such people as the Prophets had ever really existed. Here – says the Qur’an – is a Scripture whereof there is no doubt: here is a Prophet actually living among you and preaching to you. If it were not for this book and this Prophet, men might be excused for saying that Allah’s guidance to mankind was all a fable. This book and this Prophet, therefore, confirm the truth of all that was revealed before them, and those who disbelieve in them to the point of opposing the existence of a Prophet and a revelation are really opposed to the idea of Allah’s guidance – which is the truth of all revealed religions. Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) himself said that the term Kafir was not to be applied to anyone who said “Salam” (peace) to the Muslims. The Kafirs, in the terms of the Qur’an, are the conscious evil-doers of any race, creed or community.
I have made a long digression but it seemed to me necessary, for I find much confusion of ideas even among Muslims on this subject, owing to defective study of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s life. Many Muslims seem to forget that our Prophet had allies among the idolaters even after Islam had triumphed in Arabia, and that he “fulfilled his treaty with them perfectly until the term thereof.” The righteous conduct of the Muslims, not the sword, must be held responsible for the conversion of those idolaters, since they embraced Islam before the expiration of their treaty.
So much for the idolaters of Arabia, who had no real beliefs to oppose the teachings of Islam, but only superstition. They invoked their local deities for help in war and put their faith only in brute force. In this they were, to begin with, enormously superior to the Muslims. When the Muslims nevertheless won, they were dismayed; and all their arguments based on the superior power of their deities were forever silenced. Their conversion followed naturally. It was only a question of time with the most obstinate of them.
It was otherwise with the people who had a respectable religion of their own – the People of the Scripture – as the Qur’an calls them – i.e, the people who had received the revelation of some former Prophet: the Jews, the Christians and the Zoroastrians were those with whom the Muslims came at once in contact. To these our Prophet’s attitude was all of kindness. The Charter which he granted to the Christian monks of Sinai is extant. If you read it you will see that it breathes not only goodwill but actual love. He gave to the Jews of Medina, so long as they were faithful to him, precisely the same treatment as to the Muslims. He never was aggressive against any man or class of men; he never penalized any man, or made war on any people, on the ground of belief but only on the ground of conduct.
The story of his reception of Christian and Zoroastrian visitors is on record. There is not a trace of religious intolerance in all this. And it should be remembered – Muslims are rather apt to forget it, and it is of great importance to our outlook – that our Prophet did not ask the People of the Scripture to become his followers. He asked them only to accept the Kingdom of Allah, to abolish priesthood and restore their own religions to their original purity. The question which, in effect, he put to everyone was this: “Are you for the Kingdom of God which includes all of us, or are you for your own community against the rest of mankind?” The one is obviously the way of peace and human progress, the other the way of strife, oppression and calamity. But the rulers of the world, to whom he sent his message, most of them treated it as the message of either an insolent upstart or a mad fanatic. His envoys were insulted cruelly, and even slain. One cannot help wondering what reception that same embassy would meet with from the rulers of mankind today, when all the thinking portion of mankind accept the Prophet’s premises, have thrown off the trammels of priestcraft, and harbor some idea of human brotherhood.
But though the Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians rejected his message, and their rulers heaped most cruel insults on his envoys, our Prophet never lost his benevolent attitudes towards them as religious communities; as witnesses the Charter to the monks of Sinai already mentioned. And though the Muslims of later days have fallen far short of the Holy Prophet’s tolerance, and have sometimes shown arrogance towards men of other faiths, they have always given special treatment to the Jews and Christians. Indeed, the Laws for their special treatment form part of the Shari`ah.
In Egypt, the Copts were on terms of closest friendship with Muslims in the first centuries of the Muslim conquest, and they are on terms at closest friendship with Muslims at the present day. In Syria, the various Christian communities lived on terms of closest friendship with Muslims in the first centuries of the Muslim conquest, and they are on terms of closest friendship with Muslims at the present day, openly preferring Muslim domination to a foreign yoke.
From the expulsion of the Moriscos dates the degradation and decline of Spain. San Fernando was really wiser and more patriotic in his tolerance to conquered Seville, Murcia and Toledo than was the later king who, under the guise of holy warfare, captured Grenada and let the Inquisition work its will upon Muslims and Jews. And the modern Balkan States and Greece are born under a curse. It may even prove that the degradation and decline of European civilization will be dated from the day when so-called civilized statesmen agreed to the inhuman policy of Czarist Russia and gave their sanction to the crude fanaticism of the Russian Church.
There is no doubt but that, in the eyes of history, religious toleration is the highest evidence of culture in a people. Let no Muslim, when looking on the ruin of the Muslim realm which was compassed through the agency of those very peoples whom the Muslims had tolerated and protected through the centuries when Western Europe thought it a religious duty to exterminate or forcibly convert all peoples of another faith than theirs – let no Muslim, seeing this, imagine that toleration is a weakness in Islam. It is the greatest strength of Islam because it is the attitude of truth.
Allah, the Almighty, is not the God of the Jews, the Christians or the Muslims only, any more than the sun shines or the rain falls for Jews, Christians or Muslims only.
A very interesting historical background to tolerance in Islam