• Book Title:
 The Spirit Of Tolerance In Islam
  • Book Author:
Reza Shah-Kazemi
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Introduction -The Trajectory of Tolerance

The most beloved religion to God is primordial, generously tolerant faith (al-anīfiyya al-sama). The Prophet Muḥammad1

Since September 11, 2001, the word ‘Islam’ hardly conjures up the principle of tolerance in the minds of most people living in the West. Quite the contrary: if one were to ask the average Westerner which of the world’s religions is the most intolerant, the answer, most likely, would be Islam. It would therefore come as something of a shock for those holding such a negative view of Islam to read the following sentences from, arguably, the leading British scholar of Islam of his generation, Sir Hamilton Gibb:

It possesses a magnificent tradition of interracial understanding and co-operation. No other society has such a record of success in uniting, in an equality of status, of opportunity, and of endeavour, so many and so various races of humanity.2

In the same generation, we find the following objective appraisal of Islam by Sir Thomas Arnold in the conclusion to his far-reaching— and still unsurpassed—study of the spread of the faith, The Preaching of Islam:

On the whole, unbelievers have enjoyed under Muhammadan rule a measure of toleration, the like of which is not to be found in Europe until quite modern times. Forcible conversion was forbidden, in accordance with the precepts of the Quran . . .

The very existence of so many Christian sects and communities in countries that have been for centuries under Muhammadan rule is an abiding testimony to the toleration they have enjoyed, and shows that the perse- cutions they have from time to time been called upon to endure at the hands of bigots and fanatics, have been excited by some special and local circumstances rather than inspired by a settled principle of intolerance . . . But such oppression is wholly without the sanction of Muhammadan law, either religious or civil.3

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Such scholarly objectivity towards the tolerance which has historically characterised the Islamic tradition as a whole, is, alas, in short supply these days. Through an insidious symbiosis between fanatical Muslims and hysterical Islamophobes, the very opposite image of Islam has emerged as one of the most malevolent stereotypes of our times: the image of the rabidly intolerant Muslim is paraded, not as the grotesque caricature of authentic Islam that it is, but rather as the ‘true’ Muslim.

It is this kind of Muslim who ostensibly expresses the grim reality of the Islamic faith, the tolerant Muslim being regarded as a kind of anomaly if not an oxymoron. The most cursory glance at history will reveal the falsity of this view of Islam, for to speak of the Islamic tradi- tion is to speak of an explicit recognition of the divinely-inspired phenomenon of religious plurality; it is therefore to speak of profound respect for, and not simply legal tolerance of, the religious Other.

In his classic work on comparative religion, The Meaning and End of Religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues convincingly that, among the religions of the world, Islam has a unique approach to the ques- tion of religious plurality. He demonstrates that Islam is a ‘special case’ within the religious phenomenon in that it explicitly acknowl- edges the category of religion per se, within which there are various instances of ‘religion’, the word dīn possessing an intelligible and immediately recognisable plural, adyān.

Such religions as Christianity, by contrast, recognise only themselves as constituting ‘religion’, a phenom- enon which is strictly sui generis, not one among others in a category embracing kindred phenomena.4 Bernard Lewis makes the same point, adding that, in a context of religious plurality, the crucial verse, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2:256), enjoins tolerance and forbids the use of force in matters concerning religious faith; he then provides this useful starting-point for any discussion of the practice of toler- ance in the Islamic tradition:

Islam, from the beginning, recognized that it had predecessors, and that some, having survived the advent of Islam, were also contemporaries. This meant that in Muslim scripture and in the oldest traditional theological and legal texts, certain principles were laid down, certain rules were established, on the treatment of those who follow other religions.

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This pluralism is part of the holy law of Islam, and these rules are on many points detailed and specific. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam squarely confronts the problem of religious tolerance, and lays down both the extent and the limits of the tolerance to be accorded to the other faiths.

 For Muslims, the treatment of the religious other is not a matter of opinion or choice, of changing interpretations and judgments according to circumstances. It rests on scriptural and legal texts, that is to say, for Muslims, on holy writ and sacred law.5

Lewis is one of the most stringent critics of the intolerance manifested by various contemporary Muslim groups; his testimony to the tolerance that characterises Muslim history is thus all the more striking. What is also striking is the contrast he highlights between Muslim traditions of tolerance and Christian traditions of intolerance, the seventeenth century marking a certain turning-point in this regard:

Until the seventeenth century, there can be no doubt that, all in all, the treatment by Muslim governments and populations of those who believed otherwise was more tolerant and respectful than was normal in Europe . . . there is nothing in Islamic history to compare with the massacres and expulsions, the inquisitions and persecu- tions, that Christians habitually inflicted on non-Christians, and still more on each other. In the lands of Islam, persecution was the exception; in Christendom, sadly, it was often the norm.6

This statement, coming from one who can hardly be described as biased towards Islam, helps to demonstrate the extent to which it is incorrect to identify the intolerance of some contemporary Muslims with Islam per se; rather, such intolerance must be seen as a deviation from the norms established by Muslim praxis, and enshrined in Islamic principle. In objective, historical terms, the Islamic world should be seen as having provided living models of tolerant conduct for an

evidently intolerant Christian world. It is thus one of the supreme ironies of our times that prominent and apparently well-educated figures are calling out for Muslims to learn about tolerance from the West, and even that Islam needs to undergo, in its fifteenth century, a Reformation such as Christianity underwent in its own fifteenth century: that very Reformation which was the prelude to the worst bouts of religious intolerance, fanatical inquisitions and bitter internecine wars that Europe—indeed the world—has ever seen.

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A modicum of historical research will reveal that, in fact, it was the Christian world which learnt about the meaning of tolerance from the Muslims: the trajectory of tolerance was from East to West.

In 1689 John Locke, one of the founding fathers of modern liberal thought, wrote a historic treatise, ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’. This letter is widely viewed as instrumental in the process by which the ethical value of religious tolerance was transformed into a human right, as far as individual conscience is concerned; and into a legal obligation, incumbent upon the upholders of political authority, as far as the state is concerned. It is evident from this letter that Locke was deeply struck by the contrast between paradoxically tolerant ‘barbarians’—the Muslim Ottomans—and violently

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