بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Not only is Islam the second-largest religion in the world, but it is the world’s fastest growing religion. With globalization and the influx of Muslim immigration to the West, many people are reluctantly meeting Muslims for the first time. Fear of the unknown is common, but that fear is constantly perpetuated by images of violence in the Muslim world. As a visible minority with little political leverage, the Muslim community is an easy target for xenophobes, warmongers, and nationalists. The Muslim world is the needed bogeyman for the military-industrial complex, private security companies, and isolationist politicians to thrive. Rather than trying to understand the complex imperial and economic variables that cause violence in the Muslim world, it is both simpler and more cunning to resort to generalized arguments about Islam. This view, however, overlooks the many scientific and philosophical contributions Muslims have made to Western civilization. More importantly, it distorts the reality of the Muslim civilization’s mostly-tolerant history. The centuries-old narrative that Islam was “spread by the sword” is still popular today, and it causes Muslims living in the West to be looked at as a suspicious Trojan horse waiting to Islamize the world. It is therefore necessary for us to deconstruct this worldview. This paper will briefly explore the rise and expansion of Islam, and demonstrate that tolerance and plurality were founding principles of Islamic ethics.
Since the early days of the Prophet Muhammad’s ministry, Islam’s relationship with non-Muslim communities has been notable. Shortly after the Muslim migration to Medina (then known as Yathrib) in 622 CE, the Prophet drafted the Constitution of Medina. This charter put an end to tribal infighting in Medina, created a new judicial system, guaranteed the mutual protection of Muslims and non-Muslims, and established a new “Community of Believers (mu’mineen)”. (Gil, 2004, pp. 21) This community would include the Jewish tribes of Medina, while still recognizing their distinct identity and laws. Although Bernard Lewis claims that the Constitution of Medina was a unilateral proclamation by Muhammad, (Lewis, 1993, pp. 22) Muslim sources generally referred to it as a pact between the Muslims and the Jews following the two pledges at `Aqaba. Furthermore, Wellhausen, a German orientalist, regarded this charter to be a multilateral agreement negotiated between all of the involved groups. (Gil, 2004, pp. 22)
The Prophet Muhammad also ratified writs of protection to other communities. The Ashtiname of Muhammad, which was written by `Ali b. Abi Talib upon the commission of Muhammad, granted privileges to the Christian monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. (Ratliff, 2012, pp. 63) The document guarantees that Christians are not to be overtaxed, plundered, disturbed, or coerced into marriages. (Morrow, 2013) These covenants demonstrate that the Prophet pursued a peaceful and tolerant coexistence with other communities, and made his followers accountable to ethical principles of justice.
The Prophet Muhammad very plainly stressed the equality of all people, regardless of tribe, colour, class, or ethnicity. While rights differed among subgroups of society, the Islamic civilization held no concept of the natural subordination of individuals or groups. (Hamid, 1982, pp. 127) Conversion to Islam only required a simple declaration of faith, while becoming a member of the ancient Greek polity was only possible for Greek male property owners. (Hamid, 1982, pp. 127) The egalitarianism of the Quranic message was attractive to many who sought social refuge from the caste system and other forms of subordination. (Eaton, 1992, pp. 117)
The Caliphate’s medieval conquests, which occurred after the Prophet Muhammad, are the main source of agitation among those suspicious of Muslims. It should be noted that `Ali b. Abi Talib, who is considered the rightful successor to Muhammad by Shia Muslims, refrained from taking part in these conquests, despite being renowned as a great warrior. There should be no doubt that there were incidents that occurred during early expansion that are not in line with the teachings of the Prophet, especially during the ridda wars and the Battle of `Ulays. The Shia Imams consistently held the Caliphate accountable during mistrials and in moments of nepotism; and they struggled to establish social and economic justice in the Muslim world. But, the frame that the Islamic conquests were wholly or mostly negative is a Eurocentric view that does not account for other pieces of the puzzle.
Many ancient texts document extensive Judeo-Christian support for the Muslim conquests of Byzantium and Persia. Jews in the Levant had expected a redeemer who would deliver them from the Roman occupiers. (Crone, 1977, pp. 3-6) The Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 134 CE, outlawed Jews from living within ten miles of Jerusalem, disbanded the Jewish high court, taxed the Jews heavily, and persecuted them for siding with the Persians. This torment ignited a messianic fervour among medieval Jews, leading to a widespread anticipation of a saviour. One of the earliest non-Muslim references to the rise of Islam is the Doctrina Jacobi, a Greek Christian anti-Jewish polemical text written in 634 CE, just two years after the passing of Prophet Muhammad. The text describes “overjoyed” Jews celebrating the Muslim arrival in Byzantium. (Crone, 1977, pp. 3) Moreover, The Secrets of Simon ben Yohai, a Jewish apocalyptic text written between the seventh and eighth centuries CE, tells of the emergence of an Ishmaelite “prophet according to God’s will” who would save the Jewish people from their oppressors. (Crone, 1977, pp. 4-5)
The Islamic conquest of the Levant would restore Jewish access to Jerusalem and establish a polity that would include Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. The Pact of Umar II, a writ of protection extended by `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz in the seventh century, promised safety and the right to worship to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians in exchange for the payment of the poll tax (jizya). (Berger, 2006, pp. 88) While some orientalists have criticized the Pact’s prohibition on riding horses, Muslim clothing and building high structures, these stipulations may have been placed to prevent insurrections against Muslim garrisons, rather than to humiliate or subordinate non-Muslims.
The Muslim treatment of non-Muslims was similarly commended by Near Eastern Christians. John bar Penkaye, an East Syriac Nestorian writer of the late seventh century, praised the Muslim overthrow of the Sassanid dynasty. In his Summary of World History, he writes, “We should not think of the advent [of the children of Hagar] as something ordinary, but as due to divine working. Before calling them, [God] had prepared them beforehand to hold Christians in honour, thus they also had a special commandment from God concerning our monastic station, that they should hold it in honour … God put victory in their hands.” (Pearse) This early Christian account documents the just conduct of Muslim rulers, likening it to divine intervention. Furthermore, after the Byzantines had seized control of Egypt and put the Coptic Patriarch Benjamin I of Alexandria into exile, the Muslim conquerors restored Benjamin I’s authority and brought order to the affairs of the Coptic Church.
Many cultures were drawn to Islam’s magnetic social appeal. Indonesia, which is the country with the highest population of Muslims, encountered Arab merchants in the thirteenth century. Along with the arrival of Muslim commercialism, Islamic stories and symbols were introduced to the population through traditional wayang puppet shows. (Hamish, 2011, pp. 46-51) In the Indian subcontinent, Islam provided social mobility to lower castes, giving people equal rights and freeing them from total subservience to the Brahmans. The transformative power of Sufism was also attractive to many Hindus who sought ascetic, mystical brotherhoods. (Lapidus, 1988, pp. 363) Sufi and Shia saints continue to be revered by Hindu and Sikh poets in India.
Although the Muslim empires had a tumultuous relationship with European Christians over the centuries, sizable Christian and Jewish communities with ancient origins continued to thrive in the Muslim world. Moorish and Ottoman confrontations with Christendom have propelled the misconception that Islam was spread by the sword. The fact is, however, that the conversion of the Near East to Islam occurred very gradually. By 800 CE, only 18% of Iraq’s population was Muslim. (Brown, 2016) Furthermore, Egypt, Spain, and the Levant did not attain a Muslim majority until the eleventh century. (Brown 2016) This means that the Muslims were a minority in the heartlands of their own civilization for hundreds of years. While poll taxes and other social pressures certainly promoted conversion to Islam, ancient churches, synagogues, temples, and other relics were maintained. Judeo-Christian populations even had rights to printing presses and European books in the Ottoman Empire – a privilege rarely granted to Muslims. (Brown, 2016) 14% of the Middle East remained Christian by 1910, with significant populations in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. (Brown, 2016)
On the other hand, Christendom had a relatively poor record with minorities. Although Iberia was mostly Muslim in the fifteenth century, all Muslims were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity in 1526. (Brown, 2016) In 1609, 3-4% of Spain’s population consisted of Christian descendants of Muslims, who were also expelled under King Philip the Third. Anti-Jewish pogroms were also common in pre and post-Enlightenment European history. While there are many ancient Christian communities in the Muslim world, there are practically no ancient Muslim communities in the Christian world, despite Islam’s long history in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Eastern Europe.
In recent decades, the Muslim world’s relationship with its non-Muslim minority communities has suffered. Colonialism, neo-imperialism, military dictatorships, and poor economies have sometimes caused the alienation and scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities in the Muslim world. In June 2014, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which rose out of the destabilization of Iraq and Syria, routed Christians out of Mosul. This genocide marked the end of over a thousand years of continuous Muslim-Christian coexistence in the region. While ISIL’s actions are a black mark on modern Islamic history, ISIL’s main military and ideological opponents are other Muslims in the region and around the world. This paper demonstrates that normative Islam seeks unity under common ethical principles. It is vital for Muslims to revive an equitable, pluralistic and tolerant worldview, not just because diversity is strength, but because it is the ethos of our civilization.
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