The False History of Muslim Intolerance

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 01/17/07

[Cross-posted at Eteraz.]

First of all, let me state for the record that I am not a Muslim; therefore, I do NOT claim to speak for the Muslim community in any way.  However, I am a historian, and in such capacity I feel qualified to answer the following portion of Johne’s lengthy post at Redstate:

To every non-Muslim I ask: do you comprehend this shape of the conflict? Can you guard as your own the liberty of the Muslim who will likewise guard yours? Do you understand the enmity toward non-believers born out of externalizing to the social order the idea of submission to Allah through Muhammad – that first pillar of Islam? Do you comprehend the history that shows the David-vs.-Goliath power of this system of ideas to rearrange the socio-political order to a procrustean form of tyranny? Do you believe that, for the good of all mankind, our social order rooted in liberty must prevail over Muhammad’s social order rooted in submission? What will you not do – as a matter of principle – in order to achieve this? In the Cold War with communist regimes, we were willing to deter their dominance by the will of mutually assured destruction in nuclear war; are you willing to go that far against an enemy who is clearly willing to sacrifice innumerable lives for the triumph of their ideas?

The historical crux of John’s argument — that Islam is a historically intolerant religion — is a historical fallacy opposed by literally millennia of accrued evidence.  Across the flip, I present some of that evidence, and discuss the consequences of perpetuating this dangerous historical myth.

Late Antiquity: People of the Book

If what ever those books mention anything involving the Qumran, we do not need them, you can burn them; and if this those teachings are not in our Holy book, then you must burn them like you would burn an infidel!

Falsely attributed to Caliph Omar

The above quote, whose authenticity has been debunked by no less an authority than Edward Gibbon, has been used for centuries to tar Muslims as a historically intolerant, ignorant people whose leader burned the famed Library at Alexandria.  (In truth, the Library was long gone by the time Omar got there.)  But those who view this false quote as proof of Omar’s intolerance might like to know how the great conqueror treated those whom he conquered.

Omar was the greatest military genius among the Rashidun, or rightly-guided Caliphs.  When he attained leadership of the Muslims, they controlled an area covering approximately the territory of Saudi Arabia; when he died, Islamic forces stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, covering all of North Africa and the Middle East and expanding across the Strait of Gibraltar into southern Spain.  (The Muslim forces were eventually checked in Spain by the armies of Charlemagne Charles Martel, at which point they ceased their attempts to further invade Europe.)  To conquer these territories, the Muslims had to subjugate a number of defeated peoples.  Most of these peoples were Christians or Jews.

In the past, when an empire had extended its web across a vast landmass, the conquered peoples of different religions were terribly persecuted.  Pagan Rome threw Christian martyrs to the lions before Constantine’s reign; Constantine converted to Christianity and persecuted the pagans; his successor Julian the Apostate converted back to paganism and persecuted the Christians again.  For several centuries before the Muslim invasion, the Catholic Church had been attempting to violently stamp out several popular heresies, including Arianism, Monothelism, Monophysitism, Manichaeanism, and Gnosticism.

No matter who reigned supreme over the Mediterranean, the coreligionists of the losers had nothing but blood, torture, and forced conversion to look forward to — until Caliph Omar presented the conquered peoples of the Islamic Empire with the following pact:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate!

This is a writing to Umar from the Christians of such and such a city. When You [Muslims] marched against us [Christians],: we asked of you protection for ourselves, our posterity, our possessions, and our co-religionists; and we made this stipulation with you, that we will not erect in our city or the suburbs any new monastery, church, cell or hermitage; that we will not repair any of such buildings that may fall into ruins, or renew those that may be situated in the Muslim quarters of the town; that we will not refuse the Muslims entry into our churches either by night or by day; that we will open the gates wide to passengers and travellers; that we will receive any Muslim traveller into our houses and give him food and lodging for three nights; that we will not harbor any spy in our churches or houses, or conceal any enemy of the Muslims. [At least six of these laws were taken over from earlier Christian laws against infidels.]

That we will not teach our children the Qu’ran [some nationalist Arabs feared the infidels would ridicule the Qu’ran; others did not want infidels even to learn the language]; that we will not make a show of the Christian religion nor invite any one to embrace it; that we will not prevent any of our kinsmen from embracing Islam, if they so desire. That we will honor the Muslims and rise up in our assemblies when they wish to take their seats; that we will not imitate them in our dress, either in the cap, turban, sandals, or parting of the hair; that we will not make use of their expressions of speech, nor adopt their surnames [infidels must not use greetings and special phrases employed only by Muslims]; that we will not ride on saddles, or gird on swords, or take to ourselves arms or wear them, or engrave Arabic inscriptions on our rings; that we will not sell wine [forbidden to Muslims]; that we will shave the front of our heads; that we will keep to our own style of dress, wherever we may be; that we will wear girdles round our waists [infidels wore leather or cord girdles; Muslims, cloth and silk].

That we will not display the cross upon our churches or display our crosses or our sacred books in the streets of the Muslims, or in their market-places; that we will strike the clappers in our churches lightly [wooden rattles or bells summoned the people to church or synagogue]; that we will not recite our services in a loud voice when a Muslim is present; that we will not carry Palm branches [on Palm Sunday] or our images in procession in the streets; that at the burial of our dead we will not chant loudly or carry lighted candles in the streets of the Muslims or their market places; that we will not take any slaves that have already been in the possession of Muslims, nor spy into their houses; and that we will not strike any Muslim.

All this we promise to observe, on behalf of ourselves and our co-religionists, and receive protection from you in exchange; and if we violate any of the conditions of this agreement, then we forfeit your protection and you are at liberty to treat us as enemies and rebels.

The Pact of Omar was a landmark document of religious toleration.  It essentially created two classes of citizens within Omar’s empire: Muslims and “people of the Book,” or those who believed in the Bible in some form.  People of the Book would be disadvantaged in several ways, notably subject to an additional tax and unable to serve in government or official roles; but beyond this, they were not to be harmed, persecuted, forcibly converted, or put to death.

Many people falsely believe that “people of the Book” excluded large numbers of the Islamic Empire’s people.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  An overwhelming majority of the conquered peoples were either Catholic, Jewish, or members of one of the prominent Christian heresies, all of which were covered under the term “people of the Book.”  For example, the Visigoths in Spain, partially conquered by Omar’s armies near the end of his reign, were followers of the Arian heresy.  A Visigothic knight captured by the armies of the Catholic Church would convert or be put to death as a heretic; but in the Islamic Empire, he could go about his business in relative peace, subject only to a tax and banned from public office.  A Gnostic in Egypt?  Covered under “people of the Book.”  A Monothelist, Monophysitist, or Manichean?  Covered under “people of the Book.”  A pagan?  You were screwed — but you were probably pretty good at hiding it, since your religion had been illegal for the past three hundred years anyway.

Caliph Omar does not deserve to be remembered as an ignorant destroyer of knowledge.  Rather, he should be thought of as a leader magnanimous in victory, a man who promulgated the first widespread edict of religious tolerance in the Western world.  Omar is a prime example of Muslim toleration — not the false intolerance suggested by those on the right.

The Middle Ages: Knowledge and Crusades

The Middle Ages are often considered the “Dark Ages,” mostly because of the lack of scientific, literary, or political advancement in European countries.  The supremacy of the Muslims over the Southern Mediterranean during this time has often been cited as one of the causes of this fallow period in Europe, further burnishing the image of Islam as a foe of knowledge and learning.

In fact, it was the Islamic world that kept the fire of knowledge burning throughout the darkest time in the past two millennia.  Muslim learning was the torch that illuminated the Dark Ages.

The scholasticism of medieval Catholic Europe, focussed entirely as it was upon ancient authority, was unable to inform scientific inquiry until the revolutionary libraries of Islam were made available to the Catholic world.  All western advances in civil engineering, mathematics, chemistry, medicine and astronomy were founded upon the medieval sciences of Islam, which were themselves built upon the classical traditions lost to the west during the Germanic destruction of the Roman empire.

Among the prominent Islamic thinkers during this period were the physicians Ibn-Sina (author of The Canon of Medicine) and Al-Rhazi; astronomers Al-Battani and Jabir Bin Aflah (who helped disprove the Ptolemaic system of astronomy); physicists including Al-Kharazmi, whose pioneering work in algebra influenced later work on the subject; and chemists including the visionary Ibn-Hayyan.

The Muslim world was threatened by Europeans beginning in the eleventh century, when Crusader armies traveled to the Middle East in search of territory and glory.  These armies were brutal, sadistic, and heedless of human life, as a contemporary description of the Sack of Jerusalem during the First Crusade attests:

How many souls were slain in the reservoir of Mamel! How many perished of hunger and thirst! How many priests and monks were massacred by the sword! How many infants were crushed under foot, or perished by hunger and thirst, or languished through fear and horror of the foe! How many maidens, refusing their abominable outrages, were given over to death by the enemy! How many parents perished on top of their own children! How many of the people were bought up by the Jews and butchered, and became confessors of Christ! How many persons, fathers, mothers, and tender infants, having concealed themselves in fosses and cisterns, perished of darkness and hunger! How many fled into the Church of the Anastasis, into that of Sion and other churches, and were therein massacred and consumed with fire! Who can count the multitude of the corpses of those who were massacred in Jerusalem?

One would think that, after witnessing such wanton destruction perpetrated on their people, the Muslims would seek out an opportunity for bloody revenge.  Certainly this would have been the response of the Christian Crusaders, who massacred Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem on far less provocation than the Muslims had just received.

One would be wrong.

To understand what happened next, you have to comprehend the character of one of the most magnanimous, honorable and forgiving of all historical leaders — Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria.  Saladin was a feared warrior who reclaimed the Holy Land from its Christian rulers.  But his prowess on the battlefield was matched by his integrity and honor toward his enemies.

Nowhere was Saladin’s kindness more convincingly demonstrated than toward Richard I of England (known to popular history as Richard the Lion Heart), Saladin’s main adversary on the battlefield.  After winning several critical engagements against Saladin, Richard fell ill with one of the many ailments that plagued his short life.  Saladin’s reaction was to declare a truce until Richard recovered.  He even went so far as to send his personal physician to care for Richard.  And after Richard recovered, Saladin negotiated an exceedingly liberal peace with the English king, as documented by a contemporary:

As his illness became very grave, the King despaired of recovering his health. Because of this he was much afraid, both for the others as well as for himself. Among the many things which did not pass unnoted by his wise attention, he chose, as the least inconvenient course, to seek to make a truce rather than to desert the depopulated land altogether and to leave the business unfinished as all the others bad done who left the groups in the ships.

The King was puzzled and unaware of anything better that he could do. He demanded of Saif ad­Din, Saladin’s brother, that he act as go­between and seek the best conditions be could get for a truce between them. Saif ad­Din was an uncommonly liberal man who bad been brought, in the course of many disputes, to revere the King for his singular probity. Saif ad­Din carefully secured peace terms on these conditions: that Ascalon, which was an object of fear for Saladin’s empire so long as it was standing, be destroyed and that it be rebuilt by no one during three years beginning at the following Easter.[March 28, 1193] After three years, however, whoever had the greater, more flourishing power, might have Ascalon by occupying it. Saladin allowed Joppa to be restored to the Christians. They were to occupy the city and its vicinity, including the seacoast and the mountains, freely and quietly. Saladin agreed to confirm an inviolate peace between Christians and Saracens, guaranteeing for both free passage and access to the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord without the exaction of any tribute and with the freedom of bringing objects for sale through any land whatever and of exercising a free commerce.

When these conditions of peace had been reduced to writing and read to him, King Richard agreed to observe them, for he could not hope for anything much better, especially since he was sick, relying upon scanty support, and was not more than two miles from the enemy’s station. Whoever contends that Richard should have felt otherwise about this peace agreement should know that he thereby marks himself as a perverse liar.

Things were thus arranged in a moment of necessity. The King, whose goodness always imitated higher things and who, as the difficulties were greater, now emulated God himself, sent legates to Saladin. The legates informed Saladin in the hearing of many of his satraps, that Richard had in fact sought this truce for a three year period so that he could go back to visit his country and so that, when he had augmented his money and his men, he could return and wrest the whole territory of Jerusalem from Saladin’s grasp if, indeed, Saladin were even to consider putting up resistance. To this Saladin replied through the appointed messengers that, with his holy law and God almighty as his witnesses, he thought King Richard so pleasant, upright, magnanimous, and excellent that, if the land were to be lost in his time, he would rather have it taken into Richard’s mighty power than to have it go into the hands of any other prince whom be had ever seen.

The conduct of this gracious and honorable leader puts the lie to any argument that Muslims are historically intolerant or cruel.  Indeed, in an analysis of medieval history, it is European Christians who emerge time and time again as the cruel and intolerant ones.  Saladin, like the Muslim scholars, is part of an ancient culture steeped in enlightened thought and honorable action.

Conclusion: A Dangerous False History

Like Johne, many of our friends on the American right who are upset with the recent actions of some Muslims would like to believe that Islamic peoples have been historically intolerant, crude, or ignorant.  Unfortunately for them, history does not bear out their arguments.  Indeed, a close assessment of just a few instances of Islamic history shows that tolerance, learning, and forgiveness are the historical hallmarks of Islamic civilization.

Such are the facts of history; and to pretend otherwise, given the precarious situation in which the world finds itself today, is the historical equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  The misrepresentation of history does not often such With the world at war, it is important to understand that the religion many Americans view as an enemy possesses the historical virtues of peace.


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