History of Islamic Tolerance: The Truths and Myths
02 Feb, 2007
Written as an answer to a query from a Buddhist scholar on the increasing radicalization of Muslims across the world.
Increasing "radicalization" of Muslims, especially among the young, is worldwide. To be sure, since we are discussing a religion with over a billion adherents, this is an uneven process and in a few locations, especially some parts of the United States and in the small countries of the Persian Gulf, there actually is a counter trend toward liberalization, but the rule is, indeed, that more and more Muslims are becoming murderous, terribly intolerant, misogynist, increasingly bigoted, and etc.
Regardless, there are some people, actually many people, who still chant the mantra that "Islam is peaceful," or variants like " Islam is just like any religion and is basically good even if it has its extremists." However, such people are ignorant of the fundamentals of Islam and of history more generally.
To be sure we can notice a "trend" in which, compared with the past, say 20 or 30 years ago, increasing numbers of Muslims are "becoming" more immoral and violent. But , again because of ignorance of history, most people do not understand that this supposed recent trend is not recent at all and can all-too-easily be seen as a return to normative Islam as it was known from its outset in the 7th century AD and which persisted in pretty much its original form until the colonial era.
Muslims in the West ( but not elsewhere unless they want to make a point with Americans or Europeans ) , of course, may make much of the very peaceful realms that existed in Spain under the Moors or in India in the time of Akhbar. And it is true that there was a time in Andalusia and in India where Islam was a model religion that was, for those eras, very tolerant and enlightened.
However, this kind of observation also rests on Muslims' knowledge that most people are ignorant of all relevant history, indeed, are generally ignorant of history. For the examples of Spain and Akhbar's India ( there are some other examples of similar character ) were aberrations and have always been regarded as aberrant by the vast majority of Muslims.
Spain in particular is an almost ludicrous case in point, for the vaguely "liberal" Fatimid dynasty, which is what everyone means when discussing "good Islam," did not last and was replaced -by Muslims themselves- but the Almoravids and others of similar outlook, that is by believers who can best be compared with the Taliban or the Saudi "religious police." That is, Fatimid Spain was, from a Muslim perspective, heretical Spain, ruled by blasphemers who should never have been allowed to govern. Indeed, the Fatimids in Egypt became a separate religion in the course of things, known as the Druzes, while those in Spain simply vanished from the scene due to persecution by Muslims.
The story in India is similar, since Akhbar's reforms did not outlive Akhbar. Not that his ideas -for that era- were not enlightened, but the fact is that normative Muslims recognized those ideas as beyond the pale and as heretical also. Those ideas, after several generations and various modifications, became the nucleus for Sikhism. Islam itself never absorbed these reforms.
We can make special exception for some segments of the South Asian Muslim community. Indonesia, for instance, is the one country were Islam was not originally imposed by force, after a military conquest. In that case, after a flourishing trading community had been established in what is now Acheh province, one by one the mostly Hindu princes of the Malay archipelago converted to the religion, even if with the proviso that old Hindu or Buddhist or indigenous customs would continue to be respected. In other words, what you find in Indonesia, as in some parts of India, is a hybrid version of Islam that has no standing at all outside of South Asia except among expats from those communities.
The colonial era changed things dramatically for all normative Muslims under European rule. The British and French -not to mention Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, etc- simply would not tolerate Shariah law and Muslim values generally in the lands that West conquered from Muslims. And, difficult as it may be to conceive any such thing given the spinelessness of many contemporary Europeans, in that bygone period Europeans were self assured about Christian civilization and their values, and were not in the least reluctant to impose Christian values on Muslims.
In due course, usually not until a decade or more of insurrection had passed, Muslims themselves saw the advantages of Western values and went along with the new cultural rules willingly. Indeed, this has continued in many Muslim nations long after colonialism ended in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
But the colonial era did end. And there was an affront, as it was seen, to Muslim dignity, in the founding of the first post-colonial state in the Mid East when Israel achieved independence in 1948. Worse, by the time when most of the Muslim Mid east was also independent, along came the 1967 war that resulted in utter defeat for the combined Arab armies of Egypt. Syria, and Jordan, representing about 100 million people, losing to 2 million Jews.
Where could Muslims turn for explanations for their predicament and for hope for the future ? Some turned to the literature and moral leadership of the West, but these thinkers were seldom influential outside of groups of other Westernized Muslims. Muslim majorities began to drift toward the preaching of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The "Brothers" had rediscovered historic Muslim values during the 1930s at a time when movements for independence were arising in various parts of the colonial world. What the Brothers also understood, Very Clearly, was that historic Muslim values were uncannily similar to a western ideology of that time, the 1930s, Fascism and its Nazi derivative. So Muslim agitation for independence became essentially a drive to create de-facto Fascist states to replace the colonial realms of the British or French or other Europeans.
The point is that Muslims, when they rediscovered their heritage, did not find examples of enlightened democracy, or traditions of free thought, or liberal outlooks toward other religions and cultures. What they found was what people like Osama Bin Laden have been telling Muslims for the past decades, "pure" Islam which is based on the Qur'an and, accordingly, which is intolerant, bigoted, and violent by nature.
Many journalists speak and write about jihad as if it was a "new" phenomenon , even if they do acknowledge that there was jihad in the remote past. But supposedly "real Islam" only regards jihad as a sort of "court of last resort," and was never under a Jihadist spell.
This view is an absurdity. It is only plausible because most people in the West are hopelessly ignorant of the history of Islam, for that history shows us an almost unbroken saga of wars of jihad, from the time of Muhammad through the 19th century into the 20th centuries, even if the British and French etc, usually were so strong that uprisings could be put down in short order with great loss of life by Muslims
Let us not forget that Islam, for most of Muhammad's life, consisted of a few isolated communities in Arabia, with only one city as a stronghold, Medina. By the time of Muhammad's death, however, a large army had been organized that had the good fortune to arrive on the scene just after the two "superpowers" of that era, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, and just fought a long war that, for that time, was as devastating as WWII With the armies of the Byzantines and Persians decimated and greatly reduced in effectiveness, the Arab Muslims were able to generate unprecedented military successes, which they built upon the physically conquer in the next few decades such that a new Muslim empire that extended form today's Pakistan to Morocco. That is, better than 80 % of the Muslim core area became Muslim as the direct result of military conquest, not something else.
The fact is also that an historical Atlas exists that maps the story of jihads over time and it shows -with no possibility of doubt- that jihad wars were in progress all over the Muslim world throughout the known past.
Some you never hear about because of location, such as the Chinese far West or remote parts of Central Asia. But other rebellions were dramatic events that shook even the great European empires, like the Mahdi jihad of the mid 19th century in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan that can be compared with the current insurrection in Iraq, and may even have been worse.
Americans are blissfully unaware even of the Mahdi wars because, well, such things are never taught in public schools in the United States.
And so ignorance reigns and, with it, so too does the bizarre notion that Islam is really humane and good in essence, a view that is championed mostly on the political Left, but on the Right when those doing the championing, like George W Bush, are acting to protect their oil interests.
However, Islam has NEVER been a religion of peace. It cannot be any such thing even if there is an important distinction that needs to be made -that is central to Islam itself- between Dar Al-Islam, the realm of Islam, and Dar-Al Harb, the realm of war, viz, the entire non-Muslim world. Peace is supposed to reign in Dar Al-Islam, and, in fact, mostly did reign at the core of Muslim civilization in the past. Yet it is important to point out that this kind of peace was imposed through repression of the worst forms imaginable, and at the cost of the extinction or near-extinction of entire religious minorities -that in some instances started as obvious majorities.
Iran is close to 99% Muslim in our era. When Iran was conquered by Arab armies in the 7th century it was about 70% Zoroastrian , with large minorities of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc.
Bangladesh is about 85% Muslim in our time, with a modest size Hindu minority and scattered "others," such as a small Christian community. But at the time of the Muslim conquest it was approximately 3/4ths Buddhist, with a substantial Hindu presence.
Iraq is about 95 % Muslim these days, with maybe a 2% Christian minority, and small communities of Yezedis and others such as Baha'is. At the time of Muslim conquest it was , as a reasonable estimate, 50% Goddess devotee, 20% Christian, 10% Zoroastrian, 5% Jewish, and so forth.
Turkiye ( this is the preferred spelling by the Turks ) today is another 95 % Muslim nation. But at the time that Muslim armies defeated the Byzantine rulers of that era, the country was close to 90 % Christian with a variety of minorities like Zoroastrians, Jews, and "Pagans."
Afghanistan today is about 99% Muslim. At the time of the Muslim conquest it was approximately 70% Buddhist, with large minorities of Hindus and Zoroastrians, and some Christian communities.
Where did all these Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians and others go? Minus the fairly small percentages who were able to flee, the answer is that they did not go anywhere. They -actually in most cases their descendents- were converted through sustained campaigns featuring intimidation, legal and tax liabilities, religious bigotry, coercion, and threats.
There was also the fact of "magnetism," namely, it was obvious that converts received various privileges, hence in addition to official pressures and such things as increasing social ostracism, there was incentive -inducement- to convert to Islam also. This all had the intended effect over the course of many long centuries. The sometimes tiny religious minorities we find in Muslim countries today are merely the remnants of very large minorities of the past, or even of religious majorities.
THIS is what is intrinsic to Islam, not -not at all- the utter crap that is disbursed by feel-good journalists, by many so-called "mainstream" Protestant clergy, by various Catholics, by many academics, by the very ill-advised Dalai Lama, by many Democratic Party leaders, by the Bushies, and by naive spiritual folk at forums like this one, who so much WANT to believe that "all religions are one," etc, that they cannot be bothered doing the least historical research, who cannot be bothered to review the copious critical literature about Islam, and who think with their befuddled hearts and not with rational minds.
None of this is meant to be taken to say that Arabs are evil or should be discriminated against. Such a view is hateful to me personally. Such a view is also nonsensical since many Arabs are not Muslims at all, as is the case with respect to close to half of all Arabs in the USA, who are Christians. As well, some fraction in the West consist of Atheists or non-believers of some variety. As well, there also is the Sufi minority among Arabs and other Muslims, and Sufis, or many of them, are MINOs, Muslims in name only, and other Muslims know this and often treat the Sufis as no better than cousins and may sometimes treat them as heretical. But as a caution, there is a substantial Sufi demographic that is quite Muslim, if somewhat unorthodox, and these Sufis may be as militant and immoral and violent as any other Muslims.
This is the long answer to your question.
The short answer is that Muhammad's book, - this sleight is deliberate- the Qur'an, is filled with injunctions that are at the basis of Shariah law, and this law is increasingly becoming re-institutionalized throughout Dar-Al Islam.
That is, the Qur'an makes a wide variety of what Westerners regard as damnable evils -religious persecution, killing for the sake of religion, wife beating, slavery, and much else- into High Virtues. In other words, all that we see in Islam that is ugly and unethical and criminal and authoritarian and SICK, is intrinsic to Islam.
Most Muslims, of course, like most Christians and Buddhists, etc, are not especially religious, and this has meant that most Muslims of the 20th century had little idea of what their religion actually taught about many matters. In the pre-nationalist and pre-Muslim revival era, most Muslims were free to adopt values that were imported from the West -or that reflect the best of the cultures of Asia, as was the case in India and Indonesia and Bangladesh. But this was a fluke, a huge departure from normative Islam. The real character of Muhammad's religion is Fascistic, fanatical, and violent.
Hardly any wonder that, as Muslims rediscover their so-called "heritage" that they are turning to Fascistic values, fanaticism and violence. The only wonder is that it has taken Muslims as long as it has to turn to their warped and diseased past for inspiration despite the powerful hold that their religion has on them. We can only conclude that the core values of the West do, in fact, have very strong intrinsic appeal to people everywhere, including to Arabs and Iranians and still others.