The roots of tolerance are not to be found in the Christian world

The burning of Anabaptist Christians, 16th century
Religious tolerance may seem self-evident to the modern reader, who is educated to believe that it is one of the basic values upon which Europe was built. However, up until the 16th century, religious tolerance was not seen anywhere in the Christian world. Ever since the Byzantine Empire, rulers had governed by the motto ‘One Empire, One Law, One Faith’. Christian theology saw Christ as the only way to salvation, and the Church as the only way to Christ. Those with other faiths were regarded to be exempted from salvation, and hence criminals, ‘children of Satan’. The Church argued that it was the responsibility of the ruler to cleanse the community of corruption, or he would be held responsible to God. The burning alive of heretics has been pushed into the sphere of Medieval anecdotes, but was very real well into Renaissance times. The Catholic inability to rule tolerantly resulted in the transformation of what was once the paradise of Al-Andalus into the site of one the most horrendous events of ethnic and religious cleansing in history.

Among Christians in Western Europe, this policy became the more and more painful as more people joined reformist movements in the 15th to 16th centuries. Despite the horror experienced by the persecutions, it took Christians great effort to understand the possibility of a religiously diverse state. Indeed how far off the idea of tolerance was, can be witnessed in the examples of the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. Themselves persecuted, they did not defend their case by an appeal to freedom of conscience. Rather, they became more ambitious in proving that indeed theirs was the only true sect. Luther and Calvin themselves supported the execution of heretics. This irony is referred to by one of the few voices for universal tolerance in those days, the Dutch mystic Jan Volkertsz Coornhert, who in 1582 concluded that ‘the Catholics do not want freedom of conscience in matters of religion; the Protestants condemn them for it, but they imitate them just the same’.

Another example of how religious diversity was incomprehensible to the Christian mind even in the 16th century, was the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. In order to save the community from the vast killings that would occur when a new king would adopt Protestantism, the credo ‘cuius regio, eius et religio’ (‘to whom belongs the region, also belongs the religion’) gave the king the right to determine the faith of his nation, while giving subjects who did not want to adopt his religion, the ‘jus emigrandi’, or the ‘right to move’, circumventing execution. This shows that even if the problems of religious intolerance were experienced, the solution of religious diversity was not within easy reach, and practising the religion of one’s choice was far from regarded as a fundamental human right.

This is an excerpt from the article ‘Let the Muslim be my Master in Outward Things’, on Islamic influences on European tolerance. Download the complete article from Al-Islam eGazette, January 2010.

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