The tolerance of Islam is founded on unique religious teachings


In the 7th century, Islam offered a different starting point [from Christianity]. It did not teach a single way to salvation (2:212),12 nor the persecution of those lacking it. From the moment the Prophet (sa) started preaching, it was clear that ‘whoever follows guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul’. To those going astray, the Muslims were advised to say: ‘I am only a warner’ (27:93). The Qur’an abounds in verses proscribing compulsion, which need not be spelled out to the full here (2:257, 10:100, 50:46, 109:7, etc).

In addition to the verbal teaching, the practical example of the prophet Muhammad (sa) showed how he, as governer of the city of Medina and later master of Mecca, separated his position as a ruler from his authority as a religious leader. In Medina, Jews and Christians lived side by side with Muslims, and were not obliged to follow Muhammad (sa) in his religious teachings. As they possessed their own jurisdiction, based on their respective religions, they were even allowed to have their own courts. After taking Mecca, idols were removed from the Ka’ba, but idol worshippers were not persecuted.

The early wars waged by the Muslims are explained in the Qur’an to liberate peoples from religious persecution and protect ‘Mosques, Churches and Synagoges’ from destruction (22:41). The verse ‘fight them until … the religion is only for Allah’ (2:194) is often quoted to suggest a war of conversion, but in fact means quite the reverse: the Muslims fought the persecution until people could choose to serve God out of their own free will. As the remaining of the verse points out, ‘no hostility is allowed except against the aggressors’.

A more subtle difference in the atmosphere created by Islam with regard to religious diversity, is that all men, irrespective their religion, are regarded to have a ‘nature’ able to perceive truth (30:31). It can reach to an awareness of God, extend mercy to other creatures (3:314, 5:83), can be forgiven, and can attain salvation (2:63, 3:114-115). Islam claimed to appeal to this nature. Contrary to the Christian teaching, which regards all newborns to be ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3), born in original sin only to be redeemed by faith in Christ – the prophet Muhammad (sa) taught that all children, and consequently all humans, are born sinless. To this universal nature of man, Islam added the teaching that God had sent prophets to all nations on earth (35:25), which all were to be treated equally true (3:85). Followers of other faiths had to be respected in their religious practice (5:49). In contrast to Medieval Christianity, the Qur’an granted no power to Satan without the permission from God (34:22, 17:62-64). People unsensitive to the message of Islam were not seen as essentially Satanic, but primarily as people whom God did not want to guide for the moment (18:18). All these teachings created an acceptance of diversity in religious convictions and practices, so created by God in His eternal wisdom (10:100).

Islam granted Muslims a vision which allowed them to rule, in many ways, secularly over different religions and peoples, maintaining a basic respect for their rights qua human beings. So when after an attack by the Byzantines, the Muslims took Jerusalem, the Caliph Umarra was at pains to secure the rights of the subjected Christian inhabitants.There were no forced conversions, no expropriations, religious places were to be left untouched. Umar (ra) went so far as to pray by the side of the road, in order to prevent Muslims from erroneously turning the church where he visited into a mosque, out of sentiment for their Caliph. Taxes were not to be collected harshly, and when the Muslims were unable to guarantee safety to the people, they returned the taxes.The rights of the Christian inhabitants were laid down in a treaty, which breathes an atmosphere of safety and mercy for the subjected people. The Byzantines had many years before expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. Some time after taking the city, Umar (ra) invited Jewish families to live in the city once again. Umar (ra) himself took the initiative in the restoration of the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Romans and had been used by the Christians as a dump ever since. The new legislation of the Muslims caused an upsurge in the building of churches by different communities, which had heretofore been persecuted under Byzantine rule. The Qur’an laid down the rights of human beings in general, encouraged fair treaties and contracts with others, and so functioned, de facto, as a secular constitution which was upheld by Umarra with all his might. Umar (ra) is thus praised by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as expressing perfectly the spirit of a Constitutional State, when he said:

By God, he that is weakest among you shall be in my eye the strongest, until I have vindicated for him his rights; he that is strongest I will treat as the weakest, until he complies with the law.

Among these fundamental rights was the right to practice the religion of your choice and not to be compelled to accept any faith.

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.

The picture is of: The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

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