How Islamic State hijacked Islam’s history of tolerance

March 12, 2015
Assyrians hold banners as they march in solidarity with the Assyrians abducted by Islamic State fighters in Syria earlier this week, in Beirut

Assyrians hold banners as they march in solidarity with the Assyrians abducted by Islamic State fighters in Syria earlier this week, in Beirut, Feb. 28, 2015. Militants in northeast Syria are now estimated to have abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians this week, a group monitoring the war reported. The banner (R) reads, “We are not afraid of whom kills the flesh, we are not afraid of who destroys the stone. Assyrians and victorious.” REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The past year was a particularly cruel one for minorities in the Middle East. Since Islamic State militants seized parts of Iraq and Syria, they have relentlessly persecuted the region’s religious minorities. In doing so, the militants are trying to eradicate ancient cultures and religions that date back to Mesopotamia.

After Islamic State and its allies captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June, they gave Christian residents an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or be driven out of their homes. Many Christians fled to Turkey or the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. The extremists drove out a Christian population that had lived in Mosul for two millennia. Other groups, such as the Yazidis, have been treated far worse.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians living in the country. Today, the Christian population has dwindled to fewer than 400,000 — and many are on the run from Islamic State.

Islamic State’s latest targets are the Assyrians, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, who are concentrated in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq. In late February, Islamic State militants overran 12 villages in northern Syria and kidnapped more than 200 Assyrians, including dozens of women and children. Assyrians speak a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The current status of religious minorities in the Middle East is indeed dire. They are threatened by civil wars, growing intolerance, the rise of Islamic militancy, autocratic governments and the pull of emigration. But it is important to remember that there is a long history of tolerance within Islam for other religions. The survival of the Assyrians, Yazidis and others until today is a testament to a millennium-long, and often overlooked, history of religious coexistence fostered by Islam.

Over the past 50 years, militant movements and some Islamic regimes that favor a literalist approach to revealed texts have imposed austere interpretations of the Quran and of Islamic law, or shariah, ones that run counter to a millennium of moderate understandings, including tolerance for other faiths. Shariah is not a monolithic system of medieval codes, set in stone and solely based on cruelty and punishment. Since the seventh century, the body of law has co-evolved with different strains of Islamic thought — tolerance versus intolerance, forgiveness versus punishment, innovative versus literalist.

To believers, shariah is more than a collection of laws; it is infused with higher moral principles and ideals of justice. Shariah literally means “the path to the watering hole,” an important route in the desert societies of pre-Islamic Arabia. Historically, Islamic law is based on four sources: the Quran, the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Mohammad (the Sunnah), analogical reasoning and the consensus of religious scholars. Because the Quran did not provide a system of laws, Islam’s early leaders would rely on the Sunnah, a collection of the prophet’s sayings and stories about his life. (The word Sunnah also means path, and it is the root of the designation “Sunni” — those who follow the prophet’s path — the dominant sect in Islam.)

In the 13th century, as the Mongols swept across Asia and sacked Baghdad, the Mongol warrior Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, asked Muslim jurists at the time: Would they prefer to live under an unjust Muslim ruler or a just nonbeliever? Wanting to keep their heads, most preferred Hulagu’s rule. But one jurist forcefully rejected the Mongol invasion, and his decision reverberates to this day. Ibn Taymiyyah, a scholar from Damascus, issued several fatwas, or religious rulings, against the Mongols, who were threatening to overrun the Levant.

After Hulagu, some Mongol leaders nominally converted to Islam, but Ibn Taymiyyah still considered them infidels. He also argued that it was permissible for believers to kill other Muslims during battle if those Muslims were fighting alongside the Mongols. Ibn Taymiyyah is the intellectual forefather to many modern-day Islamic militants who use his anti-Mongol fatwas, along with his rulings against Shi’ites and other Muslim minorities, to justify violence against fellow Muslims, or to declare them infidels.

Ibn Taymiyyah inspired the father of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia today, the 18th-century cleric Mohammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who decreed that many Muslims had abandoned the practices of their ancestors. Wahhab’s followers led a failed uprising against Ottoman rule in the Hijaz, the region of Arabia where Islam was founded. The Wahhabi appropriation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings would have a profound impact on the future of Islamic militancy. Their brief rule over Islam’s holy sites in the early 19th century introduced pilgrims from across the world to the idea that violent revolution could be construed as a religious obligation.

Today’s Islamic militants and repressive regimes — especially Saudi Arabia, which has used its oil wealth to export Wahhabi doctrine throughout the Muslim world — are obsessed with literalist interpretations of shariah and punitive aspects of the Quran, as opposed to strands that emphasize Quranic exhortations to forgiveness. The weight of Islamic history skews toward moderate understandings, but in recent decades these regimes and militants have used their influence to breed intolerance.

How were so many minority communities able to coexist with Islam for more than a millennium? For a long time, these groups reached an accommodation with Muslim rulers by emphasizing the idea that they were ahl al-kitab, or “people of the book.” The Quran singled out Jews, Christians and Sabaeans (an ancient people who lived in what is now Yemen and southern Iraq) as possessors of books recognized by Islam as God’s revelation. As the Islamic empire expanded, Jews and Christians were granted legal status in Muslim communities as protected subjects, known as dhimmis. They were allowed to practice their faith, govern their own communities and defend themselves from aggressors in exchange for paying a special tax, the jizyah.

Other groups, including the Samaritans, Yazidis and Zoroastrians, managed to secure the label “people of the book” for themselves, and in doing so were able to coexist with the dominant religion. Islam was, especially in its initial centuries, a religion that could accommodate and incorporate ideas from elsewhere. It also did not seek to suppress the older faiths of the Middle East.

In his powerful short book, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, the Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf describes how in its early conquests, Islam had developed a “protocol of tolerance,” which he contrasts with Christian societies at the time. Maalouf, himself a Greek Catholic, a religious minority, wonders: “If my ancestors had been Muslims in a country conquered by Christian armies, instead of Christians in a country conquered by the forces of Islam, I don’t think they would have been allowed to live in their towns and villages, retaining their own religion, for over a thousand years.”

Maalouf notes that at the end of the 19th century, Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, had a majority of non-Muslims — Armenians, Greeks and Jews. “From the outset, and ever since, the history of Islam has reflected a remarkable ability to coexist with others.”

We must not allow that history to be overshadowed by overzealous regimes and the rise of Islamic State, which views non-Muslims — and even many Muslims — as people to be forcibly converted, driven into exile or put to the sword. For a long time, there was another way.

22 comments

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Once there were no machine guns, or nuclear weapons either, and the world was a safer place.

Much of what the the writer states is historically true although presented through muslim rose tinted glasses.

However the writer is trying to claim that what has become a black beast, bent on world domination, through terror and violence, directed partly from a nuclear armed terrorist promoting tehran.

Can be turned back into a white lamb in a child’s playpen.

Viewing the world through biased, muslim, rose tinted glasses, and demanding everybody act according to that view. Will not resolve anything

Posted by nzl-kz7 | Report as abusive

I love the “CONVERT OR DIE, INFIDELS….or, you can pay us a tax and we’ll leave you alone.”

Theocracies don’t work.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

“Maalouf notes that at the end of the 19th century, Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire, had a majority of non-Muslims — Armenians, Greeks and Jews. “From the outset, and ever since, the history of Islam has reflected a remarkable ability to coexist with others.”

Really? What about the Armenian genocide and the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks during the early 20th century? Who did that?

Posted by pk47 | Report as abusive

Many have confused between MONGOLS and MUGHALS.Mongols are not Muslims.While MUGHALS are Iranian Muslims.

Posted by star_SPARROW | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Bazzi, I hope you are well. Thank you for your opinion on Islamic State.
It has been my observation, though, that only Islamic State and like minded Muslims think that they are the true Muslims. Indeed, a review of the early history of how your prophet and his followers established Islam is remarkably similar to ‘Abu Baghdadi’ and his loyal followers. All other Muslims, seem to think Islam is peaceful.
So who are you trying to convince, the house of Islam or the house of war?

Posted by Awoken | Report as abusive

Good article.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

What you do is so loud, I cannot hear what you say- Emerson. The writer above does not talk about Islamic conquest of India and other places that were followed by incredible cruelty. How about groups that are not people of the book. The Yazidi’s secured the title “people of the book”- was that not to survive, where is the tolerance in that? Tolerance is respecting peoples views, alternate opinions and allowing them to practice their beliefs in freedom, without having to have them worry if they are people of the book. Unfortunately, Christian and Islam have been lacking in them.

Posted by Thinkagainand | Report as abusive

How does Timur fit into this vast history of tolerance after killing 17,000,000. people?

Posted by vidar808 | Report as abusive

Too late!

Posted by PaulHeidelberg | Report as abusive

Give me a break. Rewrite history as much as you want. Is this NPR or Reuters?

Posted by myeke | Report as abusive

The writer is delusional. The war between Iran and Iraq in the 80’s is just one of many examples of religious strife and non-tolerance. How about the Palestinians decades long vow to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth? There are many more examples that would take too long to enumerate. But to be fair the so-called Christian religions have shown the same intolerance. How about the conflict in Ireland or the religiously inspired legislation being passed in many states that mandates a religious point of view instead of a constitutional one? The Orthodox church in Russia is the poster-child of intolerance along with the Many other examples that are also too numerous to mention here.
Be intellectually honest people! So-called Muslims and Christians are anything but tolerant. To be intellectually honest there are some from both groups who are tolerant but they are in the minority and have little real influence.

Posted by becknerfouch | Report as abusive

As an ex-Middle Eastern Christian who has studied the history of Islam I can vouch for the truth in this article, that persecution of minorities – Christiasn and Jews in particular, has never been anywhere near the ferocity with which Jews and Muslims for instance were persecuted by the Christian Catholic church in Spain. Yes there were genocides (Armenian, Assyrian during WW1) but those were more based on ethnic rather than religious grounds. Of course things have changed the past 30 or so years = oil money, huge quantities of small arms in the hands of ignorant masses, economic disparity, the Iraq war, Israel’s conquest of Palestine, etc. have created a new society with no tolerance. Unfortunately for the helpless Middle East Christians, hate towards Israel and the “Christian” West has been aimed at them. Throughout history, every time Islam spars with the Christian West, the Middle East Christians get slaughtered as is happening now.

Posted by worldscan | Report as abusive

Humanity is the only religion that does not force people to convert or go under the influence of books and do conversions. Learn to live and let live. At the end of the day don’t preach/convert when the stomach is empty. Remove hunger and let people decide what to follow and not follow.

Posted by lakshsarada | Report as abusive

Humanity is the only religion that we need. Don’t need to preach or convert and be the gods of unknown historical books/facts …who cares. Empty stomach needs to filled before giving empty and tall lectures/philosophies. Let the people decide who to follow and not follow especially for people and govt’s who fund and grain the ideas of religion. Shame on the books and the record keepers for the BOOKS.

Posted by lakshsarada | Report as abusive

Rubbish. Islam is institutionally flawed. They still have a fatwah out against a Seattle cartoonist (Molly Norris)…. but Boko Haram operates a child abduction sex-ring-for-Allah scheme in Africa, and burns down orphanages in the name of Allah…. with impunity. Lip service is paid to their ‘perversion of Islam.’ But …. the clerics and Muftis of the world are busy finding those far flung cartoonists.

Institutionally flawed, from the top. Stop covering for them. It’s sick.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

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The recently published “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World” begins with a reference to these mostly neglected “literary monuments in the history of Islam.” The author comments:

”Considering that the continued conflict between Christians and Muslims across the world has been artificially ignited by the forces of imperialism, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the content of these priceless historical documents can shed light on the early history of Islam. Via this information we are witness to the primordial relationship between Muslims and People of the Book. Thus, these covenants can serve as a source of inspiration for the establishment of insuperable harmony between the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Extremist of both the Muslim and Islamophobic non-Muslim varieties try to ignore, or even deny, the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (S) but all accept the authenticity of the Constitution of Medina.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive