Islam and other religions

From Academic Kids

Over the centuries of Islamic history, Muslim rulers, Islamic scholars, and ordinary Muslims have held many attitudes towards other religions, ranging from intolerant to tolerant attitudes. Attitudes have varied from place to place, time to time.

Inclusivistic Muslims focus on the similiarities between people of faith in general and Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in particular, stressing the universality of Islam and seeing other religions as reflections of the the same higher truth (albeit less perfect versions). Therefore, most Muslims conclude that the other faiths must be tolerated and that Islam clearly states this.

Some Muslim groups take an exclusivistic approach. For example, they aggressively stress the differences between Islam and the Judeo-Christian community. This can lead to parts of the Muslim community, as in other faiths, holding beliefs like the necessity of bringing unbelievers back to the "Straight Path" by persuasion, or even force -- and then acting on such beliefs.

Both camps cite parts of Islam's highest canons, the Qur'an and the Sunnah, to justify their positions.


The Qur'an on other faiths

The Qur'an teaches that God (Allah in Arabic), has sent prophets to other peoples, revealing the true religion of Islam. Those peoples have rejected or perverted Islam. Muhammad, the last prophet (the seal of the prophets), has called them to return to the true faith. Those who reject his message will to be doomed to a fiery hell on the Day of Judgement.

The Qur'an distinguishes between the monotheistic People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Sabeans), and polytheists or idolators on the other hand. The People of the Book should be tolerated, even if they hold to their inferior faiths; however, idolators are to be suppressed whenever possible.

According to the Qur'an, Moses and Jesus preached the pure Islamic doctrine. Jews and Christians then strayed from strict monotheism. The followers of Moses earned God's anger (by worshipping the Golden Calf. The followers of Jesus went astray by worshipping Jesus as a god and inventing the doctrine of the Trinity.

And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? he saith: Be glorified It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou knewest it. Thou knowest what is in my mind , and I know not what is in Thy mind. Lo! Thou, only Thou art the Knower of Things Hidden. [Surah 5:116]

Moreover, say the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians have corrupted their holy scriptures, the Tawrat (the Torah) and the Injil (Jesus' original message). Therefore, the present-day New Testament and Torah bear little or no resemblance to the original message. This is known as the doctrine of tahref-lafzy, "the corruption of the text". However, the Qur'an has been revealed to restore the corrupted message.

And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book (this Qur'an) in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it and Mohaymin (trustworthy in highness and a witness) over it (old Scriptures). So judge among them by what Allah has revealed. [Surah 5:48]

Islamic scholars generally divide the sections and verses of the Qur'an into two groups: the verses revealed in Mecca, and the verses revealed in Medina. The Meccan verses generally preach peace and accommodation, leaving it to God and the Day of Judgment to separate the believers from the unbelievers.

We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will (in Islam). (Surat Al Imran; 3:84).
Those with Faith, those who are Jews, and the Christians and Sabaeans, all who have Faith in Allah and the Last Day and act rightly, will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow. (Surat al-Baqara; 2:62).
Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way - except in the case of those of them who do wrong - saying, 'We have Faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him. (Surat al-`Ankabut; 29:46).

The Medinan verses, revealed after Muhammad and his follows had fled to Medina and taken up the sword against the Meccans, stress the necessity of fighting against the unbelievers, and promise paradise to the faithful who fall in holy war, or jihad.

Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been God's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of God,- He will never let their deeds be lost. (47:4)
But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know. (9:5-6)
Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.” This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment. (8:12-13)

Thus there are Quranic grounds for radically different attitudes towards non-Muslims.

The practice of the early Muslims

During the ten years that Muhammad led his followers against the Meccans and then against the other Arab tribes, Christian and Jewish communities who had submitted to Muslim rule were allowed to worship in their own way and follow their own family law, and were given a fair degree of self-government. However, the Arabs who followed their traditional polytheistic religion were given only the choice of conversion or execution. They converted en masse.

After Muhammad's death in 632, the Islamic empire grew rapidly, encompassing what is now the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa, and Iran. Most of the new subjects were Christian or Jewish, and considered People of the Book. (After some argument, the Zoroastrians were considered People of the Book as well). Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were called dhimmi, protected peoples. As noted above, they could worship, follow their own family law, and own property. People of the Book were not subject to certain Islamic rules, such as the prohibitions on alcohol and pork, but were subject to other restrictions. Under the Islamic state, they were exempt from military service, but were required to pay a poll tax known as jizya. (They were, however, exempt from the zakat required of Muslims). They could be bureaucrats and advisors, but they could never be rulers. They were second-class citizens.

Unlike the Arab tribes, they were not subject to forced conversion. In fact, under the first caliphs and the Ummayad dynasty, conversion was discouraged. Arab troops were settled in garrison towns like Kufa and Basra, in part to keep them separate from the conquered peoples. If a dhimmi wanted to convert, he/she could only do so by convincing an Arab to act as a sponsor or patron, adopting the dhimmi in the patron's tribe and making him/her an honorary Arab. History records several instances in which entire communities wanted to convert, and were prevented; they were more useful as taxpayers. (See Berkey, The Formation of Islam, Cambridge 2003; Crone, Slaves on Horses, Cambridge 1980).

Later Islamic practice

Under the Ummayads and Abbasids, the Islamic community was increasingly fragmented into various sects and kingdoms, each of which had its own evolving policy towards dhimmi and towards conquered polytheists.

The Islamic heartland

In general, the policies of the terroritories comprising the earliest Islamic conquests grew gradually harsher towards the dhimmis. Conversion to Islam was made easier (all one had to do was to recite the confession of faith). Many dhimmis did convert. Areas that were majority Christian or Zoroastrian before the Arab conquest at some point became overwhelmingly Muslim. As dhimmis became minorities, they sometimes became persecuted minorities. At some point (it is not clear when), non-Muslims were forbidden to visit the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, while some hadith even urged their exclusion from the entire Arabian peninsula.

Later Islamic conquests

  • With the Ghaznavids and later the Mughals, Islam also expanded further into what is now northern India. Were the new Hindu subjects to be treated as idolaters, forced to choose between conversion and death, or were they to be tolerated as People of the Book? Different rulers adopted different strategies. The Mughal emperor Akbar, for example, was very tolerant towards Hindus, while his successor Aurangzeb was intolerant. Hindus were ultimately given the tolerated religious minority status of dhimmi, even though they were obviously not as purely monotheist as the Jews and Christians who had previously received this status. However, the underlying complexity of Hindu philosophy was useful in this regard, as it had always posited an underlying unity of all things, including the fusion of various deities into a single reality (Brahma).
  • The Almohad rulers of Muslim Spain were generally tolerant, but a few engaged in forced conversions. The Muslim state was welcoming enough, in the main, that it became a refuge for European Jews fleeing Christian persecution.

Areas of peaceful expansion

Sometime in the ninth and tenth centuries, an Islamic mystical movement called Sufism took concrete shape. (Note that this is controversial; Sufis insist that they are only continuing a tradition that started with Muhammad. However, organized Sufi movements seem to become evident at that time.)

Sufis stressed the importance of learning from living teachers renowned for their piety and spiritual wisdom, and were organized into Sufi orders, lineages of teachers traced back to a revered founder.

Sufis generally believed in spreading Islam by preaching and example rather than by conquest. Sufis took Islam to many areas that had never experienced an Islamic conquest, areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia. They were also influential in the conversion of much of the Indian province of Bengal, later Bangladesh. Islamic cultures in such areas were usually tolerant and syncretistic, preserving beliefs and practices from the pre-Islamic past.

Contemporary Islam

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Islamic states fell under the sway of European colonialists. The colonialists enforced tolerance, especially of European Christian missionaries. After World War II, there was a general retreat from colonialism, and predominantly Muslim countries were again able to set their own policies regarding non-Muslims. There was also a migration (ongoing) from Muslim countries into the first world countries of Europe, the UK, Canada, the US, etc. This has completely reshaped relations between Islam and other religions.

Predominantly Muslim countries

Most predominantly Muslim countries allow the practice of all religions. Of these, some (such as Egypt) limit this freedom with bans on proselytising or conversion, or restrictions on the building of places of worship; others (such as Mali) have no such restrictions. In practice, the situation of non-Muslim minorities depends not only on the law, but on local practice, which may ameliorate somewhat harsh laws or make their situations hard despite liberal laws.

Some predominantly Muslim countries have become more intolerant of non-Muslims. There have been many explanations for this rising distrust, too many to detail here. We note only that:

  • The now-overthrown Taliban regime in Afghanistan was considered intolerant by the media. Hindus were said to be barely tolerated and some ancient Buddhist monuments, like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were destroyed as idolatrous.
  • The Islamist government of Iran formally tolerates Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians - although all three groups are subjected to some discrimination in practice - while the situation of Baha'is, considered by the government as a pro-Zionist, ex-Islamic heresy, is far worse.
  • In Sudan, there was extensive use of the rhetoric of religious war by both parties in the decades-long battle between the Muslim North and the largely non-Muslim South (see Second Sudanese Civil War.)

Muslims in diaspora

Many Muslims now find themselves living in countries like the US or the UK, where religious freedom is usually the ruling ideology. Many of these Muslims are still struggling to make sense of their faith in these entirely different circumstances. A few believers distance themselves completely from their “idolatrous” surroundings and look forward to the day when their new countries will become Muslim. Most diasporic Muslims, however, appreciate religious freedom and are tolerant of other faiths.

Is forced conversion allowable?

Most Muslims stress Muhammad's dictum, "There is no compulsion in religion" and insist that Islam strictly prohibits forced conversion. However, it does seem that forced conversion of those regarded as "pagans" and "idolators" was practiced by a few Muslim leaders in the early years of Islam. It should be noted that in our modern era, Islam is spread by education and peaceful means and forced conversion is regarded against the tenets of Islam by most Muslims.


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