By Eric Schinkel, New Age Islam
4 June 2022
Islam’s History Has at Certain Points Intersected with That of Other Faiths
1. Islam's history demonstrates the capacity for considerable flexibility in its interactions with other faiths.
2. Islamic societies across history are notable for their thoughtful consideration and integration of diverse populations to allow for peaceful coexistence.
3. Despite emerging socio-political obstacles, Muslims across history and into the present-day have been able to transcend religious boundaries to maintain a productive dialogue with other faiths.
As one of several major world religions, Islam’s history has at certain points intersected with that of other faiths. Even from the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s Qur’anic revelations, thoughtful consideration was given to how the future ‘Islamic movement’ would approach interactions with other faiths, with the Qur’an often acknowledging the other monotheistic Abrahamic faiths as the basis for The Prophet’s new revelations and encouraged a certain collectivism, celebration and collaboration with other faiths owing to this shared heritage:
"Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] - those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness - will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve."
Given the extensive diversity of religious faiths and the high percentages of the population that adhere to them – with over 1.5 billion, in 2010, aligning themselves with Islam, 2.1 billion with Christianity, and 1 billion with Hinduism, to name a few – this is an important area of study if we wish to understand the complex social dynamics in interactions between Islam and other faiths.
This article will examine a selection of key interactions of interest between individuals and empires of Islamic faith and other religions, in order to evaluate how past interfaith correspondence have influenced those successive, so that we might come to a conclusion about how interfaith relations will evolve into the future.
The Pre-Qur’anic Context
Given that the topic of “Islamic interfaith relations” depends on the presence of an established Islamic religion or movement, there is little to mention in this section regarding “Islamic” interactions with other faiths. However, there are certain points of interest regarding the religious demographics of Arabia before the Islam movement as it was established by The Prophet emerged. These pre-Islam demographics provide an important context for the understanding of future cross-religious interactions.
For religions specifically of Arab origin, polytheism dominated the pre-Islamic scene. Its population organising themselves as a nomadic society composed of a mix of several, disconnected tribes interspersed with a select few sedentary settlements, the culture of polytheism that pervaded the region exacerbated this division through a characteristic “lack of conviction” stemming from fatalistic attitudes promoted by the pagan religions, which severely undermined the notion of unity between Arabians (in contrast to Islam, which would promote strong values of shared community and the unity of Arabs under the banner of monotheistic devotion to Allah). The Qur’an, in part acting as a record or account of the history of the region, describes such attitudes:
“And they (the Pagans) say: "There is nothing but only our life in this world. Some of us die, while others continue to live; and nothing causes us to perish but Time (the processes of decline and decay). " But they have no (sure and true) knowledge about this (the real nature and meaning of life and death, and the life after it). They merely follow their conjectures.”
While these Paganistic religions would eventually be made largely obsolete by the emergence of Islam and the unity of the Arabian peninsula under the Caliphates, they are important to mention in considering past influences on Islam’s approach to organising itself and the people of Arabian peninsula, as well as its future interactions with other religions.
Christianity and Judaism are perhaps the most important of these “other religions”. Christian and Jewish communities had a significant presence (considering their status as migrants) in certain parts of Arabia before the emergence of Islam, , with Christianity spreading at some point around 324 CE after Constantinople conquered Byzantium and its influence being further exacerbated by missionaries from the Roman Empire in the northwest regions, while Judaism a foothold as early as the 2nd century CE in the area that would become Medina as its ruling tribes adopted the religion. Of particular importance here is the Jewish-dominated Medina, which becomes a centrepiece of Islamic interfaith relations in the years to come.
In Early Islam
The importance of Islam as a continuation of previous monotheistic traditions, and not a competitor, was stressed from the very beginning of The Prophet Muhammad’s Qur’anic revelations in 610 CE. The impacts of this on Islam’s relations with other faiths, ignoring socio-political relations and considering only the religious context, are varied. On the one hand, it acts as an opening and encouragement for dialogue between believers of this new movement and the existing faiths, especially as the Qur’an is inclusive of followers of the other monotheistic religions as Ahl al-Kitāb (“people of the book”)On the other hand, this creates certain logistical issues regarding inconsistencies in what each “branch” of this monotheistic tradition believes, with significant potential for conflict. Perhaps the best example of the Qur’an’s recognition of Jesus Christ as a prophet, but not as the son of God or as part of the trinity of “Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit” that constitute “God” in the Christian view – which is a belief held with strong conviction by Christians. This also conflicts with the Jewish view, which tends to disregard Christ as both the son of God and a prophet. Ideological tolerance or consistency between the faiths is also dependent on the other monotheistic religions accepting The Prophet Muhammad’s claim that the Qur’an is the direct word of God – which is a contentious point of view for many Jews and Christians. Hence, while Islam’s acknowledgement of other traditions opens the door for peace and tolerance between them, it also inadvertently sets the foundations for ideological conflict.
In terms of the socio-political aspect of interfaith relations, Islam and the other monotheistic traditions tended to coexist peacefully in the early days of movement. Extensive efforts were made on the part of individuals such as The Prophet Muhammad himself to ensure peace in the region and ease concerns of the potential persecution of non-Muslims in what was fast-becoming an Islam-dominated region. Perhaps the most notable of these efforts is the Constitution of Medina, which reportedly included such tenets as the belief that “the security (dhimmah) of God is one: the granting of ‘neighbourly protection’ (yujir) by the least of them (the believers) is binding on them” and that “the peace (silm) of the believers is one; no believer makes peace apart from another believer”. Another significant charter is the Ashtiname of Muhammad, which extends similar promises of protection to a Christian monastery in Sinai. These charters are regarded as being demonstrative of “the Islamic approach to conflict resolution” and of The Prophet Muhammad’s commendable character which Muslims are often encouraged to emulate.
Hence, the Early Islamic period saw considerable peace and cooperation across faiths, thanks to the efforts made by the emerging Muslims to integrate the believers of other monotheistic traditions into both the religion itself (especially through their acknowledgement in the Qur’an) and into the Caliphates that were established after the death of The Prophet. However, the seeds for future conflict were planted via inconsistencies across the specific content of the religions, which at times caused outrage and an unwillingness to cooperate – or else, a willingness to use these ideological differences as a justification for wars waged with ulterior motives in mind.
In Classical Islam
Such a situation occurred at the turn of the millennium as Pope Urban II incited the Crusades. Islamic expansion under the Abbasid Caliphate threatened the Christian powers in Europe, and the conquer Jerusalem gave the Christian forces sufficient reason to wage a war motivated by other factors; “Not all of them, indeed, were there on behalf of the Lord”. The Crusades spanned nearly 200 years and severely “damaged inter-Christian relations”, worsening the divide between the perceived “Western” and “Middle-Eastern” cultures and setting a precedent for future Christian-Muslim interactions being characterised by “aggression, intolerance, and misunderstanding” Such strained relations emerged not only as a result of the Crusades themselves but also due to the Christians’ and Muslims’ demonisation of each other: with Christians being encouraged to base their view of Islam on misrepresented, malicious distortions of the religion’s tenets,while Muslims obviously had their perception of Christians coloured by their incitement of the conflict. The impacts of the conflict and the division it created between Christians and Muslims are still relevant in the present-day.
One of the motivating factors for the Crusades was the increasing influence of the Islamic world – its traditions, technologies, and innovations – over other cultures. The Classical era of Islam saw significant intercultural exchange and correspondence as the empire expanded under the Abbasid Caliphate. Islam thrived in this era, pioneering revolutionary advances in medicine, agriculture and scholarly practices. With the increased capacity for trade and the establishment of new trade routes, these advancements were spread far from the Caliphate and were able to influence and inspire similar developments in Western regions.
One of the most interesting (and positive) dynamics between Islam and other religions during this period is the peaceful coexistence of Islam and Hinduism in India. Interested in leveraging the attractive opportunities for trade and production in the Indian basin (something that the pre-Islamic Arabs were also drawn to the region for), Islamic influence spread into India from as early as 711 CE with the conquest of Sind, which after several hundred years advanced Islamic influence in the region such that the sultanate of Delhi was finally established in the early 1200s. The flow of Muslim migrants into the region and the economic growth of the region led to exponential rates of emerging urbanisation, which made day-to-day interactions between Muslims and Hindus even more likely. The result was a living situation that incentivised collaboration between the two distinct populations, which manifested in the exchanging of ideas relating to philosophy, arts, architecture, literature, and more. Specific arrangements were made by the ruling Muslims of the Delhi sultanate to ensure that the existing Hindu population would be allowed to integrate and participate comfortably in society alongside the Muslims – they often shared places of worship, and there was little pressure from either side to convert others to a religion, besides one’s own interest in doing so.
A wide range of outcomes for interfaith interactions are observed during this period, which demonstrate Islam’s capacity to facilitate both peaceful coexistence and armed conflict with other religions, both outcomes occurring under the same dynasty and within a relatively short period of time.
In the Classical era, we could identify the beginnings of a complex and increasingly versatile and varied Islamic tradition capable of taking on several forms at once. This continues into the present-day, where processes of globalisation coupled with the vastly expanded spread of Islam across the world have spawned a wide variety of Muslim approaches to interfaith correspondence.
Of particular importance in the modern era is not just how Muslim entities themselves approach interfaith interactions, but also how Muslims generally are perceived by other those hailing from other cultures and faith. With the consequences of the Crusades still ingrained in the culture of the West, the growth of mass-media outlets enabled by technological innovations has led to a rise in sensationalist depictions of Islam made to elicit fear from Western populations.
This in turn feeds into the issue of Islamic sectarianism and the internal divide between Muslims in the present-day; which itself was one of the motivating factors for Western sensationalism in the first place. The Iranian revolution “extremely conditioned U.S. thinking about the violent, anti-American nature of fundamentalist Islam”, solidifying Islam as a perceived “security threat to American [and more generally, Western] interests”. Such conflict has led to animosity from both sides in certain circles, making it difficult for interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians, for example.
However, there have been efforts to stay true to the original approach towards peaceful coexistence demonstrated by The Prophet Muhammad, even despite these political difficulties. An “interreligious movement” promoting collaboration across religions has emerged and taken shape in an organised fashion. While globalisation processes have had several negative impacts on interfaith relations through over-exposure leading to sensationalism, it has also allowed for easier and more regular interreligious discourse, leading to more productive and mutually beneficial outcomes. It could be argued that interreligious understanding and tolerance is at its peak, given the frequency with which religious leaders meet and the transformation of metropolitan centres into cosmopolitan societies composed of diverse demographics from all religious faiths.
Given these positive developments and their continued escalation, contrasted with the de-escalation of conflict between extremist entities, perhaps owing to the increasingly densely-populated cosmopolitan societies in which we are forced to coexist, the outlook of interfaith relations between Islam and other religions is promising. Islam in its earliest forms was a strong proponent of peaceful dialogue and intercultural collaboration. In later years, it demonstrated its capacity to be versatile in order to overcome challenges. This versatility has continued to be tested into the modern era, where, despite frequent setbacks, interfaith relations have still managed to flourish. It can be safely assumed that the Islamic approach to interfaith issues will continue to facilitate positive interactions with other religions that will prove beneficial for all parties involved.
Eric Schinkel is studying Education at Griffith University to teach secondary school students history, including the history of Islam and its role in the development of the world.
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