By Syed Farid Alatas
January 31, 2019
Recently in Malaysia, some Muslims voiced
anger against lights displayed on a building in Penang that appeared to them to
look like a cross. This incident must be understood in terms of the larger
context of hostility towards Christianity.
Some years ago, forces fighting under the
self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after having captured
large areas of Iraq and Syria, not only fought against and killed Muslims who
stood in their way but also carried out barbaric acts of violence against
Christians and other religious minorities.
Many Christians were threatened with their
lives for not converting to Islam. They had to endure harassment, arrests and
various forms of violence. As a result, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian
men, women and children have fled from what had become a genocide against an
ancient Christian community. Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac
Orthodox Church said ISIS had burnt churches, old religious texts, damaged
crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, and converted churches into mosques.
How is it that a group that claims to rule
in the name of Islam can be so brutal to fellow human beings? Many would claim
that Islam is a religion of peace and that violence perpetrated in the name of
Islam is actually due to distortions or misunderstandings of the religion.
There are those, however, who would say Islam is not innocent of its militant
and murderous adherents. They often cite verses of the Quran such as Al-Tawbah
:5, which says, “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)”.
To make matters worse, it is always
possible to find historical cases of the brutal treatment of Christians by
Muslims. A case in point is the 11th-century Fatimid ruler, Abu Ali Mansur
Tariq al-Hakim. Al-Hakim was known in the West as the “Mad Caliph” because of
the brutal manner in which he treated religious minorities. The persecution of
Christians and Jews began under his reign in 1004 AD when he decreed that
Christians would no longer be allowed to celebrate Easter. Al-Hakim is also
known to have forced Jews and Christians to become Muslims at the point of a
sword, destroyed numerous churches and other Christian holy sites in Palestine
and Egypt, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009.
How do we reconcile the verses of the Quran
that appear to support the violence perpetrated against Christians such as
during Al-Hakim’s and Al-Baghdadi’s reigns?
The episodes of violence and intolerance of
Muslims towards Christians and other Muslims have always been regarded by
historians as exceptions. Al-Hakim’s persecution of Christians and Jews was
seen as a rarity in Islam. Historian Michael Foss noted that “for more than 350
years, from the time when the Caliph Omar made a treaty with the Patriarch
Sophronius until 1009, when mad al-Hakim began attacks on Christians and Jews,
the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land were open to the West, with an easy
The question still remains as to what we
are supposed to make of the Quranic verses that appear to support intolerance
and violence against non-Muslims. There are two ways in which we can deal with
this question. One is to show that these verses are to be interpreted in terms
of their historical contexts. The other is to demonstrate how Muslims in
history were guided by Islamic ideals and acted towards non-Muslim minorities.
The Quran in Al-Tawbah :13 ask,
“Will ye not fight people who violated their
oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger and took the aggressive by being the
first (to assault) you?”
This makes it clear that the exhortation to
fight mentioned a few verses earlier referred to cases of defence against
aggressors. However, even this was highly regulated as Muslims were forbidden
to fight during four sacred months.
Furthermore, the historical fact is that
Muslims in general adhered to the Quranic ideal of showing tolerance and
compassion to Jews and Christians who lived in Muslim-ruled lands. The Quran in
Al-Mumtahanah :8 says,
“Allah forbids you not, with regard to those
who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from
dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just.”
It was in this spirit that the Prophet
Muhammad dealt with the Christians of his time.
The Prophet had made many covenants with
the Christians of his time. His view was that any Muslim who failed to protect
the life, property and honour of Christians was violating the oath that he
Another historical event worthy of mention
is the surrender of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar in 637 AD. The caliph
travelled to Jerusalem to accept the surrender of the city from the Patriarch
Sophronius. Sophronius then invited Omar to pray in the Church of the Holy
Sepulchre. Omar declined the invitation for fear that his praying there might
set a precedent that may eventually lead to the conversion of the church to a
These early historical examples of the
gracious treatment of Christians by Muslims were not exceptions, but the rule.
They continued throughout Islamic history. Spain under Muslim rule, Al-Andalus,
particularly between the eighth and 11th centuries, was known as a golden age
of Jewish history, a period of flourishing for Jewish philosophy and culture.
During a time when Jews were persecuted elsewhere in Europe, Andalusia’s Jews
made advances intellectually and culturally and also took up high positions in
The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), that ruled
over large parts of Europe by the 16th century, also went beyond tolerance and
displayed a great deal of acceptance of its non-Muslim minorities, granting
them protection and religious freedoms. Each religious community, known as
millet, elected its own leader and enforced its own religious laws. Orthodox
Christians constituted millet while the Jews made up another millet.
A proper approach to the interpretation of
Quranic texts, involving a correct contextual understanding of its meanings and
the study of Islamic history, will reveal that tolerance and acceptance of
Christians and other non-Muslim minorities were the norm. Deviations from the
norm were treated as violations by most Muslim themselves. This was true of
Al-Hakim and is certainly the case with ISIS in our times. The problem is not
religion but ideology and immorality. The purest of ideas in a text can be
reinterpreted in line with evil interests. All ideologies, religious or
secular, have been subjected to this.
It is clear that Muslims in the past were
sufficiently rooted in their tradition such that they put into practice the Islamic
ideal of not just tolerance but also understanding towards those of other
religions. This is something that Malaysian Muslims ought to learn from instead
of displaying a sense of insecurity that has become all too familiar to us.
Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of