By Syed Farid Alatas
November 11, 2014
Forces fighting under the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after having captured large areas of Iraq and Syria earlier this year, not only fought against and killed Muslims who stood in their way, but also began 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 what had become a genocide against an ancient Christian community. Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox church said that ISIS had burned 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 that Islam is not innocent of its militant and murderous adherents. They often cite verses of the Qur’an such 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 matter worse, it is always possible to find historical cases of the brutal treatment of Christians by Muslims. A case in point is the 11the 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 Qur’an 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 toward 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. The historian Michael Foss noted that “For more than three hundred and fifty 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 welcome…”
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 Qur’an in Al-Tawbah :13 asks: 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 Qur’anic ideal of showing tolerance and compassion to Jews and Christians who lived in Muslim-ruled lands. The Qur’an 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 made. He stated this in a covenant, a charter that he signed which granted protection to the monks of Saint Catherine's Monastery. In fact, the Prophet said that "[w]hosoever of my nation shall presume to break my promise and oath,... destroys the promise of God,...[and]...becomes worthy of the curse, whether he be the King himself, or a poor man, or whatever person he may be."
Another historical event worthy of mention is the surrender of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar in 637 AD. The Caliph travelled to Jerusalem in 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 may set a precedent that may eventually lead to the conversion of the church to a mosque.
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 eight and eleventh 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 government.
The Ottoman Empire (1299-1023), that ruled over large parts of Europe by the sixteenth 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 a millet, elected its own leader and enforced their own religious laws. Orthodox Christians constituted a millet while the Jews made up another millet.
A proper approach to the interpretation of Qur’anic 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 today. 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.
The consensus of the Muslim world is that ISIS is an aberration. A group of prominent Muslim scholars penned an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stating that “it is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he [or she] openly declares disbelief … to harm or mistreat – in any way – Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’ … to force people to convert … [and] to torture people.” Furthermore, it is also forbidden “to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.”
Syed Farid Alatas is associate professor at the Departments of Sociology and Malay Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore