“Islam does not strike us as a very tolerant religion”

TO CONSIDER the issue of tolerance, we must work in the light of the teachings of the religion, not with the situation of the day in mind. For while we may wish to argue that Christianity today is a tolerant religion, this could not be said of all times in history. If Islam were to be held as untrue because of intolerance in some societies today, would Christianity then be held to be untrue because of its intolerance in the fifteenth century?

Here is a quotation from Pope Nicholas V, who gave Alfonso V of Portugal in Romanus Pontifex 1454CE the right to:

‘invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wherever they live, along with their kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, lordships and goods, both chattels and real estate, that they hold and possess … to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery and to take for himself and his heirs their kingdoms…’

(Quoted in Muldoon, 1979, Popes, Lawyers and Infidels: The Church and the Non-Christian World 1250-1550, Liverpool University Press, p.134)

At its outset, the Anglican church had no better a record of toleration in regard to non-Anglican communions. Of course, time-bound references cannot be taken as our criterion. Here is another time-bound reference; the Charter which the Muslim ruler, Umar, agreed with the Christians of Jerusalem:

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. This charter is granted by ‘Umar, Servant of Allah and Prince of the Believers, to the people of Aelia. He grants them security for their persons and their properties, for their churches and their crosses, the little and the great, and for the adherents of the Christian religion. Neither shall their churches be destroyed, nor their substances or areas, nor their crosses or any of their properties, be reduced in any manner. They shall not be coerced in any matter pertaining to their religion, and they shall not be harmed. Nor will any Jews be permitted to live with them in Aelia.

Upon the people of Aelia falls the obligation to pay the jizyah; just as the people of Mada’in (Persia) do, as well as to evict from their midst the Byzantine army and the thieves. Whoever of these leaves Aelia will be granted security of person and property until he reaches his destination. Whoever decides to stay in Aelia will also be granted the same and share with the people of Aelia, in their rights and the jizyah. The same applies to the people of Aelia as well as to any other person. Anyone can march with the Byzantines, stay in Aelia or return to his home country, and has until the harvesting of crops to decided. Allah attests to the contents of this treaty, and so do His Prophet, his successors and the believers.

Signed: ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab

Witnessed by: Khalid ibn al-Walid, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf and Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan. Executed in the year 15 AH.

(Quoted in Alistair Duncan, 1972, The Noble Sanctuary, London: Longman Group Ltd, p.22)

What a contrast to the situation we are faced with today. This surely illustrates the inadequacy of time-bound references. To consider the tolerance and intolerance of Islam, therefore, we should do so in the light of its teachings.

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