Leaving Islam




Tolerant Islam: An Erroneous Perspective

By Sang Yeung Ong


Muslims often cite and refer to the early history of Islam in the 7th century as irrefutable proof of the benevolent and peaceful spirit of their religion. The foundation of this belief lies in the comparison of Byzantine rule over regions like Egypt , Israel , Syria and Lebanon with Islamic rule after Muslims conquered these aforementioned regions.  

The story often begins like this: “the Byzantines viciously persecuted Christians in regions like Egypt , Syria , Lebanon and Israel who were deemed “heretical” because of their views of who Christ was. However, the regions where these “heretical” Christians lived were soon conquered by the militant forces of Islam.”  

The happy ending of the story then follows like this: “when Islam conquered these regions from the Byzantines, it was one of peaceful conquest in which they showed an embarrassing respect for people of other religions (Christians and Jews) compared to the heavy-handed bigotry and intolerance of the Byzantines. There were no forced conversions or persecutions”.  

Erroneously, this conclusion is based on weak and faulty analysis. As a student with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history, it is embarrassing for me to have to correct the mistakes of academic colleagues who are far more qualified than me. This article attempts to correct this common fallacy by bringing a new perspective to this 7th century incident.  


We will first begin by defining relationships between the religious groups concerned.

In the early 7th century, there were two major religious viewpoints on the nature of Christ. There was the Chalcedonian viewpoint which taught that Christ had two natures (divine and human) and the Monophysite viewpoint which taught that Christ had one nature (divine and human combined). Since the ruling powers of Byzantium were Chalcedonian, they viciously persecuted their coreligionists who differed from them. In this case, Muslims are right, the Byzantines were intolerant. But one has to keep in mind the relationship between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites, as they were both Christians, their relationship is considered “SECTARIAN”.  

However, the RELATIONSHIP between Islam and the Chalcedonians and Monophysites was not “sectarian”. It was a relationship of ONE RELIGION with another RELIGION – CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM. Some might argue and say that isn’t true because St John of Damascus (a Chalcedonian) considered Islam a heretical Christian sect just like the Monophysites. While that is true, we have to remember that is not the case from the Muslim perspective since the nature of this topic is the refutation of Muslim claims of being tolerant. Therefore, we must use their perspective.  


When the Byzantines lost their power over the regions where the Monophysites lived, the Muslims who replaced them were said to be welcomed as liberators?

Muslims are quick to point out that this is case because Islam is tolerant. Is this is so?  

The proverb: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” rings true in this situation, the Monophysites welcomed the enemy (Byzantines) of their enemies (Islam). There is a strong urge within religions to prefer the “infidel over heretics”. Even the Byzantines had this same attitude when they preferred the “rule of infidel Ottoman Turks over the heretical Roman Catholics”. I contend that Muslims did not have the same attitude that the Byzantines had towards the Monophysites. That is because it wasn’t of “religious” interest to them. The Monophysites are not a SECT of Islam. If they were, Muslim attitudes towards them would have been the same as that of Sunni against Shi’ite and Shi’ite against Sunni. And we all know what their relationship is like! Therefore, Muslims are seen as tolerant based on a wrong perspective!  

Other points to consider:


Muslims were an instant minority in their conquered empire, when outnumbered it is common sense not to antagonise the Christian majority! The early Muslims were shrewd rulers. Their “tolerance” was actually based on pragmatic realism. With so much land under their rule, they needed talented and skilled administrators and so they turned to the Christians who were their new subjects. The Muslims also played on Monophysite hatred of the Byzantines to establish their rule. It is a case of “realism over ideology”. Remember this; it is not first time a minority has ruled over a majority. Only after Islam was firmly entrenched to handle a large majority did they begin to tightened the screws.


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