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
with Islamic rule after Muslims conquered these aforementioned regions.
The story often begins like this: “the
Byzantines viciously persecuted Christians in regions like
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
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.
TOLERANCE? OR SOMETHING ELSE?
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.