Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike 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 Quran, such as Al-Tawbah (9):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 AD1004 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, and to have destroyed numerous churches and other Christian holy sites in Palestine and Egypt, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009.
But Al-Hakim was thought to be mentally unstable and his reign was seen by even Western historians to be a departure from the norm on how Christians and Jews were treated in Islamic empires.
We are reminded of this barbarism today by the actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) under Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. After capturing large areas of Iraq and Syria earlier this year, ISIS began to target Christians and other religious minorities, subjecting them to harassment, arrest, violence and conversion on pain of death. Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox Church said that ISIS had burned churches and old religious texts, damaged crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, and converted churches into mosques.
It is also important to point out that ISIS also targets Muslims who run afoul of the authorities. It was reported that a man who was caught eating during the fasting month was crucified for three days while a woman who committed adultery was stoned to death.
How do we reconcile the idea of Islam as a religion of peace, with the verses of the Quran that appear to support the violence perpetrated against Christians, such as those during the reigns of Al-Hakim and Al-Baghdadi?
There are two ways to deal with this question. One is to show that these verses are to be interpreted in 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 (9):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 Quranic ideal of showing tolerance and compassion to Jews and Christians who lived in Muslim-ruled lands. The Quran in Al-Mumtahanah (60):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.
Any Muslim who fails to protect the life, property and honour of Christians is not only acting in contrast to Islamic tradition but is also violating the oath made by the Holy Prophet Muhammad.
This was stated by the Prophet himself in the Ashtiname or Covenant, a kind of charter that he signed which granted protection to the monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
In fact, the Prophet said: “(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.”
The Prophet had made many such covenants with Christians.
Another historical event worthy of mention is the surrender of Jerusalem to the Caliph Omar in AD637. The Caliph travelled to Jerusalem in order 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 8th and 11th centuries, was known as a golden age of Jewish history, when Jewish philosophy and culture made advances. At a time when Jews were persecuted elsewhere in Europe, Andalusia’s Jews flourished, even taking up high positions in government.
The Ottoman Empire (1299-1023) went beyond tolerance and accepted non-Muslim minorities, granting them protection and religious freedoms. By the 16th century, the Ottomans established control over large parts of Europe, ruling over large Christian populations. Sultan Mehmed developed a system in which each religious community, or millet, elected its own leader and enforced its own religious laws. Orthodox Christians constituted a millet; the Jews another.
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 non-Muslim minorities were the norm.
While Muslim empires were not liberal according to the standards of modern democracies, they were certainly progressive in comparison to their contemporaries when it came to dealing with religious minorities. 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 lies not with Islam the religion, but with ideological interpretations of it. 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 writer, Syed Farid Alatas, is an associate professor in the Departments of Sociology and Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.