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Islam's Tolerance Toward Christians
Jul 1, 2000

The Qur’an calls Christians and Jews “the People of the Book,” meaning those who have a Divinely revealed holy hook that they follow. Toward the end of the Makkan era of the Prophet’s life, the Qur’an began to mention these people and gave them a special and honored place. They were first mentioned in: And argue not with the People of the Book ... (2 9:46).

Thus the Qur’an started the greatest ecumenical movement history had ever seen. All the Qur’an required of them was that they confirm the Last Prophet, for their own books told them that such a person was going to come.

The Qur’an, gradually deepening its intimacy with Christians, declared they were the nearest to Muslims in love, because their priests and monks are not proud, and because they listen to and recoagnize the truth of what the Messenger has brought (5:82- 83). It also warns them against certain heresies, such as following those who earlier had gone astray (5:77), believing in the Trinity (4:171), or remaining in their rebellion and unbelief (5:68).

Many Qur’anic verses state that Jesus called people to believe in God’s oneness, and that he called himself “a servant of God.” The Qur’an stresses that his mother Mary (Maryam) was sinless, dedicated to the temple, and raised under Prophet Zakariya’s guidance. It also relates the miracles God gave her, Jesus’ miraculous birth without a father, miracles given to Jesus, his Prophethood, and his being raised to the sky by God (3:33-64). In Maryam:19, their behavior and postures are described and praised. Of all religions, Islam is the only one to attest that Mary was a virgin and gave birth to Jesus miraculously. Islam is even more sensitive about this subject than Christians. In fact, the Bible says in Luke (chapters 2, 4, 5) that Mary was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph, whereas the Qur’an mentions no such person.

The Qur’an rejects Christianity’s fundamental beliefs that Jesus is divine and the Son of God. It asserts that his being distinguished among people or being given many miracles do not make him a deity. People who attribute a son to God are rejected, without clearly pointing out that the subjects are Christians (2:116). Thus the Qur’an wants Christians to understand the implication and correct themselves.

In the early days of Islam, Christians and Muslims were on very good terms. For example, when the Makkan’s persecution became unbearable, the Prophet permitted those who wanted to leave to go to Ethiopia (615 CE / 5 AH). He said that the land was safe, for its ruler was just. A group of 15 Muslims including ‘Uthman and the Prophet’s cousin Ja’far, emigrated there. The Prophet sent Najashi a letter asking him to give refuge to these Muslims, which he did.1 After a while, the Quraysh sent a delegation with many precious gifts to ask Najashi to return the Muslims. Najashi summoned them, and Ja’far explained the situation. Najashi wanted to learn what they thought of Jesus and Mary. Ja’far recited the beginning of Surah Maryam, which deals with the births of Prophet Yahya (John the Baptist) and Jesus. The emperor drew a line on the ground and said: “If there is a difference between our religions, it is as great as this line.” Najashi refused the Qurayshi request.2

At that time, an internal war broke and threatened Najashi’s throne. All Muslims who could fight supported the emperor. Most remained in Ethiopia until 7 AH, when the Prophet summoned them to Madina. Najashi sent his son to the Prophet with a letter stating he had embraced Islam. The Prophet treated Najashi’s men with great hospitality. Najashi died that same year, and the Prophet led his funeral prayer in Madinah.3

Relations between the Muslims and the Byzantine Empire started out as peaceful and in an atmosphere of good will. In the initial years of the Prophet’s mission, war broke out between Christian Byzantium and Sassanid Persia. The Muslims in Makkah sided with the Byzantines, as they were People of the Book. Even though the Byzantines were severely defeated, Surat al-Rum, revealed just after the defeat, announced that the Byzantines would be victorious in a few years. This came true 9 years later, when the Byzantines crushed the Sassanid Empire. At roughly the same time, the small Muslim community in Madinah defeated the Quraysh at Badr.

In 6 AH, the Prophet sent letters to neighboring rulers. One was sent to Emperor Heraclius of Rome. The Prophet wrote: “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate. From Muhammad, the servant and messenger of God, to the Roman’s great King Heraclius. May peace be upon those who obey the right path. I call you to Islam in the way of a true Muslim. Become a Muslim and you will find salvation. Become a Muslim and God will give you twice as much as you actually deserve. If you turn away, you will be held responsible for your subjects. And you; 0 People of the Book! Come to o word common between you and us, that we shall worship none but Allah that we shall assign no partner to Him and that none of us shall toke others for lords beside Allah. If they turn away, then say: ‘Bear witness that we are submitters to Allah (as Muslims)’”(3:64). The Empire diplomatically stated that Heraclius rejected the invitation. However, historical sources insist that the emperor inwardly welcomed the invitation and remarked: “These places we are in now will be his in the near future.”

Later, the Prophet sent an envoy to the Ghassanids, who were Arab allies of the Byzantine Empire. His murder led to the Battle of Mutah. The 3,000 Muslims had to fight the 100,000-man Byzantine army. The Byzantines nailed the governor of Maan (or Amman], Ferve the Leper, to a cross because he accepted Islam.4 This murder caused great damage to Muslim-Christian relations, and marks the beginning of 14 centuries of deteriorating relations.5

Seeing that the majority of Christians in that period insisted on believing that Jesus was a deity, God revealed: 0 People of the Book, do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of God aught but the truth (4:171). Thus they were called to admit that Jesus was God’s Messenger. Only when they refused to do so did the Qur’an clearly state that this Christian belief represented impiety and denial.

In 9 AH, a delegation of about 70 Christians from Najran, many of them religious and non-religious leaders, came to Madina to discuss Islam’s arguments against Christianity. The Prophet greeted them warmly and let them perform their rituals in the local mosque. The Christians argued about the true nature of Jesus, insisting that he was a deity. Upon this, the following verse was revealed: Then whoever disputes with you concerning him (Jesus) after (all this) knowledge that has come to you, say:

“Come let us coil our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves-then we pray and invoke (sincerely) the curse of God upon those who lie” (3:61).

As these Christians rejected logical reasoning, this verse presented them with religious reasoning. This made them uneasy, and they asked for permission to think and talk among themselves. Although they believed that the Prophet was who he said he was, or that there was a high possibility that he was, they decided not to risk being dammed by such a person and so rejected his proposal. However, they agreed to pay the jizya, a tax on non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim community. They decided to return to their country, and asked for a solemn and reliable person to act as a judge in their secular matters. The Prophet assigned Abu ‘Ubaydah, “the one people rely on,” and had a civil contract written out and given to them. It promised that under God’s and his Prophet’s guarantee, as long as the Christians did not disturb the peace they would not be attacked until the Day of Judgment.6

Although the Prophet approached Christians positively, by the time of his death this attempted interfaith dialog had ended. However the Prophet’s invitation, as given in 3:64 above, is still open.

The Prophet’s Policy

Like all political and social systems, Islam differentiates between those who accept it and those who reject it. Salvation is only for believers. But in this world, the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims are almost equal. The Qur’an establishes religious tolerance: There is no compulsion in religion (2:256). In addition, it says that unbelievers who seek refuge should be accepted and sent back to their homelands in safety (9:6).

When the Prophet arrived in Madinah, he found the city in anarchy. To end this situation, he concluded a peace treaty between the Muslims, Jews, unbelievers, and the few Christians, making sure that each community was included. In addition, he sometimes entrusted unbelievers with specific tasks. For example, in 2 AH when the Quraysh wanted Najashi to return the Muslims, the Prophet sent an envoy to ask him to allow the Muslims to continue to live there in peace. His envoy was Ibn Umayya al-Damiri, who at that time was an unbeliever.

Non-Muslims paid an annual tax of 20 dirhams to compensate for their being excused from military duties. At the Prophet’s time, this was equivalent to what a middle-class family would spend in 10 days.

Just before he died, the Prophet reminded people to respect non-Muslims’ rights: “Whoever wrongs one of my non-Muslim subjects shall find me defending their rights on the Day of Judgment.”

The welcoming attitude led many non-Muslims to enter Islam. William Muir, no friend of Islam, says: “Delegations that came to the Prophet from many different tribes were stunned by the grand acceptance they received and the clever policies the Prophet practiced in settling any differences between them; and thus returned to their tribes as Muslim missionaries.”7

Many Western writers state that the Prophet allowed the People of the Book complete religious freedom. Not only did they enjoy Islamic tolerance, but they also enjoyed Muslim hospitality, generosity, and open-mindedness.8 Many willingly accepted Muslim rule and helped the Muslims fight-even against their co-religionists. In addition, they did not participate in the confusion and revolts after the Prophet’s death. This was a way of showing respect and loyalty to the Prophet and Muslims.9 The large Bani Taghlib tribe remained Christian until the third hijri century. This could only be possible if there were no pressure to convert.

Orthodox Church in Iatanbul, Turkey.

The Rightly Guided Caliphs

Surat al-Ma'idah:42-48 contains the civil and penal laws for non-Muslims, and mentions special rights given to non-Muslims. Proof of this has been found in a Nestorian priest's letter, written to a friend during these years: —The Muslims are not trying to do away with our religion. On the contrary they are protecting it. They pay respect to our priests, and make donations to our churches and monasteries.—10 After Jerusalem was conquered, Caliph 'Umar promised its people that their rights to life, property, religion, and the right to perform prayer and keep their churches were guaranteed.11 When he learned that a mosque had been built on a Jew's property, he immediately called for it to be demolished. In 1933, Professor Cardah, a Lebanese Christian, said: —This Jewish man's house is still there, and is known by everybody.—12 'Umar even asked the Governor of Syria for a Roman treasury specialist to supervise Madinah's treasury.13 He discussed military, official, and economic issues with non-Muslims, leading such jurists as al-Mawardi and Abu Ya'la to conclude that non-Muslims could serve on the executive official's board. In 'Umar's time, Syria's Superior Governor was Abu Ubaydah. When he learned that the Byzantine Empire was planning to attack, he told his governors to return the jizya collected from non-Muslims, saying: —We promised to protect you in return for this tax. But because now we cannot do so, we are returning it.— The Christians replied: —We hope God will let you reign over us again. If the Romans had been in your place, they would have taken all we had, let alone giving any of it back.— The Muslims won and the people of every city greeted the returning governor by re-presenting their jizya.14 When Khalid ibn Walid conquered Hira, people who could not work or were sick, rich people who had lost everything, and those who needed help were exempt from taxes. Their families received a stipend from the state treasury for as long as they lived within the borders of the Islamic state.15 Mu'awiya and later caliphates had many Christian officers working for them. For example, the famous royal poet Ahtal was a Christian.

The Umayyads and 'Abbasids

In 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz's time, a church's property was taken illegally in order to widen a mosque. He ordered the mosque to be demolished. But as the Christians were satisfied with a financial substitute, it was spared.16 Khalid el-Kasri, governor of Iraq (724-38), had a church built in his mother's name.17 The father of Yuhanna al-Dimashqi (Jean Damascene, a major religious figure of the Eastern Christian world), was a minister under the Umayyads and enjoyed great power and fame. He wrote A Dialogue with o Muslim to prepare his fellow Christians to stand against the Muslims. He was so bigoted and hostile toward Islam that many Orientalists blame him for the Christian world's long-standing negative attitude toward Islam. However, he was free to pursue these activities under Islamic rule. Under Caliph Mahdi (775-85), a church was built in Baghdad so that Christian slaves from Byzantium could practice their religion.18 Caliph Harun al-Rashid's personal doctor was Jibra'il, a very rich Christian. Under Caliph Mu'tasim (883-42) there were two very famous Christian brothers: Salmiye was the equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Ibrahim, the older brother, was responsible for the treasury. When he died, Mut'asim had his body brought to the palace and organized a Christian funeral for him there.19 Christians were autonomous. The state did not interfere with their internal issues, and any legal issues between themselves were settled by their religious leaders. Churches and monasteries were run independently. In time, the Christian population decreased and the churches were deserted. As there was a need for more mosques, some of the churches were converted. The Christians were not disturbed by this, nor did they oppose it.20 The Muslims gave non-Muslims such vast rights that they could even engage in practices forbidden to Muslims. For example, they were free to produce alcoholic drinks and sell them to each other or export them. There was also a special rule for marriage. While marriage with other non-Muslim women is not allowed, Muslims are permitted to marry Jewish and Christian women.

Islamic States and the Ottomans

Historically, tolerance toward non-Muslims were practiced by almost all Islamic states. —Christians have been allowed to live as they believe and have been allowed to be tried by their own churches and judges. No one has interfered with such issues.—21 Phillip Hitti writes that the Muslim rulers of Spain granted the local people more human rights than the Visigoths did.22 He quotes from Dozy, an Islamic historian: —Spain has even benefited from Islamic law.—23 Mihail, the Jacobean Patriarch of Antakya, wrote during the second half of the twelfth century, that after 5 centuries of Islamic rule, the experience of the Eastern churches made them conclude that Providence was with the Arabs. He states: —The Gracious Lord Who alters the fate of empires and gives their power to others, He who raises the lower and is a witness to the evil doings of the Romans who raid our churches and violate any country they rule. He, in revenge, brought the sons of Ishmael from the south to save us from the Romans.—24 When the Ottomans were about to conquer Istanbul, the Byzantine Empire was in a poor state. The Europeans said they would help only if the Byzantines converted to Catholism. But the Byzantine Empire was the head of Orthodoxy, and so could not obey the Pope. Immense hostility existed between the two branches of Christianity for various historical reasons. Even so, on 12 December 1452, a ceremony was directed by Cardinal Isidore, sent by the Pope. The Byzantine leader, the Great Duke Notaras, interpreted his people's feelings with this famous saying: —I would rather see the Turk's turbans in Byzantium than the Latin's hats.—25 The largest religious minority in the Ottoman State was the Orthodox Christians. The Patriarch, leader of Orthodox Christianity, was stationed in Istanbul. The Byzantine emperors accepted the Patriarch as the leading figure, and saw themselves as protectors of the Orthodox Church. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror officially recognized both statuses. Even better standards were established for Orthodox subjects than in the time of the Byzantines. The only difference from Muslim Turks was that they could not take an active part in ruling the country. Subjects who converted could become vezirs or even sadrazams (a position equivalent to vice president). They worked as interpreters, doctors, and other official staff members.26 The Ottoman rulers did not limit non-Muslim people's praying or ceremonies, and preserved their religious or sectarian organizations or churches. The Ottomans were a worldwide model of this idea. Gibbons writes: —It can not be argued that the Ottomans were the first nation in the new age to use the principle of religious freedom as a fundamental idea in establishing their state.—27 Jean Bodin (1520-96), founder of European state laws, recommended to the King of France that he take the ruling of the Ottoman State as an example.28 He said that the Padishah (Ottoman ruler) treated the Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Jews as equal to the Muslims and protected them all. Chenier of Geneva said in 1717: —The Turks have a very wide perspective of religion and show great tolerance.—29 No one was punished for their religious beliefs, except for those who deliberately insulted Islam. The few priests punished were not charged with religious offenses, but with treason. Marshall Von Moltke30 found the source of this tolerance and stated: —The Turks show such vast tolerance towards us Christians that the reason for this could only be their solid and strong belief in Islam.—31 The violence and aggression between rival Christian sects in those years is recorded in their own books.32 After Vienna's defeat, the Venetians invaded Sakiz for a short time and Mora for quite a long time. They caused so much violence that when the Ottomans resumed control, the Greeks greeted them with songs and celebration.33 The Ottomans also collected the jizya from the People of the Book in return for their exemption from military service and for protecting them. Christian soldiers did not have to pay this tax. Soldiers from southern Romania, presented for service to the Ottomans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, became a very important part of the army.34 Many non-Muslims lived in the Empire, especially in port cities. The state protected them and gave them complete freedom to conduct business, visit religious places. or just tour the country.35 V. Morrin of Rokebey wrote that he went to Istanbul in 1794, when he was 22 years old, and had roamed freely among the Turks and found them very helpful.36 The Ottomans respected the art of ancient civilizations. The mosaics in Ayasofia (Hagi Sophia), the number most famous mosque, were not touched from 1453 until 1922. Out of respect for Christian feelings, the mosaics were painted over.37 Orientalists, basing themselves on twentieth-century values, have problems with the dhimmi status of non-Muslim Ottoman subjects. However, they are gravely mistaken. We have mentioned the vast rights given to them in theory and practice... The Pope made a positive effort during the Second Vatican Council, requesting dialogue in 1965. We hope good will and wishes will be put into practice. Muslims are always ready for dialogue. (*) Translated from Turkish by Turkan Aksoylu


1 Najashi was the emperor's title, not his personal name. 2 Ibn Kathir, Al-Sirat al-Nabawiyah (Beirut), 1:251-53. 3 lbid., 1:262. 4 Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah (Cairo: 1413 AH /1992 CE), 5:84. 5 Muhammed Hamidullah, Islam Peygamberi, 1:225. 8 Muhammed Hamidullah, Mecmuatu'l Vesaik, no:94. 7 William Muir, Life of Mahomet (London: 1856-61), 4:107-8. T. Arnold, 62 8 F. Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam (Great Britain: 1958), 2. 9 Cactani, Annali Deli Islam, 2:814; Arnold, 62. 10 Muhammed Hamidullah, Introduction to Islam, 497. Taken from Assemani, Bibl. Orient, III.2, p. XCVI. 11 Al-Tabari; Arnold, 70. 12 Hamidullah, Introduction, 433. 13 lbid., 232. 14 Arnold, 226. 15 Abu Yusuf, Kitab al Kharaj. Trans. A. Ozek (Istanbul: 1973), 232. 16 Hamidullah, Introduction, 434. 17 Ibn Khallikan, Vefeyat, (Beirut: 1969), 2:228. 18 Yakut al-Hamawi, Mu'jam al-Buldan, 2:662; Arnold, 80. 19 lbn Abi Usaybia, 'Uyun al-Anba'fi Tabaqat al-Atibba' (Beirut: Maktabat Hayat), 2:234-35. 20 Arnold, 78. 21 Philip K. Hitti, Siyasi ve Kulturel Islam Tarihi, trans. Prof. Dr. Salih Tug, vol. 2 (Istanbul: 1980). 22 Ibid., 2:803-4. 23 Dozy, Histoire des musulmans d'Espagne (Leiden: 1932), 1, 278; Hitti, 2:804. 24 Michel le Syrien, Chronique, 11:412-13; Arnold, 68. 25 Dukas, 27:161; Yilmaz Oztuna, The History of the Ottoman State (Istanbul: 1986), 2:98. 26 Oztuna, History, 2:143. 27 Gibbons, 63. Oztuna, History, 2:143. 28 Discours, 5:655. 29 Hammer, 15:350; Oztuna, History, 2:144. 30 (1837), 90-1. 31 Oztuna, History, 2:144-45. 32—Ibid., 2:145-46. 33 Fernand Grenerd, Grandeur de l'Asie, 126-28; Oztuna, History, 2:145-46. 34 A de lu Sargoere Histoire Ottoman (Paris: 1881),14; Arnold, 75. 35 d'Ohsson, 5:3. 36 Said Nursi, The Letters (London: 1914), 67, 70. 37 Oztuna, History, 2:146.