Skip to main content
Culture of Coexistence: Exemplary Cases of Relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims
May 1, 2013

Imam Sarahsi narrates an incident which is exemplary of Islam’s policy with respect to non-Muslims. Imam Abu Yusuf, the chief justice of the Muslim state when the Abbasids enjoyed the zenith of their power, is narrated as uttering the following prayer on his deathbed: “My Lord! You know better than anyone else that I have never treated anyone unfairly in my career; I have always done my best to establish justice. There was only one case, as far as I can tell, in which I was not fair. Please my Lord, forgive me for my lapse.” Those waiting on him were curious to learn what that case was. “A Christian filed a case once complaining about the Caliph, the Ruler of Believers. The Caliph came to the hearing a little early and he happened to be seated in a position which was a little more elevated than the rest of the room. So, the Christian plaintiff, who came later, had a rather lower seating. I could not ask the Caliph to change his seating to be level with the plaintiff, but I did my best to have the Christian’s seating elevated to the hearing platform. Still, I listened to both sides without being able to place them on a level plain. This was the mistake I am repenting for.”

Sarahsi’s commentary on this incident is quite thoughtful: “The judge must pay extreme attention to this matter because of the following saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: ‘The noble one should not be hopeful for your favor, nor should the weaker despair of your unfair treatment.’ If the noble one is positioned in the front, he or she may raise hopes for the judge’s favoring them, which will dishearten the weaker who will be concerned of a possible injustice incurred on them.” (Sarahsi 1983, 61)

Let us consider this incident. An ordinary citizen, who happens to be a Christian, complains and files a case against the Muslim President of the country without any concern of the consequences. The Chief Justice of the fantastic Abbasid Empire is Imam Abu Yusuf, the great jurist of the Hanafi school of thought, second only to Imam Azam. He hears both parties without being able to bring them to the same level of seating, for he is too shy to ask the Caliph to rise up from where he is and stand next to the plaintiff. This would normally be perceived as a minor, even insignificant lapse; but the judge never forgets this for his entire life, and considers it his most grievous error. In fact, it so grieves him, it is the one lapse he asks God to forgive him for. On the other hand, Sarahsi’s comment is also worth analysis, as he does not deem this incident an insignificant one, but takes a very meticulous approach when he says, “The judge must pay extreme attention to this matter.” We should also keep in mind that this incident is not narrated in a fictional work of stories or legends, but in one of the fundamental sources of Hanafi jurisprudence, and this makes the incident even more significant and makes it sufficient to reflect, singlehandedly, Islam’s very accommodating and tolerant policy towards non-Muslims.

Forbearance, or tolerance, is kindheartedness without expecting anything in return, and it is more comprehensive than a mere word or slogan in Islamic terminology. It is an injunction in the religion, as it is firmly established by Divine revelation and explained by the Prophet. This duty upon believers has taken a material form in the Age of Happiness, during the reign of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and throughout fourteen centuries of Islamic civilization. It is a product of the eternal and universal faith of Islam.

The Qur’an raised the columns of forbearance upon the Islamic foundations of life, universe, and mankind. Oneness is an attribute to God, and God alone; whereas all of creation is a manifestation of multiplicity, diversity, and differences. The basis of Islamic tolerance is that justice is obligatory. The Qur’anic description of God is “the Lord of the worlds,” the Lord of all mankind (Fatiha 1:1). As a result of this rationale, Islam embraces all the heritages of prophethood sent to all nations.

The Qur’an confirms the truthful acts of those who followed past prophets, corrects their faults or introduces new commandments (Maidah 5:48; Al Imran 3:3-4; A’raf 7:157-158).

Tolerant and just conduct towards non-Muslims was not only observed in the early days of Islam, but also in the following centuries. The Ottomans, from their onset in the late thirteenth century, particularly stand out for their political character. They prioritized avoiding internal conflicts with other principalities in Asia minor, and focused more on expanding westward to annex Byzantine towns. Their engagements with the non-Muslim people of these towns were never solely based on warfare and military power; instead, they cultivated relations based on fair treatment and tolerance. This diplomacy of fairness and forbearance paved the way for Orhan Bey (d. 1362) to have the gates of Bursa opened to him in peace in 1326 (Neşri 1983, 67; Akgündüz 1999, 430; Ihsanoğlu 1999, 422).

There is an overwhelming consensus among historians that the Ottomans were able to expand their territories in Asia Minor and the Balkans not only through military means but also through many social and ethical factors. Otherwise it is impossible to hold so many different ethnicities, with different faiths and languages, united (Eryılmaz 1990, 24). Sultan Mehmed II’s declaration on non-Muslims following the conquest of Istanbul is exemplary in terms of religious liberties, as he recognized the people’s freedom to worship in their own tradition; to conduct ceremonies as they did before; to travel freely; that their properties, shops, groves, farms, families, servants, and slaves were inviolable; that there was going to be no forced conversion to Islam; that their boys would not be conscripted; that they could choose their own community leaders; and that they would not be forced to work without compensation (Akgündüz 1999, 430; Ihsanoğlu 1999, 422-3).

The Ottoman policy on non-Muslims was mostly inspired from a judgment derived from a saying of the Prophet: “They (non-Muslims) have the same rights as we Muslims do; they are liable to the same duties as we Muslims are” (lahum ma lana wa alayhim ma alayna).

These rights and liberties the Ottomans recognized for the non-Muslim community become even more meaningful when compared with the situation in Europe during the same period of history. Bernard Lewis was visiting Turkey in the 1990s. In an interview for TRT (Turkish national network), the reporter asked him to comment on why, in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, there is almost no record of Turkish travelers in Europe, whereas there were quite a number of European travelers who travelled across the Ottoman territories. I am summarizing Lewis’ answer as follows: “In those centuries there was no obstacle for Europeans to travel in the Ottoman land, for the Ottoman government was a state of rule and law. Europeans could visit the country on a visa (musta’man), travel, and follow up on their business freely. The travelers were of different religions, but they could freely gather with their co-believers or the locals who spoke their own language and hold services in their places of worship. They did not feel homesick or alienated. On the other hand, however, a Muslim could no way dare to visit a European country in those centuries without forsaking his life. Fanaticism was at its peak in Europe.”

The Ottomans had almost no competition in championing the freedom of religious belief and practice as a cornerstone of social order. The Ottomans also had non-Muslim groups represented in the parliament as ministers and at other senior levels; there were sometimes almost as many as fifty non-Muslim members of parliament, especially in the nineteenth century.

A more recent event was when Assyrian Christians, in the city of Mardin, had to confront the Ottoman state in 1915. Following the internal conflicts between Muslims and Armenians during World War I, in which the Tashnak and Hinchak groups of Armenians massacred Turkish villages, the Union and Progress government of the Ottoman state passed a decision to send all Armenian citizens – with the exception of those residing in Istanbul – into exile. Despite the fact that Assyrian Christians were not involved in any of those incidents, state officers in Mardin wanted to send them into exile too, simply because they were also Christians. In the chaotic environment of war, murder and violence followed this decision, and Assyrians from Midyat armed themselves and gathered in the village of Aynverd (Gulgozu). They did not obey calls to concede their weapons, for they did not trust the state’s army. Shaikh Fethullah Hamidi, of the Mardin region, announced a religious ruling that it would not be lawful according to Islam to harm Assyrians, and that their lives, properties, and honor were inviolable. He further communicated with state officers and, after three months of persistent efforts, secured a warrant of safety for the Assyrians. Assyrians never forgot his selfless stance and hard work, and as a sign of appreciation, they hang his picture next to their patriarch in the Mardin Deyruzzaferan Patriarchate.

Inspired by these ideas, Fethullah Gülen, one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in 2013,” and the Hizmet Movement, which has developed around this thought and guidance, are trying to reflect the same spirit of dialogue among different nations, religions, and cultures around the world. Born out of Turkey, this movement is now active in around 140 countries. Their outreach extends to all walks of life, regardless of differences, and their achievements raise our hopes that the world can once more experience a time of tolerance and coexistence, at least to the same degree, if not higher, as in the historical examples described in this article.

Dr. Yildirim is a professor of Qur’anic exegesis in the School of Divinity, Fatih University, Istanbul.


  • Akgündüz, Ahmet, Said Öztürk. 1999. Bilinmeyen Osmanlı, Istanbul: Osmanlı Araştırmaları Vakfı Yayınları.
  • Eryılmaz, Bilal. 1990. Osmanlı Devletinde Gayrimüslim Tebaanın Yönetimi, Istanbul: Risale Yayınları.
  • Gibbons, Herbert Adams. 1998. Osmanlı imparatorluğunun Kuruluşu, Translated by R. Hulusi (Özdem), Istanbul: 21.Yüzyıl Yay.
  • Hamidi, Muhammed Sadık. 2002. Mardini Es-Seyyid Eş-Şeyh Hamid Evlad ve Torunları, Istanbul,.
  • Ihsanoğlu, Ekmeleddin. 1999. Osmanlı Devleti Tarihi I-II, Istanbul: Zaman Gazetesi Yayınları.
  • Serahsî, Şemsu’l-eimme. 1983. el-Mebsut, Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınevi.