Tolerance and Diversity in Islam

Posted on November 10, 2006

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Asma Afsaruddin

[…] Contrary to certain popular caricatures, Muslims are not somehow genetically predisposed to accept tyranny and religious absolutism. There is a healthy respect for honest, reasoned dissensus within the Islamic tradition; this attitude finds reflection in the saying atributed to the Prophet, “There is mercy in the differences of my community.” […]

Long before the first tem amendments to the United States Constitution were formulated, medieval Muslim jurists developed what may be called an Islamic bill of rights meant to ensure state protection of individual life, religion, intellect, property, and personal dignity. Non-Muslims such as Jews and Christians (later Zoroastrians and others as well) also had specific rights in the Muslim community. Above all, they had the right to practice their religion upon payment of a poll-tax to the Islamic state (from which priests, other clerics, and the poor were exempt) and were consequently freed from serving in the military. The Qu’ran after all counsels, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

[T]erritorial expansion did not mean forcible conversion of the conquered peoples. The populations of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, for example, remained largely Christian for about two centuries after the early Islamic conquests. Individual Christians and Jews sometimes obtained high positions in Muslim administrations throughout the medieval period. Syriac-speaking Christians were employed by their Muslim patrons in eighth and ninth century Baghdad to translate Greek manuscripts into Arabic; their inclusion in the intel-lectual life of medieval Islam helped preserve the wisdom of the ancient world. Centuries later, Jews fleeing from the “excesses” of the Spanish Reconquista would find refuge in Muslim Ottoman lands and establish thriving communities there. Clearly, the Qur’an’s injunction to show tolerance towards people of other, particularly Abrahamic, faiths was frequently heeded by those who revered it as sacred scripture.

Asma Afsaruddin is Assistant Professor of Classics at Notre Dame and a Fellow of the Kroc Institute. This article excerpt is published on the website for The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame,  100 Hesburgh Center for International Studies · P.O. Box 639 · Notre Dame, IN 46556.  Please see the KROC website for the complete article.