One common oft-repeated canard in the West today is that in the Golden Age of Islam (whenever that was), everyone loved living under Muslim rule. Jews and Christians flourished, Zoroastrians and Buddhists, even Hindus and other polytheists, found safe harbor under the benevolent tolerance of their Muslim overlords.
And it must be said that there were indeed isolated periods of peace toward non-Muslim subjects during the vast stretches of time when the various Caliphates ruled much of Asia and North Africa. However, as the sayings go, these exceptions prove the rule.
It is estimated that from the time of Muhammad’s death (632) until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 some 270,000,000 (no, that is not a typo) human beings were killed by Muslim armies expanding their territories or by Caliphs and their subsidiaries strengthening their grip on restive subject peoples. That’s two hundred and seventy million non-Muslims who failed to show sufficient love to their benevolent, tolerant Muslim rulers.
One might argue that it is not fair to tar and feather a religion based on the proscribed excesses of some of its wayward leaders. One must look at that religion’s teachings to know the truth, not its faulty practitioners. Fair enough. So let’s take look at Muhammad and his tolerance of those with whom he differed. After all, according to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad is the insan al-kamil, the ideal human; according to the Qur’an, he is the best example of humanity (33:21), and all Muslims are obliged to model their lives upon his.
There are two extended periods in Muhammad’s career where he came as a minority into a group who did not intend to become his followers. If there is any time one might be expected to show tolerance of others, it is when you are the minority among people who see life differently from you. Yet, according to early Muslim sources writing about the behavior of their prophet, such was not the case.
The first occurred at Mecca in the period from 610-622 AD. Mecca was Muhammad’s hometown, and the citizens were mostly his large tribe, the Quraish. In 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad believed himself called as a prophet of Allah, the only God. By 613, Muhammad was openly preaching his message among his pagan relatives and associates. As polytheists, the Meccans were well-accustomed to accepting the worship of “new gods.” They were willing to tolerate Muhammad and his views until he apparently started to demean their gods and threaten them with hellfire. That got them riled up, but still they sought peaceful means to address their concerns. They appealed to Muhammad’s uncle and benefactor to muzzle him. They offered him money, honor, even civic power, if he would just leave them to their traditions. But Muhammad would not tolerate their polytheism. According to Ibn Ishaq, the eminent and earliest biographer of Muhammad:
When the apostle openly displayed Islam as God ordered him, his people [the Quraish] did not withdraw or turn against him, so far as I have heard, until he spoke disparagingly of their gods. (The Life of Muhammad, trans. by A. Guillaume, p. 118).
In their first appeal to Muhammad’s uncle, they urged:
“O Abu Talib, your nephew has cursed our gods, insulted our religion, mocked our way of life and accused our forefathers of error; either you must stop him or you must let us get at him…” (Ibid., p. 119)
Later Muslims asked those in the know how the pagan Quraish had mistreated Muhammad so as to earn his wrath. It was reported by ‘Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin al-As [a purported, distant ancestor of mine]:
“I was with them [the Quraish leaders] one day when the notables had gathered in the Hijr [area by the northwest wall around the Kaaba] and the apostle [Muhammad] was mentioned. They said they had never known anything like the trouble they had endured from this fellow; he had declared their mode of life foolish, insulted their forefathers, reviled their religion, divided the community, and cursed their gods. What they had borne was past all bearing, or words to that effect” (Ibid., 130-131).
As they were still talking, Muhammad appeared and began to circle the Kaaba [Mecca’s central shrine]. Each time he passed them, they hurled insults at him. The third time this happened, he stopped and said, “Will you listen to me, O Quraish? By Him who holds my life in His hand I bring you slaughter.” That threat silenced them.
According to these early Muslim sources, the worst the Quraish did to Muhammad before he openly declared war on them was to crowd around him and seize him by his robe to shake and threaten him – but before this could happen, Muhammad’s well-respected friend and follower, Abu Bakr, stepped in and defused the matter. (Ibid., 131).
Sometime later, the leading men of every clan of the Quraish decided to try to negotiate with Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq reports:
They decided to send for Muhammad and to negotiate and argue with him so that they could not be held to blame on his account in the future…. When he came and sat down with them, they explained that they had sent for him on order that they could talk together. No Arab had ever treated his tribe as Muhammad had treated them, and they repeated the charges which have been mentioned on several occasions. If it was money he wanted, they would make him the richest of them all; if it was honour, he should be their prince; if it was sovereignty, they would make him king; if it was a spirit which had got possession of him…, then they would exhaust their means in finding medicine to cure him. The apostle replied that he had no such intention” (Ibid., 133-134).
Muhammad rejects their generous offers, and repeats his message requiring them to submit to Allah or face eternal hellfire. They ask him for any number of miracles as a sign that he truly speaks for Allah. He replies that Allah has not sent him as a miracle worker. Finally, after more argument and accusations, Muhammad gets up and leaves.
After a number of years of fruitless preaching among the Meccans [it is estimated that by the time he left for Medina in 622, Muhammad had won fewer than 150 converts in 13 years], Muhammad found more success among pagan pilgrims from Medina, some 200 miles north of Mecca. As those numbers grew, Muhammad entered into a pact with them in 621 known as the Pledge of Aqaba. The next year he intensified that pledge among his Medinan followers so that the second Pledge of Aqaba became known as “the Pledge of War.” It was when word of this got out to the Meccans that they finally decided they must take up arms against Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq records their deliberations:
“The discussion opened with the statement that now that Muhammad had gained adherents outside the tribe they were no longer safe against a sudden attack and the meeting was to determine the best course to pursue” (Ibid., 221).
All of this indicates that the pagan Meccans showed remarkable restraint and tolerance toward Muhammad until he aligned himself with outsiders intent on overthrowing Mecca. If Muhammad could act with such little tolerance toward his own tribe, and he is the perfect example for his followers, why would we expect the Muslim world today to show more grace to the non-Muslim world around it?
The second example from Muhammad’s life centers on his rise to power in Medina. When Muhammad migrates there in 622, Medina is a city in conflict with two major Arab tribes and three Jewish tribes that don’t see eye to eye. Muhammad’s Medinan s convince their fellow citizens that perhaps Muhammad can lead them all and forge a lasting peace. They are willing to give it a try, and so enter into treaties with him and his community. The setting was ripe for the exercise of tolerance and acceptance of one another. Muhammad hoped to woo the Jewish tribes into recognizing him as a true prophet, but within a short time they make known their rejection of his claims. It doesn’t take long for Muhammad’s intolerance to erupt. Under the pretext of a breach of treaties, Muhammad orders the Qaynuqa and Nadir tribes in succession to vacate Medina quickly with only what they can carry of their possessions. The rest becomes the property of the Muslims. The third tribe is accused of colluding with the Meccans to eliminate Muhammad, and as punishment he oversees the beheading of between 600 and 900 (according to early Muslim sources) Jewish men and pubescent boys and the enslaving of the remaining women and children. Within five years of Muhammad’s arrival in Medina, there are no more Jews in Medina.
If this is the tolerance that Islam is supposed to be famous for, we are in big trouble.
One last matter to consider. After making a slaughter of Jews from the town of Khaibar in 629, Muhammad discovered something more profitable than extermination and plunder. He realized that by sparing the lives of some, he could offer them life under the laws of Islam as a third class community, provided they paid a substantial annual head tax (known as jizya) and agreed to debasing restrictions which would drive home the inferiority of their religion and culture compared to that of Muslims. The spirit of that approach became codified in a later document known as the Pact of Umar, which while not dating back to the second Caliph for whom it is named nonetheless captures the humiliation imposed upon the conquered. [For an imaginative exercise in how such a “pact” might be applied in a totally non-Muslim context, see here.] These unfortunates became known as “dhimmi,” which means “protected ones”. The Islamic caliphate promises to protect them if they pay up and toe the line. Who are the dhimmi being protected from? From the caliphate, which promises death to them if they step out of line or stop paying the jizya. Does that kind of remind you of the Mafia and “protection money”? Same idea.
Let me reiterate: There were the odd times when Islamic rule eased up on the oppression of minorities in its midst, yet such minorities were never accorded equal status as a group with the Muslim citizens around them. But since the religion of Islam is suffused with the example of Muhammad and his god, who declared that Muslims are the best of all peoples (Qur’an 3:110) and that Jews, Christians and pagans (i.e., the rest of the world) are the worst of all creatures (Qur’an 98:6), the supremacist ideology of Islam encourages harshness toward its opponents, not tolerance, much less kindness. Indeed, Allah immortalizes this approach in his scripture: “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are severe against disbelievers, and merciful among themselves” (48:29).
In light of all this, do you really think that Jews, Christians and other minorities who lived as dhimmis under Muslim rule raved with effusive praise over the tolerance and kindness of their supremacist captors? Given what you now know about Muhammad and his relationship with non-Muslims in Mecca and Medina, would you want your fate to rest upon his tolerance? I didn’t think so.
Neither would I.