Islam and Other Religions

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Understanding the relations between Muslims and a variety of religious "Others," including Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, as well as Africans, Chinese, Mongols, Turks, and Westerners, depends on how one defines religion and religious. In addition, there is a diversity of Muslim identities that shapes the various perceptions of and relations to religious Others, just as there are many identities other than religious ones that intersect with the Muslim-Others duality, such as tribal, ethnic, linguistic, national, and the like.

As with any categorization of identities and concepts, the boundaries between Islam and Others remain fluid, and exceptions can often be found. The most striking example of this fluidity is the term umma, which came to mean, from the first centuries of Islam until today, the community of all Muslims in contradistinction to all Others, whether religious or not. Yet, initially, umma included Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and it especially included Jews, as indicated in the so-called Constitution of Medina negotiated by the prophet Muhammad as a basis for the migration of his nascent Islamic community from Mecca to Medina in 622 c.e. The umma referred to then was inclusive of all the peoples living in Medina under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad.

It is nevertheless possible to generalize and say that the history of Muslim-Other relations has been interpreted by Muslims through the lenses of a tripartite theological division of the human world: Muslims, who submit to the will of God as revealed in the Qur˒an; People of the Book, who believe in the same God although their knowledge comes from a distorted version of the original divine revelation; and Unbelievers, who either associate idols to God or deny God's existence. This categorization emerged out of the unique historical context of the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad, (ca. 570–632 c.e.) in central Arabia, and evolved over time, becoming increasingly complex as Islam grew in numbers and in geographical spread.

The Lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad

The first period of Muslim-Other relations corresponds to the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. The best sources on these first relations between Muslims and religious Others include pre-Islamic poems, the Qur˒an, early hadith, and biographies. While the reliability of these sources for historical reconstruction has been highly debated in recent years, it remains possible to infer that prior to 610 c.e., when the prophet Muhammad is believed to have received the first Qur˒anic revelation, his encounters with religious Others primarily included Christians and Jews that he may have met in some Arabian oasis as well as during his northern caravan trips into greater Syria. With subsequent revelations, which he continued to receive until his death in 632 c.e., the prophet Muhammad gradually distanced himself from the various tribal practices of his fellow Quraysh tribesmen while developing a new Islamic identity, thereby turning most Meccans of his own clan and tribe into religious Others too. Together with the earliest converts, the prophet Muhammad experienced a series of encounters with religious Others that included an increasingly hostile Meccan resistance as well as hunafa (sg. hanif: monotheistic ascetics), Jews, and Christians of mostly unknown theological leanings, except for the small number of early Muslim converts who sought refuge with Ethiopian Christians in the Abyssinian kingdom in 615 c.e.

A greater formative influence came from 622 c.e. onward, after the prophet Muhammad had negotiated the Constitution of Medina, which allowed the Muslim community to migrate there from Mecca. This agreement not only provided an escape for the nascent Muslim community increasingly threatened in Mecca, but it also propelled the prophet Muhammad to the status of both arbitrator and religiopolitical leader of this oasis. Its two largest, formerly animist tribes, the Aws and Khazraj, had been fighting each other for many years before they settled on the prophet Muhammad as their arbitrator. The Constitution stipulated the conditions for the Prophet's intervention as leader, as were the respective rights and responsibilities of the immigrant Muslims and Ansars (the newly converted Medinan Muslims of the the Aws and Khazraj), as well as those of the three small Jewish tribes (Banu Qaynuqa˓, Banu Nadir and Banu Qurayza).

Within the Constitution, Jews were included in the definition of the one community or umma. This marked the beginning of a short period of cooperation between Muslims and Jews that has left permanent traces in Muslims' self-understanding as monotheists, such as the incorporation into Islamic beliefs of the long genealogy of Jewish prophets. In addition, early Muslims recognized Jesus as another Jewish prophet, albeit with some unique Christian characteristics, such as the virgin birth and the special role he played in being the messenger of the injil (Gospel). Other influences included the brief use of Jerusalem as the direction for daily prayers, the development of fasting during the month of Ramadhan in opposition to and part imitation of the day of atonement (yom kippur), and the emphasis on orality within a sacred textuality, later developing into the unique religious legalism that makes Islam so similar to Judaism. However, in 624, due to attacks from the Meccans and accusations of treasons, the Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa˓ was expelled from Medina. A year later, after another defeat, the Banu Nadir suffered the same fate. Finally, in 627, after a long siege of Medina itself, the barely victorious Muslims exterminated the last Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, under recurring accusations of treason. The short history of Muslim-Jewish relations in Medina that had started well with the Constitution of Medina ended up tragically with the disappearance of the Jewish tribes from the oasis. These various historical events are reflected in the many, and at times contradictory, Qur˒anic passages regarding the Jews in general and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular.

This brief history holds the hermeneutical keys to the subsequent treatment of Jews and other minorities on the basis of analogy. The hermeneutical concept of abrogation (which holds that later revelations supercede earlier ones) has been used at different times in Islamic history, but especially in the later part of the twentieth century, to claim more intolerant and exclusivist positions regarding Jews, but others favor a return to the ideal of the constitution of Medina because it implies that a more tolerant and inclusivist approach was willed initially by the prophet Muhammad. In reconstructing these historical encounters, contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims alike have uncovered a dual historical process: The historical events of the pristine community become paradigmatic models that shape future relations. With newer historical events, new interpretations emerge, but always within the conceptual framework of what the paradigm initially set forth. This process can be exemplified today in how the constitution of Medina serves as a rich historical and theological document to guide contemporary reinterpretations of how Muslims ought to relate to religious Others, especially within contemporary nation-states in which Muslims comprise the majority population.

The Early Muslim Conquests: 632–750 c.e.

The second period in Muslim-Other relations begins after the death of the prophet Muhammad, in 632 c.e. With the sudden departure of their religiopolitical leader, Muslims developed additional and, at times, overlapping categorizations and concepts to manage their relations with religious Others, whether within the nascent Islamic polity or outside of it. The dual categorization of the house of Islam (dar al-islam) versus the house of war (dar al-harb) emerged to describe the relations between Muslims in Muslim-controlled areas and Others in non-Muslim controlled areas.

Within Muslim-controlled areas, the concept of the protected people (ahl al-dhimmi) arose to regulate Muslim-Other relations. The dhimmis, organized collectively by religion, had to pay a head tax (jizya) and a land tax (kharaj) in exchange for military protection by Muslim armies. They included Jews, Christians, and Sabians, as noted in the Qur˒an, but soon also included Zoroastrians, who constituted the majority population of the Sassanian Empire, which was taken over by Muslims within a decade of the Prophet's death. There were a few exceptions to this general practice, such as the Armenians contributing men to the Umayyad army to fight against the Byzantine Empire, thereby briefly avoiding the jizya tax. Yet, on the whole, these new categorizations and concepts remained central to Islam for over a thousand years. They continue to this day to be used in their traditional meanings by many Muslims, while a few others reinterpret them in light of new modern political realities. The silent majority probably dismisses these traditional categorizations and meanings as no longer relevant.

The Consolidation of Power: 750–1258 c.e.

The centralization and consolidation of Muslim political power was exemplified respectively by the first and second halves of the Abbasid Empire (749–1258 c.e.). This long period witnessed a slow conversion process that led to the gradual emergence of majority Muslim societies in what came to be known as central Islamic lands from Spain (al-Andalus) to central Asia. Internally, most religious Others within Muslim polities were Islamized over generations. In part because Islamic worldviews and practices became normative in these regions, exerting social pressure to convert, and in part because dhimmi laws came to be perceived as discriminatory and no longer as relevant in a period of pax islamica. Externally, in addition to the People of the Book, Muslims in South and Central Asia came into contact with increasing numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and a variety of Turkic and Chinese Others, which often rendered the boundary between religion and culture harder to delineate.

The greatest experiment in coexistence and mutual respect between Muslims on the one hand and Jews and Christians on the other is undoubtedly the case of Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, during its own Umayyad dynasty (756–1031 c.e.). The degree of symbiosis that emerged, especially during the respective but not sequential reigns of the three ˓Abd al-Rahmans (styled I, II, and III), is exemplary of its popular name, the Golden Age of Spain.

By the end of the weakened Abbasid Empire, the destruction brought about in the mid-thirteenth century by the Mongol invasions from the east to what had been the center of Islamic power surprisingly resulted in the Islamic conversion of this new enemy. The changes brought about by this rapid influx of new cultural traditions from peripheral nomadic cultures were therefore not as dramatic, but they did bring about a certain cleansing that resulted in a greater homogeneity in those parts of the Muslim world. A similar phenomenon had already happened earlier at the extreme west of the Islamic world, with the sequential waves of the al-Murabitun (Almoravids 1056–1147) and the al-Muwahhidun (Almohads 1130–1269), sweeping from the Sahara into what is now Morocco and Spain. They were reacting in part to the Christian Reconquista that was gradually taking over Muslim-controlled areas in the Iberian Peninsula.

The long Abbasid period was marked by the consolidation of Islamic laws that became normative and remain so up to this day. They consolidated many practices regarding non-Muslims through the integration of earlier key concepts such as People of the Book and ahl al-dhimma, together with customary practices (˓ada) in various parts of the expanding Muslim world. This flexibility in the Islamic legal system to accommodate many local cultural practices that did not directly infringe on central Islamic tenets greatly enabled the long term consolidation of Islam wherever it spread. Muslim-Other relations thus often proved to be a two-way bridge with mutual influences.

An important incursion into the heart of Islamic lands occurred when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, in 1099. Their arrival was marked by massacres of both Muslims and Jews. They were considered barbarians by the mostly Muslim local population. Salah al-Din recovered Jerusalem in 1187 without any bloodshed. The Crusaders slowly lost control of their principalities until their last defeat, in 1302. The memory of the Crusades remains alive to this day, having caused great distrust between Muslims and Christians in particular. Today, many Arab Muslims use this historical vignette as a trope for interpreting mid- to late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century politics associated with the creation of the State of Israel.

The Continued Expansion of Islam: 1258–1798 c.e.

After consolidation, Islam continued to spread through a slow process of land migrations and conversions in Southeastern Europe; sub-Saharan Africa; and South, Southeast and East Asia, up to and into the colonial period. This was a vast and mostly peaceful expansion on the peripheries of central Islamic lands, with two exceptions: the Ottoman Empire (1300–1918), centered in what is today called Turkey, and the Mughal Empire (1483–1858) of South Asia. Between the two, the smaller and short-lived Safavid Empire (1501–1722) exemplified the internal Islamic conversion from Sunni to Twelver Shi˓ite Islam, bringing few changes to the interpretation of religious Others. The continued presence, albeit dwindling, of Zoroastrians, Assyrian Christians, and Jews proved the long-term resilience of the traditional Islamic system of ahl al-dhimma, traces of which are found today in the fixed Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian seats in the democratically elected parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

At the height of its power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire expanded dramatically into Southeastern Europe and besieged Vienna twice (1529 and 1683). The Ottomans refined the millet system, an administrative elaboration on the ahl al-dhimma concept that accommodated religious diversity and often provided each religious community (milla) with a large degree of autonomy. However, the Ottomans also developed the practice of devshirme: the forcible conscription and conversion to Islam of young Christian boys, especially in the Balkans, in order to build an elite military corps, the Janissaries. Since much benefit could have come from a link to central power through one's son, at times, Christian elite families, even some Muslim families, offered up their sons to the Ottomans voluntarily.

At the same time, in South Asia, the Mughal Empire reached its apogee. The difference was that the majority of the population under its control, mostly Hindus, never converted to Islam. The Mughal emperors used radically different approaches in their relations to their subjects. While the initial and later Muslim military and political presence in South Asia witnessed much intolerance and destruction, the most powerful of its emperors, Akbar (1542–1605) and his nephew Dara Shukoh (1615–1659), tried to have Hindus recognized as People of the Book. Emperor Akbar even developed his own religion, din ilahi, that combined Islamic and Hindu worldviews and practices. While his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, a similar but more popular effort led to the development of Sikhism in the Punjab.

The Colonial Period: 1798–1945 c.e.

The period of Western European colonization of most majority Muslim lands radically changed the nature of power dynamics in Muslim-Other relations. In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt for a brief period of three years. This event is often referred to as the symbolic beginning of a major shift in power between Muslims and non-Muslim Others, whether religious or not. While earlier political events such as the Crusades, the Reconquista, as well as the Mongol and Turkic (Tamerlane 1336–1405) invasions directly impinged on majority Muslim areas, the first was relatively brief, the second took place over centuries, and the third and fourth resulted in the conversion to Islam of the new Mongol and Turkic rulers, the last two being more inconspicuous in the collective memory despite their even more violent histories than that of the Crusades. In contrast, the military and political Western European takeover of most of the world between 1492 and 1945 took place together with an economic, cultural, and ideological penetration that overwhelmed majority Muslim societies. For the first time in their history they lost control over the balance of power that they had collectively held since their earliest memories. Only Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser degree, Iran, retained some measure of independence.

Parallel to this colonial enterprise was the introduction of new scientific discourses that have sought, ever since the Enlightenment period, objective truth about the world, both material and human. The part of science which has dealt with discovering the truth about Islam has been known as Orientalism. This influential school of thought helped consolidate power in the hands of the colonial masters by means of arguments that often, though not always, supported the logic of empire: The West would civilize the backward Islamic world (as part of the 'Orient'). Yet, despite its politically pro-Western bias, Orientalist scholarship also brought about new standards of interpretation and preservation of much Islamic heritage, resulting in greater mutual understanding. Nonetheless, much of the Muslim-Other relations during this period were reduced to Muslim-Westerner relations, due to the unavoidable colonial power of the West.

The Post-Colonial Period: 1945 to the Present

The post-colonial period has seen a continuation of many established trends, despite the emergence of independent nation-states. New technologies, however, brought about radical changes in migration patterns: Muslim workers were brought into Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, others migrated to Australia and the Americas, especially to North America. In the United States, important African-American conversions to Islam started a local Islamization process that is currently unfolding rapidly, despite the backlash in American perceptions of Muslims.

Scientism was imported initially through colonialism and later strengthened by programs of national education supported by the westernized Muslim elites of newly independent majority Muslim nation-states. With this, much Orientalist thinking was integrated into popular modern Islamic self-understanding. This influence is clearly at work in the rise of militant Islam, which is a phenomenon similar to Christian fundamentalism in the West in that they both essentialize their understanding of religion in political discourses. The result is a growing reciprocal popular intolerance between the West and Islam, further fueled by the 11 September 2001 events in the United States and their subsequent impact on world politics.

The encounter with modernity through colonialism has taken a toll on the possibility of seeing positively the values of democracy, the rule of law (Western style), and human rights, because such discourses come from political oppressors. With the continuation of this control through the more subtle forces of neo-liberal discourse and globalization, the West has become an overarching Other among many Muslims worldwide. The cost of this has been the development of a major malaise for many westernized Muslims, and especially for Muslims living in the West itself. Yet, the Muslim world is no different from many other religiocultural worlds that have fought to distinguish between modernization, which they want to participate in for its obvious material benefits, and westernization, which often imposes Western values and models for democracy upon societies that have their own cultural heritage and blueprints for collective decision-making.

The interaction between Muslims and Others in general remains a two-way bridge of potential mutual benefits, if only reciprocal fears did not prevent many of both sides from traveling across it. The advent of interreligious dialogue in the later part of the twentieth century has encouraged this movement, however. Many contemporary Muslims are thinking anew not only their relationship to sacred Islamic texts and their various traditions of interpretation in light of historicocritical and dialogical methods of inquiry, but are also reconsidering the very nature of their interdependence with religious Others, whether by opposition or attraction. With the advent of Western European colonialism and the emergence of postcolonial nation-states, as well as the expansion of Muslims worldwide in modern times, the balance of power has recently undergone radical change. Many of the older Islamic categorizations and concepts that have served Muslim-Other relations relatively well in the past have now either faded or been judged as obsolete by well-thinking but often paternalistic modernists, or else are in the process of being reinterpreted for a better integration of past and present, as well as internal and external aspects of Islam.

The New Expansion of Islam in Cyberspace: 1995 to the Present

The advent of the Internet is radically changing the nature of communication worldwide, creating transnational communities of all kinds into virtual entities that are both global and local at once. This transformation brings in its wake new rules of communication and the potential for new forms of grass-roots politics, as well as a paradoxical understanding of what constitutes private and public spaces, thereby affecting both traditional Islamic self-understanding as well as Muslim-Other relations. The potential impact of this new period of expansion is as yet unknown for the future of Islam and Muslim-Other relations. This cyberspace expansion helps at once to sustain greater cultural and religious continuities globally, despite large migration movements, and yet threatens the fabric of traditional Islam by its very intrusion into the private spaces of those who can afford being wired into this new space to be explored, shared, disputed, but never truly conquered.

Complex, Ongoing History

Throughout their long history, Muslims have continued to develop and expand worldwide, bringing them into contact with a variety of religious and nonreligious Others. The legacy of those encounters is rich and complex, with moments of great tolerance and cross-fertilization as well as episodes of intolerance and mutual violence. External and internal influences from religious Others have been felt at all times and continue to this day. What has changed the equation from tolerance to intolerance at different times in history, including very recently, is the degree to which threats and insecurities are perceived by a Muslim community that has internalized the ideal of political control as an implicit measure of its collective identity and success, from the inherited reading of its own history from the time of the prophet Muhammad until today.

The history of Muslim-Other relations is, therefore, a complex and ongoing set of both tolerant and intolerant attitudes and episodes. Both sets are diverse in kind at any one time, even sometimes contradictory to one another; they are shaped by socio-political, theological, and ideological realities that change over time, albeit at different rhythms. Internal dynamics within Muslim societies have always been interdependent with external ones. The history of Muslim-Other relations is, therefore, an integral part of any search to understand Islam. The converse for any religious Others who have come in contact with Muslims throughout their history is equally true.

See alsoAndalus, al- ; Central Asia, Islam in ; Christianity and Islam ; Dar al-Harb ; Dar al-Islam ; East Asia, Islam in ; European Culture and Islam ; Expansion ; Hinduism and Islam ; Hospitality and Islam ; Internet ; Judaism and Islam ; Modernism ; Networks, Muslim ; Orientalism ; Science, Islam and ; South Asia, Islam in ; Theology ; Umma ; Vernacular Islam .


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Patrice C. Brodeur