What are the examples of interreligious dialogue and tolerance shown to the members of other religions during the period of the Four Caliphs?

If we take into consideration the experiences of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, we will see that the religious foundations of tolerance, dialogue and living together are present in the source of almost all three religions. There are a lot of verses and judgments in the Old and New Testament and in the Quran prescribing that the followers should love people, live together in peace and be tolerant towards people. When we look at the applications in the history – that is, when we move from theory to practice - it is not possible to say that all religions had the same positive examples.

The Islamic World, in its about 15-century history, has acted tolerantly and has shown great tolerance to people who are not of themselves, that is, the others. The Islamic World has really had the best possible tolerance and dialogue understanding in accordance with the principles brought by the Quran and the Messenger of Allah that claimed to be the continuation of the both of the two previous religions and that came to correct the holy texts brought by these two religions.

In this framework, especially in Baghdad in Abbasid period the relations between Muslims and Christian congregations and the tolerant attitude of Muslims towards Christians show that there was a medium of tolerance – especially for Assyrians and Nestorians, who were able to get high ranks in the palace and established a dialogue and obtained various opportunities. We see a second example of the same understanding in the period of Andalucia Umayyads; we see the tolerance that both the Jews and some native people who were in a process of being Arabicized had in the state and the bureaucracy by their reaching the top positions of the state as ministers and governing the state.

In general, it is a phenomenon often recorded by historians that states that ruled over different beliefs and cultures subjected other nations to their culture and civilization and tried to change their beliefs and values by force. It is sometimes observed that one religion does not tolerate another religion and tries to oppress it. The oppression that pagan Romans inflicted upon Christians at the beginning of Christian history, the enforcement of Sasanids on Armenians to become fire-worshippers are only a few pages of the history of oppression.

Islam tried hard to end these oppression pages seen in the stage of history. There are basic rules imposed by Islam as to how Muslims should behave when they rule over other religions and cultures. This new situation imposed by the Quran ensured the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims when they accepted the rule of Islam in the status of zimmi (covenanted) by paying a small amount of tax. It is impossible to say that the Quran aims to assimilate non-Muslims or oppress them by doing so. The principles that guarantee their entity and beliefs and the freedoms given to them show it clearly.
It should be expressed that Islam has another aim in doing so. Islam does not aim to establish its sovereignty on the lands that it conquers by eliminating and exiling people, on the contrary it aims to inform as many people as possible about the reality of Islam. Therefore it will not be wrong to express that the non-Muslims who reject Islam when they first meet Islam are given an opportunity to know Islam better and then it is left to them to choose their religion using their own free will. The applications of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) towards non-Muslims show it. During that period Muslims were trying to establish the status of zimmi and they asked non-Muslims not to prevent the activities of conveying Islam to others. In the vast geography conquered and ruled by the Four Caliphs, the best examples in the world in terms of rights and freedoms were presented and great masses of people embraced Islam in a short time. Those who chose to remain in their religion were never pressed. (1)

As we see in the history of Islam, Muslims lived together with non-Muslims as a result of a command of Allah, had dialogues with them and showed them tolerance. Now lets mention the main ideas in this historic experience and try to give some examples:

a. Tolerance Shown to Beliefs and Ideas

According to basic principles of Islam there is no compulsion in making people to embrace a religion; and this principle was carried out clearly through the examples set by our Prophet (PBUH). After our Prophet, during the periods of the Four Caliphs, in all of the treaties with the People of the Book, all of the groups that adopted the Islamic rule were given the freedom of religion. It can be said that this was adopted as a principle and was carried out in general. The general approach of the Caliphs of Islam was manifested in the form of respect to other religions and tolerance was shown to zimmis. No pressure to change the religion of Christians, assimilation or Islamization policy was seen in the history. The fact that the geographies that were under Islamic rule for centuries house members of a lot of various religions and sects today proves the truth of this claim. Despite the fifteen-century long historic process of living together, a great period of which was under Islamic rule, the existence of Christian and Jewish population and even their majority in some regions is a manifestation of the principle there is no compulsion in religion.

The schools in which non-Muslims carried out their own cultural activities continued education under Islamic rule too, and they educated clergymen including their patriarchs necessary for their religious organizations.

b. Tolerance Shown to their Worshipping and Sacred Values
Within the framework of the freedom of religion and conscience that Islam granted non-Muslims, they worshipped however they liked, and they were not interfered no matter what their worshipping style was.

During the conquest actions that started shortly after the death of the Messenger of Allah most of the cities were conquered peacefully. The non-Muslims who signed a contract with Muslims were presented their responsibilities and rights through a treaty in return for a tax called jizyah. In the treaties that were given to non-Muslims after the conquest during those periods, there were items guaranteeing that the existing churches in those areas would not be demolished.

On the conquest of Jerusalem, Hazrat Omar, who came to the city to sign a peace treaty, gave all kinds of assurance to the people. When the Patriarch Sofronios offered Hazrat Omar to pray in the Church of the Resurrection, Hazrat Omar rejected this offer lest it should be converted to a mosque in the future. (2)

Caliph Omar Ibn Abdulaziz tried to correct a wrongful application about the church of St John that was demolished by Walid Abdulmalik while the mosque of Damascus was being extended. Omar Ibn Abdulaziz decided to demolish the mosque in order to return the church – though the Christians did not accept it – and presented an important example of respect to law and treaties.

There are a lot of worshipping places that were present before Islam and that are still preserved today. The monastery of St. Catherine, which was built in the 3rd century, is an important place still visited today. Because it was one of the first worshipping places of Christianity and has a very high value for Christians, it was not converted to a mosque; only a small room of it was chosen by Muslims to pray as a memory. When it is looked at from outside, the scenery with a small minaret and a bell tower at the foot of Mount Sinai shows the attitude of Muslim towards non-Muslims and proves the understanding of real dialogue, surviving so many events and standing today. The fact that some of the monasteries that were present (in the geography of todays Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Anatolia) during the Islamic conquests survived and reached XXI century is a manifestation of the respect and protection of Muslims beyond tolerance.

We can say the following as a summary: Our Prophet (PBUH) assured Christians that their churches would not be demolished. There is no information in the early documents that he put forward any conditions for this assurance. Later after the conquests some new situations emerged in the treaties. They were the conversion of some churches to mosques and their confiscation, because Muslims first established their mosques when they conquered a place. The establishment of mosques in that city was important because it showed the sovereignty of Muslims and their religious identity. Therefore in some cities depending on the situation some churches were shared with Christians temporarily. (3)

c. Religious Discussions between Muslims and Non-Muslims and the Tolerance shown to them

Islam shows its general attitude towards the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) through many verses in the Quran. Its best interpreter and executor, Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) formed a framework of it.

The People of the Book were at first warned about the issues that they were mistaken, and they were invited to the same belief that was present in the essence of the heavenly religions. Muslims were warned about their persistent orientations and deliberate enmities, and it was emphasized that conveying the truth should be carried out through the best methods and wisely (al-Ankaboot 46). Apart from it, Islam brought principles like respect to all kinds of thought, not forcing people to accept certain ideas, and regarded it relevant for zimmis too since they were a part of the community.

Non-Muslims who accepted to live under the rule of a different belief within the framework of those principles took advantage of the freedom of religion and conscience offered by Islam. Interestingly, none of the western scientists who claimed that zimmis who lived under the rule of Islam were oppressed in many ways – about clothes, taxes, churches, etc – mentioned anything about freedom of belief and thought. It shows that non-Muslims living in Islamic communities enjoyed the freedoms of defending and discussing their beliefs and values easily.

The most important aspect to be mentioned is that it is the Quran which started the discussion of interreligious beliefs. When it is taken into account that the Quran invited members of Christianity and other religions to religious discussions, and the freedom of thought both in the early period of Islam and later, and even during the Crusades, it will not be possible to say that the people living under Islamic rule had any oppression and did not have the opportunity to discuss religious matters. (4)

It is not possible to say that Muslims had difficulty in dealing with the different religions and schools, especially Christians in the conquered countries because Muslims were informed about the other religions by the Quran and became familiar with them. It is an indisputable fact that from the very beginning there were always mutual discussions, verbal criticisms, written criticisms or defenses in the communities under Islamic rule in which zimmis were a part. What is more, in time some of these verbal discussions were reported by narrators or rarely even by the people who discussed. (5)

Christians were always able to discuss their ideas, and they were never prevented from defending their religions, beliefs and values in the environment of respect beyond tolerance in terms of the freedom of religion and conscience. A lot of books and booklets were written by Christians related to these issues.

The discussions recorded between the Jacobean Patriarch of Antioch Jean I and a commander of Islamic army, the Jacobean Patriarch of Egypt and Amr Ibn al-As, a Nestorian priest and a Muslim can be recalled here. When one of the prominent Christian theologians, John of Damascus, and his follower Abu Qurra put forward ideas that criticized Islam they were shown tolerance and given necessary answers. The conversations between the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy and Caliph al-Mahdi, discussions between members of different religions in the presence of al-Mamun are known today, and booklets containing some of those discussions reached today.

d. Tolerance Shown in Bureaucracy

It is noticed that Christians (in general non-Muslims) were not employed during the first periods of Islam although there was a need for them. However, it is known that beginning from the rule of Umayyads in Damascus where there was an intense Christian population, Christians were widely employed in government offices. In the state of Abbasids that was supported by large masses of people, Christians along with various groups were shown tolerance and employed in government offices. There were some people who could not bear this tolerance. One of the most important reasons why people were led to have wrong feelings is that they lacked tolerance education. It is thought that Caliphs preferred daily political solutions. Although non-Muslims were employed in bureaucracy due to the need for them, it is also regarded as a result of tolerance.

In the Abbasid bureaucracy, many Christians were employed, including the post of ministry. As it is known al-Mawardi divides ministries into two main groups as decision makers and appliers, and states that non-Muslims can be employed as the ministers of application. However, during the applications in history there were some non-Muslims who worked as decision making ministers. Ministers of Christian origin existed beginning from the rule of Abbasids. However, a Christian was employed as a decision maker minister by the Caliph al-Muttaqi Billah and by the Buwayhid dynast Adud ad-Dawlah. It is known that al-Khiraqi, one of the scholars during the reign of al-Muttaqi Billah, who lived about a century before al-Mawardi has a positive regarding this issue. It is noticeable that in a lot of states established by Muslims after those dates the employment of Christians as ministers continued.

In many periods of the states established in the first five centuries of Islam, Christians were appointed as chiefs of villages, bankers, clerks, doctors, - though they were exempt from military service because they paid jizyah – soldiers in the Islamic army, chiefs of military centers, as special deputies, guards of sellers, administrators, police chiefs, etc. Apart from these posts, they were also employed as governors, measurement officials of the river Nile, administrators of government lands and even alms officials in the course of time.

Due to their build-up and great talents they were employed in medicine and related issues as palace doctors or in the establishment of hospitals and they were shown respect. The activities of translation were started by them. They formed the basis for Bayt-ul Hikmah (House of Wisdom). Their social life has always been welcomed with tolerance. Especially the doctors who worked in the palace were regarded as members of the family, they could enter the rooms of the Caliph and his relatives without permission; they could worship both in their homes and in the palace easily. Their demands of permission to build churches on behalf of their congregations were received with tolerance.

It is known that Ahtal, who had an important place in the Umayyad palace as a poet of palace, took part in the palace meetings with his special clothes and cross on his neck; let alone being tolerated, he was treated with great respect because of his poems recited against Arab opposition members. A lot of Christian poets came to the palace and recited their poems and received rewards during the Abbasid period. Apart from supporting art, it should be regarded as more important to show respect and tolerance to the works of other cultures.

e. Some Pictures from Social Life and Tolerance:

Maybe one of the most striking examples of Islamic tolerance is the fact that non-Muslims were not isolated to live in certain districts like ghettos. It is known that the first period conquerors moved to the houses and streets where Christians lived and that Christians and Muslims lived in the same city for centuries.

Throughout history many states generally tried to change the cultures, beliefs and values of the countries they ruled. It was recorded by historians that before Islam, the members of religions whose origins were the same often oppressed each other and even destroyed the worshipping places of people of other beliefs. It is seen that Islam closed the doors that could lead to such attitudes through the principles it emphasized and made it possible to live together based on the principles of respect and tolerance. Its distinguished examples were presented by the Messenger of Allah himself and the Four Caliphs. It can be said that in the periods after them the social life experienced together with Christians – if some mistakes that need to thought about and that lessons need to be drawn are left aside - is formed from a togetherness directed towards a mutual love and understanding based on the principles of tolerance and respect. Apart from that, many issues were regarded as natural rights and endeavors were made to apply them. Even today we can draw lessons from those approaches that are thought to be left in the ancient pages of history. We think that today we need to experience those nice examples and maintain the by increasing their number more than in the past. (6)

f. Legal Status of non-Muslims:

The foundations of zimmah (covenant) are based on the applications of the Prophet (PBUH) depending on the verse of jizyah. The Messenger of Allah sent envoys to the People of the Book and made contracts with them on the order of the Quran that wanted the alternatives of war or jizyah to be presented to them.

The status of zimmi was applied in the same way during the period of the Four Caliphs, who were his successors. Apart from the application of zimmi status for the People of the Book with whom contracts were made, Hazrat Umar applied the status of zimmi not prisoners of war for the people of the regions that were conquered as a result of wars and showed a great example of humanism to non-Muslims. So, those people that surrendered through contracts or wars were accepted as zimmis.

The status of zimmi, in essence, depends on accepting the sovereignty of Islam by paying a certain amount of tax. Zimmis that preferred to live on the land of Islam by paying jizyah gained a legal status primarily. In return, they gained rights like security of life and estate, freedom of religion and conscience, exemption from military service, return of jizyah if necessary, the possibility of applying their own laws and allocation from the treasury. They even paid less tax than Muslims.

As Arnold mentions rightly, jizyah was not something taken to oppress Christians but to protect them. (7)

In return for it zimmis were given the guarantee of protection. During the first conquest movements, when the Byzantines wanted to launch an attack in order to make Muslim armies withdraw, Muslims returned the taxes they had collected because they understood that they would not be able to protect zimmis; This attitude influenced the people of the region deeply. (8)

The words of Hazrat Ali Zimmah is signed with the principle that their estate is our estate and their blood is our blood are very important in determining the status of zimmis in accordance with Islam. (9)

It will be useful to mention the following in defining the status of zimmis under the sovereignty of Islam. As it is known when zimmis got old they were allocated some money and they were looked after. The following words that Hazrat Umar said to an old zimmi are very famous: It wont be right to take jizyah from you when you are young and to leave you as you are when you are old. (10) It is known that Hazrat Umar allocated some money from zakat (alms) income to the Christians of Jabiyah suffering from leprosy and that he helped them.

It is seen that Hanafis regard non-Muslims as people of dar (a kind of citizens with a contract) due to that application and similar ones.

g. Legal Problems and the Laws to be applied to Zimmis

It is stated in the Quran that the religious communities living under the rule of Islam are free to apply their religious rule in all phases of their lives; it is also stated that Muslims are free to hear their cases if they apply to Muslims, and that if Muslims prefer to hear their cases, Muslims will decide in accordance with the rules that Allah sent down to Muslims.

h. Other Social Relations and some Information about the Social Life of Christians

Marriages: According to the Quran there is no drawback in marrying the woman of the People of the Book. The effort to pave the way for more people know Islam and see the reality of Islam should be sought in the base of this permission presented by Islam. It is generally thought that the values a man owns have a stronger influence on the culture of family and environment. In this regard, if it is considered that a Muslims being a good example to the people around him, which is also aimed by the Quran, will enhance the Islamization process, it will be seen that the best way to do it will be living together. Therefore the pursuit of such wisdom outweighs in marrying a woman of the People of the Book.

Marriages with women of the People of the Book beginning from the first conquests should perhaps be regarded as the most original aspect of the religious tolerance. If what lies on the basis of non-Muslim Muslim relationship is humane behavior and good treatment, our religion has no weaknesses regarding this issue, and actually it is too tolerant. We get married to Jewish people and Christians, and we take them into our homes. In this case, Muslim man will show respect to the religious applications and culture of his wife, he will tolerate the issues that conflict his belief (for instance, bread and wine ritual, taking alcohol, eating pork and worshipping in the church).

Trade: Our Prophet (PBUH) did business with zimmis in the community he lived and did not say anything against doing business with them.

In the Islamic community, the best examples of tolerance and respect were experienced in the most vivid field of social life like trading with non-Muslims, lending and borrowing money. There are a lot of Muslims who borrow from the People of the Book. The fact that Jewish people and Christians prevail in trade and in some important sectors shows the tolerance, and there is no example showing that this right was withdrawn.

It should be accepted that during the periods of both Umayyads and Abbasids, the trade volume of especially big cities was quite high. Some of the zimmis living there carried out various handcrafting and trading activities. Each region of the vast country had production fields peculiar to them, and some of those productions were carried out by Jewish people and Christians. So, it can be said that trade relations, maybe because they were the most continuous and compulsory relations, are better than other relations.

The fact that the meat of the animals slaughtered by them is eaten by Muslims: It is stated in the Quran that the meat of the animals slaughtered by the People of the Book is halal (permissible) as a natural necessity of living together and mutual assistance and also to ensure the communities to socialize. (11) (al-Maeda, 5)

In general, the Muslim of the first period ate the meat of the animals slaughtered by the People of the Book readily. They understood the verse as definite and did not need to seek certain conditions and limitations. (12)

According to Imam Muhammad there is no drawback in eating the food – bread, cheese, etc - produced by Christians. (13)

1. Levent Öztürk, Asr-ı Saadetten Haçlı Seferlerine Kadar İslâm Toplumunda Hıristiyanlar, İstanbul 1998, p.471-476.
2. See al-Aqqad, al-Abqariyyatul'l- Islamiyya, Beirut 1968, 427-428; Muhammad Husayn Haykal, al-Faruku Umar, Kahire 1963-1964, 1, 258-260.
3. Levent Öztürk, Asr-ı Saadetten Haçlı Seferlerine Kadar İslâm Toplumunda Hıristiyanlar, p.118-119.
4. Ignaz Goldziher, Ehl-i Kitaba Karşı İslâm Polemiği, (trcm. Cihat Tunç), AÜİİED, Ankara 1982, V,154.
5. Levent Öztürk, Asr-ı Saadetten Haçlı Seferlerine Kadar İslâm Toplumunda Hıristiyanlar, s.261-263.
6. Levent Öztürk, İslâm Toplumunda Hıristiyanlara Gösterilen Hoşgörü Örnekleri (İlk Beş Asır), Sakarya Ün. İlahiyat Fak. Dergisi, 4/2001, p. 25-37.
7. Thomas W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, London 1913, p.60-61.
8. See. Abu Yusuf, Kitabul- Haraj, s.139; Belazuri, ibid. p.187.
9. Sarahsi, Sharhu Siyaril- Kabir, Qahira 1971, III, 250.
10. Ibn Qayyim, Ahkamu Ahliz-Zimma,, Beirut 1983, I,38; Ibn Sad, at-Tabaqatul- Kubra, Beirut 1957-1960, I,380.
11. Bukhari, Zabaih was-Sayd 22.
12. Ibn Qayyim, Ahkam, 251-252.
13. Sarahsi, Sharhu Siyaril- Kabir, I,146,148.

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