Tolerance, Perfection and Progress

My previous post on tolerance in Islamic societies of the past linked to most of the debate in the blogosphere. A number of other bloggers have written about Disaffected Muslim’s criticisms, e.g., Shia Pundit, Elham and TheBit. This post is not to criticize Disaffected Muslim since a number of her criticisms are valid but their way of expression makes it difficult for me to take them seriously (I belong to the Volokh school of polite criticism). I mostly agree with TheBit’s post.

Regarding the comparison of the Muslim treatment of minorities to that of Christendom, I think everyone agrees that the Muslim world was better.

Buscaraons wrote:

In general, I agree with him [Ideofact] that Jews had an awful time during the medieval period in Europe. However, I still disagree with him of just how relatively more tolerent medieval Islamic society was in comparision to European society. I’m not denying that Islamic society was ahead of the Europeans; it was.

Ideofact has this to say:

In this discussion of tolerance, I am particularly focusing on the rights granted to minorities by the majority culture. In medieval Europe, that means discussing the relations of the Latin Christians to deviant Christian sects and to non-Christians, a group that, except for a few brief moments, was strictly limited to Jews. In the Islamic realm, there were multiple groups — Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, African animists, and Buddhists. Some groups fared better than others — animists were regarded as polytheists, and given a choice of conversion or death. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were monotheists. The relations with Hindus were more complex; sometimes they were regarded as polytheists and brutally suppressed, at other times they fell under the “Sabian” exception, and were tolerated. While none of these groups enjoyed the same rights as Muslims, all of them fared better than Jews in Medieval Europe.

Disaffected Muslim says something similar in a roundabout way:

Eventually this record must be at least acknowledged by Muslims and condemned, instead of extolling how Muslims were exceedingly tolerant, respectful, and kind to non-Muslims in a fantastically rosy version of Islamic history, where the lands of Islam were not only more tolerant than Europe during the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, but the status of non-Muslims in Muslim lands compares very well with the status of religious minorities in modern states today, where those of all religions or none have the same rights and are equal citizens!

I want to focus on one specific claim by Disaffected Muslim that I mostly agree with:

I’m not talking about whether it was/was not better than Christian Europe at that time, I’m talking about the fact that plenty of Muslims see this as a fair, reasonable example of “tolerance” today, in this day and age!

I think she’s on to a valid criticism here. Quite a few Muslims, especially modern puritan ones (Wahabi is a misleading term due to a number of reasons which I’ll go into later), consider Islam to be a perfect religion not in the sense of a living, growing part of society but more like fixed in time and space to the early Islamic era in Arabia. They think that everything, like human rights, political systems, minority rights, judicial system, etc. were completely defined 1400 years ago and that was the ideal which we can’t improve on. For example, on the unrelated topic of feminism, Bushra had this to say:

Why has the Islamic world taken it [feminism] up? I don’t understand. As a Muslim woman, I believe I am to be envied. I have rights and priveledges that women through the ages could never have thought of. As early as 14 Centuries ago Muslim women were given rights of voting. The right of inheritance. The right to hold money and dispense with it as they pleased. The right of divorce, the right of choice in maritial partner. They were to be treated with dignity and respect. And while Islam says men and women are euqal, it also says that equal does not mean the same thing as identical. Everyone has their roles and duties and characteristics.

Most Muslim scholars from the middle ages would be really surprised to hear that. It’s also wrong in the sense that it freezes society in time. If Islam is universal, it has to cater to people everywhere for all time. So there has to be progress in society. Most scholars and philosophers in the heyday of Muslim world recognized it, but the puritans today don’t.

The concept of tolerance, human rights, women’s rights, etc. has changed quite a lot in the last millenium (mostly for the better). For example, slavery today is considered evil and barbaric, but it was a normal thing in the 7th century and even in the 18th. Islam allowed slavery to continue at that time, but does anyone believe that we should have slavery today? (Note: I have a post or two in the pipeline on slavery).

Similarly, the rights allowed to minorities varied over time and place in the Muslim world, but were in general not comparable to what we like to see today.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

9 thoughts on “Tolerance, Perfection and Progress”

  1. also-islam tends to look back to golden ages too much. for instance, muslims believe that everyone is born a muslim-that non-muslims revert to islam, that islam is the primal religion, that adam was muslim, etc. etc. and so forth. this doesn’t help in arguing for progress into the future when the past was so idyllic.

    note that this has afflicted other societies as well.

    oh, and zack, could you allow us to change the size of the pop-up windows for comments? the window is so small that there is a scroll bar at the bottom.

  2. The only way in which genuine progress will be made by Muslims is when we recognise that ‘morals’ are different from ‘laws’. Our scholars need to define the moral teachings of Islam, free of legalism. Then we can build our legal structures upon this Qur’anic morality.

    If we can produce, in the first instance, for the individual Muslim, an “Islamic ethic”, this will be a great achievement. Society starts with individuals, and to produce a “moral” society is surely to produce individuals with a positive ethical attitude. Everything else (law, arts, culture and so on) is a consequence of this society’s moral and ethical outlook.

    As yet, though, we seem not to have freed ourselves from the medieval heritage of stuffy and dry legalisms, which seem to have crushed any spirit in the faith.

  3. Well done, Zack, and also to you TheBit, I’ve really enjoyed your summaries and analysis on this topic. I think we can all agree that we do owe Disaffected Fatimah some measure of thanks for stimulating such insightful discussion in the Islamic Blogsphere.

  4. Razib: Comment windows are now resizeable.

    The problems you mention are a staple of all religions that claim to be universal.

    Thebit: As usual, you have some very good comments.

    Shi’a Pundit: Thanks.

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