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Religious Tolerance |
Submission and survival

Religious Tolerance is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 176, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Muslim empire’s treatment of Christians and Jews was far from consistently bad, but discrimination and taxation were invariably the lot of the ‘People of the Book’

Religious Tolerance - Submission and survival

Religious Tolerance - Submission and survival
A Coptic textile from the time of the Muslim conquest (above). Skilled artisans and administrators who shunned Islam might still prosper, but under the rule of the caliphs Christians and Jews were clearly second-class citizens.

Muslims believe that their Prophet specified a place of the highest honor for Jesus, whom they call Isa. Christ, according to the Qur’an, was born of a virgin. He healed the sick and raised the dead. As the true Messiah, Isa will return one day to rule all of humanity. In contrast, one traditional Hadith (saying) portrays Muhammad as humbly uncertain even of securing a place in heaven. The Arab Prophet exalted the Jewish Isa as the breath of God, the spirit of God, and the Word of God. But he also fiercely condemned the central doctrine of Christianity: that Jesus is God incarnate who died to redeem mankind.

The Creator, Muhammad insisted, is too august ever to procreate. Sura 4:171 states, “. . . Allah is only one God; far be it from his glory that he should have a Son, whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is his, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector.” Furthermore, Jesus did not die on a cross, nor did he die at all. The Qur’an maintains that God took Jesus directly to himself (Sura 4:157—158) without death. By mistake, the Jews crucified a scapegoat–a common Muslim speculation holds that the executed substitute may have been the arch-traitor Judas–rather than the Messiah.

Equally alien to Muhammad was the core of Christ’s ethical teaching and behavior. Where Jesus preached love even toward enemies, Muhammad taught that anyone dying in battle against the human foes of Islam would gain eternal bliss. Where Christ insisted that salvation comes through belief in him, the Arab Prophet said every man’s sins will be weighed against his virtuous acts.1 While Jesus personally rejected earthly power and his followers have debated deeply about its usage, the words and deeds of Islam’s founder constitute an outright instruction to grasp earthly power.

The Prophet’s attitude toward Christ’s followers evolved over the course of his life. Initially, he hoped for ready acceptance. Sura 5:83 states: “And when they [i.e., Christians] hear what has been revealed to the apostle [i.e., Muhammad] you will see their eyes overflowing with tears on account of the truth that they recognize. . . .” But disappointingly, few Christians accepted Muhammad’s message willingly. So the new faith resorted to force. Sura 9:29, for instance, admonishes: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and his apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth. . . .” No limit is placed on this battle until victory is achieved. To Christians and Jews who submitted to Islamic rule, Islam granted the right to live as second-class citizens. These fellow “Peoples of the Book” had to pay a special head tax, known as a jizya, “in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection” (Sura 9:29). (To be fair, Christians faced with the practical pressures and temptations of government have often adopted discriminatory policies.)

Believers within Islam are consistently enjoined to do battle against infidels. The concept of jihad–a word meaning “struggle”–has two interpretations: the outward fight against unbelievers, and in a tradition that developed much later, the inner struggle with one’s own human nature. The Prophet himself habitually waged holy war, to the point of ordering the secret assassinations of several people who had mocked him.

Muslims who maintain that their religion is not committed to incessant war with all non-Muslim nations can make several points based on their scripture. Muhammad usually couched his discussions of war in terms of defense. Also, the Prophet’s directives were forged within the context of the Arabian Peninsula, the only place that he knew well. Take, for instance, the order that all polytheists must be exterminated unless they immediately accept Islam.2 That sura was practicable regarding Bedouin tribes who still worshiped their traditional gods. But no Muslim leader aspired to a universal slaughter of the Hindus, conquered later by the tens of millions.

On the basis of the Qur’an, early Muslim theologians divided the world into the Dar al-Islam (the House of Submission) and the Dar al-Harb (the House of War). Within the Islamic realm, harmony should prevail as long as the dhimmis3 behaved submissively. Muslim rulers dealing with the war realm controlled by non-Muslims are permitted to make temporary truces, as Muhammad did himself when he had no practical alternative. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal remains conquest of the entire Dar al-Harb.

The Qur’anic requirement that dhimmis remain visibly humbled would take many forms in centuries to come. Dhimmi orphans were routinely conscripted into Islam. Dhimmi testimony was unacceptable in a Muslim court. On occasion, government regulations required Christians and Jews to be officially slapped in public when paying their annual inferiority tax, to wear a neck tag indicating that the tax had been paid, to ride no animal more noble than a donkey, to keep their houses and shops lower in height than their Muslim neighbors, to remain unemployed if a suitable Muslim could be found, to always pass a Muslim on the inferior left side rather than the right, and much more.

Perhaps the most onerous curtailment on Christians, however, was the prohibition on the preaching of the gospel. Any attempt to influence Muslims towards Christianity was punishable by death. Even church bells could not be rung. Any Muslim who converted to Christianity was subject to execution. And while Muslim tourists have been welcome to visit St. Peter’s in Rome or any other Christian holy place, the penalty for a Christian found in Mecca or Medina remains execution. However, some Christians see in these draconian rules an implicit acknowledgement of the power of the cross, the New Testament, and Christian witness. These instruments are so feared that Muslim authorities still commonly feel constrained to ban them on pain of death.

Yet Islam’s treatment of Christians was far from consistently bad. Upon conquering new territory, Arabic and later Turkish rulers sometimes lowered taxes on their new Christian subjects, an obvious way to reduce the impulse toward revolt. Skilled dhimmis populated the upper ranks of Muslim administrations for centuries in Cairo, Baghdad and elsewhere. Cash-strapped Muslim regimes often discouraged dhimmis from converting because their treasuries would lose significant revenue from the head tax imposed on infidels.

But thanks to taxation and social discrimination, punctuated by outbreaks of stunning violence, the overall condition of dhimmitude remained thoroughly unpleasant. “With the passing centuries, Christian populations that formerly constituted majorities dwindled to minorities–even disappearing from certain regions,” the Egyptian-born Jewish sociologist Bat Ye’or reminded an academic conference at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in 1996. During the twentieth century, Muslims continued slaughtering large numbers of dhimmis. The toll from jihad and dhimmitude has continued until the present day, claiming victims from Indonesia to New York City and Washington, D.C.

1. The role of divine grace versus human works in individual salvation has long generated passionate discussion within Christianity. Islam’s perspective on this subtle question is illustrated by Sura 8:29: “O you who believe! If you are careful of (your duty to) Allah, he will grant you a distinction and do away with your evils and forgive you; and Allah is the Lord of mighty grace.”

2. Sura 9:5: “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters [i.e., polytheists] wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is forgiving, merciful.”

3. An Arabic word meaning “protected” which was applied by the Arab—Muslim conquerors to indigenous non-Muslim populations who surrendered by a treaty (dhimma) to Muslim domination.

This is the end of the Religious Tolerance category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 176, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Religious Tolerance from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at