One of the commonest charges brought against Islam historically, and as a religion, by Western writers is that it is intolerant. This is turning the tables with a vengeance when one remembers various facts:
One remembers that not a Muslim is left alive in Spain or Sicily or Apulia.
Not a Muslim was left alive and not a mosque left standing in Greece after the great rebellion in 1821.
One remembers how the Muslims of the Balkan peninsula, once the majority, have been systematically reduced with the approval of the whole of Europe, how the Christian under Muslim rule have in recent times been urged on to rebel and massacre the Muslims, and how reprisals by the latter have been condemned as quite uncalled for.
In Spain under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid Khalifas, Christians and Jews, equally with Muslims, were admitted to the Schools and universities; not only that, but were boarded and lodged in hostels at the cost of the state.
When the Moors were driven out of Spain, the Christian conquerors held a terrific persecution of the Jews. Those who were fortunate enough to escape fled, some of them to Morocco and many hundreds to the Turkish empire, where their descendants still live in separate communities, and still speak among themselves an antiquated form of Spanish. The Muslim empire was a refuge for all those who fled from persecution by the Inquisition.
The western Christians, till the arrival of the Encyclopaedists in the 18th century, did not know and did not care to know, what the Muslim believed, nor did the Western Christian seek to know the views of Eastern Christians with regard to them.
The Christian Church was already split in two, and in the end, it came to such a pass that the Eastern Christians, as Gibbon shows, preferred Muslim rule, which allowed them to practice their own form of religion and adhere to their peculiar dogmas, to the rule of fellow Christians who would have made them Roman Catholics or wiped them out.
The western Christians called the Muslims pagans, paynims, even idolaters. There are plenty of books in which they are described as worshiping an idol; and in the accounts of the conquest of Granada there are even descriptions of the monstrous idols, which they were alleged to worship, whereas the Muslims knew what Christianity was, and in what respects it differed from Islam.
If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in those days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension.
That was the kind of “history” on which the populace in Western Europe used to be fed. Those were the ideas which inspired the rank and file of the crusader in their attacks on the most civilized peoples of those days.
Christendom regarded the outside world as damned eternally, and Islam did not. There were good and tender-hearted men in Christendom who thought it sad that any people should be damned eternally, and wished to save them by the only way they knew — conversion to the Christian faith.
It was not until the western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture.
Therefore the difference evident in that anecdote is not of manners only but of religion. Of old, tolerance had existed here and there in the world, among enlightened individuals; but those individuals had always been against the prevalent religion.
Tolerance was regarded of un-religious, if not irreligious. Before the coming of Islam it had never been preached as an essential part of religion.
For the Muslims, all three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are but three forms of one religion, which, in its original purity, was the religion of Abraham: Al-Islam, that perfect Self-Surrender to the Will of God, which is the basis of Theocracy. The Jews, in their religion, after Moses, limited God’s mercy to their chosen nation and thought of His kingdom as the dominion of their race.
Even Christ himself, as several of his sayings show, declared that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and seemed to regard his mission as to the Hebrews only; and it was only after a special vision vouchsafed to St. Peter that his followers in after days considered themselves authorized to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The Christians limited God’s mercy to those who believed certain dogmas. Every one who failed to hold the dogmas was an outcast or a miscreant, to be persecuted for his or her soul’s good. In Islam only is manifest the real nature of the Kingdom of God.
The two verses (2:255-256) of the Quran are supplementary.
Where there is that realization of the majesty and dominion of Allah Almighty, there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their path — allegiance or opposition — and it is sufficient punishment for those who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of truth.
What Muslims do not generally consider is that this law applies to our own community just as much as to the folk outside, the laws of Allah being universal.
Intolerance of Muslims for other men’s opinions and beliefs is evidence that they themselves have, at the moment, forgotten the vision of the majesty and mercy of Allah Almighty, which the Quran presents to them.
An abridged version of Pickthall’s lecture that he gave on several aspects of Islamic civilization at the invitation of The Committee of “Madras Lectures on Islam” in India, in 1927.