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Beyond 'Tolerance' and 'Intolerance': Deconstructing the Myth of the Islamic Golden Age

[Qutub Shahi Tombs, Ibrahim Bagh, Hyderabad, India. Image by Nagarjun Kandukuru via Flickr] [Qutub Shahi Tombs, Ibrahim Bagh, Hyderabad, India. Image by Nagarjun Kandukuru via Flickr]

Like many other concepts that shape our understanding of medieval history, the idea of a “Muslim Golden Age” is a historiographical construct. It promotes the notion that, until at least the early thirteenth century, the Muslim world experienced an era of unprecedented stability, prosperity, and cultural production. More particularly, it emphasizes that the period between roughly the ninth century and the thirteenth century (sometimes extended to the eighteenth century in order to include the Ottomans and Mughals; the Safavids are usually ignored) can be considered to represent the pinnacle of human endeavor in the Muslim world. There are many problems with this perspective. Putting aside the fact that it imposes an anachronistic framework on medieval Muslim history, its main argument that the period between the eighth century and the thirteenth century can be characterized mainly by tolerance, cultural efflorescence, political unity, and religious harmony is contrary to many of the facts that one encounters upon reading the history of the various civilizations which are subsumed under the category of “Islamic civilization,” a phrase which conceals the linguistic, cultural, intellectual, theological, and political diversity of the lands in which Muslims resided during the medieval and early modern periods. This is to say nothing of the fact that the narratives promoted by these “Golden Age” perspectives are usually a reworking of official histories that do not take into account the realities of marginalized groups during the same period. The “Golden Age” perspective is also problematic because it is in many ways reactionary and a response to the many political, religious, and intellectual challenges faced by the Muslim world in the modern period. History, or rather particular historical narratives about a “Golden Age,” therefore becomes an important repository for the “greatness of Islamic civilization” and a refuge in which Muslims can seek solace in order to refute the idea–promoted mainly by those hostile to Islam–that Muslim civilization was, is, and always will be characterized by death, destruction and chaos.

One of the main ways that Muslims seek to undermine “Orientalist” notions of the decadence of Muslim civilization is therefore by promoting a narrative of a glorious and illustrious Muslim “Golden Age” in which civilization in the Middle East flourished for centuries under the auspices of Islamic ideology. (It is interesting to note here that many Orientalists were not the originators of the decline thesis and many Orientalist scholars themselves played a role in fomenting interest in the so-called “Golden Age.”) The emphasis on a “Muslim Golden Age” is therefore usually not based on any comprehensive engagement with historical sources or a yearning to discover the actual reality of medieval and early modern Muslim history. At its core, the project is purely reactionary and seeks to provide Muslims with the ideological armor they need to withstand modernist critiques against their civilization. Unfortunately, however, in the course of doing so the “Golden Age” paradigm tends to subject historical facts to its narrow ideological interests. In other words, the nuances of Muslim history and civilization are completely obscured in the face of broad, sweeping statements geared towards emphasizing not only the uprightness, but even the absolute supremacy of Muslim civilization, as it was believed to have manifested between the ninth century and the eighteenth century. It is at this point where history ceases to be a critical intellectual endeavor and instead becomes polemic and apologetics.  In this piece, I look at one simple example of how the “Golden Age” perspective obstructs a serious understanding of Muslim history by looking at the theme of “tolerance” and “intolerance.”

Tolerance vs. Intolerance

“Saladin was the most tolerant man of his age” is an assertion that one commonly encounters among many individuals and groups who promote the notion of an “Islamic Golden Age.” Sometimes we are even told that religious tolerance was unknown in Christian Europe, while it supposedly thrived in the Islamic world. Such statements are even repeated in more mainstream intellectual circles as well, although with more sophisticated argumentation and sourcing. However, a serious historical engagement with medieval history will show that Saladin was not exactly the anomaly that he is often portrayed as being. He could easily be compared with several non-Muslim rulers who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth century. For example, Alfonso VI of Castile-Leon (r. 1077-1109), James I of Aragon (r. 1213-1276), or Roger II of Sicily (r. 1130-1154), all of whom tolerated large numbers of Muslims and Jews who lived under their rule; Alfonso VI adopted the title “Emperor of the Two Religions” to underscore his commitment to his Muslim subjects and Roger II was known as “the baptized sultan” for his gracious treatment of Muslims and promotion of Arabic culture. As a matter of fact, in the fifteenth century, there were probably more Muslims living under Christian rule in Spain than those who lived under Muslim rule. Indeed, a major codex of Islamic law–the Brevario Sunna–was compiled in Spanish by Yca de Segovia (ca. 1450) during this period for use by the Hispano-Muslims. However, these facts are problematic for many Muslims who seek to further the “Golden Age” perspective because it undermines their emphasis on an Islamic exceptionalism, which Saladin is seen as representing.

“Tolerance” (defined strictly in the medieval context of accepting the existence, but not the legitimacy, of “the other”) can therefore be found on either side of the civilizational divide in the Middle Ages. It had both champions and opponents in Christendom and the Islamic world. Moreover, practice did not often reflect theory. It is therefore baseless to try and claim that Christendom (not confined to Europe) or Muslim civilization was inherently more tolerant (or intolerant). Tolerance, a category that is itself very difficult to define in the medieval context, is something that extends far beyond the tally of atrocities or examples of coexistence on each side of the civilizational divide. It was also ever changing, malleable and deployed at different times for a variety of reasons. It would be a mistake to try and identify anything resembling the modern idea or principle of tolerance, much less impose it as a definitive category, on the Middle Ages. “Golden Age” paradigms not only take the existence of tolerance for granted, but they assert that it was the preserve of a specific civilization. The example of the promotion of Saladin as an exemplary model of tolerance is a case in point. While it is mentioned that he was “tolerant” (a better word would be chivalrous) towards his enemies, there are some key aspects of his career which are omitted by the promoters of the “Muslim Golden Age” paradigm. Saladin demonstrated in his own lifetime that he could be as cruel as any contemporary European monarch, having ruthlessly executed hundreds of unarmed men (Templars and Hospitallers) following the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Indeed, his initial goal was to conquer Jerusalem by force and to slaughter or enslave the inhabitants as a way of avenging the Crusader conquest of 1099, the memory of which was still fresh in the minds of many contemporary Muslims. Moreover, when he finally accepted the surrender of Jerusalem, he imposed the condition that hundreds of its Christian inhabitants would be sold into slavery (unless they could buy their freedom; the ransom was ten dinars for men, five for women, and one for children). During his reign, the great mystical philosopher Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191) was also executed (by crucifixion) for dissenting from the established “orthodoxy” and the Fatimid libraries of Cairo, repositories of hundreds of thousands of works, were destroyed and looted by his troops. Hardly a flattering marker of tolerance, even by medieval Muslim standards. These facts are clearly laid out in the contemporary “Life of Saladin” written by Bahauddin, Saladin’s close companion and chronicler, and Imad al-Din al-Isfahani’s contemporary chronicle of the Crusades. So much for the exemplary tolerance of Saladin. (As an interesting aside, it is notable that the popularization of the legend of Saladin as a “chivalrous knight” and an example of tolerance was partially a product of many of the efforts of European Orientalists during the late nineteenth century).

Another myth that Islamic Golden Age writers like to promote is the idea of medieval Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) as a haven of tolerance and coexistence. Although it is certainly true that there was a large degree of coexistence of faiths in medieval Spain and some important examples of toleration, there was also a great deal of intolerance. In fact, some of the most brutal episodes in Islamic history occurred in al-Andalus. In 1066 a Muslim mob murdered nearly 4000 Jews in Granada (the first major pogrom to occur in Europe), while in the twelfth century the Almohad dynasty forced all Jews and Christians in al-Andalus and North Africa to convert to Islam (or choose exile); among the most important of these exiles was the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (d. 1204). The works of various Muslim philosophers and theologians, including both al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), were publicly burned in the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Other episodes, such as the Martyrs of Cordoba (851-859) and destruction of Santiago de Compostela (999), also show that al-Andalus cannot simply be reduced to a paradise of tolerance. The existence of oppressive institutions, such as slavery and the social stratification of Andalusi society also underscores this point. However, just as we should not claim that al-Andalus was a haven of tolerance based on several examples and anecdotes, we should also not reduce Andalusi history to a sequence of ravages and massacres, as some anti-Islamic thinkers have done.

Iranian, Turkish, and South Asian Muslim history also abounds with episodes of intolerance and atrocities. Timur is said to have left several towers of 100,000 skulls behind following his sack of Delhi in 1399. Between 1501 and 1520, the Safavid dynasty violently and forcefully imposed Shi‘i doctrine upon the Iranian plateau, murdering tens of thousands of Sunnis, while the Ottoman sultan Selim I had about 40,000 Shi‘a killed in Anatolia between 1512 and 1515 alone. The mutual excommunication of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires also demonstrates that, even in intra-Muslim relations, intolerance could thrive. However, this list of atrocities does not mean we should take these developments out of their specific context and justify using them to paint an image of medieval Muslim civilization as a bastion of savagery and intolerance. Just as any rational person would reject the construction of a grand narrative of Islamic history based on this list of atrocities, so too should the grand narratives that are built upon anecdotes of toleration and coexistence also be problematized.

There are hundreds of other examples that can be deployed to “demonstrate” the violence of Islamic civilization, just as hundreds of examples can be cited to “prove” the toleration of the medieval and early modern Islamic world and the shining examples of art and literature that were produced as a result of inter-faith and inter-cultural cooperation. It is very irresponsible to take either the examples of “tolerance” or the examples of “intolerance” and string them together into a narrative that sets out to cast the Muslim world in a particular (polemical) light. It is worth mentioning that many of the same dynasties and civilizations responsible for much of the intellectual flowering, magnificent monuments and cultural production during the early modern period were also capable of the worst examples of intolerance. This is something that is worth paying more attention to and it just underscores the uselessness of “Golden Age” (or “Dark Age”) paradigms that reduce the complexity of civilization to a singular mode of conduct without taking into account that very often “tolerance” and “intolerance” were by-products of the same civilization.  The problem with the “Muslim Golden Age” paradigm, moreover, is that it does not acknowledge the complexity of Muslim societies and history and tends to gloss over inconvenient realities (read: facts) in its attempt to portray a rosy picture of the Islamic past. This is no different than how many anti-Islamic propagandists seek to demonize Muslims today by pointing to the less-than-rosy anecdotes drawn from the Muslim past. In any case, to reduce a civilization–any civilization–to a mere category of “tolerant” or “intolerant,” is therefore to exhibit major ignorance of the reality of human societies. It is best relegated to the realm of polemic or apologetic.

For a more nuanced perspective of medieval tolerance/intolerance, see:

Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims, and ‘Pagans in Medieval Hungary, 1000-1300 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Anne-Marie Edde, Saladin (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press, 2011).

Yohanan Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Hubert Houben, Roger II of Sicily: A Ruler between East and West (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Reza-Shah Kazemi, The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam (London, UK: I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2012).

Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,1992).

Maria Rosa Menocal. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston, Massachusetts: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2003).

R.I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

Cary Nederman, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, 1100-1550 (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2000).

David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: The Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Alex Novikoff, “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Iberia: An Historiographical Enigma,” Medieval Encounters 11 (2005): 7-36.

Janina Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2013).

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