Itís been three years since the horrifying events of September 11, 2001.
The whole world is still experiencing its aftershocks with no end in sight. But
on a more individual basis, soon after that fateful day many people began
forming considerably different views of the world they live in than they had
before. Personally, as a non-religious, secular Canadian of Egyptian-Muslim
background, I changed my own perspectives on several fronts. In particular, my
normally disinterested understanding of the relation between a religionís
teachings and the conduct of its followers turned into great curiosity.
or the first time ever I began to look at how
certain aspects of a religion, any religion,
influence its followers, either positively or
My main focus of interest was how a religion
affected the way its followers treated the
followers of other religions. After all, I never
heard a preacher of any of the so-called great
religions preach that all religions are equal,
compared to how easily they usually preach
that all races are equal, for example.
The number of times Iíve heard certain
televangelists insult Islam explicitly or
implicitly, and extol the virtues of Christianity,
putting it above all other faiths!
Whilst living in Egypt for nearly four decades,
I never heard a Muslim preacher insult
Christianity in any manner explicit or implicit.
It would be totally condemnable and
unacceptable, and we shall see why in Part
Three of this series. But they also never, ever
preached that all religions are equal. To them
Islam was and is the final revelation of the God
of Abraham, and therefore the religion all
humanity ought to follow.
Since no amount of "tolerance" or compromise
can bring a traditional clergy-man around to
declare all religions equal, this obstacle still
poisons global understanding to a great extent.
Even from the days of ancient Egypt, Pharaohs
chiselled temple walls to erase the images of
gods of previous Pharaohs. They often even
destroyed whole temples and all other signs
of the previous gods whom they replaced with
So when it comes to which god to worship,
how, and through whom, each personís religion
is the one and only. In religion and gods we are
not all equal, "we" are the best, whoever "we" is.
Since that is the case with religion, then one
of the most reliable ways to judge what any
religion is truly like toward other human beings,
is through its most difficult aspect, how it
influences the way its followers treat those
from other religions under diverse situations
But how do we assess a religion on that
criterion, do we look at its teachings on that
matter, do we look at what its holy books
advise on it, do we look at the example of its
prophets and their attitudes towards non-
believers, or what? I guess the reader will
already have formulated the obvious answer:
we can realistically assess a religion on that
matter only through the facts on the ground,
the actual behaviour of the followers of a
religion toward others.
In other words, no single issue - holy books,
holy verses, life style of prophets - can be
indicative of how a religion affects the
conduct of its followers. It is the holistic
effect of a religion as demonstrated by how
its followers actually treat others that gives
us a true picture of its workings. And one
robust way to investigate that is through its
History provides an exhaustive, concrete
written record of how diverse religious
traditions treated others across the ages under
various circumstances and situations, and
across regions of the world. Such a record
can give us a true picture of what a religion
is all about in that respect. It would certainly
tell us much more about the holistic nature
of that religion than any amount of analysis
of its teachings and holy books.
Once we establish how well or badly it
performed on that point - how it treated
those of other religions - then perhaps we
could start searching its holy books, teachings,
or whatever, for the possible reasons behind it.
That would undoubtedly be the harder task.
The first part is basically reading the
history of a religion across time and space.
That is fairly straightforward and could be easily
applied to any religion that has a written history.
So the question then is how did Christians, Jews,
Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other followers
of religions of humanity fare in their treatment
of followers of other faiths over the ages?
Focus on Islam
In looking for an answer to 9/11 in Islam, the
focus of the western media was specifically on
The Qur'an (aka The Koran) - the Islamic holy
book - and particular "verses" in it, something
I found trivial from the start. For one thing,
I knew the answer lay in politics rather than
religion. Second, I read the Old Testament in
its entirety years ago and was horrified by what
I read. But like most ancient books it did not
surprise me, and it had no relation in my mind
to what I expected of Jews, or how I viewed the
Jews I knew or did not know. I had read little
of the New Testament back then, but still there
was enough in what I had read that was very
unflattering. So religious texts were not where
I believed the answer lay, if indeed we expected
to find an answer in religion at all.
The debates I watched on American television,
and analyses I read in the media after 9/11,
rather than reasoned argument, were often full
of hate and venom hurled at Islam. Every
argument the haters made was easily refutable
and served to open my eyes further as to how
wrong they were. In fact, their arguments
could be easily turned against them, and often
applied to them alone rather than to Islam at all.
Initially, just after 9/11, my interest - like
everyone elseís - focussed on Islam. But
watching such haters ply their hatemongering
trade inevitably forced me into making
comparisons with Christianity (and to a lesser
The revelations my search led me to
regarding the three monotheistic religions -
were staggering and sobering. However, in this
analysis, I will focus mainly on Islam, with
comparisons only where they are unavoidable.
The data that eventually interested me the
most and were the most revealing dealt with
Islam and Muslims post the 9/11 tragedy up to
this day. But that begs first investigating the
history of Islam across the some 1300 years
that came before those last three years.
Centuries of Evidence
One can simply begin by stating that across
1300 years of various Islamic empires, which at
times stretched from one end of the Old World
to the other, Christians and Jews lived under
conditions that were rarely, if ever, enjoyed by
minorities under the rule of others. Even the
Ottoman Turks, known for their ruthlessness in
war, did not try to eliminate Christianity in the
Balkan nations they ruled for several centuries.
The inhabitants of the region emerged from
that extended period of Muslim rule as Christian
as ever, their holy places, monasteries, churches
and shrines intact and secure.
In that example, we see Christian peoples under
four hundred years of absolute Islamic rule,
when no NATO, no America, no power could
have stopped Muslims from doing as they
wished with their conquered subjects, and yet
they never forced those Christian populations
-which were totally at their mercy- to convert
to Islam. Neither did they exterminate them
nor ethnically cleanse them or even place
them in concentration camps or relegate them
to reservations. Any of those options they
could have easily carried out with impunity
back then, yet they never did any of that.
That reality is not only in written records, but
in the real live evidence of millions of
thriving Balkan Christians.
If Islam truly commands its followers to
kill all "infidel", as Islam haters would have
us believe, those lands would have all long
been European Islamic nations today. Serbs
would not be worrying at this time about
their sacred monasteries being damaged
during the Kosovo war, they would have
long been razed to the ground, and they, the
Serbs, long either exterminated or converted
None of the Ottoman Islamic rulers, who
came and went over the four hundred year
period did that. That's why Greeks,
Macedonians, Serbs, Bulgarians and others
remained Christian, alive and well after
centuries living under absolute Islamic rule.
In four entire centuries, not just four
decades, no Nazi-minded Islamic ruler
happened along and butchered them all,
forced them to leave, or even forced them to
convert to Islam. Mind you, one cannot
overemphasize the fact that this was all long
before human rights declarations, Geneva
conventions, United Nations organizations,
NATO, American military might, or any of that.
Some may argue that perhaps such admirable
Islamic rule was just a fluke or only confined
to that region, even for four hundred years,
hard as that may be to imagine, while in other
regions or other times, other Muslim rulers
were massacring Christians and Jews, forcing
them to convert, expelling them, etc.,
so let us explore further . . .
A quick look across the regions and ages where
Islam ruled in the world will produce the exact
same results. In Egypt, which was the seat of
several Islamic empires during some 13 centuries
of Islamic rule, there are now a reported eight to
ten million Christians living there, the original
descendants of the great ancient Egyptians. For
well over one thousand years they were not
exterminated, ethnically cleansed, or forced to
convert to Islam by the many Islamic rulers that
came and went there. They still thrive in Egypt
today, where they now, quite rightly, demand a
greater share in running the affairs of the country.
But had Islam, or The Qur'an, truly
commanded Muslims to kill non-Muslims there
wouldnít have been one Christian or Jew left in
Egypt by the 8th century, let alone millions of
them in the 20thcentury. Christians in Egypt
continued to live under Islamic rule across the
centuries, century in century out, keeping their
own churches and monasteries across the land,and worshipping in peace. They even
maintained their own Egyptian Christian
There were some limited restrictions on them,
as well as some conflicts of interest, where
Christians had to follow certain Islamic rules,
much like Muslims have to follow Canadian
law, even if it conflicts with their own belief
And every once in a while a deviant ruler
would come along and commit some wrongs
against them, but never anything like
extermination, ethnic cleansing or concentration
camps such as some peoples have committed
Not only that, but such aberrant rulers often
practised their idiosyncrasies against all their
subjects, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
So there we have the Balkans where some
400 years of Islamic rule left Christians in their
millions thriving as Christians. And then we
have Egypt where Islamic rule continued for
over 1300 years, and yet the Christians there
too emerged as Christians in their millions.
The same in Iraq, where Christians - the
descendants of the Assyrians - and Jews lived
under several great Islamic empires. Ditto,
Lebanon and Syria whose Christian and Jewish
populations are and were, respectively, sizable.
The Holy Land
But letís look at a very significant region of the
Islamic world which also remained under Islamic rule for centuries, and which had
large numbers of Christians and Jews living
all side by side with Muslims under Muslim
rule in peace and harmony. The Holy Land.
In the Holy Land, despite the massacre of
Muslims and Jews, and the desecration of
mosques and synagogues by the Christian
Crusaders when they took Jerusalem, when
Muslims retook it, Christians and their holy
sites were protected and revered, and
continue that way to this day. Those holy
sites and churches that so many Christian
pilgrims from around the world visit
nowadays are there, not thanks to NATO,
America, or Israel, but thanks to the
humanitarian, kind, merciful nature of Islam
and its followers.
Think of it, for hundreds of years the
Church of the Nativity and the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher were under absolute Muslim
rule. Those Muslims whom we are told are
ordered to kill all "infidel", those Muslims
whom we so facilely call haters of infidels,
protected those churches and many other
Christian holy sites and let Christians (and
Jews) in the Holy Land live in peace and
security under their rule.
How many people know that to this day
the key to the Church of the Nativity is held
by a Muslim family, appointed by the many
Christian denominations there because they
could not agree on which one of them would
hold that honour! Every morning the Muslim
key-keeper opens the church doors for Christians to enter.
Christian and Jewish places of worship would
have long been razed to the ground if indeed
Islam commanded any such thing.
So Muslims are ordered to kill the infidel, are
they really? Only a total racist, or a total
ignoramus could take such ludicrous accusations
Hateful, bigoted individuals in the west, look
at some bomb that exploded yesterday and
explain it, not in terms of the complex recent
political conflicts that led a few persons or
groups to commit such violence, but in terms
of the religion of those who committed the
violence. How lowly is that? If anything, it
reveals more about the accusers than about the
religion they are trying to bash.
Spain's Al Andalus
But for yet more evidence one can travel to the
extreme western borders of Islamic empire,
Spain. There, during the 400 to 800 years of
Islamic rule in what is now Spain and Portugal,
called back then by the Arabs, Al Andalus, not
only did Jews and Christians live alongside
Muslims in total harmony and prosperity, but
Christians from the rest of Europe actually
chose to flee their lands and go live under
Islamic rule where they found they could enjoy
more humane and just governance, and much
greater enlightenment than under their own
When Al Andalus finally fell to the Christian armies after 800 years
- with few exceptions - prosperous, overwhelmingly unprejudiced Islamic rule,
Muslims and Jews were persecuted and eventually forced to either convert to
Christianity or leave (many were murdered even after they converted).
The same took place in what was then the formative stages of
Portugal. Numerous Jews who fled The Inquisition took refuge in
Muslim lands, right up to the seat of the Caliph, the supreme
Muslim ruler of the Ottoman empire, in Constantinople (Istanbul).
There, along with Christian Armenians and other non-Muslim
minorities, they often held high positions in the Islamic government.
The Islamic rulers could have simply done the compassionate,
charitable thing and let them live there in peace and security under
their protection, where they could worship as they please. But to go
beyond that and actually appoint them to high positions in the Muslim
rulerís court, while they were still Christians and Jews, says a lot
about Islamís nature. And that was not in some aspiring multicultural
society in modern times, where the rules of "democracy" or
"affirmative action" demand or dictate that minorities be represented,
that was at a time when minorities were being "Inquisitioned" in other
The Indian Subcontinent
At the other end of the Islamic world we'll find even more remarkable
evidence. In the Indian subcontinent and surrounding region rose a
good number of Islamic dynasties for hundreds of years, almost all of
which were an example of tolerance and acceptance. Hindus who
came under Islamic rule were generally not forced to convert, and
indeed in some instances Islamic rulers actually adopted Hindu
traditions and incorporated them within their own Islamic traditions.
In fact, the closeness of Muslim rulers in India to their Hindu
subjects is demonstrated through one of the rare exceptions of a
deviant Muslim ruler, the infamous Tamerlane (Timur Lank), who
came from a Mongol tribe in Central Asia that had newly adopted
Tamerlane waged war on the Muslim rulers of India because he
viewed them as being too integrated with Hindus. And as mentioned
earlier, such aberrant Muslim leaders often carried out their wrongs
against both non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
Tamerlane actually slaughtered tens of thousands, perhaps some
two hundred thousand Muslims from India to Turkey over the years
of his rampages in the region, in an expression of his own deranged
When he went to punish the moderate progressive Muslim rulers of
India (the bright and shining counterparts of Islamic rule in Spain and
the Middle East), he destroyed their empires and razed their cities to
the ground, including the city of Delhi, killing Hindu, Muslim and
Buddhist alike. Naturally, there is no way one can attribute his
conduct to Islam at all. He was a barbarian who sought any excuse to
slaughter and massacre anyone and everyone, irrespective of religion!
Travelling the Muslim World
Still another significant reality. For centuries Christian explorers,
travellers, and visitors have plied the Arab and Muslim lands in safety
and security, finding assistance and hospitality from the people they
met. Their stories fill the literature. At worst some may have been
accosted by common bandits and thieves who exist in every land.
Many such visitors chose to live in Muslim lands for extended periods
of time, doing archaeological work or exploring without coming to
Western tourists have visited ancient archaeological ruins in the
region for ages. We hardly ever heard or read that they were made to
feel unwelcome or hated, nor that they were attacked by the populace
or rejected in any manner. The historical record of foreigners in
Muslim lands is a bright and shining one to this moment. So there we have it. Jews, Christians and Hindus under absolute
Islamic rule for hundreds of years and not exterminated anywhere,
and Europeans welcomed in Muslim lands over the centuries.
That is compelling evidence that Islam never told Muslims to kill
non-Muslims, no matter how hard we try to misinterpret or creatively
interpret it. It is a lie and the proof is in 1300 years of pudding.
And once more, a reminder that what makes the above Islamic record
all the more remarkable is that it took place long before human rights
conventions, United Nations resolutions, international law, NATO, or
what have you.
The kind of belief system Muslims follow was evidently way ahead
of its times in human rights, compassion and mercy toward others,
which is what brought about such spectacularly kind Islamic nations
and peoples across the ages.
Exceptions Prove the Rule
Unquestionably, as mentioned earlier there were the exceptions here
and there across the centuries, when wrongs were committed by
deviant Islamic rulers somewhere or the other against Christians,
Jews, or others.
In modern times, while Iran officially recognizes Christianity,
Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism as official religions in the Islamic
state, it does not extend that acceptance to yet another religion
- Bahaíism - because it is a recent religion which its followers believe
was inspired by God in an Iranian-Muslim, and as such implies
apostasy. Based on that, Iran, and other Muslim nations, severely
persecute Bahaíis and often deny them human rights, something
But we have to look at the overall trend across variables such as
time, geographical regions, Islamic leaders, different Islamic empires
etc. as a whole, not generalise from the particular deeds of some
deviant character here or there, or some very specific events that led
to specific atrocities somewhere, sometime in 1300 years.
In 13 centuries, across such a large swath of the globe and so many
empires and rulers, cultures, lands and peoples, the rarity of those
exceptions, if anything, proves the rule.
Indeed, the only balanced method to assess how a religion treats
those who are different is by looking at it longitudinally across time
and space. We cannot look at one or two years, one or two rulers,
one or two wars, or one or two regions selectively and in isolation,
and then draw conclusions. We have to look at all the available
evidence and data if we are to reach intellectually and academically
acceptable general conclusions.
For Islam and Muslims - across time, Islamic rulers, empires,
situations, geographical regions and cultures - the evidence of history
unequivocally points to a compassionate, humane, gentle, charitable
religion beyond what human rights conventions prescribed centuries
later, a religion accepting of non-Muslims far beyond the simple
tolerance much touted in our western societies nowadays.
We shall investigate how and what in Islam instills such values and
attitudes in Muslims in Part Three. But next time we will look at the
evidence of the past three years, post 9/11.
This article was originally published in Cross Cultures Magazine in Volume 10 - Issue 1 - 2004. Unauthorized copying, distribution or other usage without express written permission of the publisher is prohibited.