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Home » History » Beyond “Tolerance” and “Intolerance”: Deconstructing the Myth of the Islamic Golden Age

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

Introduction

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 800 and 1200 (sometimes extended to 1700 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 800-1200 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 which 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 800 and 1700. It is at this point where history ceases to be a critical intellectual endeavor and instead becomes polemic and apologetics.  In this short 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.

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“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 10 dinars for men, 5 for women, and 1 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).

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Another myth which 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’ite doctrine upon the Iranian plateau, murdering tens of thousands of Sunnis, while the Ottoman sultan Selim I had about 40,000 Shi’ites 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.

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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 which 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, 2001

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

Anne-Marie Edde. Saladin. 2011.

Yohanan Friedmann. Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. 2003.

Hubert Houben. Roger II of Sicily: A Ruler between East and West. 2002.

Reza-Shah Kazemi. The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam. 2012.

Donald Matthew. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily. 1992.

Maria Rosa Menocal. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. 2003.

R.I. Moore. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250. 2001.

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

David Nirenberg. Communities of Violence: The Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. 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. Cornell University Press, 2013.

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7 Comments

  1. JS Yeap says:

    Be all that as it may, the doctrine of religious tolerance in the West – out of which grew religious freedom and, more significantly, the generalised principle of freedom of conscience – was a product of the extreme intolerance within Christendom in the wake of the Reformation. It was out of concern for the spiritual welfare of religion itself (‘how did we come to be killing each other so mercilessly in the name of God?’) that Erasmus and Milton and Locke and the like spoke in defence of toleration – and of dissent and, so also, of pluralism.

    Nothing like this paradoxical arc by which we arrive today at tolerance and credal pluralism – and, inevitably, secularism understood as a religiously de-centred polity – is to be found outside the West. Whatever else it might have been, the ‘tolerance’ Saladin (and other rulers, Muslim or Christian) displayed episodically was not the tolerance, the high principle of the right to dissent and the embrace of freedom of conscience as a human right, that belongs to, and only to, the modern era – and which is available to all, regardless of your faith affiliation (or lack thereof).

  2. Muslim says:

    There is a slight mistake where you said hundreds of Christian Inhabitants were sold into slavery. Saladin actually used his own money to free those slaves. His brother also did the same. Balian and Heraclius also did the same.

    Saladin consulted his council and the terms were accepted. The agreement was read out through the streets of Jerusalem so that everyone might within forty days provide for himself and pay to Saladin the agreed tribute for his freedom. An unusually low ransom for the times (around $50 today) was to be paid for each Frank in the city, whether man, woman, or child, but Saladin, against the wishes of his treasurers, allowed many families who could not afford the ransom to leave. {Runciman (1990), p 465.} {E. J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913–1936. Brill. 1993. ISBN 978-90-04-09790-2. Retrieved 2014-03-26.}

    Also, you stated that Saladin initially wanted to slaughter or enslave all the Christian inhabitants in Jerusalem. That is also incorrect.

    Negotiations were carried out between Saladin and Balian, through the mediation of Yusuf Batit, one of the Eastern Orthodox clergy, who had been largely suppressed under Latin Christian rule and knew that they would have more freedoms if the city were returned to the Muslims. Saladin preferred to take the city without bloodshed and offered generous terms, but those inside refused to leave their holy city, vowing to destroy it in a fight to the death rather than see it handed over peacefully. Thus the siege began. {Lust for Power By Dick W. Zylstra Page 67}

    There is no source I know of that states Saladin initially wanted to slaughter or enslave Christian Inhabitants in Jerusalem and if there is then it is most likely a biased source since most of the sources I’ve read have stated that Saladin wanted to take the City (Jerusalem) without any bloodshed which actually happened in 1099 when the City was taken by the Crusaders.

    Also, we can say that the best time/era/period that Al-Andalus was a haven of tolerance or when the La Convivencia was truly a reality was during the reigns of both Abd al-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II in the 10th Century. Obviously, after they passed away then things started to get messed up and Al-Andalus started going from a haven of tolerance to a place of intolerance especially during the reign of the Almohad Empire. However, we cannot deny that at one point; Al-Andalus was truly a haven of tolerance and the La Convivencia was truly a reality and I do agree that it is sometimes exaggerated to a certain extent however it was not a myth but truly a reality.

    Also, the tolerance of Muslim rule throughout History heavily outweighs the intolerance of Muslim rule and this can be proved throughout many events in Muslim History. I do agree that there were at times that there was intolerance during Muslim rule such as Al-Hakim (Fatimid Caliph), Almohad Empire, etc.

    You mentioned Timur Lang and that he was a Muslim and he massacred countless innocent lives. This is certainly true and cannot be denied however was it because of Islam that he massacred those innocent lives? If you research on Timur Lang, you will know that he deeply admired Genghis Khan and his methods of conquest and so he wanted to revive the Mongol Empire and so he followed Genghis Khan’s methods of terror.

    Another point you came up with was the Ottoman-Safavid Wars; while these wars were fought because of the Sunni-Shia conflict, there was at one point where the two empires signed a peace treaty with each other and this is during the reigns of Suleiman the Magnificent and Shah Tahmasp and this peace treaty is called the Peace of Amasya:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Amasya

    Also, the intolerance of Medieval Europe heavily outweighs the tolerance of Medieval Europe. Those Christians rulers you mentioned are probably the only exceptions of tolerance and all the other Christian rulers were very intolerant of other religions.

    • ballandalus says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. It is always nice to see a direct engagement on these issues. As for Salahuddin, I was basing myself on contemporary or near-contemporary Muslim chronicles (Baha al-Din, Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, and Ibn al-Athir) so it would be useful to consult those for details on 1) the enslavement of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (many of whom were *not* ransomed in the manner you mention); 2) the desire to conquer the city rather than accept its surrender. This was in accordance with the custom of the time-period ofcourse, so we should not be too surprised. However, I thank you for bringing to my attention this alternate perspectives which I will research further.

      As a specialist on the history of al-Andalus, I take major issue with your characterization of that region/era of Islamic history as “tolerant”. Firstly, I disagree with the framework of tolerance (or, for that matter, intolerance) as a category of analysis, since I feel it imposes a modernist framework on the Middle Ages. Secondly, many of the narratives which seek to represent al-Andalus as “a haven of tolerance” have largely been refuted and the notion of “convivencia” has been shown to be highly problematic in light of the historical evidence. One has to return to the medieval historical sources, not 20th or 21st century histories, in order to understand this. This goes equally for the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II as it does for the Almoravids and Almohads. Please consult the list of additional readings for more, especially: Alex Novikoff, “Between Tolerance and Intolerance in Medieval Iberia: An Historiographical Enigma.” Medieval Encounters 11 (2005): 7-36.

      I would never say that either “toleration” or acts of “intolerance” derive from “Islam”. In the case of Timur, his violence followed a framework which, as you correctly mentioned, derived from the Mongol conception of warfare and the desire to terrorize the lands he conquered. In any case, he remained a Muslim sovereign and many other Muslim rulers (Baybars, Ibn Abi Amir al-Mansur, Selim I, Muhammad Shaybani Khan, Nader Shah, etc.) all committed similar acts in their execution of warfare and conquest.

      For the Safavid/Ottoman wars, read my piece which clarifies my thoughts on the matter: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/the-conversion-of-iran-to-twelver-shiism-a-preliminary-historical-overview/. I am very aware of the Peace of Amasya, but it did not hold. The Ottoman Empire and the Safavids would continue to wage violent war against the other (leading to the deaths of tens of thousands) for 150 years after the fact.

      The issue of toleration/tolerance in Christian Europe is most certainly another issue, but I can assure you that you can find many rulers in medieval Christendom (both Latin and Orthodox) that were as “tolerant” as many of those in the medieval Islamic world.

      This is just my reading of the Middle Ages. I really appreciated your response and will seriously consider many of the points that you have raised. Thank you once more for the thoughtful comments.

      • Muslim says:

        Thanks for the response.

        I do think all of this history we are discussing does need further research to reach definite conclusions for example the tolerance of Al-Andalus from the 8th Century to 15th Century. However, I do think that the Convivencia was closest to being achieved was during the 10th Century. Obviously, I do not believe that the Convivencia was always a reality in the 700/800 years of Muslim rule in Spain but I’m just saying that the 10th Century was the closest for it being achieved with the reigns of both Abd al-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II.

        I don’t think that what Salah ad-Din initially thought is that important but what is most important I think is that he did not repeat the same massacre that happened in 1099 by the Crusaders regardless of whether he initially wanted to massacre the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem which does need more research to reach a definite conclusion.

        The third paragraph I completely agree with.

        I also agree with the fourth paragraph that although the Peace of Amasya did have a limited reign of peace between the two empires (Ottoman and Safavid Empires), they continued to have wars with each other after the reigns of both Suleiman the Magnificent and Shah Tahmasp. I just wanted to mention this treaty because I wanted to let everyone know that there was at one point when the two empires agreed to sign a peace treaty between each other which never happened before in Ottoman-Safavid History.

        While I do believe that there were some Medieval Christian rulers who were very tolerant (including the ones you have mentioned in the article like Alfonso VI of Castile-Leon, James I of Aragon, Roger II of Sicily); I still believe that there were more intolerant Medieval Christian rulers than tolerant Medieval Christians rulers unless you can name more Medieval Christian rulers who were also tolerant. Also, I believe the tolerant Medieval Christian rulers you mentioned all lived during the European Renaissance where Europe were able to come out of their Dark Ages (where intolerance was prevalent).

        Anyways, all this history like I mentioned before will need further research to reach a definite conclusion.

        Once again, thanks for the response and I appreciate your comments.

        I finish up with the opening pages of Ibn Khaldun’s book of world history, Tarikh ibn Khaldun, written in 1377 in North Africa.

        Ibn Khaldun was a scholar of history, economics, sociology, and historiography. His summary of history and particularly its introduction, the Muqaddimah, is seen by many as the basis for modern historical philosophy.

        “Know that the subject of history is a noble science that can be very beneficial only if it gives us a proper understanding of:

        1- Previous nations’s morals and character

        2- The stories of the Prophets

        3- Government and politics

        For whoever embarks on the study of history, they will end up in a beneficial imitation of the mindset of previous peoples in the subjects of religion and worldly matters.

        This subject is dependent on studying numerous sources, understanding diverse subjects, having the best insight and analysis, and being able to verify the truth of sources as they can deviate and be filled with mistakes. Historical research must not be dependent on bare copying of all reports. It should instead be based on an understanding of local customs, politics, the nature of civilization, and the local conditions of where humans live. You must also be able to compare primary and secondary sources, as they can help you differentiate between the truth and falsehood, helping derive conclusions that are believable and honest.”

        Source: http://shamela.ws/browse.php/book-12320#page-11

        Translation by Firas Alkhateeb.

      • this is one of the most amazing articles I have read on this subject. what is your background, are you a historian. who are you.

  3. Muslim says:

    Also, I just want to say that I like all the other articles you have posted. Keep up the good work.

    BTW, I just wanted to ask if you are a Muslim or not?

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