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The Spirit of Tolerance in Islam by Reza Shah-Kazemi (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 355-362 | 10.1353/isl.2013.0025

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The reverse cover of this monograph states that ‘[t]hrough compelling historical illustration and careful theological exposition, [it] mounts a concise but irrefutable argument that the Islamic faith is inherently and emphatically tolerant by nature and disposition.’ To that end, the work consists of an introduction, entitled ‘The Trajectory of Tolerance’, and two parts. The first part, entitled ‘A Glance at the Historical Record’, looks at examples of tolerance in the rulership of the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Fatimids, the Umayyads of Cordoba, and then the real status of ‘Protected Minorities’ or dhimmis, under those rulerships. Part Two, entitled ‘The Spirit of Tolerance’, moves on to the cosmological and theoretical aspects of tolerance within Islam itself. This part consists of six sections, entitled ‘Tolerance and Revealed Knowledge’; ‘Confirmation and Protection’; ‘Plurality of Faiths’; ‘Healthy Competition’; ‘Inevitability of Difference’, and ‘The Prophetic Paradigm: Compassionate Forbearance’. An epilogue concludes the discussion. While the outline sounds promising, however, one issue remains, and that is whether the arguments put forth in the work are sufficient for demonstrating the point that Shah-Kazemi wishes to make.

The theme of tolerance in Islam is important, as scepticism towards the idea that Islam could be even remotely tolerant is today almost de rigueur; providing examples of where polities run by Muslims have shown a similar kind of tolerance to contemporary secular democratic societies should offer the general readership (at which the book is aimed) proofs for the said ‘irrefutable argument’; but there are some issues regarding this methodology. Does providing such examples of such tolerance prove that Islam itself is fundamentally tolerant? It has been objected by some neo-Orientalist academics that any tolerance shown by Muslims is actually a departure from the Islamic ethos. In addition, it is open to question whether the examples provided by Shah-Kazemi are universally acceptable even to all Muslims. Cases cited at times omit to mention acts of oppression meted out to minority Muslim groups. This will be discussed below.

Opening, in the Introduction, with a historical comparison of Christendom’s intolerance and the Muslim world’s tolerance, Shah-Kazemi firstly focuses upon a period in history where Christendom was riven with ‘religious intolerance, fanatical inquisitions and bitter internecine wars’ (2) – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – while the Muslim world was ruled by three large, fairly well organised empires: the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Safavids, although the Safavids are omitted from this study. He says, ‘Locke was deeply struck by the contrast between the paradoxically tolerant “barbarians” – the Muslim Ottomans – and violently intolerant ostensibly “civilised” Christians.’ (2). While it may ostensibly be reasonable to make such a comparison, it could be argued that this is a selective reading of history and that the comparisons are not always accurate (for instance, on page 5). It would be useful for the reader if these points could be addressed. Another method of comparison is also at risk of not standing up to scrutiny: ‘Locke was, of course, not alone in noticing the embarrassing discrepancy between the undeniably tolerant practice of the Muslims and the increasingly intolerant nature of Christianity’ (3). It is usual academic practice to compare the concrete with the concrete, the abstract with the abstract, but here is a contrast between the concrete (Muslims) and the abstract (Christianity). The author is in danger of following the practice of the current media, where the tolerant practices of some European Christians (or secularists) are compared with the intolerance of ‘Islam’ (a comparison of the local and the specific, with the abstract and monolithic). In order for any potential, parallel rebuttals not to arise, there needs to be greater specificity in the way that such examples and comparisons are presented.

There are also general statements which are difficult to support. According to Shah-Kazemi, whether educated or not, Muslims would have found the massacre of native Americans by the Spanish Christians ‘utterly reprehensible’ and been horrified at the ‘wanton disregard for the intrinsic dignity of the human being’ (12). Again, there seems to be some inaccuracy in the methodological approach: referring to the ideal principles of Islam, that ‘regardless of race, colour, ethnicity and even religion, every human being is endowed with...

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