Examples of Compassion, Affection and Humanity in the History of Islam
To sum up the facts we have seen so far, the faith of Islam as described in the Qur’an is a religion of peace, love and compassion. This truth is accepted by many non-Muslim historians and theologians too. One of these is the British historian Karen Armstrong, a former nun and an expert on Middle East history. In her book Holy War, which examines the history of the three Divine religions, she makes the following comments:
... The word ‘Islam’ comes from the same Arabic root as the word ‘peace’ and the Qur’an condemns war as an abnormal state of affairs opposed to God’s will… Islam does not justify a total aggressive war of extermination… Islam recognizes that war is inevitable and sometimes a positive duty in order to end oppression and suffering. The Qur’an teaches that war must be limited and be conducted in as humane a way as possible.Mohammad had to fight not only the Meccans but also the Jewish tribes in the area and Christian tribes in Syria who planned on offensive against him in alliance with the Jews. Yet this did not make Mohammed denounce the People of the Book. His Muslims were forced to defend themselves but they were not fighting a ‘holy war’ against the religion of their enemies. When Mohammad sent his freedman Zaid against the Christians at the head of a Muslim army, he told them to fight in the cause of God bravely but humanely. They must not molest priests, monks and nuns nor the weak and helpless people who were unable to fight. There must be no massacre of civilians nor should they cut down a single tree nor pull down any building.3
The Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were also very sensitive in exercising justice. In conquered countries, both the indigenous people and the newcomers led their lives in peace and security. Abu Bakr (ra), the first Caliph, demanded his people adopt just and compassionate attitudes in these lands. All these attitudes were in compliance with the values of the Qur’an. Abu Bakr gave the following command to his army before the first Syrian expedition:
Happiness, justice, economic well-being and welfare can only be attained through peace and unity.
Divine religions all command love.
It is time for everyone to realize that peace lies in adopting a humane approach based on the morals of religion.
YES TO LOVE NO TO HATRED
Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules to keep by heart: Do not commit treachery, nor depart from the right path. You must not mutilate, neither kill a child or aged man or woman. Do not destroy a palm tree, nor burn it with fire and do not cut any fruitful tree. You must not slay any of the flock or herds or the camels, save for your subsistence. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them to that to which they have devoted their lives. You are likely, likewise, to find people who will present to you meals of many kinds. You may eat; but do no forget to mention the name of God.4
Omar ibn al-Khattab, who succeeded Abu Bakr, was famous for the way he exercised justice and made contracts with the indigenous people of the conquered countries. Each one of these contracts proved to be an example of compassion and justice. For instance, in his declaration granting protection to Christians in Jerusalem and Lod, he ensured that churches would not be demolished and guaranteed that Muslims would not worship in churches in groups. Omar granted the same conditions to the Christians of Bethlehem.
During the conquest of Medain, the declaration of protection given to the Nestorian Patriarch Isho’yab III (650 - 660 AD) again guaranteed that churches would not be demolished and that no building would be converted into a house or a mosque.5 The letter written by the patriarch to the bishop of Fars (Persia) after the conquest is most striking, in the sense that it depicts the understanding and compassion shown by Muslim rulers to the People of the Book in the words of a Christian:
The Arabs to whom God has given at this time the government of the world... do not persecute the Christian religion. Indeed, they favour it, honour our priests and the saints of the Lord and confer benefits on churches and monasteries.6
The following document by Omar shows us the kind of understanding and concept of justice God grants to man, provided that he adopts the character traits described in the Qur’an:
Jerusalem, which is sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, must be a place where all believers can remember God with joy and love.
This is the security which ‘Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Ælia. He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed, neither shall they nor their appurtenances be in any way diminished, nor the crosses of the inhabitants nor aught of their possessions, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the matter of their faith, nor shall any one of them be harmed.7
All these are very important examples revealing the understanding of justice and compassion of true believers. In a verse God commands the following:
God commands you to return to their owners the things you hold on trust and, when you judge between people, to judge with justice. How excellent is what God exhorts you to do! God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. (Qur’an, 4:58)
Canon Taylor, one of the mission leaders of the Anglican Church, expresses the beauty revealed by the Islamic morality in one of his speeches as follows:
It [Islam] brought out the fundamental dogmas of religion – the unity and greatness of God, that He is merciful and righteous, that He claims obedience to His will, resignation and faith. It proclaimed the responsibility of man, a future life, a day of judgment, and stern retribution to fall upon the wicked; and enforced the duties of prayer, almsgiving, fasting and benevolence. It thrust aside the artificial virtues, the religious frauds and follies, the perverted moral sentiments, and the verbal subtleties of theological disputants… It gave hope to the slave, brotherhood to mankind, and recognition to the fundamental facts of human nature.8
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), a just and compassionate policy was practised in relation to the People of the Book.
The false assertion that people in conquered countries converted to Islam under threat has also been disproved by Western researchers, and the justice and compassionate attitude of Muslims has been confirmed. L.Browne, a Western researcher, expresses this situation in the following words:
Incidentally these well-established facts dispose of the idea so widely fostered in Christian writings that the Muslims, wherever they went, forced people to accept Islam at the point of the sword.9
In his book The Prospects of Islam, Browne goes on to say that the real motive behind the Muslims’ conquests was the brotherhood of Islam. The vast majority of Muslim administrators who have reigned over the Muslim lands throughout history continued to treat the members of other religions with the utmost compassion and respect. Within the borders of all Islamic states, both Jews and Christians lived in safety and enjoyed freedom.
The reign of the Seljuk Turks and that of the Ottoman Empire were also marked by the just and compassionate outlook of Islam. In his book, The Preaching of Islam, Thomas Arnold explains the Christians’ willingness to come under Seljuk rule because of this attitude:
This same sense of security of religious life under Muslim rule led many of the Christians of Asia Minor, also, about the same time, to welcome the advent of the Saljuq Turks as their deliverers… In the reign of Michael VIII (1261-1282), the Turks were often invited to take possession of the smaller towns in the interior of Asia Minor by the inhabitants, that they might escape from the tyranny of the empire; and both rich and poor often emigrated into Turkish dominions.10
The Ottoman Empire, a Muslim state, granted its subjects religious freedom. Thus a peaceful multi-cultural mosaic was to be found in Ottoman lands. The state protected its citizens in accordance with Muslim moral teaching, providing for its poor no matter what religion they practised.
Malik Shah, the ruler of the Islamic Seljuk Empire during its brightest age, approached the people in the conquered lands with great compassion and justice and thus was remembered with respect and love by them. All objective historians refer to the justice and compassion of Malik Shah in their works.
His compassion also kindled feelings of love towards him in the hearts of the People of the Book. For this reason, unprecedented in history, many cities came under Malik Shah’s rule of their own free will. Sir Thomas Arnold also mentions Odo de Diogilo, a monk of St. Denis, who participated in the Second Crusade as the private chaplain of Louis VII, refers in his memoirs to the justice administered by Muslims regardless of the subjects’ religious affiliation. Based on the graphic account of Odo de Diogilo, Sir Thomas Arnold writes:
The situation of the survivors would have been utterly hopeless, had not the sight of their misery melted the hearts of the Muhammadans to pity. They tended the sick and relieved the poor and starving with open-handed liberality. Some even bought up the French money which the Greeks had got out of the pilgrims by force or cunning, and lavishly distributed it samong the needy. So great was the contrast between the kind treatment the pilgrims received from [them] . and the cruelty of their fellow-Christians, the Greeks, who imposed forced labour upon them, beat them, and robbed them of what little they had left, that many of them voluntarily embraced the faith of their deliverers. As the old chronicler [Odo de Diogilo] says: “Avoiding their co-religionists who had been so cruel to them, they went in safety among the infidels who had compassion upon them, and, as we heard, more than three thousand joined themselves to the Turks when they retired.”11
These statements by historians reveal that Muslim administrators who truly adopted the morality of Islam always ruled with compassion and justice. Likewise, the history of the Ottoman Empire which ruled lands on three continents for centuries abounds with examples of justice.
In 1492, the Jews who refused to convert were exiled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (on the left). The Jews were accepted by the Ottoman Empire, a haven of Islamic justice and compassion.
The way the Jews settled in Ottoman lands during the time of Sultan Beyazid II, after being subjected to massacre and exile in the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, is a fine example of the compassion that Islamic morality brings with it. The Catholic monarchs who ruled much of Spain at the time brought grave pressure to bear on the Jews who had formerly lived in peace under Muslim rule in Andalusia. While Muslims, Christians and Jews were able to live side by side in peace in Andalusia, the Catholic monarchs tried to force the whole country to become Christian, and declared war on the Muslims while oppressing the Jews. As a result, the last Muslim ruler in the Granada region of southern Spain was overthrown in 1492. Muslims were subjected to terrible slaughter, and those Jews who refused to change their religion were sent into exile.
One group of these Jews without a homeland sought shelter in the Ottoman Empire, and the state allowed them to do so. The Ottoman fleet, under the command of Kemal Reis, brought the exiled Jews, and those Muslims who had survived the slaughter, to the land of the Ottomans.
Sultan Beyazid II has gone down in history as a most pious believer, and in the spring of 1492 he settled these Jews who had been expelled from Spain in certain parts of his empire, around Edirne, and Thessalonica in present-day Greece. Most of the 25,000 Turkish Jews living in Turkey today are the ancestors of those Spanish Jews. They practice their religion and customs, which they brought from Spain some 500 years ago and continue to live most comfortably with their own schools, hospitals, old people’s homes, cultural associations and newspapers. In the same way that they have traders and businessmen, they also have representatives in numerous professions, from technical subjects to advertising, with increasingly developing intellectual circles. While Jewish communities in many countries in Europe have for centuries been exposed to the fear of anti-Semitic racist attacks, those in Turkey have lived in peace and security. This example alone is enough to demonstrate the compassion that Islam brings with it and its understanding of justice.
Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror granted many concessions to the Patriarchate. The Patriarch enjoyed autonomy for the first time in history, under Turkish rule. In the picture we see Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror receiving the Patriarch.
The compassion and affection exhibited by Sultan Beyazid II applied to all the Ottoman sultans. When Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conquered Istanbul, he allowed the Christians and the Jews to live freely there. André Miquel, who is known for the valuable works he has written about the just and compassionate practices of Muslims and the world of Islam, says:
The Christian communities lived under a well administered state that they did not have during the Byzantine and Latin periods. They were never subjected to systematic persecution. On the contrary, the empire and especially Istanbul had become a refuge for Spanish Jews who were tortured. People were never Islamized by force; the movements of Islamization took place as a result of social processes.12
The non-Muslims were granted many rights also in the pre-Ottoman Islamic states. Georgetown University’s Professor of Religion and International Relations John L. Esposito describes how Jews and Christians who came under the administration of Muslim states met with enormous understanding:
For many non-Muslim populations in Byzantine and Persian territories already subjugated to foreign rulers, Islamic rule meant an exchange of rulers, the new ones often more flexible and tolerant, rather than a loss of independence. Many of these populations now enjoyed greater local autonomy and often paid lower taxes... Islam proved a more tolerant religion, providing greater religious freedom for Jews and indigenous Christians.13
Sultan Beyazid II was a devout Muslim. He welcomed the Jews who were fleeing from Spanish persecution, and afforded them the freedom to practise their religion in Muslim lands.