In response to:

Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence from the March 26, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

As author of a recently published book aimed at correcting a number of common misapprehensions about Islam (Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer’s Perspective on Religion and Science, Writers’ Inc, International, 1992), I believe it would be damaging to interfaith scholarship to let the substantive errors and misconceptions in Bernard Lewis’ otherwise thoughtful article [“Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence,” NYR, March 26] pass unnoted.

Lewis’ assertion that Islam does not admit of salvation outside its own creed is simply false. For Muslims, the Koran (which Muslims and the Associated Press prefer to spell Qur’an) is the indisputable authority on all religious masters. The Qur’an states flatly that “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (translation by A. Yusuf Ali, 2:62). Perhaps Lewis misunderstood the Qur’anic claim that God accepts no dîn (religion in the broad sense of the word) other than “Islam” by forgetting that “Islam” is Arabic for “submission to the will of God” and confusing the concept of dîn with the narrower concept of millat, or a particular religious community. The verse quoted above, however, which promises salvation to an open number of religious communities, leaves no room for such a misunderstanding. The Qur’an specifically associates universal religion with the millat of Abraham (Qur’an 2:135) much as the Jewish rabbis cited by Lewis relate that commandments were revealed to Noah for all humanity.

Lewis’ reference to Muslims and Christians calling each other “accursed infidels” is a shocker. Although I am aware of Christians’ occasional use of such terms against Muslims, I have never heard it used by Muslims against believing Christians, nor seen it used this way in the literature. Can Lewis provide such citations? I would suspect, again, a case of mistranslation. The Arabic word mushrik, meaning “association” of partners to God, has occasionally been applied to Christians because of the perceived resemblance of Trinity to idolatry, but the word kufr, meaning rejection of faith, is usually reserved for those who willfully reject God’s message.

Lewis has a point about the similarity between roots of Christian hostility to Islam and Muslim hostility to Baha’ism, but he ignores the fact that the same principle applies to Jewish hostility to Christianity.

Lewis’ statement that Muhammad “destroyed” the Jews is inflammatory, historically inaccurate, and completely uncalled for.

There is one other point I wish to make. Lewis claims that the terms “Jew” and “Zionist” are “more or less interchangeable.” That is certainly the view of the Zionists, but is not the view of thoughtful Muslims, whether extremist or moderate. The term Zionism here applies to a modern political movement. Although few non-Zionist Jews have been willing to speak out publicly against that movement, those who do have earned the respect and admiration of Muslims.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Islamic-American Zakat Foundation
Bethesda, Maryland

To the Editors:

In his recent article Professor Bernard Lewis has repeated a theme raised recently in a number of his other articles. Focusing on similarities and disparities of the three Abrahamic religions, Lewis’ main thesis is that unlike Christianity, Islam is inherently a tolerant religion. Accordingly, intolerance if found in Islam is basically imported from Christianity. As an individual born and raised in the Muslim (Shiite) faith I am flattered by what Professor Lewis has to say about Islam. However, his argument contrasts sharply with my understanding of Islam in its canonical form as well as its application in at least one main citadel of the faith, meaning Iran.

Tolerance in the form of acceptance of other Abrahamic faiths is quite evident in canonical statements of Islam. Koran enumerates Jewish and Christian faiths—and in cases Zoroastrianism—as “the people of the Book.” These people are regarded as monotheistic and their right to worship in their own ways is acknowledged; an approach quite similar to the Talmudic view of Jews and Gentiles. For example, in Yuunos (Jonah) it is clearly stated that every nation has its own messenger (of god)(verse 47). However, the community of Muslims from the first days of Hijrah in 622 AD separated itself from others, specially Jews, and based its strength on the internal cohesion of the ummah or the community of the faithful, a successful strategy which helped to form the nucleus of the Muslim nation and endowed it with the energy and momentum necessary for empire building. For instance we may find a reference to this effort in the chapter Almaa idah (The Table Spread). According to this chapter, believers are recommended to “take not the Jews and Christians for friends, they are friends to one another; he among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them, Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk” (verse 51).


Troubled by a series of defensive and offensive wars against its enemies, the community of Muslims became more guarded in its ideological approach as well. One may find several references in the Koran asking the believers to go and find the infidels and those who have broken the peace treaties and destroy them. Although the “people of the Book” were perceived as monotheists, this concept did not lend itself to promote equality among different faiths, and of course this type of approach is uncommon between religions. The fact that Islam was said to be the last prophecy and prophet Mohammed himself the seal of the prophets obsolete. Moreover, the fate of Bani Quraiza, a Jewish tribe allied to the Prophet, but who betrayed Muslims by helping the enemy, unfortunately distorted the elemental optimistic outlook of Islam. After Bani Quraiza was defeated, females and children were enslaved and the male members beheaded.

The history of Islam after Prophet Mohammed is one of massive incursions upon all non-Muslim lands, wherein inhabitants were mostly presented with two choices of conversion to Islam or paying the humiliating “Jazia” or poll tax. Nevertheless, one may argue that the Islamic empire in times was more tolerant than other religious states. For example during the reign of the Mongols in Iran, we can find number of Jews serving the court. But for the main period of their stay in Iran, Jews suffered from persecutions, pogroms, and constant humiliation in that country. It is not unusual to read that Jews were supposed to not exit their houses in rainy days lest they pollute the earth. The idea of “ritual impurity” so prevalent in Islam and so deep rooted in Shiism—a phenomenon not known to Christianity—is antithetical to any notion of tolerance.

Zoroastrian and Muslim Iranians themselves suffered from intolerance. Three major migrations of Iranians which took place consecutively in the ninth century (Zoroastrians from Muslims), in the sixteenth century (Sunnis from Shiites) and the twentieth century (Shiites from Shiites) took place due to the intolerance of their own fellow Muslim countrymen. They chose the Brahmanic India or the Christian West as abodes of tolerance.

Alternative ideas even within the canonical framework were not tolerated. Sohravardi, like many other non-orthodox Muslims who sought light in the spirit not the letter of Islam, was martyred because of his mystical teachings in the twelfth century. Ghazali made a career for himself in thirteenth century by attacking the rationalistic approach of Ibn sina (Avicenna) and thereby severely damaged Islamic scholasticism. Initiated in the Nezamieh school of Baghdad, anti-rationalism of the twelfth century was probably responsible for stifling a potential Lutheran type movement in Islam. Among recent heresies, Bahais as a community have been persecuted since their rise in Iran in the early nineteenth century. I would not mention Salman Rushdie’s debacle since I am sure that Professor Lewis finds Rushdie’s misfortune just as another example of the influence of Christianity on modern Islam! Based on the evidences, one may argue that the lack of heresy in Islam which is applauded by Bernard Lewis is due to the confusion of heresy with apostasy, a crime punishable by death according to the Islamic Shari’ah (not Koranic laws).

In addition, a “choice in matters of belief within very widely drawn limits” which Professor Lewis argues exists in Islam could be only found during the early years of Islam in the Prophet’s time. In early Islam in Mecca, confession to the oneness of Allah and a brief prayer would have qualified an Arab to become a Muslim. Ever since, like other Abrahamic religions, a sophisticated religious system has emerged and within Islam schisms and heresies/apostasies have developed over minute details, of which the prototype is the emergence of Kharijis during the time of Prophet Mohammed himself. In the same vein the statement that “what matters is what a Muslim does, not what he believes” is contrary to what I learned in the first year of law school in the University of Teheran. The dictum “ala’amaalo benniat” (intent of the doer is the main measure of his action) was the first principle of Islamic law that we studied. In fact taqiyyah or precautionary concealment of one’s true opinions, a rule admitted by Shiites, Ismailis, and the Sufi order is a good example of how a bad deed can be justified by a good intention.

Rasool Nafisi
Strayer College
Manassas, Virginia

Bernard Lewis replies:

In seeking to deal fairly with so sensitive a subject as relations between religions, it is reassuring to be criticized simultaneously by two Muslim correspondents, of whom one accuses me of defaming, the other of whitewashing Islamic belief and practice. In a sense, my two critics answer each other; but not entirely, and some additional response is required on my part.


The Islamic religion has flourished for more than fourteen centuries, and now has more than a billion followers in vast areas of Asia and Africa, as well as significant and growing minorities in Europe and the Americas. Clearly, there have been and still are many differences of belief and practice among Muslims, variations both by time and place. Dr. Ahmad’s version of Islam is surely the true and authentic one for those not insignificant numbers of Muslims who share his interpretation. Unfortunately, some of the qualities he describes are not typical of mainstream opinion and practice in the central Islamic lands. Similarly, Dr. Nafisi’s strictures are no doubt justified for some Muslim communities in some periods and in some places. But here again—this time fortunately—they are not applicable to Islamic civilization as a whole, and in its most characteristic forms.

Dr. Ahmad’s quotation from the Qur’an is of course authentic, and the interpretation that he places on it can be found among many Muslims, notably in such areas as south Asia and North America, where Muslims are not a majority and do not hold state power. The more usual Muslim view however of Jews and Christians has been that expressed in the equally authentic Qur’anic quotation cited by Dr. Nafisi. Both, views can be supported by further citations from both scripture and tradition. On the question of the Muslim attitude to non-Muslims, Dr. Ahmad is clearly right on one important point. Muslim theology, law, and practice alike have always distinguished among non-Muslims between monotheists and idolaters, and recognized the former as “better than the other infidels.” Only monotheists are eligible for the dhimma, the arrangement by which, in return for the payment of a poll tax, the jizya, and the acceptance of certain fiscal, social, and legal disabilities, they may continue the practice of their own religions, and enjoy a large measure of autonomy in their own communal and internal affairs. For idolaters and polytheists, there could be no dhimma, and their options were conversion, enslavement, or death. Dhimmis, in effect Christians and Jews, were permitted to retain and practice their own religions, since these were considered to be founded on revelations which, though outdated, superseded, and sometimes corrupted, were in origin authentic. Muslims alone possessed the true and final revelation, and the dhimmis were therefore in no sense their equals, either in this world or the next.

The term kafir, in Turkish gavur, in the central lands of Islam, has been used since early times for all non-Muslims, whether monotheists or idolaters. It can be found, for example, in the Arabic chronicles of the Crusades, in the Ottoman chronicles of both warlike and peaceful relations with Europe, in treatises on theology and on law, in letters—even friendly letters—written by Muslim sovereigns to European monarchs, and in hundreds of thousands of administrative documents. The term kafir is often qualified, in both historical and legal texts, by the word “accursed,” though not invariably. To allay Dr. Ahmad’s fear of mistranslation, the word used is mal’un. A common alternative is the rhyming formula kafara wa-fajara—infidels and evildoers. After the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, it was made a punishable offense to call a Christian or a Jew gavur—but this was part of the new, not the old ideology.

Dr. Ahmad’s point about the Jewish attitude to Christianity is well taken, and would be applicable if the Jews, like the Muslims and Christians, claimed that their religious truths were exclusive and final. But they do not. Where hostility to Christianity is expressed in Jewish writings, as was not infrequent in the Middle Ages, it was invariably due to one or both of two causes: a practical reaction to the persecution of Jews in Christian countries, and a theological objection, based on the belief that Christianity is a flawed monotheism. This perception is also common in Muslim theological writings: “They are unbelievers who say that God is Christ son of Mary…they are unbelievers who say that God is the third of three…and if they persist in this unbelief they will suffer a grievous punishment” (Qur’an V. 75-76).

Dr. Ahmad takes exception to my use of the word “destroyed” to describe the fate of the Jews whom the Prophet encountered in Medina. This raises the difficult question of the authenticity of the traditional biography, the Sira, of the Prophet. According to the Sira, there were three Jewish tribes in Medina. Of these, two were expelled by the Prophet, and the third, the Banu Quraiza, accused of intelligence with the Meccan enemy, suffered the collective punishment described by Dr. Nafisi in his letter.

There are several ways of approaching these unpalatable details. One may follow the Muslim tradition, both mainstream and fundamentalist, and say that the Jews provoked the Prophet and got what they deserved. One may follow some modern, mostly Orientalist scholars, who find extenuating circumstances in the moral and social conditions of the time, and say that one must not expect twentieth-century sensitivities in seventh-century Arabia. One may agree with the modern radical critics, who deny the historicity of almost the entire biographical tradition. What one cannot do is accept the traditional biography and dismiss the events which it so clearly and graphically describes.

Dr. Ahmad attributes to me the “claim” that the terms “Jew” and “Zionist” are “more or less interchangeable.” I did not of course make any such absurd claim, nor would anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with Jewish or Zionist affairs. I did however point out that these terms are sometimes used interchangeably “in the literature of the Muslim radicals and militants”—a fact that Dr. Ahmad would surely not dispute. He is of course right in saying that thoughtful Muslims do not equate Jew and Zionist, but what is his definition, of thoughtful, and how many Muslims thus defined play a prominent role in public affairs today? In controversial literature, Jew and Zionist are often used as synonyms, sometimes even in contexts long antedating the rise of political Zionism, sometimes indeed about the Jewish contemporaries of the Prophet. The modern situation was well described to me by an Arab consul, explaining the visa policy of his government. They were willing, he said, to grant visas to anyone except Zionists. I pointed out that his visa application form had a line for religion, but none for political opinion, and that those who declared their religion as Jewish were routinely refused visas. Yes, he said, that is so, but how are we to tell the difference? The usual answer to this question seems to be that any Jew is presumed to be a Zionist unless he can prove himself otherwise. During the nineteen years of Jordanian rule in East Jerusalem, the holy places of the Old City were barred to Jews of all nationalities, and to Israelis of all religions, including Christians and Muslims, except for one day in the year, Christmas, when Israeli Christians were allowed to visit their holy places on the other side of the line for a few hours.

Dr. Nafisi, in contrast, does considerably less than justice to the Muslim record. With certain well-known exceptions, in premodern times Jews and Christians fared better under Muslim rule than Jews and Muslims under Christian rule. Though always subject to some disabilities, and to occasional persecution, they were on the whole an accepted part of the polity and society, with rights which, though limited, were respected by both authority and public opinion.

There is nothing in Muslim history—at any time or in any place—to compare with the forced conversions and mass expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Spain and other countries, or with the crimes perpetrated in the heart of Europe in the fourth and fifth decades, and now also in the last decade, of the twentieth century. Also, despite some disagreements, even conflicts, between Sunnis and Shi’a and various smaller groups, there is nothing in Islamic history on the scale of the great religious wars that convulsed Christendom, nor of the inquisitions and persecutions to which Christian churches subjected one another.

I would certainly not cite “Rushdie’s misfortune just as another example of the influence of Christianity on modern Islam,” though it would be easier to find precedents for his condemnation in Christian than in Muslim history. But I may cite two respects in which Christian, or post-Christian, Western influence has affected, and to some degree even created, modern Muslim intolerance.

One of them is the introduction of the European Christian style of anti-Semitism, the appearance of which in the Arab world can be dated and documented with precision in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hostility to Jews and even ill-treatment are by no means unknown before then, but they were no different from the problems generally encountered by minorities, especially in times of These could sometimes assume violent forms, though on the whole Jews fared no worse and sometimes rather better than other minorities under premodern Muslim rule. The notion that Jews represent a diabolic force of cosmic evil, engaged in deeplaid conspiracies against humanity, seems to have been introduced to the Arab world at the time of the Dreyfus trial, and the first Arabic anti-Semitic texts are all Christian in origin. It was not until some decades later that this type of anti-Semitism was adapted and adopted, and in various ways, Islamized, by Muslim writers. This adoption is by now unfortunately very widespread even among those who claim to be returning to authentic, original Islam.

Another kind of intolerance, post-Christian rather than Christian, is also unmistakably Western. It results from the introduction to Islamic lands of the European form of ethnic nationalism. West European patriotism had only a limited impact, but the ethnic nationalism of Central and Eastern Europe, easily adapted to the primarily religious and communal loyalties of Muslim populations, produced and is still producing devastating results.

Dr. Nafisi has no difficulty in finding religious texts and historical examples of Muslim intolerance and ill-treatment of other faiths. One could no doubt do the same for any other religion. In the long history and vast realms of Islam, there were better places and worse places, better times and worse times. But if one compares the records of premodern Christendom and Islam, there can-surely be no doubt that the Islamic world, with its pluralistic society, was more diverse, and more tolerant of diversity, then any Christian country before the rise of secularism from the seventeenth century, and the gradual development and acceptance of the interlinked ideas of equality and citizenship.

This Issue

October 22, 1992