An Islamic Language of Toleration: Rumi's Criticism of Religious Persecution

Article excerpt

Persian Sufi and poet Muhammad Jalal al-Din Balkhi, 1207-73 (also known as Rumi) presents one of the most extensive and vigorous Islamic theories of toleration. This article examines Rumi's theory by placing it in its historical context, and examining its various arguments. It suggests that toleration, not only as a policy but also as a language, preceded liberalism. It also provides evidence that Rumi's defense is by far more inclusive than most early modern theories of toleration.

Keywords: religion and politics; politics and history; political thought; philosophy

Muhammad Jalal al-Din Balkhi, widely known as Rumi in the West, has acquired extensive recognition, mainly for his spiritual teachings.2 This article examines a number of arguments presented by him in defense of toleration.3 The article places these arguments in the context of medieval Persian toleration discourse, and compares them with those advanced by some Western defenders of toleration.

Rumi's extensive and inclusive defense of toleration is important in a number of ways. For centuries, Rumi has been one of the most celebrated poets in the Persian-speaking world, which at one point extended from India to the borders of Greece. In addition to his intellectual and academic impact, no other Persian poet has had the same influence over the Persian folkloric literature, and many concepts in Rumi's writings have found their way into Persian axioms used in daily conversations. In addition, for a number of years, Rumi has exercised an influence in the West unmatched by any other Muslim author. At a time of suspicion and distrust, a person who can speak to both Muslims and the West is of great value.

This value is further appreciated when one realizes that Rumi provides the most extensive defense of toleration in Persian, and was undoubtedly one of the most vocal advocates of toleration in the medieval Muslim world. We must recall that this was a period of intense confrontation between the Muslims and Christians, resulting from the Crusades and the Muslims' invasion of Asia Minor. Consequently, many Muslim authors appealed to interpretations of the Quran that sanctioned discrimination against and even persecution of Christians.4

The primary and even exclusive concern of many medieval Muslim defenders of toleration was only various Muslim denominations and sects, and not non-Muslims. Given the extent and intensity of conflicts between Shi'i groups, such as Isma'ilis on one hand and various Sunnis on the other, and even among different Sunni schools, this concern is understandable. Thus, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), who wrote one of the most extensive apologies of toleration, was exclusively concerned with convincing his readers that adherents to various Islamic denominations should be tolerated. Al-Ghazali argues that diversity of interpretations and at least in part the failure to apply the correct methods of interpretation to the Quran and hadith have led to divisions in Islam. Thus, he argued, adherents to these denominations are at most subject to error but not sin.

Al-Ghazali is clear that toleration should not be extended to people who deny the basic principles of Islam, such as the unity of God and the Day of Resurrection. Nor should those who accuse the Prophet Muhammad of lying be tolerated, even if they argue that the lie was to benefit the society, or be immune from persecution. Furthermore, al-Ghazali argues that should interpretive activities lead to "confusing the minds of the masses," then those responsible should be persecuted for "unsanctioned innovation" (Jackson 2002, 109). Unlike al-Ghazali, Rumi defends toleration of both Muslims and non-Muslims, and encourages freedom of inquiry and interpretation.

For political theorists and historians of political thought, meanwhile, Rumi's writings on toleration have further value. First, they provide evidence against suggestions that toleration is exclusively a liberal or a Western theory or practice. …