Saturday, 21 May 2011

Interfaith and Ottoman Tradition

"Interfaith" and Ottoman Tradition

Mon Nov 26, 2007 at 12:51:55 PM PST

For Muslims, the ultimate prerequisite towards discussion with people of other faiths has to be mutual respect of everyone's beliefs. Muslims have always been uniquely positioned in this regard, as accepters of the validity of all prophets. Muslims often repeat the concept of accepting Jesus (AS), Moses (AS), and 124,000 other Prophets, when explaining their religion to others, as it is indeed an important point to recognize when trying to understand Islam. But some might wonder, what is the real significance of the acceptance of Jesus (AS) as a Prophet, as Moses (AS) as a Prophet, and thousands of other Prophets, if Muslims believe (sometimes radically) different things about those personalities than Christians or Jews?
The answer is that acceptance of prophethood boils down to a practical reality of respect and tolerance on the part of Muslims towards people of other faiths. Christians believe Jesus (AS) was crucified and exists within a Trinity, Muslims do not. This leads to drastic differences of theology which are real and not to be ignored. But, if we agree Jesus (AS) existed, that he was a man of holy and spiritual significance, and that he brought a message from God of righteousness, we may begin to move the relationship past suspicion to one of neighborly acceptance and practical benefit. Respect and tolerance, written right into the Islamic faotj, that is what wide acceptance of prophethood means in terms of real world interactions with those of other faiths.  In fact, this belief puts Muslims in the unique position of not only to being tolerant to other faiths, but to be the party to allow various factions and sects of each of other faiths to come together.
This experience comes to life in the case of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
When the Caliph and close companion of the Prophet Muhummad(S),  Umar (R), obtained control of Jerusalem, he refused to pray within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a sign of respect towards the Christians, and as a sign of fear that later generations might turn it into a mosque.  Rather, he prayed in the courtyard across from it, and eventually built a mosque there.   Not soon thereafter the Crusades began, and again in 1187,  Sultan Salidin maintained that decision and appointed Muslim families to be neutral keepers of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  His Sultanate lasted only 57 years after his demise, but the Ottomans revived and improved on this tradition of tolerance for hundreds of years.  The wisdom they used in this regard resulted in a traditional division and acceptance of roles which are still practiced to this day.
Relationships between Christians were much more complicated in Ottoman times, with rival Christian factions looking to establish dominance over the Church.
The Ottoman Sultans upheld the Muslim custodianship of the Key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  A second Muslim family was given custodianship over the opening of the gates themselves.  The spiritual and political significance of these roles should not be missed by those who are not used to the subtle ways in which the Sultans often worked.  By 1767 the responsibilities of religious duties within the church was split between Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Catholics.  By the 1800's, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox were included in the partitioning of religious duties.  It was the Muslim families who, holding the key and gates, kept each of these parties satisfied with their rights to the church while keeping tensions between them to a minimum.  The violence which threatened this land from the times of the Crusades has been carefully managed in this exact same manner until this day.
There is no doubt that the balance is delicate, violent incidents occurring well into the modern day when any of the groups perform out of sync with established guidelines.  This modern day incident in 2002 speaks volumes as to the conditions which the Sultans tread when dealing with the religious sects centuries ago:

Last Monday, chairs, iron bars, and fists flew on the roof of one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When the dust cleared, seven Ethiopian Orthodox monks and four Egyptian (Coptic) monks had been injured. The fight started when an Egyptian monk decided to move his chair into the shade--technically, argued the Ethiopians, encroaching on the latter's jurisdiction. - Christianity Today - July 2002
This being just one of many modern day incidents, it is not hard to imagine the difficult waters the Sultans had to deal with to secure the Church and arbitrate between such bitter rivals, attempting to be just guardians of a site of utmost importance to a faith other than their own.  It is clear that even when those espousing peace and love and forgiveness feel their rights have been breached, the result is never good.
In 1999 the government presently in Jerusalem decided these Ottoman laws were antiquitated and needed to be overhauled.  They began by planning the relieving of the Muslim families of their duties, assuming ownership of the land, and the construction of a new door through the Ethiopian section of the Church.  The BBC reported that year, "the Ethiopian Patriachate has already expressed unwillingness to cede its quiet little spot without a fight." As can be imagined, numerous hostilities broke and the status quo was eventually restored.
The Muslims open the door to the Church to this day.
Christians are not the only ones who benefited from a tolerant Islamic empire, looking to maintain everyones rights.  Jews also found safety and high positions within the Ottoman government, and were welcomed during the Inquisition.

For their part, Ottoman sultans, eager to expand, hailed Jewish immigration
and Jewish skills as an unexpected but welcome benefit. Sultan
Bayezit II (1481-1512) was quoted as saying: "Can you call such a king [as
Ferdinand of Spain] wise and intelligent? He is impoverishing his country
and enriching my kingdom."  During the early sixteenth century, when the
Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its success militarily, politically, and
economically, a positive attitude toward immigration continued
- Jewish Publication Society, Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E. - 1900 C.E
Nor was tolerance limited to Christians and Jews.  In the Ottoman influenced Mughal empire in India, Babur wrote the following will to his son inheriting the kingdom filled with people of Hindu background:

"My son take note of the following: Do not harbour religious prejudice in your heart. You should dispense justice while taking note of the people's religious sensitivities, and rites. Avoid slaughtering cows in order that you could gain a place in the heart of natives. This will take you nearer to the people. Do not demolish or damage places of worship of any faith and dispense full justice to all to ensure peace in the country. Islam can better be preached by the sword of love and affection, rather than the sword of tyranny and persecution. Avoid the differences between the shias and sunnis. Look at the various characteristics of your people just as characteristics of various seasons."
This is the spirit of tolerance, respect, and value for justice that Muslims can and should bring to the table when discussing with those of other faiths.  At least, those Muslims who are following in the footsteps of traditional Islamic leadership.  Reform movements which seek to belittle the contribution of the Sultans are largely to blame for the cruelty which has infected the Muslim side of the equation of modern day dialogue.
Of course, there is an increased lack of tolerance which is playing out today by those who have an agenda to create strife and friction.  This is largely occurring by rewriting history and attempting to choose a theoretical and literalistic approach towards religion rather than a practical one of tolerance, and this must be rejected at its core.
People like Robert Spencer have chosen to rely on picking and choosing from ancient texts to attempt to create a picture of an intolerant religion.   One of the benefits of a traditional approach towards Islam is the various accusations against the Prophet (S) lose all weight, as one can readily see a strong Islamic character which caused the Sultans to hold such tolerant viewpoints as a matter of practical reality.  Of course, history is not bloodless, and there were casualties of political motivations which gave us incidents of violence and the desire for all parties to determine their rights.   However, to blame religion for what was the reality of a world clamoring to determine the boundaries of progressive civilization is beyond obtuse.
It is necessary for those of other faiths to respect Muslims and the Prophet Muhummad (S) for success in matters of interfaith dialogue and this is necessary for anyone who desires an end other than the complete extermination of the other.   It is clear that the various churches of established religions did just that.  The Catholic Church, specifically calls out for a respectful view of the Prophet Muhummad's (S) "prophetic call":

Gabriel Oussani in Catholic Encyclopedia states that the views of Luther and those who call Muhammad a 'wicked impostor', 'dastardly liar' and a 'willful deceiver' are an "indiscriminate abuse" and are "unsupported by facts: Instead, nineteenth-century Western scholars such as Sprenger, Noldeke, Weil, Muir, Koelle, Grimme and Margoliouth give us a more correct and unbiased estimate of Muhammad's life and character, and substantially agree as to his motives, prophetic call, personal qualifications, and sincerity."
This is what modern day interfaith discussions sometimes (if not often) lack, the fundamental agreement of respect.  When one person holds that the others religious figures were motivated not by God but by their ego, discussion and dialogue is lacking a strong foundation.
By returning to a historical viewpoint, and specifically the most tolerant times of our history, we find lessons which have allowed us to avert a 'clash of civilizations' time and time again.  As a people, we need to return to these lessons and re-think our approach to "interfaith" programs and events, making it less about making us all into one monolithic entity, and more about respecting each others holy sources.  Part of that effort must include reviving the great legacy of tolerance that has existed in Islamic history, another part is acknowledging modern day forces which are the antithesis to that tradition of righteousness. 

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