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The saga of Abdul Rehman’s conversion to Christianity may be over but the aftermath is far from settled. Like a clockwork of hate, the episode has brought upon yet another wave of criticisms against Islam and its record for religious tolerance. But what few would realise is that the West has a history of religious intolerance and persecutions that would put Muslim Afghanistan to shame.
Examine the following verse closely:
“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying: Let us go and worship other gods, do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.”1
Despite all the staunch criticisms they make about Islam, that was not a verse from the Quran. In fact, the Quran is void of any instructions to murder apostates.
Instead, the line above has been taken taken from Deuteronomy 13: 6-9 that outlines very vividly, the fate of apostates and followers of other religions. Another verse reads:
“And he should go and worship other gods and bow down to them or to the sun or the moon or all the army of the heavens, …..and you must stone such one with stones and such one must die.” 2
And follow these verses they did.
In May 1096, a group of Crusaders en route to the Holy Land to kill Muslims, stopped by a Rhineland town called Worms between Mannnheim and Mainz, near present day Germany to preach the message of God to its population of Jews. The Crusaders urged them to convert to Christianity, explaining that it is the only path to salvation.
But when the town refused, the Crusaders under the command of Count Emmich of Leiningen, dragged them out of their homes and put up a massacre of every one in the town. 800 people met a bloody death at the edge of a sword for their refusal to convert. Women and children were not spared and many were decapitated as blood flowed through the streets of the town. Some of them were even burnt alive as they took refuge in the very same church that the Crusaders have built and preached from.3
Worms was definitely not the only town that was plundered over the years. Christian preachers storming their way from the West forced the religion upon the locals through threat and terror. In the city of Mainz, 1000 Jews met the same morbid fate when they refused to take up Christianity. Entire families were slaughtered systematically.
The author of Gesta Francorum wrote to describe the mayhem during the incident: “All the streets of the city on every side were full of corpses, so that no one could endure to be there because of the stench, nor could anyone walk along the narrow paths of the city except over the corpses of the dead’. Historians have referred to this obscure incident as the “first holocaust”.
The people of other religion who refused to convert into Christianity were not the only ones who were feverishly persecuted. Christians who were known to opt out of the religion or were seen as heretics, have been mercilessly put to death too over the course of history.
Somewhere around 1200, a new religion emerged in Western France amongst the people of Languedoc called Catharism and was gaining a steady stream of converts from the Christian world. The Cathars, as they are called, abjured marriage and the eating of meat in an effort to obtain purity. The new religion appealed to the Christians in a very refreshing way.
The spread of Catharism alarmed the Christians of Europe greatly and the Church sent in preachers and papals year after year to reverse the situation. In an effort to delegitimise the movement further, Catharism was declared as a heresy and a deviant branch of Christianity. But the religion continued to flourish and threatened to spread to an even greater part of Europe.
The Christians could take it no more and in 1208, the Pope decided to unleash a full-blown crusade against the Cathars, known as the Albigensian Crusade. Thousands of apostates were slaughtered in the ensuing campaign, including 7000 residents of a town called Beziers who were locked and burnt in a church. A horrified onlooker rushed to the papal gates and reminded the crusaders that the some Christians were still trapped in the church together with the Cathars. The officer overseeing the massacre then made a remark that has resounded through the centuries: “Kill them all. God will know his own”.
It would be tempting to list all the other examples of Christians killing apostates in order to answer the growing wave of criticisms from the West against Islam. But that is not the point of this article. Two wrongs do not make one right.
The point is to compare the attitude of Christianity towards apostasy then and now. Christianity today has none of these violent characteristics against apostates. People who leave the religion are not given death threats nor persecuted violently at the edge of a sword — unlike what happened before during the medieval times. It is now a largely peaceful religion and has taken few qualities of its earlier practitioners from the earlier periods.
But this peaceful nature of Christians towards apostasy took time and a considerable amount of evolution over the centuries. Education, tolerance and enlightenment did not find its way into Christianity overnight. It took an awful part of 2000 years for Christianity to be where it is today.
Islam must be given the same chance. At only 1400 years old, Islam is a relatively young religion when compared to other faiths of revealed scriptures. It is unfair to keep putting Islam to the perpetual ridicule of violence and intolerance, when Christianity has been given a much longer time to evolve in a head start of about 600 years.
Apostasy is still a very touchy subject in much of the Muslim world, similar to Christianity during the times of the crusade. Different interpretations may exist, but Islam is definitely not a religion of violence nor murder towards any group including apostates who leave the religion peacefully and mean no harm.
Already beacons of tolerance and excellence can be seen emerging in a handful of Muslim communities around the world, such as Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom. The rest of the Muslim Ummah must be given that same chance.