It is a remarkable shift in situations that today Islamophobes can claim that western civilization, by which they mean modern capitalist democracies, based on Christian tradition and the values of the Enlightenment, exemplifies religious toleration and human rights. They are able to portray Muslims as hostile to other religious groups, intolerant of difference and ready to resort to violence at the slightest provocation.

There have always been Muslims who are intolerant and extreme in their religion. Very early in our history a group of extremists condemned Ali ibn Abi Talib, Caliph of Islam and a member of the Prophet’s family, as an unbeliever. These extremists, known as Kharijites, thought that their opinions on leadership, government, politics and shariah were the only correct ones. Anyone who disagreed with them was declared an unbeliever. This has never been the position of Islam and is not the attitude reflected in the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (s).

Indeed intolerance and the use of force against those who differ from the dominant religion belongs to the darkest pages of antiquity. Early followers of Jesus (as) were blamed by the pagan Roman government for the military crisis facing the empire in the third century CE. They thought that the refusal of Christians to sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome was responsible for the military defeats then beginning to occur. In the 250s CE they were required to sacrifice or suffer the penalty for rebellion.  They had to get a signed certificate to prove it. Some congregations buckled and sacrificed. The congregation in Carthage saved itself by this method, but Cyprian, its famous bishop, was martyred for refusing. There was another persecution under Diocletian and in 304 CE it was decreed, failure to sacrifice to the gods meant death.

This suddenly changed under the rule of Emperor Constantine, who announced in 312 that his victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge just outside Rome was due to the support of the God of the Christians. The Church has made much of the conversion of Constantine to the Christian God. Just what he understood by this is not clear, as he associated himself with Sol Invictus [the Invincible Sun] on coins as late as 320.  However he and his co-emperor issued the Edict of Toleration in 313, “in which Christians were given freedom to worship and the right to have their property returned.”

To bring some order to the Christians, who argued over their religion so violently that he considered it a threat to social order, he had the Council of Nicaea called in 325 to regularize the doctrines to be taught. It came up with the Trinity, with Jesus being declared to be ‘of the same substance ‘ as God the Father. Non-adherents were excommunicated and persecuted but Constantine himself died an Arian, one of those who did not fully accept the Council of Nicaea.

For 55 years various views amongst the Christians were accepted  and pagan worship still survived in many places. However as the military pressure mounted in the 370s CE, toleration began to decline. The new emperor, Theodosius, was convinced that his predecessor had been defeated because he did not have ‘true religion’, because he accepted that Jesus was only ‘like’ God the Father.  He decided this error must be suppressed so in 380 CE he declared to the people of Constantinople:

It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans…this is the religion followed by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity: this is, according to the apostolic discipline of the evangelical doctrine, we shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.

We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by Divine Vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of hostility which We shall assume in accordance with the Divine Judgment.  

By July 381 the Nicene definition of the Trinity, with the three components ‘of equal majesty,’ was extended to the whole of the eastern empire. Then in that same decade, it was extended to the whole of the western empire. Subordinationism, the ‘like’ formula and all forms of pagan worship were gradually banned. Heretics were criminals.

Charles Freeman in “AD 381. Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State”, writes:

The 380s were truly a turning point, and the story of how freedom of thought was suppressed needs to be brought back into the mainstream of the history of European thought.

This intolerance was not strongly challenged in Europe until the Enlightenment began in the 1600s, and then it was, according to the work of modern scholars such as Professor Susan Ritchie and  Humberto Garcia, Islamic examples of religious tolerance which impacted upon the European intelligentsia.

Intolerance, far from being Islamic, was in fact deeply rooted in Roman civilization.

Bilal Cleland is a keen reader, a prolific writer and a regular columnist of AMUST based in Melbourne.