Gerard Russell writes: As compared with its brutal would-be imitators today, the real Islamic state — the Umayyad caliphate, which ruled the region from Damascus from AD 661, and the Abbasid caliphate, which ruled it from Baghdad from AD 750 — was kinder. In theory, the modern-day Islamic State has the same rules as the ancient caliphate, whose approach resembled that of its Christian predecessor, the Byzantine Empire: promulgate the imperial faith, penalize the followers of other religions and forbid them from promoting their faith through external signs, and forbid polytheism — “paganism,” as it was called — altogether. In practice, however, the early Muslims were often more tolerant than their Christian predecessors.
One prominent pagan, for example, complained bitterly about the Byzantine hostility to paganism. Pagans built the world’s great cities, he argued; without their achievements, the world would be destitute and ignorant. This pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, was a member of a group called the Harranians, whose beliefs somewhat resemble those of the modern-day Yazidis. Here is the irony: He was given safe haven by the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century and lived out his life in Baghdad. While there, he was able to develop Pythagoras’s theorem of triangles to the form in which we know it today. Without such scholars, Baghdad would never have been a great imperial capital — built as it was with the help of a Hindu astronomer, a Zoroastrian, Jews, and Christians.
Here is the essential difference between the old Islamic state and the self-styled new one: The old one tolerated what would have been considered heretical beliefs, and in doing so built a great culture imbued with knowledge and learning. The new one is determined to stamp out all differences of opinion in a nihilistic orgy of destruction. [Continue reading…]