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September 8, 2007 -- Vol.12, No.1

From Moorish Cordova To The Bahá'ís Of Iran: Islamic Tolerance And Intolerance
by Boris Handal

This article argues that the current persecution of the Bahá'í community of Iran contrasts with Muhammad’s original teachings in the Qur’an prescribing understanding and respect towards religious minorities. Cordova, once the capital of Moorish Spain, known as al-Andalus, is set as an example of tolerance where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed harmoniously under Islamic rule. The paper also describes the persecution of the members of the Iranian Bahá'í community within that theological and historical context.




In current days when religious fundamentalism makes people sceptical about the purpose of religion, it is encouraging to look back at times in history where various faiths came together and lived in peace. Cordova, the seat of the great caliphate (929-1031 CE)[1], was one of these cases becoming the embodiment of a tolerant Islam embracing Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. During its golden age sciences, humanities, arts, commerce and industry flourished due to the collective contribution of these three congregations. The inspiration for such development was certainly drawn from those verses of the Qur’án emphasising acceptance and tolerance. On exploring these issues, this paper also reviews the ominous situation of the Bahá'ís of Iran who have been persecuted on a religious basis for the past hundred and sixty years.


Walking around the historical city of Cordova in southern Spain, the visitor can observe the old Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters sitting side by side. Similar neighbourhood arrangements prevailed in other populations of al-Andalus where these three religious communities co-existed in peace for centuries. Synagogues, mosques and medieval churches still can be seen sitting together within a short radius throughout the region now known as Andalucía.



The religious tolerance of the Qur’án


Those were the days when Islam was at the peak of its glory and when inter-faith tolerance was practiced in some territories such as Cordova and in accord to principles of religious respect set out in the Qur’án. It is interesting to note that the use of force in converting people to Islam —an allegation often raised by its critics— was actually forbidden right from the beginning as attested in Muhammad’s firm injunctions, “Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:257)[2] … What! Will thou compel men to become believers? No soul can believe but by the permission of God” (10:99-100) ... Surely, God loves not the aggressors” (2:190)[3].


Instead, dialogue and sensible communication were considered instrumental in proselytizing: “Summon thou to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and with kindly warning: dispute with them in the kindest manner” (16:125). On dealing with people from other creeds, inclusion and acceptance were likewise prescribed:


Revile not those whom they call on beside God, lest they, in their ignorance, despitefully revile Him. Thus have we planned out their actions for every people; then shall they return to their Lord, and He will declare to them what those actions have been (6:108).


The Qur’án also puts forbearance over rigid fanaticism in the observance of the law as opposed to modern religious orthodoxies, “A kind speech and forgiveness is better than alms followed by injury” (2:263). Muhammad also cautioned about the dangers of engaging in self-righteous theological disputations that lead to sectarian rancour and often violence:


And if God had pleased He had surely made you all one people; but He would test you by what He hath given to each. Be emulous, then, in good deeds. To God shall ye all return, and He will tell you concerning the subjects of your disputes (5:52-53).


There is no piety in turning your faces toward the east or the west, but he is pious who believeth in God….who for the love of God disburseth his wealth to his kindred, and to the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and those who ask…. (2:177)


Empowered by its new ethos, the new Islamic civilization took elements from a broad range of major and minor cultures located within Asia, Africa and Europe reaching the shores of the Atlantic, Pacific and the Indian oceans. The best example is probably the Arabic numeral system which was taken from India and later refined and disseminated throughout the western world. Diversity rather than uniformity was therefore central to the development of the new civilization associated with Muhammad’s teachings:


And among His signs are the creation of the Heavens and of the Earth, and your variety of tongues and colour (30:22). Oh men! Verily, we have created you of a male and a female; and we have divided you into peoples and tribes, that ye might have knowledge one of another (49:13).


The Islamic world soon extended itself to long established cultures such as the Greeks, the Portuguese, Romans and Spaniards on the Mediterranean. In the Middle East, Islam grew to embrace territories associated with Persians, Syrians, Hebrews, Harrans and Mandeans. In Asia Minor Turks, Armenians and Kurds joined in, whereas the same process happened with Sanskrit related cultures and many other societies in the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, East Asian nations joined the new civilization including Chinese, Tibetans, Indonesians and Malays, among others. Central Asian ethnic groups like the Mongols, Tibetans, Afghans and several Caucasian nationalities also became important elements in this expansion. In Africa, Ethiopians, Egypto-Coptics, Arabs, Berbers and a great number of racial minorities affiliated themselves to the new creed proclaimed by Muhammad thus accenting its pluralist character (Balyuzi, 1976).


Such ethnic comprehensiveness certainly was also the result of Muhammad’s acknowledgment on the spiritual origin of religions other than Islam. It is interesting to note Muhammad’s reverence for “cloisters, and churches, and oratories [synagogues][4], and mosques, wherein the name of God is ever commemorated” (22:40). A number of specific non-biblical religions such as Zoroastrianism and the Sabeites (also known as Sabeans), are mentioned throughout its text along with those from Judeo-Christian background:


Verily, those who believe (Muslims), and they who follow the Jewish religion, and the Christians and the Sabeites —whoever of these believeth in God and the last day, and doeth that which is right, shall have their reward with their Lord: fear shall not come upon them, neither shall they be grieved (2:59).


To add more diversity to this spiritual landscape, the Qur’án asserts the existence of other religions which were not biblical related or known to Muhammad’s generation: “Of some apostles we have told thee before; of other apostles we have not told thee (4:162)… And we have already sent apostles, before thee, among the sects of the ancients (15:11)…We have not sent any Apostle, save with the speech of his own people (14:4)... To every people we have appointed rites and ceremonies which they observe” (22:67).


Certainly, in the first centuries of Islamic expansion, successful cultural encounters with non-biblical religious societies occured throughout Asia and Africa, particularly with Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, the two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, carved out around the second to fourth centuries CE,  stood until recently as a symbol of these rich encounters.


It is noteworthy that since the earliest period of Islam, non-Muslim subjects were named dhimmís meaning protected persons of other faiths (ahl al-dhimma). It is based on the principle of mutual religious respect set out by Muhammad in the Sura of The Disbelievers: “To you your religion; to me my religion” (109:6). Dhimmís were given the choice of either accepting Islam or paying a moderate tribute (jisya) which by the way exonerated them from military conscription (Pareja, 1975). It is also worth mentioning the second caliph who, in his will and testament, gave the following recommendation for his successor: “I commend to his care the dhimmís, who enjoy the protection of God and of the Prophet; let him see to it that the covenant with them is kept” (Arnold, 1913, p. 57).


According to Gail (1976), the Four Freedoms as currently known, freedom of want and fear, freedom of worship and speech, appear to have an early institutionalization in the Qu’rán. Such practices were going to be evident in new Islamic societies like Cordova.



Cordova, a model of Islamic tolerance


Cordova (Qúrtuba, in Arabic), once the capital of al-Andalus, soon became a centre of cultural enlightenment. It prided itself for having the first university in the western hemisphere, eighty colleges and eighteen libraries, one of them containing not less than 400,000 volumes classified in forty four catalogues. With five hundred librarians, copyists and scholars, that library was once the largest one in the world. It is noteworthy that at that time that the most important library in Spain at the Ripoll Monastery had only 192 books (Cobb, 1963). Cordova itself was regarded as one of the most important book markets in the world of that era. Such was the thirst for knowledge that the caliphs sent expeditions to far away places to obtain books or exchange them for war captives. For many, Cordova was at its heyday the most advanced European city by the turn of the first millennium, having even running water from aqueducts and street lighting. With an estimated population of 500 000 people it was second only to Constantinople in both progress and size. In Trend’s words, Cordova was “the most civilized city in Europe, the wonder and admiration of the world, a Vienna among Balkan states” (1931, p. 9).


The magnificent Great Mosque of Cordova was considered the second largest religious building of its time sitting on 850 many-coloured marble columns. Begun in 785 CE, its architecture combines architectural styles from several cultures such as Hispanic-Romanic, Visigothic, Persian, Syrian Tunisian and Byzantine, having hexafoil arches in two tiers as an innovative feature. It was Cordova that first started the production of silk and paper in 9th century which subsequently made their way to Europe. The historian Al-Maqqarí wrote about such a splendid time:


In four things Cordova surpasses the capitals of the world. Among them are the bridge over the river and the mosque. These are the first two: the third is Madinat al-Zahra [the royal villa]; but the greatest is knowledge —and that is the fourth (Hillenbrand, 1980, pp. 599-600).


Knowledge and religious harmony were certainly Cordova’s greatest assets. Among the students attending Cordovan seats of learning was the talented French scholar Gerbert of Aurillac who later became Pope Sylvester II (950-1003). Many other Christian intellectuals came also to learn from the Muslims and began translating scientific texts from Arabic into Latin for further dissemination into Europe, creating the conditions for the advent of the Renaissance in the ensuing centuries (Handal, 2004). Seville, Granada, and particularly the Toledo schools of translators also played an important role in this process (Vernet, 1978). According to Balyuzi (1976) many classic Greek works would have been irremediably lost if these had not been translated into Arabic. Ecclesiastical authorities usually frowned upon those works because of their pagan background. At a time when most medieval scholars considered sinful the study of anatomy and thought of astronomy as a witchcraft activity, scientists of the three faiths in al-Andalus were actively engaged in producing advancements in fields such as mathematics, medicine, biology, navigation, architecture, astronomy, physics and the like (Handal, 2004). Cordova itself was acclaimed as the Jerusalem of the West.


Due to its free religious atmosphere, Cordova eventually became a haven for persecuted Jews, particularly from Europe, who were allowed to worship and run their own Talmudic schools (Cohen, 1995). The number of Jews living in Moorish Spain has been estimated at 100 000 by the end of the 13th century (Wasserstein, 1995). According to Hillenbrand (1980), the Christian community in Cordova was allowed to have their own qáí(judge) and their own justice administration which most probably followed the Visigothic law. Christian sects considered as heretical by European states also found a refuge in al-Andalus (Menocal, 2002). According to Arnold (1913, p. 143 f.) no forced conversions occurred in Islamic Spain.


The contribution of many Cordova-born scholars to sciences and humanities, such as Averroes (1126-1198) and his contemporary Maimonides (1135-1204) from Jewish background are universally acknowledged. Ibn Hazm (994-1064), another Cordovan, wrote the Fisal, the first known authoritative history of other religions including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Greek philosophies. The De Materia Medica, Dioscorides’ classical five-volume pharmacopoeia and a gift from the Byzantine Emperor to the Caliph of Cordova, was translated and further developed by a team composed by the Jewish scholar Hasday ibn Saprut, the Muslim physician Ibn Yulyul, both Cordovans, and the Christian monk Nicholas. Hasday ibn Saprut himself was appointed as the court foreign affairs minister. Christians and Jews outstanding in sciences, arts, commerce and industry were given posts under the caliphs who acted as patrons of their times. Amongst them was the great Al-Hakam II (914–76), a scholar himself, who founded the great library. In such society, one can easily perceive science and religion going hand-in-hand and faith becoming an instrument for unity, learning and civil progress.



Contrasts of tolerance and intolerance


At almost one thousand years after the extinction of the great caliphate of Cordova, it seems that much of such tolerant heritage has been tainted in certain places. This is particularly true for the Bahá'ís of Iran who constitute the largest religious minority in the country.


Although born in a Muslim environment, the Bahá'í Faith[5] regarded itself as an independent religion with its own prophet, laws and holy book. Since its birth, its followers have been intermittently persecuted by both the clergy and successive Iranian governments resulting in the death of nearly twenty thousand adherents, including women and children, whose only crime was their faith. Denounced as heretics by the Iranian law, the Bahá'ís recognise the Báb (1819-1850) and Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892) as additional messengers from God that have appeared after Muhammad.


Founded by Bahá’u’lláh in Iran in the middle of the 19th century, the Bahá'í Faith believes in the oneness of God, the oneness of religion and the oneness of mankind. According to the Bahá'í principle of progressive revelation, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and the Báb were all messengers from the same one God, being Bahá’u’lláh the next one. On acknowledging the divine character of Muhammad’s mission, Bahá’u’lláh declared that “… the unfailing testimony of God to both the East and the West is none other than the Qur’án” (Bahá’u’lláh, 1989, p. 211). He also taught that all these divine messengers came in different eras to assist humanity to move through successive stages of human development, both spiritual and social. Bahá’u’lláh did not claim to be the absolute last revelation but foresaw that the next divine messenger will appear in no less than one thousand years (Esslemont, 2006). He predicated the symbolical rather than the literal interpretation of prophecies in sacred texts such as the Qur’án and the Bible. In addition, Bahá’u’lláh declared to be the “Promised One” referred to in the prophecies of all the world's revealed religions such as the Shah Bahram of the Zoroastrianism, the return of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Mahdí and the Qá’im of the Islam Sunní and Shí’ah, respectively. These teachings soon attracted the discontent of the Shí’ah clergy which allied with the Persian government, carried out a sad history of persecution and massacres in 19th and 20th century Iran.


Other Bahá'í principles include the elimination of racial, religious and national prejudices, the independent investigation of truth, the essential harmony between science and religion, the provision of universal education, the equality of men and women, the adoption of an international auxiliary language. In addition, the Bahá'í writings advocate for the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty, the eventual establishment of an international tribunal of justice, and the promulgation of universal peace upheld by a world federation (Handal, 2007).


Bahá’u’lláh, born from an aristocratic family whose ancestors can be traced back to the early Persian dynasties, was soon imprisoned having all properties confiscated. He subsequently endured successive exiles to Baghdad, Istanbul, Edirne and finally life imprisonment to ‘Akká, a penal colony in Palestine (now in Israel). During these forty years of exile and imprisonment, Bahá’u’lláh wrote more than one hundred volumes, including ethical and social teachings, mystical expositions, laws and exhortations. Similarly, Bahá’u’lláh wrote fearless epistles to rulers and kings of the world including Queen Victoria, the Czar Alexander II of Russia, Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Pope Pius IX, irí’d-Dín Sháh of Iran, ‘Abdu’l-‘Azíz Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany and to the rulers and presidents of the American republics. This vast body of literature includes the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Most Holy Book, in Arabic), the central book of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation which deals on a variety of laws and exhortations as well as principles of global governance.



The purpose of religion


Fundamental among Bahá’u’lláh’s principles was the unifying role of religion on society. Referring to the dangers that religious fundamentalism poses to society, Bahá’u’lláh warned more than one hundred years ago that “Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench” (Bahá'í World Centre, 2005, p. ii). It was certainly that fire which literally burned the books of the great Cordova library and eventually brought the caliphate down to an end. Yet, on referring to the transforming power of religion on society Bahá’u’lláh had clearly stated:


The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God's holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind (Bahá’u’lláh, 1978, pp. 129-130).


Bahá’u’lláh passed away in May 1892 in ‘Akká, near to Lebanon and Galilee, as a prisoner of the Turkish Empire. Two years before, an interview was granted to the eminent orientalist Professor Edward Granville Browne of Cambridge University. Years later Professor Browne recalled the details of this memorable encounter where Bahá’u’lláh explained the principle of oneness of humankind having religion as its fundamental pivot:


… my conductor paused for a moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed, replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure, crowned with a felt head-dress of the kind called ‘taj’ by dervishes (but of unusual height and make), round the base of which was wound a small white turban. The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!


A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued:—“Praise be to God that thou has attained! … Thou has come to see a prisoner and an exile. … We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment. … That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this? … Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come. … Do not you in Europe need this also? Is not this that which Christ foretold? … Yet do we see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind. … These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family. … Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind. … ‘ (Brown, 1934, pp.  xxxix-xl).



A religious minority under siege


The 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution resulted in prejudice and fanaticism against the Bahá'ís of Iran. Homes were torched, holy places demolished, more than two hundred believers were killed or executed and many others disappeared after arrest or died in prison after being tortured (Roohizadegan, 1994). Similarly, children were harassed and beaten in schools, youth expelled from universities, adults sacked from job in the public service and their houses and savings confiscated. In addition, cemeteries were desecrated, and meetings, institutions and literature were banned (Ghanea, 2002).

Although it is the largest religious minority in Iran, more numerous than Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, the Bahá'ís of Iran remain unrecognized by the Iranian constitution, being exposed to any injustice without any legal rights. The threatening circumstances surrounding the Iranian Bahá'í community have worsened in recent years. For example, last year fifty-four youth were arrested while providing community service to a non-governmental organization. More recently, a wave of abuse and vilification towards Bahá'í children in schools has erupted, including blindfolding and beating, apparently coordinated by the authorities (BWNS, 2007).

Recent attempts made by the government to register all Bahá'ís in special lists represent a frightening trend for all who embrace freedom of belief. In this regard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has expressed her serious concerns about this new wave of persecutions:

The Special Rapporteur is apprehensive about the initiative to monitor the activities of individuals merely because they adhere to a religion that differs from the state religion. She considers that such monitoring constitutes an impermissible and unacceptable interference with the rights of members of religious minorities. She also expresses concern that the information gained as a result of such monitoring will be used as a basis for the increased persecution of, and discrimination against, members of the Baha’i faith, in violation of international standards (United Nations Special Rapporteur, 2006).

This persecution has been condemned in a resolution passed in December 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly expressing “serious concern” over the human rights situation of minorities in Iran, including an intensification of violations against the Bahá'ís. This is the 20th resolution on the human rights situation in Iran adopted by the General Assembly which takes particular note of "reports of plans by the state to identify and monitor Bahá'ís”, "an increase in cases of arbitrary arrest and detention", and "the denial of freedom of religion or of publicly carrying out communal affairs" (United Nations General Assembly, 2006).




Needless to say that the Cordova caliphate and the present Iranian regime represent two contrasting cases of Islamic history as far as religious tolerance is concerned. While the former had made religious diversity an argument for progress and development, the latter has made it a reason for atrocities in the name of Islam. The oppression of the 350 000 member Iranian Bahá'í community does not reflect the spirit of the primigenial teachings of Muhammad preaching acceptance, inclusiveness and freedom as quoted earlier in this paper. Nor does such a religious bigotry honour Cordova’s enduring legacy of Islamic tolerance at the lapse of one thousand years.






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[1] CE: Christian era.

[2]  The Qur’án verses quoted in this paper, unless indicated, are from Rodwell’s (1971) English translation.

[3]  English  translation by Maulana Muhammad Ali (1991).


[4] Some Muslim translators like Shakir (1983), Maulana Muhammad Ali (1991), Sher Ali (1997) and Yusuf Ali (2000) use the term synagogue.


[5] The Bahá'i International Community was granted recognition in 1948 as an international non-governmental organization at the United Nations, also maintaining consultative status within th


Copyright © Boris Handal