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Were Medieval Muslim Societies More Tolerant Than Medieval Christian Societies?

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There is a common misconception that the Middle Ages were a wholly Christian phenomenon, and focus often remains on the west, though it is important to recognise that other religions were present across the world during this time.

To properly evaluate how tolerant various religions were, it should be considered how they interacted with each other. Christian tolerance was evident, though Christian-Jewish relations were often violent. Both Islam and Christianity can be seen to be tolerant when they interact with one another, especially where representatives of either religion interact with the other on a basis of learning and understanding. Katarína Štulrajterová highlights the concepts of ‘concicenzia’ and ‘convenienza’ when discussing how Christians and Muslims lived together, suggesting a level of understanding between the two groups. Though, of course, it must be considered that several crusades took place during this time, and were prime examples of a sort of intolerance between Muslims and Christians.

Muslim and non-Muslim interaction is more complicated, as though there is evidence of disgust or misunderstanding by Muslim travellers of other, sometimes ‘pagan’ cultures, there is rarely a complete intolerance or action taken based on that misunderstanding. So, when discussing the concepts of ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ in relation to religious groups in the Middle Ages, it is a far more complex issue than it may appear. For example, to understand how groups ‘tolerated’ those they came across, it must be decided how ‘tolerance’ is defined; is intolerance shown in mere physical behaviours, such as restricting rights or violence? Or, if a Christian speaks badly of others who follow other religions, are they, too, being intolerant? When examining interactions between religious groups at this time it is important to consider that it was not only violence that affected relations, and therefore all behaviour towards others, including verbal indignation or dissatisfaction, must be acknowledged as an indication of intolerance.

Christianity in the Middle Ages was a changing and growing religion. It was adopted by major leaders across western Europe and the Christian papacy became a formidable influence on life within Christendom. The religion itself is characterised by Berend as an opposition to Judaism from within; the Old Testament mostly corresponds to the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. It is intriguing, therefore, that such violent anti-Semitism evolved within this faith, considering the similarities and connections between the two. It may be fitting, then, to begin with understanding how Christians approached this non-Christian religion in order to further understand Christian tolerance.

Jews were present in much of medieval Europe, and by the eleventh century, Christian interactions with non-Christians ‘within the heartland of Christendom were limited to contact with Jews’. It is suggested by Berend that Christian attitudes towards Jews differed from their attitudes towards other groups. It is suggested that ‘hostility was often inseparable from interest’ during the Middle Ages, as, though interaction sometimes led to understanding, it generally caused verbal and physical violence.

Violence is a theme that persists in the Middle Ages when one focuses on Christian-Jewish interaction. Anti-Semitism, as we know it today, was common throughout western Europe in areas where Christianity was the ruling religion. A significant example of this violence was the Christian response to the Jewish community of York in 1190, in which around 150 Jews committed mass suicide or were murdered as a result of Christian persecution. Pogroms occurred across Christian Europe, such as in Paris in 1242, where over 10,000 copies of the Talmud were burned.

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There are arguments for Christian tolerance of Jews; Nederman points out that the ‘continued presence of and coexistence’ with Jews in Christendom implies that ‘Christians were willing… in every-day life to tolerant non-Christian communities’. This has merit, as Jews definitely did live within Christendom; Nederman goes on to suggest that Jews had a long history of living in non-Jewish areas, while maintaining cultural and religious identity. However, general attitudes towards Judaism suggest at least a level of intolerance that manifested itself in the form of the belief in ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ religions. These beliefs are then visible in violence, both physical and verbal, and likely became part of everyday discrimination.

The other major religion that Christians often came into contact with was Islam, though Berend argues that ‘imagined characteristics’ often informed ‘Christian views on Muslims’, and so their actions were generally based on stereotypes and falsehoods. For example, the prophet Mohammed was deemed within Christendom to be a ‘liar and imposter’. The crusades, numerous of which took place in the Middle Ages, are examples of a level of intolerance between Christians and Muslims. Conflict underpinned much of the Middle Ages, amongst the Abrahamic faiths, that centred around Jerusalem and its significance to each of them. As the ‘Holy City’, it was said to be the site of Christ’s resurrection, the homeland of Judaism, and a place the Islamic prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Its positioning at the very centre of the Hereford mappa mundi is an indicator of this importance; the map, created c. 1300, is key in understanding medieval beliefs about the interaction between their religion and the world around them. Despite Jerusalem being a potential common-ground that the faiths could unite upon, the crusades prove that instead, this shared interest in the city only caused violence. It was invaded by numerous groups, both Muslim and Christian, and the First Crusade culminated in the 1099 siege of Jerusalem, which involved the Roman Christians crusaders reduced the inhabitants access to food and water beyond what they already had within the city. The crusades and the ongoing conflict for power in Jerusalem is a good indicator of Christian intolerance towards Muslim communities, such as the one accumulating in Jerusalem due to the new Fatimid elite.

However, when one considers the crusades, it could be argued that they work both ways: Christian crusaders may have laid siege to the city in an attempt to reduce Muslim power and take it for themselves, but Islamic groups participated in the war as well. Both groups endeavoured to capture Jerusalem from one another, using violence and therefore not ‘tolerating’ each other.

Regarding the theme of conquering land, Islamic intolerance is evident elsewhere, specifically in Islamic states such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, as well as most of Spain by the 8th century. In these places, the dhimmi allowed non-Muslim monotheists to live in Islamic countries freely and by their own religion, but ‘were also designed to remind [them] of their second-class status’. Though the elites and leaders of these countries allow the existence of other mono-theistic faiths (note that polytheists were made to convert under the new Islamic rule), there is evidence in the discrimination of the dhimmi that they were prejudice towards those who did not follow their own faith. When examining intolerance in terms of religion, it is incredibly important to consider more ‘micro’ examples of behaviour that suggest these intolerances. For example, the way Muslim travellers document their experiences with non-Muslims is interesting. The very principle of travelling through non-Muslim regions and interacting so closely with the inhabitants is something that, in itself, indicates a level of tolerance. However, attitudes displayed in these documents again emphasise the complexity of the issue of religious tolerance. Ibn Jubayr’s 1183 account of his journey through Norman Sicily is an example of how Muslims approached those who did not conform with their religion. His immediate description of the city of Messina includes details of the ‘worshippers of the Cross’ who give ‘the stranger […] no courtesy’. Their city, according to Ibn Jubayr, was ‘full of smells and filth’. The association of filth with a place in which ‘worshippers of the Cross’ live is indicative of a dissatisfaction with those who, despite also being monotheists, are not Muslim. It is also interesting that Ibn Jubayr appears to base his views of a place on the number of Muslims there, or their treatment. Much like Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Fadlan journeyed north in 921, and encountered numerous non-Muslims. When he meets the Ghuzz Turks, he is disturbed by their customs around washing (or lack thereof), and describes them as ‘wandering asses’ who ‘live in poverty’. Much like Ibn Jubayr, here Ibn Fadlan finds non-Muslim practise disturbing and so, this could be considered intolerance.

However, these accounts of travels in non-Muslim areas indicate the complexities of understanding religious tolerance at this time. Though the aforementioned men are clearly unhappy with the practises or environments created by the non-Muslims they encounter, they pass through peacefully on both occasions, and in some cases, appear open to learning about the cultures they encounter. When Ibn Fadlan witnesses a strange custom of the Bashgird Turks, he asks his interpreter to explain it for him. Later, upon encountering the Rus, he details their alien customs, but maintains that they are ‘God’s creatures’. He does not separate them entirely from his own religion, and the label of ‘God’s creatures’ implies that he believes they deserve a level of respect as they are creations of his own God. Therefore, his religion dictates that he must tolerate these men, despite them having customs far from his own.

The issue of Muslim tolerance is, again, arguably evident in the aforementioned dhimmi, especially in Iberia (modern day Spain). Though the dhimmi meant non-Muslims were deemed ‘second-class’, their mere existence within a Muslim caliphate is a prime example of tolerance of religion. Štulrajterová argues for the ‘dual phenomena of convivenzia, or peaceful coexistence, and convenienza, convenience. Here it is suggested that this ‘peaceful coexistence’ occurred for the sake of ‘convenience’, and was characteristic of Christian and Muslim interaction.

It is incredibly easy to simplify religious interaction in the Middle Ages and see it from one side; often, it is characterised as a largely Latin Christian era, in which Christendom spread and imposed itself upon other cultures. However, the concepts of ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ are far too binary when applied to this situation, and therefore it cannot be distinctly concluded that one of the two largest religions in Medieval Europe at this time was more ‘tolerant’ than another. Upon reflection, it may appear that indeed, Muslims were somewhat more tolerant in their interactions with both Christians and polytheists, and there is substantial evidence for the persecution of the Jewish population of Europe by Christians. However, both religions participated in the Crusades and so were violent towards one another. There are cases of Christian tolerance, such as in their coexistence with Jews within Christendom, and for Muslim intolerance in their treatment of polytheists in regions they conquered, like Spain. As a result, it is difficult to justifiably support one argument.

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Were Medieval Muslim Societies More Tolerant Than Medieval Christian Societies? (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Were Medieval Muslim Societies More Tolerant Than Medieval Christian Societies?” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2022,
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