The latest comments made by the Pope Benedict XVI on Islam and its presumed violent past have opened the debate about the use of the “sword” in Islamic history. Before making judgment on how the Islamic Empire was established and how non-Muslims survived under Muslim rule one should take into account the following facts:
First, one should put things in context. In the 7th century A.D.- time in which the Muslim Empire was created- empires were created by the sword. Long before Islam, Alexander, the Romans, the Visigoth and others created their empires through the sword and not through referendum and democratic processes. Long after the establishment of Muslim empires, so called “civilized” nations also used the sword and the gun to create empires in their recent history. The use of the sword in establishing the Muslim Empire was not an exception in history, but a rule in human history that was only recently dismissed.
Second, the Muslim religion did not only spread as a result of Muslim conquest. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia Islam was spread by traders, and Egypt’s Coptic Christians favored and facilitated the entry of the Muslim forces who had better terms on freedom of worship and taxation than the Byzantine ruler who persecuted Egyptians and their native Church.
Last but not least, at the end of several centuries of Muslim rule, the vast majority of the inhabitants of places like the Balkans or the Indian sub-continent were non-Muslim. If Muslim rule was so brutal, how could one explain that after several centuries of Muslim rule the majority of the population was non-Muslim? Needless to add that in Muslim Spain all religions were tolerated in contrast with the Catholic “reconquista” and its Inquisition that brutally rid Spain of its Muslims and Jews- most of whom took refuge in Muslim countries while some had to convert to Catholicism to remain in Spain.
In sum, the statement that the Islamic Empire was spread by the sword might be true – at certain times and in certain places - but it is not the entire truth, and alone, it obfuscates the diversity and complexity of Islam over its fourteen centuries of history, and the thousands of miles of its reach. As does the implication that the use of violence in the name of religion is somehow unique to Islam.
At the same time, if Muslims are hurt by comments that Islam is intolerant, then they should also express it by speaking out against extremist Muslim clerics who spread lies about other religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism, or on occasional cases when extremists try to convert people by force. Each human being is entitled to dignity - and Muslims should extend to Christianity, Judaism and other religions the same respect that we yearn for them to give to Islam.
The fact that so many Muslim extremists today selectively read Islam’s history of conquest to justify the use of the sword, and radicalize disenfranchised Muslim youth, is not an excuse for non-Muslims to make sweeping generalizations of Islam. Non-Muslims should be careful of selective, simplistic readings of history or theology.