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The example of the promotion of Saladin as an exemplary model of tolerance is a case in point.While it is mentioned that he was “tolerant” (a better word would be chivalrous) towards his enemies, there are some key aspects of his career which are omitted by the promoters of the “Muslim Golden Age” paradigm.
The “Golden Age” perspective is also problematic because it is in many ways reactionary and a response to the many political, religious, and intellectual challenges faced by the Muslim world in the modern period.
History, or rather particular historical narratives about a “Golden Age,” therefore becomes an important repository for the “greatness of Islamic civilization” and a refuge in which Muslims can seek solace in order to refute the idea–promoted mainly by those hostile to Islam–that Muslim civilization was, is, and always will be characterized by death, destruction and chaos.
More particularly, it emphasizes that the period between roughly the ninth century and the thirteenth century (sometimes extended to the eighteenth century in order to include the Ottomans and Mughals; the Safavids are usually ignored) can be considered to represent the pinnacle of human endeavor in the Muslim world. Putting aside the fact that it imposes an anachronistic framework on medieval Muslim history, its main argument that the period between the eighth century and the thirteenth century can be characterized mainly by tolerance, cultural efflorescence, political unity, and religious harmony is contrary to many of the facts that one encounters upon reading the history of the various civilizations which are subsumed under the category of “Islamic civilization,” a phrase which conceals the linguistic, cultural, intellectual, theological, and political diversity of the lands in which Muslims resided during the medieval and early modern periods.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the narratives promoted by these “Golden Age” perspectives are usually a reworking of official histories that do not take into account the realities of marginalized groups during the same period.
In this piece, I look at one simple example of how the “Golden Age” perspective obstructs a serious understanding of Muslim history by looking at the theme of “tolerance” and “intolerance.”Tolerance vs.
Intolerance“Saladin was the most tolerant man of his age” is an assertion that one commonly encounters among many individuals and groups who promote the notion of an “Islamic Golden Age.” Sometimes we are even told that religious tolerance was unknown in Christian Europe, while it supposedly thrived in the Islamic world.One of the main ways that Muslims seek to undermine “Orientalist” notions of the decadence of Muslim civilization is therefore by promoting a narrative of a glorious and illustrious Muslim “Golden Age” in which civilization in the Middle East flourished for centuries under the auspices of Islamic ideology.(It is interesting to note here that many Orientalists were not the originators of the decline thesis and many Orientalist scholars themselves played a role in fomenting interest in the so-called “Golden Age.”) The emphasis on a “Muslim Golden Age” is therefore usually not based on any comprehensive engagement with historical sources or a yearning to discover the actual reality of medieval and early modern Muslim history.The existence of oppressive institutions, such as slavery and the social stratification of Andalusi society also underscores this point.However, just as we should not claim that al-Andalus was a haven of tolerance based on several examples and anecdotes, we should also not reduce Andalusi history to a sequence of ravages and massacres, as some anti-Islamic thinkers have done.However, these facts are problematic for many Muslims who seek to further the “Golden Age” perspective because it undermines their emphasis on an Islamic exceptionalism, which Saladin is seen as representing.“Tolerance” (defined strictly in the medieval context of accepting the existence, but not the legitimacy, of “the other”) can therefore be found on either side of the civilizational divide in the Middle Ages.It had both champions and opponents in Christendom and the Islamic world. It is therefore baseless to try and claim that Christendom (not confined to Europe) or Muslim civilization was inherently more tolerant (or intolerant).In other words, the nuances of Muslim history and civilization are completely obscured in the face of broad, sweeping statements geared towards emphasizing not only the uprightness, but even the absolute supremacy of Muslim civilization, as it was believed to have manifested between the ninth century and the eighteenth century.It is at this point where history ceases to be a critical intellectual endeavor and instead becomes polemic and apologetics.These facts are clearly laid out in the contemporary “Life of Saladin” written by Bahauddin, Saladin’s close companion and chronicler, and Imad al-Din al-Isfahani’s contemporary chronicle of the Crusades. (As an interesting aside, it is notable that the popularization of the legend of Saladin as a “chivalrous knight” and an example of tolerance was partially a product of many of the efforts of European Orientalists during the late nineteenth century).Another myth that Islamic Golden Age writers like to promote is the idea of medieval Islamic Spain (al-Andalus) as a haven of tolerance and coexistence.