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Looking Back to Light Our Future

By Jesse F. Tanner

While a worldwide interfaith movement blossoms, looking back through history to discover glimpses of hospitable multi-religious interaction is instructive. Though few in number, ancient and medieval glimpses can be found of communities that embraced cooperative interreligious relations.

An Ancient Conversion Engenders Peace

Ashok Maurya (ca. 304-232 BCE), commonly referred to as Ashoka the Great, was a fierce Indian emperor who converted to Buddhism after a bloody victory against the Kalinga kingdom. The transformed monarch established an interfaith-friendly empire and shared Buddhism with the rest of the world. “Reclaiming Ashoka – An Iron Age Interfaith Exemplar” in this issue tells the story.

Peace within an Empire

The Pax Romana, Latin for “Roman peace,” refers to roughly 200 years of relative peace, when laws were clear and the Roman Empire left off its aggressive expansion. It started in 27 BCE when Caesar Augustus brought an end to the constant internal feuding among Roman provinces and established a widespread adherence to the Roman legal system. Though foreign wars continued, law and order became prevalent and there was little external threat. Two centuries of stability allowed for economic productivity and largely peaceful interaction between the many different cultures and peoples. Indeed, plurality and diversity of religious belief and practice was a significant feature of the vast Empire.

Before the Pax Romana, nations and tribes venerated their own gods and goddesses. Anyone entering a particular group would be expected to abandon his/her previous deity/deities, beliefs, and practices to uphold those of the new group. During the Pax Romana, however, the civil government established a policy of toleration toward most religions. Many traditions flourished, Greco-Roman mystery traditions, sects from Persia and Egypt, Judaism, and more. Christianity, considered a Jewish sect, had a number of run-ins with Rome, but was the exception.

Rome’s only religious requirement of citizens was performing certain civic religious duties, such as sacrificing to Roman deities or to the cult of the Emperor. Although Jews were exempt from these requirements through paying a tax, Christians were not and were persecuted when they refused the Roman rituals. Nevertheless, by and large, this era of the Roman Empire developed a climate of wide-ranging religious plurality, tolerance, and interaction.

Dunhuang and Chang’an in Medieval China

Chang’an, on the China Silk Road. PHOTO: Suny Fredonia

Chang’an, on the China Silk Road. PHOTO: Suny Fredonia

For nearly 3,000 years the ancient Silk Road was an important trade route from China to the Mediterranean. Merchants, soldiers, nomads, and travelers exchanged goods, services, ideas, and religious belief systems across thousands of miles. In villages and cities along the way strangers became friends and colleagues. Dunhuang and Chang’an were oasis cities for travelers. During early medieval China (5-8th c., CE), these bustling trade centers brought together people from different ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. Manuscripts, steles, and cave paintings show that these cities were inhabited by a great diversity of people representing numerous religious traditions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Manichaeism, and Christianity.

Like other major sites on the Chinese Silk Road, interreligious encounters in Dunhuang and Chang’an led to various types of hospitable, creative interaction. For instance, in manuscripts and artwork concerning Tantric Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity, leaders borrowed one another’s religious conceptions and terminology, helped translate each others’ scriptural texts, and shared sacred space. Similar stories suggest that for a few hundred years these cities enjoyed a milieu of interreligious tolerance, exchange, and creativity.

Akbar the Great

A painting of Akbar

A painting of Akbar

Akbar the Great (1542-1605 CE), the third Mughal emperor, ascended the throne at 13. A powerful general, he was able to eliminate the major threats from surrounding military powers and eventually unite all parts of northern and central India. He consolidated and solidified his empire through diplomacy with the influential Hindu Rajput caste and marriage to Rajput princesses. He has been noted especially for his cultural achievements. A devoted patron of art, he lined the walls of his palace with both Mughal and European paintings. He was interested in literature, having several Sanskrit texts translated into Persian and vice versa, and he was influenced spiritually by Sufi poets.

Akbar stands out from most Muslim leaders in his religious tolerance toward non-Muslims. He included numerous Hindu noblemen and military generals in his administration, loosened some of the strictness of Islamic sharia law, and granted funds and resources not only for mosques but also for Hindu temples, Christian churches, and Sikh gurdwaras. A theologian who grew more progressive as he aged, Akbar famously held a series of debates where Muslim clerics discussed religious belief and practice with Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Roman Catholic Christian leaders. Though criticized by conservative Muslims, he treated the all religious leaders with great respect, admiration, and protection. Indeed, Akbar’s rule facilitated a culture that truly appreciated religious diversity and creative interfaith relations.

The Caliphate of Córdoba



The Caliphate of Córdoba a thousand years ago is often cited as an example of early religious pluralism. It was located in what we know today as Spain; most of the Iberian Peninsula along with parts of North Africa. The Caliphate was a Muslim dynasty that ruled from 929 to 131 CE. It generated a period of remarkable productivity in trade and culture. Córdoba, where it was headquartered, became a renowned intellectual center. Ancient Greek texts were being translated into Arabic and Latin and scholars were advancing medicine, mathematics, natural sciences, geography, history, and philosophy.

This era of Córdoba witnessed an ethnically, culturally, and religiously pluralistic society under a tolerant ruler. The dominant culture was Muslim, but Christians and Jews resided there as well. The three faiths worked side by side, engaged in business, and sharing educational and intellectual pursuits. Although the Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis, or non-Muslims of an Islamic state, and subject to a specific tax, they were nonetheless treated with respect and enjoyed freedom and social mobility. This historical instance of inter-religious diversity and tolerance is so influential that current interfaith groups such as the Cordoba Initiative and the Cordoba House have identified their interfaith work after this historical precedent.

Human Connections

This brief walk through a handful of historical examples shows that the quest for interfaith harmony is ancient and sometimes achievable, however imperfectly. Mostly these lucky communities depended on the benevolent policies of an absolute authority and so were short-lived. Interfaith opportunities in a democratic ethos represent a freedom that would have stunned our forebears. Still, one suspects we could go to dinner with these special ancestors and immediately recognize each other as friends.