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Toleration in the World History of Religions

Alan Kramer



     All civilizations, indeed, all complex societies are multi-religious. Competing orientations, beliefs and practices have always coexisted and become enmeshed and hybrid in different ways. These processes also created unresolvable and perennial tensions. Historically, societies have dealt with these differences in many ways. Marginalizing, hereticizing and even violently destroying competing religions without sufficient power to protect themselves, has been too often common.

     However, history also shows that more generous and humane responses to religious differences have been regularly adopted. I classify many of these decisions about diversity as forms of tolerance. Tolerance is understood as refraining from taking severe action against a person or a group of people pursuing different religious values.

     Of the various elements which constitute, influence and shape history, tolerance is by far the most important. It presupposes the existence of differences in a society and it thwarts potential chaos and conflicts. Tolerance has often become the chosen alternative to violence in the important issues of difference, meaning and order faced by all civilizations, empires and states.

     Toleration establishes a principle of politics that is ultimately based not solely on membership in a community but on the activity of living together and of confronting the issues and problems of collective life. Toleration as an ideal recognizes the meaning and energy of community membership while providing an alternative and superseding political vision of mutuality and acceptance. Its principles are moderation, order and peace.

     My aim is to expand the modern definition of toleration, to seek how multi-religious societies understood themselves, and how a more open and inclusive view of life was more common in the past than we think today.

Multiple Tolerations

     For over 200 years, from the 17th century to the early 19th century, visitors to the Ottoman's third largest city, Aleppo (one of the world's oldest continuous inhabited cities) reported that the Muslim population intermingled with the believers of other faiths without any overt hostility. There were networks of social exchange and reciprocity across sectarian lines, the exchange of special foods on religious holidays and the joint celebration of certain saints' feast days. Friendships existed across sectarian divides. More frequently still were political alliances between individuals, or even extended families of different faiths, established and nurtured by mutual interests and needs. Relations were multifaceted and interpersonal. Boundaries were fluid. But the glue of social cohesion-language, along with music, cuisine and material culture were also generally integrated, often through multi-linguality and syncretistic practices. As a rule, only internal squabbling could bring the local authorities to interfere.1

     This is a form of "toleration". Though it is not "liberal toleration," which is the European post-Reformation form that came into fruition during the Enlightenment. Ottoman "toleration" challenges the modern philosophical position that toleration is only a Western "liberal" John Lockean invention. For me, "liberal toleration" is only one incarnation of toleration, though it is the dominant one in today's liberal, westernized and globalized world. Pluralization of toleration allows for its multiple conceptualization—each distinct and also interconnected.

     I explore these pre-modern and/or non-western, "multiple tolerations", using the concept of "multiple modernities", introduced in 2000 by the late sociologist S. N. Eisenstadt2to develop a tentative categorization of nine different kinds of tolerations found in world history. Often they overlap, become intertwined, as civilizations have complex and multiple ideas on all concepts.

     The first six categories are toleration as practice—functional and pragmatic ways of dealing with religious diversity on a regular basis. They are "dispositional" referring to actual institutions, processes and practices of the society, where tolerance is a practical attitude of mind with the acceptance of the differences of neighbors. Toleration here is both a matter of state policy and local grassroots practice.

1) functional toleration, includes both the "pragmatics of diversity"3 and reason of state or empire;

2) conflicting canonical interpretations/understandings, within religions, law, literature, etc, where orthodoxy and heresy are intermeshed;

3) the pluralization of views and interests involving the acceptance of factions and parties;

4) tolerance within clearly defined limits/areas;

5) the use of shared or mixed sanctuaries—sacred places where several religious groups perform devotional practices within the same space and at the same time, often with an open and tolerant understanding of the holy; and

6) the use of dialogue as common practice, though with differing goals, but containing a degree of mutual respect and openness.

     The next three types of toleration move into developed theory of beliefs, desires and intentions, going beyond, but also including practical necessities. Here tolerance is "discursive", a public ideology, discourse, rhetoric and concept of the order and moral judgment. It is often expressed as a desire for peaceful coexistence.

7) the ecumenical or cosmopolitan worldview where there is some degree of understanding that all people are in some aspect equal, as for example, the theory of natural law;

8) "Liberal Tolerance" an ideology, developed in the western Enlightenment, emphasizing democracy and individual conscience; and

9) an underlying "metaphysical toleration" developed in civilizations with a pluralist understanding of the universe as found, for instance in China and India.

1. Functional toleration, includes both the "pragmatics of diversity" and reason of state or empire

     The first category is a functional, pragmatic and commonsensical, but is also an ambiguous way of dealing with religious diversity on a daily basis. It tends to be dominated by local needs and concerns of avoiding inter-confessional violence. It can often be supported by similar concerns of an empire or state to maintain peace.

     The late Ottoman empire deliberately organized diversity in the form of a "constructed toleration". To deal with Islamic and non-Muslims (Orthodox Christians, Jews and Armenians), Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Sufi sects, they developed an imperial flexibly with multilayered negotiation levels. This consisted of "multiplicities of flexible arrangements, networked structures, institutional mixes, in the form of the layering of old and new institutions, bringing together actors, and their networks in the governance structures, the negotiated arrangements in different domains and structural and symbolic sites of agreement and contention."4With this "The Ottomans constructed an uneasy, distinctly productive, and purposefully diverse, but nevertheless homogeneous and unifying, culture."5 That is, while accepting difference, they built their governance over similarities based on institutional structures and the shared understanding these generated.

     This "constructed toleration" for "reasons of state" (as a means of rule, of extending, consolidating, and enforcing state power) was actualized on the local level by "multiple, bounded, yet also overlapping corporate networks of religious and ethnic communities...where a degree of separation was desired by both sides....Local community leadership entered negotiated agreements with Ottoman rulers based on their desire to maintain their religious autonomy and community existence free from interference."6

     Functional tolerations highlight the centrality of politics—the continuous processes of negotiation and re-negotiation between different religious groups, with the aim of keeping and maintaining peaceful coexistences. In describing the aftermath of the European Reformation, Perez Zagorin described local and national political leaders aiming at peace that reconciled religion with public utility and order. He writes, "During the French wars of religion [1562–1598] the term politique began to be used as a name for this point of view. It described those Catholics, in time a numerous party, who were in favor of subordinating religion to the political interests of the state and hence willing to concede coexistence with Protestants when necessary to preserve or restore city unity and peace."7

     For Paul W. Werth the process of modern nation-state building in Russia, politique was the guiding principle in dealing with the "obvious tensions between the fact of confessional diversity…and state aspirations to maintain and promote social and political unity." In "Russia [the]...tremendous religious diversity…included, aside from Orthodoxy…the major Christian denominations, a wide range of sectarian beliefs, and numerous non-Christian confessions, from Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism to various forms of shamanism and animism" and all competed. He goes on to "argue…that the period from the late 1820s to the reform era of the 1860s initiated a transition—never completed under the old regime—from an imperial model featuring tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity and emphasizing dynastic loyalty above all else, to one of a unitary national state, which aspired to a higher degree of integration of its diverse population."8

     Political negotiations tend to lead to moderate results. For example, Richard Tuck notes that for Montaigne, "the question of toleration is a pragmatic one, to be resolved in accordance with the particular social circumstances and the general principle of the priority of civil peace."9 But as the pragmatic uses of toleration must be continually re-negotiated, the peaceful coexistence it generates, can still be precarious, as political ideas change along with the justification for the use of force.10

     Examples of toleration abound in history, with frontier areas especially creating many kinds of pragmatic tolerations. Borderlands, as zones of interaction, produce hybrid frontier cultures. They emerge from the slow synthesis of ideas and practices brought to this area by each group and integrated into the deep layers of society by the many diverse groups in the region. Peoples of different religious traditions were always meeting one another on daily productive practice and constructing an environment promoting the free circulation of myths, rituals, symbols, beliefs, and gossip among different communities. These frontier regions are commonly found in areas bordering or between empires, like South East Asia, between India and China.

     Another form of pragmatic tolerance was expressed by the Jews of Late Antiquity. The Jewish response to the multi-religious environment of Late Antiquity was to transform itself into what we now recognize as Judaism—as a rabbinic and synagogue based religion. This process was long and very gradual. It first became important and was energized in the diaspora, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and at the triumph of Christianity as the state-religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE. Transformation became a necessity. The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, (132 to 135 CE) prompted a process where rabbinic ethics, and a re-mythologization of time and place, with a decentralized organization. gradually replaced a territorialized deity. Philo of Alexandria (d. 40 CE) was a key figure, since his pioneering synthesis between biblical religion and Greek philosophy cleared the way for later syntheses in which the three faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam expressed their theologies. By about 500 CE, the rational Talmud was completed with its dialectical or moving arguments by treating thoughts, propositions, and evidence as a process of interchange and challenge. What then follows is not a recapitulation, but a give-and-take of reason and analysis. The purpose of the dialectical argument is not to advocate, but to explore, to discover truth out of a process of contention and confrontation. This process led to redefined categories, institutions and ways of living by creating order in a pluralist world. Throughout this period rabbis learned the rules of pluralism and mutual tolerance, by composing dialogical religious sacred documents, to explain living in a multi-religious world.11

     Another view of pragmatic tolerance is afforded by looking at Constantine as an example of a tolerant negotiator. H. A. Drake12 has presented Constantine as a political-deal-making, empire-builder. Drake begins with the simple observation: that Christianity is not essentially intolerant and that any definition of what Christianity "is" is subjective, eminently historical and the product of an observable political process. Accordingly, Constantine's elevation of the Christian faith cast it into both the open light of toleration and of imperial support creating the conditions for Christianity blossoming. This allowed for a thriving multi-religious Mediterranean life, with a new emphasis on the cultivation of those features of tolerance that had retreated. At Nicaea (325 CE) he made the goal unity, not purity, emphasizing political concord over theological dogma.

     Constantine acknowledged that diversity had been a fact of life for Christians, partly resulting from their widespread diffusion and the lack of central organization. Even within each city, the indeterminacy of Christian authority, distributed among the charismatic ascetics and confessors, scriptures, synods and communal consensus, and holders of ecclesiastical offices, gave ample room for differences to arise while also making them difficult to resolve. The success of local attempts to settle intra-Christian disputes depended on the initiatives and strengths of particular individuals and communities. The emperor's selective patronage did strengthen episcopal authority, counterbalancing the centrifugal forces exerted by charismatic ascetics and confessors and aristocratic patronage of household communities. Adapting the imperial tradition of relying on the leading men of local cities to rule, emperors dealt primarily with bishops as ranking heads of a hierarchy and as Christian spokesmen. The emperors' support and their expectation that such men, now in principle given judicial authority over internal Christian disputes, would keep their own houses in order caused local bishops to aspire to more effective control over their communities.13

     As we can see, functional toleration, is a very broad category, it appears in many incarnations and it often overlaps with many other kinds of toleration listed below.

2. Conflicting canonical interpretations/understandings, within religions, literature, law, etc, where orthodoxy and heresy are intermeshed

     The second type of toleration involves conflicting canonical interpretations/understandings, within religions, law, literature, etc, where orthodoxy and heresy are intertwined. Here, as pointed out by multiple modernity theorists, multi-religious-ness is created out of the fact that all religions have inherent tensions without final resolution14; all religious institutions and values develop and vary locally through syncretistic and practical entanglements15; and over time change through reinterpretations and reformations that continually occur in new contexts, with learning and accommodation between groups and communities.16 Relevant here are the tensions and divisions of how to understand and deal with orthodoxy's competitors, labeled heretics. In essence, heretics are relegated to the status of the "Other", and as such a multi-religious situation is created.

     In the past generation or so, post-modern pluralists have understood that there is always a "conflict of interpretations" where ideas, literatures, or law are contested as to meanings or importance, resulting in the acknowledgement that there is not just one correct interpretation of anything. Tolerating multiple meanings can spawn the development of the so-called opposites—orthodoxy and heresy. These binaries often become both intertwined and contested ideas in the political arena of pluralist societies.

     The Late Antique Mediterranean highlights the intersecting and overlapping contradictions where the binaries of heresy and orthodoxy developed. It is generally recognized that the Platonic doctrine of ideas has influenced the western way of structuring reality through hierarchical binary oppositions. There was a strong tendency in late antique Christian writings to analyze, arrange and verbalize the surrounding world in terms of polar opposites. In fact, as part of their Platonic heritage, Christian polemical texts were based on dichotomies. Binary oppositions are more than a rhetorical tool; they are a way of conceiving of the world.

     The Christian Church grew by constantly releasing new and old heresies from within itself. The Church depends on the heresies and the heresies on the Church. They constrict, condemn and confirm each other. Each determines the other's appearance. They attempt to resolve internal intellectual and religious tensions. Furthermore, one generation's heresy is frequently the next generation's orthodoxy.

     In late antiquity dialogues between Platonists and Christians prepared the way for the blurring of the distinction between the binaries of philosophy and religion. Maijastina Kahlos writes, "In the dialectic between forbearance and compulsion, we observe the history of religious tolerance and intolerance in Late Antiquity as a constant fluctuation between moderation and coercion in the relations between different religious groups, majorities and minorities, as well as between the imperial government and religious communities."17

     With heresy and orthodoxy being inseparably intertwined, toleration often enters the picture in the disputed middle ground defining moral character and allowing for pragmatic coexistences. The big question of how much diversity is accepted in a society intermingles heresies, orthodoxies and tolerations into the important issues of changing hierarchies of social values and beliefs.

3. The pluralization of views and interests involves the acceptance of factions and parties

     The third form of pragmatic tolerance is when the pluralization of views and interests involves the acceptance of factions, parties and the Ottoman networks spoken of earlier. All these pragmatic tolerations highlight the role of politics as the basis for maintaining and creating inter-religious understandings. Interest groups of all kinds become "competing, pragmatic and bargaining."18 And in the pre-Modern, pre-Enlightenment world, definitions and categories tend to be fluid and ambiguous.

     Within this approach we could consider monastic movements as factions or parties in opposition to institutionalized pragmatic religion or as a reform movement of an existing ascetic tradition, as they were generally tolerated in similar ways. As part of the tension of the demands of this world and the next, the monk's party is on the frontier between them. The tradition of asceticism and pacifism in major religions is an important aspect of these tensions. Charlemagne's advocacy of the establishment of schools by the cathedrals as well as by the monasteries shows a toleration of competitive religious parties.19 Schools in competition, often create tolerations through the use of debate and dialogue. Monastics from different religions have played a crucial role in the development of inter-religious dialogue, not only in exemplifying openness and hospitality toward the religious other, but also in pointing to a deeper level of spiritual connection from which all actual dialogue may spring.

4. Tolerance within clearly defined limits/areas

     The fourth form is tolerance within clearly defined limits/areas. The immediate public markers of a boundary were codes of conduct: rules and regulation concerning dress, housing, and transportation. In the Ottoman world non-Muslims were forbidden to build houses taller than Muslim ones, to ride horses, or to build new houses of worship. Boundaries separate, mark and shape by creating conceptual distinctions that overlay social relations with restrictions, symbols, practices, and ways of identifying and separating. Thus, religious identities are often defined in terms of delineated spaces and boundaries. But restrictions were often ignored and in network terms, closure was avoided and brokerage across confines was common.

     A "localized common knowledge"20 is important for understanding the circumstances under which groups tend to engage in transactions across boundaries. Local knowledge includes tacit understandings, such as those about spatial go and no-go areas, and memories of earlier conversations and interactions. Yet, the separation or accommodation between groups would often result from an exchange between religious and/or public authorities and various groups, grounded in a set of local understandings and traditions.

5. The use of shared or mixed sanctuariessacred places where several religious groups perform devotional practices within the same space and at the same time, often with an open and tolerant understanding of the holy

     Only recently have shared religious landscapes been identified—studied as the continued dialogic construction of social worlds, and as sets of multifaceted and multi-voiced realities. These pragmatic and tolerant creations importantly consist of systems of shared religious symbols and spaces, even though they are often "in tension, they clash, judge and evaluate one another."21

     Maria Couroucli describes "The presence of shared or mixed sanctuaries, sacred places where several religious groups perform devotional practices within the same space and at the same time, is a well-established phenomenon in the [pre-modern] Mediterranean."22 These diverse practices include the sharing of holy places in the Ottoman culture in the Balkans and Anatolia, and pilgrimages and other forms of religious tourism, where both Copts and Muslims shared shrines of venerated saints. These pilgrims operating under the "rules of good neighborliness or komsiluk,"23 which included the "helping [of] neighbors who follow a different religion to build a shrine or looking after it when they are away."24 These practices of interreligious cooperation, constitute a form of toleration.

     The practice of the sharing of sacred sites has a "dynamic history. In India, Palestine, the Balkans, and elsewhere, we can see fluctuations between periods of peaceful sharing and of conflict over joint use." A "politics of the chorography of sacred spaces" is developed and maintained in an atmosphere of coexistence that creates its own logic of toleration.25

     Benjamin J. Kaplan describes the practice of both Catholics and Protestants in 16th and 17th century Europe sharing the use of one church building concluding that "its practice did not depend on eradicating tensions or resolving conflicts between religious groups—an impossible task, often—but on managing and containing them.26

     Irad Malkin27 describes this spirit of cooperation in Greek colonial period and Hellenistic times in terms of Richard White's "The Middle Ground" that "is not only a social metaphor but also the physical space "in between" and "within which" people(s) interact." But as there are always tensions and competitions where participants "often misinterpret and distort both the values and the practices of those they deal with,…from these misunderstandings arise new meanings and through them new practices—shared meanings and practices of the Middle Ground."28

     Michael W. Champion describes late antique society in Gaza at the end of the 5th century and into the 6th century C.E., as a diverse "local culture" with strong ties to the cosmopolitan centers of Alexandria, Athens, and Caesarea, and with a mix of competing schools and monasteries that encouraged a continual adaptation of new elements from other local cultures. This was a vibrant community of shared ecumene (oikoumene) where pagans, Jews and many different kinds of Christians "shared through heterogeneous beliefs, values and practices, [making] identity in this period…heterogeneous, context dependent, contested, and shaped through mutual interaction and adaption of valued characteristics as well as through the construction of oppositions." This understanding of inter-religious sharing "helps produce a more refined account of differences with Christianity which were not reduced to the identification of doctrinal conflict or heresy hunting. It counteracts the tendency to characterize Christianity as a unified monolith....[but with] tensions and exchanges within and between distinct and overlapping local cultures." He continues, "Societies are not totalizing but are instead made up of many different local cultures, themselves the product of internal disagreements and negotiation and external interactions. Culture is a product of internal coherences, disagreements and negotiations". During this period Gazans had shared worldviews of tolerance and openness. Only in a later period was a closed, dominant, more unified Christianity deliberately created. For Champion, diverse local cultures can be examples of another type of shared religious landscapes.29

6. The use of dialogue as common practice, though with differing goals, but containing a degree of mutual respect and openness

     Dialogues across religious divides have occurred in and between all civilizations we have records for, at different times, places, formats, occurring with different motives. They are part of a civilization's pursuit of harmony, to some extent positively accepting diversity and containing a degree of mutual respect and openness.

     The term "dialogue" tends to be used to cover a wide range of engagements between religious traditions, from daily interaction between believers living in the same neighborhoods to organized discussions and debate between expert scholars; and from formal or casual exchanges between spiritual or institutional leaders to inter-religious activism around social issues. Often the goals of dialogues differ.

     Interreligious dialogue can be a challenge for most religious traditions. Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict XVI) argued that the encounter between the Church and other cultures is a process of transformation.30 So, by their very nature, the theology of religions and interreligious dialogue are embedded within controversy, often entailing argument and fierce debate. There can be a difficult balance between commitment to one's own tradition and openness to the other.

     The Swiss social psychologist Tania Zittoun describes dialogue as ontological, with an ethical base. In effect, in this ontology, recognizes of the uniqueness and humanity of the other. This ontological position also has an epistemological implication, that "knowledge is jointly generated by the self and 'others' throughout history as well as through symbolic and dialogical encounters."31

     In late antiquity dialogues between Platonists and Christians prepared the way for the blurring of the distinction between philosophy and religion. Augustine provides us with a powerful and "positive" purpose for interreligious dialogue. Such studies contain true ideas about God, as he claims that within non-Christian writings there are "some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God". Augustine, also combated Manichaens through public disputation and also advocated an inner, spiritual dialogue with oneself and God that ultimately helped lay the foundation for the medieval monastic world.

     In Medieval Europe the literary genre of imaginary or real dialogues between Christians and Jews was popular for over a hundred years from the end of the 11th century. These meetings of mind between Jews and Christians were fruitful because they gave rise to discussions of method and common subject-matter as well as creating a climate of thought in which the teachings of the "philosophers" could be set beside that of Jew and Christian, and some orderly assessment of their respective claims attempted. There were a group of medieval authors who suggested that differences in belief ought to be addressed from the standpoint of patience and charity, through dialogue and discussion. Concurrently, scholastic disputation, over the course of the next two centuries developed systematically and centrifugally from France and Italy to become a formative practice in the scholastic culture of medieval Europe, eventually transcending the frontier between private and public spheres and extending to multiple levels of society. Alex J. Novikoff concluded that dialogue escaped its literary origin and passed from an idea among few to a cultural practice among many.32

     Thus, in the so-called School of Anselm of Canterbury that flourished c.1100, it was acknowledged that even where the ultimate purpose of engaging in dialogue is to "talk" the unbeliever into acceptance of religious truth, it presumes an equal distribution across humanity of the ability to comprehend rational proofs. To the extent that they held all human beings, regardless of their faith, to possess powers of reason instilled in them by God and nature, medieval thinkers could accept a rational standard of intellectual debate that did not overtly favor the authority of Christianity over other religious persuasions.33

     In China, Jinhua Jia has examined the practice of encounter dialogue and described its long history that included the spiritual exchange and mental contest, which happened not only between master and student, but also master and master or student and student.34 It was not used for cultivating one's mind-nature, but for inspiring, activating, revealing, and even competing for immanent enlightenment and wisdom. Encounter dialogue soon became an important and dynamic religious practice. Additionally, many of the "Indian" Buddhist texts turn out to be composed in China are in dialogue with Taoism. Both these forms of disputation were common within the context of China's "metaphysical toleration". Throughout Asia, including after the advent of Islam, "[r]eligious debates were common practice among Turkic and Mongol rulers".35

     In India during the Mughal period, devotional (bhakti) Hindu and Sufi Muslims created many esoteric and mystical texts with points of intersection and divergence, origin and expansion, adaptation and translation. These developed out of dialogical relations and shared religious landscapes. Much of their dialogues involved competition to control the symbolic and spiritual identities of places and their importance to both traditions.36

     Dialogues like cultures are polyphonic, hybrid, and fragmentary, and are always being composed and recomposed. Most civilizations have a thread of belief that all knowledge is dialogical. This embodies the tolerant, peaceful and nonviolent world of debates.

7. The ecumenic or cosmopolitan worldview where there is some degree of understanding that all people are in some aspect equal, as for example, the theory of natural law

     Seventh, is the ecumenic or cosmopolitan worldview where there is some degree of understanding that all people are in some aspect equal, as for example, the theory of natural law. All civilizations have a universalizing aspect, often some of these can be classified as cosmopolitan. A few years ago I presented a paper that concluded that "no cosmopolitanism can be constructed without recognizing there are a diversity of cosmopolitanisms which are based on interpretations created for particular local, historical and conceptual situations."37 These tensional processes create "multiple cosmopolitanisms" and "multiple tolerations".

     The philosopher Eric Voegelin suggests that the unity of the human race became a central religious issue in the Ecumenic Age, the period from the conquest of Media by the Persian Cyrus in 550 B.C.E. to the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the sixth century C.E. The era thus begins and ends with imperialism and empire-building is the central theme of its history. As "ecumenism played a significant role in the self-definition of both the new empires and the new religions, they aspired to represent the unity of the human race visibly and in fact even to encompass all of humanity. The basis and meaning of this unity of humanity, however, was not a simple matter to establish. It was subject to conflicting interpretations as various empires and religions pursued their programs of expansion, and it took much of the duration of the age to work through the resulting complications."38

     Karen Barkey makes a strong case for an Ottoman ecumene that helped define its pragmatic toleration, discussed earlier. Ottoman cosmopolitanism established its identity and forged a balance between coherence and diversity. Its "constructed toleration" was embedded and maintained by organizational practices, in the relationship between the center and its composite parts, and in the outcomes of negotiations between religious and ethnic communities. For as long as it lasted, until sometime in the 18th century, this toleration and diversity was the product of both state management and negotiations with social forces, especially with key interlocutors between state and society, both representatives of communities and agents of the state.

     Ottoman cosmopolitanism constructed a social order whose legibility overall tended toward toleration, not only because the state was interested in maintaining diversity and managing the resources of this diversity, but also because the communities themselves and the leadership were concerned with this issue. There was no attempt to transform the "difference" into "sameness." Difference was perceived as the norm, a condition that need not be altered, but managed.39

     Natural law theory developed in the West as a moral basis for a common humanity that is derived from nature and nature's laws. Even though it was always contested, it has an important influence from Hellenistic times through Roman Christian medieval Europe. Building on Cicero, Augustine understood that everyone's "conscience, including a pagan's, is constrained by this natural law."40 For Hugo Grotius [1583–1645], the aims of natural and international law, was the "conciliatory view of religious difference."41 Later, in modern times, natural law became the grounding for human rights theory.

     Most civilizations have a thread of belief that all knowledge is dialogical. The classical Chinese Yin-Yang model where different viewpoints replace one another in turn in a continuous cyclical process is similar to Richard White's "middle ground" model. No viewpoint totally replaces any other viewpoint so that the mixture is always a mixture of the two viewpoints. Differences cannot be perceived as in conflict, but as being in collaboration. Differing viewpoints are perceived of a needing each other in order to constitute a new and complete whole. This metaphysical understanding then comes into the generally pragmatic practice of inter-religious dialogues.

     Thus debates and dialogues are important ingredients in tolerant, cosmopolitan societies. In modern times the British philosopher John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (published in 1859) argued for free speech, openness, and debate as the foundation of a free society. This would include a wide range of engagements between religious traditions, from daily interaction between believers living in the same neighborhoods to organized discussions and debate between expert scholars; and from formal or casual exchanges between spiritual or institutional leaders to inter-religious activism around social issues. The goals of dialogues may differ, but the common denominator is tolerance, consisting of mutual respect and openness, to the possibility of learning from each other. But can also entail argument and fierce debate. Often there is a difficult balance between commitment to one's own tradition and openness to the other.

8. "Liberal Tolerance," an ideology, developed in the western Enlightenment, emphasizing democracy and individual conscience

     Eighth, is "Liberal Tolerance," an ideology, developed in the western Enlightenment, emphasizing democracy, freedom, and individual conscience. The Enlightenment developed out of a debate within Christianity and grew to become a strong competitor. Slowly, Europe changed from communalism to an "individualistic and pluralistic understanding of religion and society."42 There were, of course, many variants on both Enlightenment and tolerance,

     From John Locke (1632–1704) the Enlightenment developed its strong sense of toleration with his focus on an individual's membership in a plural society, where there are spheres of recognition. In a variety of ways, "heterodoxy served the public interest," with Locke and others arguing that it was in the interest of the state to protect that diversity. His A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) "became a transformative document: it showed people of mutually hostile religious beliefs how they could live together with their deepest differences" by "reconceive[ing] diversity as a source of social and political stability."43 Locke privatized religion, in the neutral civic arena, making toleration "an intrinsic good and thus a desirable goal irrespective of the larger aims of the state." Eventually this would be developed into today's political liberalism where "individuals are bearers of rights (freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom to own property), and the role of the state is to foster" it.44

9. An underlying "metaphysical toleration" developed in civilizations with a pluralist understanding of the universe, as found for instance in China and India

     Last, is an underlying "metaphysical toleration" developed in civilizations with a pluralist understandings of the universe, as found for instance in China and India. For me, "metaphysical toleration" is a civilization that believes that ultimate reality is diversity and/or change. This can be contrasted with the western metaphysical understanding from Plato and monotheism where the cosmos and society are wholly one, a unity. But both metaphysics seek harmony, though the former is more tolerant to differences, while the latter tends to create hostile dichotomies.

     India's heritage was large and eclectic, where different Hindus could and did make different choices of rituals, gods, goddesses, etc., but they were all alike participants in a common civilization. The Hindu identity was therefore inherently plural. Since new gods, goddesses, rituals, gurus and religious texts kept appearing, and since the Hindus had no organized church or a similar central institution to monitor and screen out some of them, the content and boundaries of their civilization were never fixed. Their identity was also therefore porous and open and differences were hierarchicized. Additionally, on the subcontinent, doctrines of ontological and epistemological pluralism also developed within Jainism and Buddhism. Buddhists truth is experiential, rather than doctrinal. Sikh scripture calls for respect for all religions, tolerance for religious pluralism, and understanding and cooperation among faith communities, and that revelation cannot be religion specific, so everyone should be true to his own faith. Thus, in India, a high value on moral and cultural pluralism, and claims not only to tolerate but also respect and cherish different ways of thought and life were the norm, a long tradition of "unity in diversity"45.

     In China, Confucian harmony with its mutual complementation became predominant. With the I Ching/Yijing or Book of Changes through Daoism, the categories of yin and yang developed into a philosophy of complementary principles of balance, co-dependence and not domination of the one over the other. The Chinese religious/ philosophical dynamic value of harmonious human relationships leads to synthesis. This metaphysical understanding of interaction can support the generally pragmatic practice of inter-religious dialogue. Additionally, localized popular religions flourished. So multi-religious-ness was common, a person could be a Daoist, a Confucianist and a Buddhist. The notion of "equal but different" is based on mutuality, and put Chinese ethical and social teachings on a cosmological basis. Generally speaking, its ideas have affected every aspect of Chinese life, be it metaphysics, art, marriage, or even cooking. Wherever harmony is sought or change takes place, the forces of yin and yang are at work. In Southeast Asia this has been called "reconciliatory" tradition.46

     Traditional African religions are generally tolerant, non-aggressive, cautious and non-proselytizing. In the Yoruba religion of West Africa (today's Nigeria) "there [always has] exist[ed] the natural admixture of religious faiths within individual families" creating a metaphysical tolerance which accommodated diversity and a mutual coexistence of traditional religion, Islam and Christianity.47


     From the discussion of "multiple tolerations" these categories are fluid and often intertwined and much more ambiguous than today's "liberal toleration" might accept. From the "multiple modernities" paradigm we learn that there are multiple paths to toleration, that they develop differently in different locations and settings, and that they always consist of competing constructions and interpretations.

     My aim has been to expand the definition of toleration, to seek how multi-religious societies understood themselves, and discover that many societies at various times developed an open and inclusive view of life and concluding that tolerations existed before modern times.

     "The difficulty with toleration", writes British philosopher, Bernard Williams (1929–2003), "is that it seems to be at once necessary and impossible."48 The history of mankind's dealing with this difficult circumstance, of pluralism versus homogeneity and for the need for social cooperation, is an important and vital one.

     I opened this paper with the example of a tolerant time in the old city of Aleppo, Syria. Recent events remind us of the continual need to find ways to reach states of peace through toleration. Each civilization can build on its own traditions of toleration, if we re-discover and re-value it.

Alan Kramer is an independent scholar, researching pluralism in world history and has presented papers at various forums, especially at the World History Association's conferences. He can be reached at


1 Bruce Masters Christians & Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 37–38.

2 S.N. Eisenstadt,"Multiple Modernities," Daedalus, 129 no., (2002), 1–29.

3 Christine Kooi Calvinists & Catholics during Holland's Golden Age: Heretics & Idolaters (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.

4 Karen Barkey Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1.

5 Barkey Empire of Difference, 7–8.

6 Barkey Empire of Difference, 114.

7 Perez Zagorin How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 145.

8 Paul W. Werth At the Margins of Orthodoxy: Mission, Governance & Confessional Politics in Russia's Volga-Kama Region 18271905, (Ithica: Cornell University Press 2001), 5–6.

9 Richard Tuck "Scepticism and Toleration in the 17th Century" in Justifying Toleration: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives ed, Susan Mendus (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 27.

10 Zagorin How the Idea of Religious Toleration, 12.

11 Cf. Jacob Neusner Bruce Chilton,The Intellectual Foundations of Christian and Jewish Discourse: The Philosophy of Religious Argument (New York: Routledge, 1997).

12 Cf. H.A. Drake Constantine & the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

13 Richard Lim "Christian Triumph & Controversy" in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, eds. G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown & Oleg Grabar, (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 201

14 This theme is discussed frequently by S.N. Eisenstadt. For example see, (2002) "Multiple Modernities", 7; and "Some Observations on Multiple Modernities" in Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese & Other Interpretations, eds. Dominic Sachsenmaier & Jens Riedel, (Boston MA: Brill, 2002) 29–37.

15 2002 op. cit.; cf. "Note on Society; Multiple Modernities in an Age of Globalization," Canadian Journal of Sociology, 24, 2 (1990) 286.

16 In a 2 volume collection, Eisenstadt explores this theme in various historical periods, Comparative Civilizations & Multiple Modernities 2 vols. (Boston: Brill, 2003), especially 1:40, 51, 239, 364 and 2: 529, 835–6.

17 Maijastina Kahlos Forbearance & Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance & Intolerance in Late Anitquity (London, UK: Duckworth, 2009) 1.

18 Gabriel A. Almond The Politics of the Developing Areas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960) 533.

19 R.R. Bolgar The Classical Heritage:& Its Beneficiaries (New York: Cambridge University Press,1954) 194.

20 Charles Tilly Durable Inequality (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999) 53.

21 Ivana Marková Dialogicality and Social Representations: The Dynamics of Mind (New York, Cambridge University 2003) 83.

22 Maria Couroucli "Shared Sacred Places—A Mediterranean Tradition", in Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims & Jews at Shrines & Sanctuaries, eds. Dionigi Albera and Maria Couroucli, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012) 3.

23 Dionigi Albera "Conclusion: Crossing the Frontier between Monotheistic Religions, an Anthropological Approach" in Albera and Couroucli,,Sharing Sacred Spaces, 226.

24 Albera "Conclusion", 226.

25 Elazar Barkan and Karen Barkey, "Introduction" in idem. Choreographers of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion and Conflict Resolution, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 1.

26 Benjamin J. Kaplan Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 203.

27 Irad Malkin A Colonial Middle Ground: Greek, Etruscan, & Local Elites in the Bay of Naples in The Archaeology of Colonialism, eds, Claire L. Lyons & John K. Papadopoulos, (Los Angeles: Getty Press, 2002) 151–81.

28 Richard White The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 20th Anniversary edition, 2011, xxvi.

29 Michael W. Champion Explaining the Cosmos:Creation & Cultural Interaction in Late-Antique Gaza (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) 193–195.

30 Paul Pulikkan & Paul C. Collins, "Introduction" in idem The Church & Culture in India, Inculturation: Theory & Praxis (Delhi, India: ISPCK, 2010) xiii.

31 Tania Zittoun "Three dimensions of dialogical movement" in New Ideas in Psychology (2013) 30.2.

32 Alex J. Novikoff The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice & Performance, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, A, 2013) 4–5.

33 Cary J. Nederman "Varieties of Dialogue: Dialogical Models of Intercutlural Communication in Medieval Inter-Religious Writings" in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2009) 47.

34 Jinhua Jia The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth- through Tenth-Century China (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006) 47.

35 Mical Biran Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China & the Islamic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 195.

36 David Peter Lawrence "Buddhist-Hindu Dialogue" in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue, ed, Catherine Cornille, (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 188.

37 Alan Kramer "Cosmopolitanism in Late Antiquity: A Pluralist Paradigm" paper presented June 8, 2007 at the "Cosmopolitanism Past & Present International 40th Anniversary Politics & Humanities Conference", University of Dundee, Scotland, unpublished.

38 Kenneth Keulman, The Balance of Consciousness:Eric Voegelin's Political Theory (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Un: 1990) 149.

39 Barkey, Empire of Difference, 131–32.

40 Janet Coleman "The Philosophy of Law in the Writings of Augustine" in A History of the Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics:v6:A Treatise of Legal Philosophy & General Jurisprudence, ed, Fred D. Miller, Jr, (New York: Springer, 2007) 196.

41 Zagorin How the Idea of Religious Toleration, 176.

42 Kathryn Duncan, "Introduction" in idem, Religion in the Age of Reason: A Transatlantic Study of the Long 18th Century (Brooklyn, NY AMS, 2009) xii.

43 Joseph Loconte, God, Locke & Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West, (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014) 2.

44 Colin Jager "Common Quiet: Tolerance Around 1688" English Literary History (2012) 573.

45 Anthony J. Parel "From Political Thought in India to Indian Political Thought" in Shogimen and Nederman, Western Political Thought, 198.

46 Le Thi Lan "The Vietnamese Reconciliation of Cultures and Religions" in Relations Between Religions & Cultures in SE Asia:Indonesian Philosophical Studies, eds. Gadis Arivia & Donny Gahral Adian, (Washington DC: Council for Research in Values & Philosophy Press, 2008) 1:215.

47 Ade Ajayi "Promoting Religious Tolerance And Co-operation In The West African Region: The Example Of Religious Pluralism and Tolerance Among The Yorubas" downloaded 9/15/2014.

48 Bernard Williams, "Toleration: An Impossible Virtue?" in Toleration: An Elusive Virtue, ed. David Heyd, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 18.

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