I recall a conversation I had with an American university student, not too long ago, on how Christians today are undergoing persecution in the Islamic world as we have never seen before. This young person went our of her way to single out that the Catholic Church had done much worse with its Inquisition, sustaining that Islam never had anything to the like. When I asked her to provide evidence to prove her argument, her reaction was both impetuous and defensive: “I just know this is how it was and your Church is both racist and criminal.”
Many, as the student I conversed with, immediately point to the Dominican priest Tomas Torquemada (1420-1498), Catholic Spain’s “grand inquisitor,” and the “atrocities” committed in Spain, such as forcing Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism. There is quite a bit of misconception as to what, as is historically known as the Holy Inquisition was all about. I therefore would like to offer to those—and I am sure there are others out there who have found themselves in a similar predicament as mine—and to the reader some historical clarifications.
First and foremost, the Inquisition was not a system in which the Catholic Church sought to oppress and force conversions from non-Catholics. Yes, there were abuses, as with any system. The Inquisition, however, was primarily a state-sponsored office in which local regents and monarchs sought help from the Church to weed out heresy—the denial of Church doctrine(s) by a baptized person—that were creating social disharmony. A classic case was that of the Cathars during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Understanding that European medieval society was primarily a Christian society in both Eastern and Western Europe, heresy was a crime against the state. As historian Thomas Madden elaborates Roman law in the Code of Justinian made heresy a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training–something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.
Referring to the Spanish Inquisition, as Raymond Ibrahim points out, one of the primary reasons that prompted the Spanish crown to institute the Inquisition and appoint Torquemada in the first place is rarely acknowledged: the last bastion of Islam in Granada had been brought under Christian rule as the Reconquista came to a close; the half million Muslim citizenry were given lenient terms, including the right to travel abroad and practice Islam freely. But they abused them, including by launching many hard-to-quell uprisings—several “involving the stoning, dismembering, beheading, impaling, and burning alive of Christians”—and regularly colluded with foreign, mostly Muslim, powers.
Ibrahim goes onto say, when push came to shove, and to ward off suspicion, half-a-million Muslims feigned conversion to Christianity, regularly attended church, baptized their children, and learned all the ins-and-outs of Christian culture, while clandestinely working to subvert Spain, or at least Granada, back to Muslim rule. “With the permission and license that their accursed sect accorded them,” one frustrated Spaniard remarked in reference to the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya, “they could feign any religion outwardly and without sinning, as long as they kept their hearts nevertheless devoted to their false impostor of a prophet. We saw so many of them who died while worshipping the Cross and speaking well of our Catholic Religion yet who were inwardly excellent Muslims.”
Initially, the Inquisition became evolved into a formalized procedure with very-well trained Dominicans who were only answerable to the Pope, as the spiritual and terrestrial guide to Christian Europe. As royal authority grew during the 14th century and beyond, control over the Inquisition slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings and queens. Instead of one Inquisition there were now many. Despite the prospect of abuse, monarchs like those in Spain and France generally did their best to make certain that their inquisitions remained both efficient and merciful. During the 16th century, when the witch craze swept Europe, it was those areas with the best-developed inquisitions that stopped the hysteria in its tracks. In Spain and Italy, trained inquisitors investigated charges of witches’ sabbaths and baby roasting and found them to be baseless. Elsewhere, particularly in Germany, secular or religious courts burned witches by the thousands.
As I explain in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up, under the caliphate of Umar I, Muhammad’s second successor (634–644), the urgency for implanting a religious (Islamic) ethic, which had previously been the driving force among the Prophet’s supporters, became apparent. Therefore, rallying around the cause of Islam meant the diffusion of a Quranic rule of conduct: the only available ideological mechanism of the new military and religious state.
It was not just the Arabs who had to be contained by the body politic, but the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), too. In what became known as mihna (“trial, ordeal, test”)—a term coined by medieval Arabic chroniclers to describe events that took place between 833 and 847 AD; initiated by the seventh Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmun (813–833)—we see the watershed moment in which the Islamic state and the ulama (Islamic religious scholars) developed its Quranic tenets in order to impose its oppressive sharia norms on society, such as the curtailing of religious freedom and independent thought, reducing women to property, prohibition of consumption of alcohol, waging war to propagate Allah’s kingdom, etc. Not much has changed in the Islamic world since the inception of its religion as a result of the sharia.
As already mentioned, there have been abuses by churchmen who took it upon themselves to exploit the Inquisition in order to comply to the whims of monarchs. That does not mean, however, that it was Church doctrine, nay, the Inquisition itself. With Islam, in what has been and continues to grow as sharia law, is a different story altogether.
N. B. I invite you to take a look at my book Islam: Religion of Peace? The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up. Everything you want to know about Islam and how to confront the Islamization of society is in it.