My history textbooks insist on the same idea: these empires were religiously tolerant, allowed trade to flourish, and improved the quality of life for the subjects.

On the other hand, all the European empires (British, Spanish, French) are portrayed as oppressive because they subjugated, enslaved, and oftentimes massacred native populations.

Is this comparison true? I find it hard to believe that the other empires were not oppressive as well.

How would you compare being a indian subject of the British empire to being a Spanish subject of the Abbasid empire?

Actually I asked my history teacher about IS vs the Abbasid Caliphate and he said the Abbasid caliphate was more tolerant in its rule. But IS practices imperialism which aims at gaining power as well as terrorism. On the other hand the Abbasid empire only practiced imperialism.

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    And what history textbooks are those? The standard portrayal of the Mongolian Empire is hardly all that benevolent. The positive qualities you listed are true, but the Mongols did more than their own fair share of subjugating, enslaving, and massacring. I'd be surprised if any semi-legitimate text on their history, even something as notoriously prone to propaganda/misleading/outright-falsehoods as school textbooks, would leave that out.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 7:15
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    Religious freedom under Abbasid rule should be very qualified: you could not worship Allah and be allowed to live there, but you were a second-class citizen and subject to additional taxes (the jizia), which helps explain the interest of the Abbasid rulers in being tolerant.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 7:28
  • 1
    I suspect your reading either needs to be more careful/thorough or has been coloured. I believe Traditions and Encounters has sections on the Mongols razing cities and massacring Christians and Jews, too.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 7:37
  • 5
    They were tolerant enough by the standards of 1000 A.D.: just think of moriscos, marranos and Spanish Inquisition in XV-XVI centuries. On the other hand, you may look at IS as being "a modern reproduction" of Abbasid khalifate - would you call it "tolerant"?
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 8:03
  • 4
    @physm12 Terrorism is a vaguely defined modern political slogan. Just because it is not normally applied to pre-contemporary states, doesn't mean it didn't happen. At its most basic level ("any act designed to cause terror") it is virtually universal in history. The almost routine torture of high officials under the Abbasids Caliphate could well be considered terrorism depending on your definition, for example.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 10:26

1 Answer 1


If your textbook indeed says this, it is evidently biased. First of all, these things (the Caliphate, the Mongol Empire, and European empires) belong to very different historical periods, and thus cannot be compared. The "world standards" of what is considered "benevolent" and "tolerant" are changing with time. For example, in antiquity and during most of the Middle age slaughtering the whole population (including animals!) of a city after a successful siege was considered normal. Slavery was considered normal. And the idea that all humans have some rights is very modern (18s century).

Second, each of these entities had a long period of evolution. Take the Mongol Empire, for example. During the time of its creation (Mongol's conquest) it was extremely cruel. This was one of the greatest disasters in the recorded history in terms of the number of people killed. At some point there were intentions to exterminate the whole population of China, and turn the land to pasture. This was prevented by a (Chinese) adviser of the Great Khan, who proposed a plan to tax the population instead, and counted the benefits. But later Mongols ruling China became assimilated, and in the later generations they were not very different from other Chinese rulers.

Similarly, AFTER the conquest, and after establishing Islam firmly, SOME Muslim rulers were relatively tolerant, in comparison with their CONTEMPORARY European rulers. But comparison of the early Muslim rulers with the much later European empires simply makes no sense. Like comparison of the modern "Caliphate" with the early Caliphate.

As an example of Muslim tolerance they usually cite that ancient Greek and Roman learning was preserved, and even developed, at the time when it almost disappeared in Europe. But it is rarely mentioned that the whole Persian pre-Islamic literature was lost. It just does not exist. And Persia was a highly developed culture at the time of ancient Greece and later.

Also the earliest European overseas empire (the Portuguese one, 16s century) was very different from the 19s century British empire.

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