The Prophet’s display of respect and co-existence is a model that has become sorely lacking in many parts of the world, says Hisham al-Zoubeir.
As the world watches the terrible eruption of violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and is subjected to sporadic communiques by vigilantes calling for violence against their opponents both within the Muslim community and without, many who are unfamiliar with Islam and Muslims may be forgiven for thinking the worst of both the religion and its followers. Yet in Islam and Muslim history, the precedent for religious co-existence is primordial.
The Qurâanic view of the carpenter from Nazareth is clear: Jesus is called the Spirit of God, and the Messiah. Moses is described as the prophet to whom God spoke directly, without any veil. Muslims still revere those men, and their followers are accorded special places within the book of Islam.
First Muslim-Christian interfaith meeting
The Arabian Prophet, Muhammad, sent according to Islamic tradition as a mercy to all the worlds, showed us how these theological abstractions were exemplified in practice in the first interfaith meeting between Muslims and Christians – held some 14 centuries ago.
A delegation of sixty Christians from a community about 450 miles south of the Prophet’s city, Medina, visited him in the year 631. During this three-day meeting between representatives of one faith-community with the founder of another, the model of Muslim ethics vis-a-vis the religious other was made explicit for all time. There are many lessons to be drawn from this encounter, but three stand out.
The first is that neither the Christians nor the Muslims pretended to be other than what they were. The Christians insisted on Trinitarianism, and the Prophet rejected it as a matter of faith. Both sides believed that Christ was the Messiah, that he had been born without a father, and that he received revelation from God. There was no shying away from difference, but the search for common ground was primary. Remember the culture of the time – the Prophet held the upper hand as the leader of a powerful community – but he did not disrespect his guests, who were politically powerless.
The second was that difference was not a cause of religious conflict. When the Christians suggested they go out into the desert to perform mass, the Prophet invited them to carry out their rituals within his mosque. He did not partake of their rituals, but he invited them into his own place of worship to carry them out. This was not mere tolerance: this was respect, if not acceptance. He met them with what he considered to be absolute truths, but not as a bigot.
Later generations of Muslims took his practice very seriously: when he said that the rights of non-Muslims under the protection of the Islamic polity were sacrosanct, that he would be a witness for them on the Day of Judgement, Muslims listened. The millions of non-Muslims who are still very much a part of the Muslim world are testimony to that. The situation was not perfect, but non-Muslim historians record that it was the best model of its time.
The third lesson was that difference did not mean that co-existence on a social and political level was impossible. The Christians nonetheless accepted the Prophet as their guarantor in the political realm, and for 14 centuries other Christian communities have accepted Muslim rulers as their guarantors, with their lives, property and religion safeguarded in exchange for a tax, similar to the tax Muslims paid to their temporal authorities.
Respecting the religious other
The above encounter with the Christians of Najran was by no means an isolated event in the life of the Prophet which points to ongoing interfaith relations. An earlier treaty, the documentation of which is still in existence,with Christians of Sinai bore this practice out.
This is a message from Muhammad son of Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far: we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers (people of Medina), and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
None of the above was a medieval call for syncretism, nor should it be understood to be a denial that Islam, a universal religion, did call for Muslims to be fully committed to their faith. Rather, this was placing into Muslim ethics the need to respect the religious other, by respectfully engaging this other.
The Prophet is known to have claimed that he was not sent except to perfect good manners, and his display of respect and co-existence is a model that has become sorely lacking in many parts of the world. While some may have forgotten his example, his practice nonetheless established precedents that we would do well to heed today with renewed commitment.
Hisham al-Zoubeir is a researcher of classical Islamic thought. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of European Muslims, and writes on Islam-West relations. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service. (CGNews), 25 September 2007.