MUBASHIR AHMAD KITABA
There is some confusion prevalent amongst many, that Islam does not tolerate the existence of other religions. This essay seeks to debunk this myth by discussing some of the foundations that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself laid down in dealing with people of other faiths, with practical examples from his lifetime.
The dealings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) with other religions can best be described in the verse of the Holy Quran “to you be your religion, to me be mine”. (Quran 109)
Arabia during the time of the Prophet (SAW) was a region in which various tribes and faiths were living. There were Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Polytheists and others not affiliated with any religion.
When one looks into the life of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) ,one may draw on many examples to portray the high level of tolerance shown to people of other faiths. In order to understand and judge this tolerance, one must look the period in which Islam was a formal state, with the specific laws laid down by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in accordance with the tenants of religion.
The best example of tolerance shown by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to other religions is the constitution itself, called the Saheefah by early historians, when the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) migrated to Medina. His (SAW) role as a mere religious leader ended; He (SAW) was now the political leader of a state, governed by the precepts of Islam, which demanded that clear laws of governance be laid out to ensure harmony and stability in society which once had been riven by decades of war, one which had to ensure the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Polytheists.
Due to this, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) laid down a constitution which detailed the responsibilities of all parties/people who resided in Madinah, their obligations towards each other, and certain restrictions that were placed on each. All parties were to obey what was mentioned therein, and any breach of its articles was regarded as an act of treachery.
The first article of the constitution was that all the inhabitants of Madinah, the Muslims as well as those who entered the pact from the Jews, Christians, and Idolaters, were “One Nation to the exclusion of all others”. All were considered members and citizens of Medinian society regardless of religion, race, or ancestry.
People of other faiths were protected from harm as much as the Muslims, as it started in another article, “To the Jewish people who follow us are owed help and equity. They shall not be harmed nor their enemies be aided”. Previously, each tribe had their alliances and enemies within and outside of the city of Madinah. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) gathered these different tribes under one system of governance which upheld pacts of alliances previously in existence between those individual tribes. All tribes had to act as a whole with disregard to individual alliances. Any attack on other religions or tribe was considered an attack on the state and upon the Muslims as well.
The lives of the practitioners of other religions in the Muslim society were also given protective status. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “whosoever kills a person who has a truce with the Muslims will never smell the fragrance of Paradise”. (Saheeh Muslim)
Since the upper hand lay with Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) strictly warned against any maltreatment of people of other faiths. He (SAW) said: “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of judgment”. (Abu Dawud)
TO EACH THEIR OWN RELIGION
In another article, it is stated, “the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs”. In this, it is clear that anything other than tolerance would not be tolerated, and that, although all were members of a society, each had their separate religion which would not be violated. Each was allowed to practice its beliefs freely without any hindrances, and no acts of provocation were tolerated.
There are many other articles of this nature in the Constitution, but emphasis will be placed on an article which states, “if any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise, it must be referred to Allah and His Messenger”. This clause maintained that all inhabitants of the state must recognize a higher level of authority and in those matters which involved various tribes and religions, justice could not be meted out by individual leaders, rather it must be adjudicated by the leader of the state himself or his designated representatives. It was allowed however, for individual tribes who were not Muslims, to refer to their own religious scriptures and their learned men in regards to their own personal affairs. They could though, if they opted, ask the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to judge between them in their matters. Allah the Almighty stated in the Holy Quran, “if they do come to you, either judge between them or decline to interfere…” ( 5:42). Here we see that the Prophet (SAW) allowed each religion to judge in its own matters according to its own scriptures, as long as it did not stand in opposition to articles of the Constitution, a pact which took into account the greater benefit of the peaceful coexistence of the society.
FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS ASSEMBLY AND RELIGIOUS AUTONOMY
Given consent by the Constitution, the Jews had complete freedom to practice their religion. The Jews in Madinah at the time of Prophet (SAW) had their own school of learning, named Bait-Ul-Midras, where they would recite the Torah, worship and educate themselves. The Prophet (SAW) emphasized in many letters to his emissaries that religious institutions should not be harmed. According to a letter addressed to his emissary to the religious leaders of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai who had sought the protection of the Muslim:
“This is a message from Muhammad Ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopted Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, 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 Gods covenant and disobeys His Prophet (SAW). Verily they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them”
As one can see, this charter consisted of several clauses covering all important aspects of human rights, including such topics as the protection of minorities living under Islamic rule, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service, and the right to protection in war.
On another occasion, the Prophet (SAW) received a delegation of sixty Christians from the region of Najran, at his mosque. When the time for their prayer came, they faced the direction of east and prayed. The Prophet (SAW) ordered that they be left in their state and not harmed.
These are some of the examples of the Prophets tolerance of other faiths. Islam recognizes that there are a plurality of religions on this earth, and gives the right to individuals to choose the path which they believe to be true. Religion is not to be, and was never, forced upon an individual against his own will, and these examples from the life of the Holy Prophet (SAW) are an epitome of the verse of the Quran which promotes religious tolerance and sets the guideline for the Muslims interaction with people of other faiths. Allah the Almighty says:
“There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the Right path has become distant from the wrong path. Whoever disbelievers in taghut and believes in Allah, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that will never break. And Allah the Almighty is All-Hearer, All-Knower”. (Quran 2:256)
—The author is a PhD Research Scholar. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org