Islamic conception of Jews and Christians (II)

The biography of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is replete with passions for a multicultural and multi-religious world. As Islam spread through the Arabian Peninsula, the Prophet engaged Jews and Christians but never outwardly converted them.

He is also not on record to have ever ridiculed Judaism and Christianity, as his propagation of Islam was imbued in kindness. Even under serious provocation, he pursued patience and forgiveness and kept reminding his followers that, “Whoever wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the Day of Judgement” (Al-Bukhari).

The Medina Pact

On September 24, 622, the Prophet (PBUH) arrived in Medina, escaping the wrath of the Meccan polytheists who felt threatened by the ‘One God Message’ the new Islamic faith was spreading. In fact, the choice of seeking refuge in Medina was mainly because of its dominance of Jews and Christians who also propagated the “One God Message”. Many of them were extremely wealthy, controlling trading activities in the Arabian Peninsula and commanding tremendous influence.

In his plight to ensuring peaceful coexistence, the Prophet adopted the policy of ‘live and let live’ by drafting what came to be known as the ‘Medina Pact’. The pact is one of the earliest historical documents that guaranteed religious pluralism and freedom of beliefs.

It constituted an agreement for peaceful coexistence, a defensive alliance for cooperation against aggression that sought to protect a group of religious communities, each enjoying – under the provisions of the pact — control over its own people and freedom to propagate its faith.

The pact required of the independent religious groups to ensure and protect the security and safety of the other group and treat the enemy of one as the enemy of all. Thus, the Medina Pact guaranteed freedom of belief, as well as freedom to propagate that belief, despite the diversity of their faith.

Religious diplomacy

In the early stages of his proselytisation, the Prophet (PBUH) sent letters to some Jewish and Christian leaders inviting them to embrace Islam. One of such letters was to the Archbishop of Alexandria and the Byzantine Governor of Egypt, Muqawqis.

Despite declining the invitation to join Islam, the Archbishop gifted two Coptic sisters to the Prophets in lawful marriage. The Prophet married Māriya while his personal assistant, Hassān Bin Thābit, married the younger sister, Sīreen. This, among others, informed the Prophet’s consistent reminder to his followers to “be kind to the Copts because we relate to them in two ways, through blood and through a pledge. We relate to them through blood because the mother of my son, Ibrahim, is a Copt; and through pledge because, together, we believe in the worship of only the One God”.

Caliphs and dynasties

The companions of the Prophet (PBUH) and subsequent dynasties projected excellent relations with Jews and Christians when Muslim forces captured Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan. As dictated by the political ethos of the time, inhabitants of these territories who were mainly Jews and Christians were Arabised in language but were not Islamised.

Without ruling out isolated cases of forced conversion pursued by some deviants, Islamisation as a policy has never been the rule throughout Islamic expansion. For if it was, the ancient and pre-modern Churches and Synagogues coruscating through the streets and suburbs of Cairo, Tehran, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, Jarusalem, etc. will not be there till date.

In fact, when Muslim forces conquered Jarusalem in 637 AD, Caliph Umar led a group of Muslim and Christian youth to tidy churches that were in shambles and they renovated those that were in tatters. He also decreed for the poor, disabled and aged Christians (just like their Muslim counterparts) to be paid stipends from the Islamic Endowment Fund (Dīwān al-Awqāf).

Under the rules of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties spanning 661 to 1258 AD, Jews and Christians occupied influential government portfolios and constituted majority among the staff of the educational and health institutions.

Further, their newly elected leaders were inducted in the palaces of the Muslim rulers preceded by a mock ceremony, which became invested with a certain social importance. Although sporadic skirmishes did occur as expected in all human societies, such petty disturbances were quickly resolved, and life easily returned to normal.

Ethics of war

The concept of war as enshrined in Sharia is an important contribution to the understanding of Islamic ‘just war’ and peace paradigm. War is always the last resort and is subject to the rigorous conditions laid down by the rules of Sharia.

Islam permits fighting only in self-defence, in defence of one’s faith or on the part of those whose basic rights are being trampled upon with impunity. Sharia specifies strict rules of combat, which includes prohibition against harming civilians, destroying places of worship, cutting down crops, trees and killing livestock.

Thus, in the unlikely event of a petty quarrel between Muslims and the People of the Book degenerating into an all-out war, Muslims are prohibited from destroying their houses, farms and livestock and harming those of them who take refuge in a church, a synagogue or even a mosque.

Issues and solution

Islamic legal opinions (Fatwas) issued by Muslim clerics during the colonisation of Arab countries beginning 1881 and the brutalities that ensued in the struggle for independence currently dictate controversy and animosity between the three Abrahamic religions.

European colonial projects and the creation of Israel in 1947 were perceived as an attempt by Jews and Christians to annihilate Islam, and unfortunately, many Muslim clerics within the West African sub-region are swayed by these ‘situational fatwas’ which are readily available in the most used literature.

The recent attacks on churches in Nigeria and the lurking fears of Ghanaian churches being attacked portend some major developments within the sub-region. While my disputatious self always offers a rebuttal by saying there is no cause for alarm, I am suggesting the use of regular and reciprocal visits by leaders of the different faiths.

Such symbolic visits should be to the places of worship as demonstrated by his eminence the National Chief Imam, Sheikh Nuhu Sharubutu, in 2019 and not to private homes as many Ghanaian priests prefer to do.

Most importantly, religious leaders should publicly exchange pleasantries on the occasions of annual festivities of the rival religious group and join in the celebrations by going to the symbolic places of worship. Such initiatives and gestures are some of what the country needs to overcome the challenges of resolving the increasing phenomenon of inter-religious tension.

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two most globalised religions, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists; it is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the Qur’an, the Bible and the Torah.

The writer is the Founding President of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Civilisation.