The Spirit of Islam
The Prophet’s Treaties with Christians and Jews
The migration, or Hijrah, of the Muslims of Makkah to Yathrib in AD 622 opened a new chapter in the life of the newly-founded Muslim community. Till then those who had accepted Islam were themselves persecuted by the inhabitants of Makkah and its surroundings, but once the decision to migrate to Yathrib was taken, the Muslims found themselves in a position of strength. They further strengthened their position by entering into treaties with non-Muslims. Of these treaties the most important was the treaty signed by the Prophet Muhammad himself soon after the Muslims arrived in Yathrib, which later came to be known as Madinatul-Nabi, the Prophet’s city. The main parties to these treaties were the Muslim emigrants and the inhabitants of Madinah.
There were many tribes then in the Arabian Peninsula, some of which were Jewish or Christian. They used to follow their own laws and customs, and worshipped God according to the tenets of their respective religions. There was no pressure on the part of the Prophet to convert them to Islam. Rather, he recognised them as People of the Book, that is, people to whom God’s messages were sent in earlier times and were enshrined in their scriptures. The Prophet let them lead a peaceful life, treated their religion with respect and entered into a number of treaties with them to ensure mutual cooperation.
In Madinah itself, the Jews were a part of the local community and the Prophet made a treaty with them, keeping peaceful coexistence in mind. He never acted against them until they opened direct hostilities against him. But after the Battle of Badr, which took place in AD 624 the Prophet had to deal with the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qainuqa most sternly, for they had sided with the disbelievers, aided the Makkans and broken their treaties with the Prophet. Consequently, they were expelled from Madinah. However, it is important to remember that the decision to expel them from Madinah was not dictated by religious prejudice but by the fact that they had broken the treaty. As the trust is one of the very important social obligations enjoined in the Quran and the breaking of treaties is labelled as a sin, it was the behaviour of the tribe and not their religion, which dictated the decision of the Prophet, in which God guided him through a revelation. (59: 15)
After that, the Prophet entered into many treaties with the Jews and the Christians of Arabia. In AD 632, the Christians of Najran sent a deputation to the Prophet. The Prophet lodged the members of the deputation in his mosque and permitted them to say their prayers there according to their own faith. He conveyed to them the message of Islam. They entered into a treaty with the Muslims and were given a pledge that they would be free to practice their religion and have the protection of the state on the payment of a poll tax.
The text of the treaty signed by the Prophet with the Christians of Najran is a historical document giving evidence of a guarantee of the right to religious freedom under Islam. It runs as follows:
‘The Najran and those living therein are placed under the protection of God and the responsibility of Muhammad, the Prophet and Messenger of God, so far as their lives, their religion, their lands, their property, the individual members both present and absent, their places of worship and their right of prayers are concerned. Similarly, neither any priest nor monk shall be removed from his position, nor a person making a religious endowment shall be deprived of his bequeathed state. And all that they legally own, small and big, shall belong to them, so long it has nothing to do with usury or the blood vengeance prevalent during the days of ignorance.
And in case a person claims something from them by right, it will be settled on the basis of equity and justice and without discrimination to either of the parties. Whoever has taken usury before signing this covenant, I do not hold any obligation for that. Nobody shall be held liable for the acts of oppression committed by any other member of his community. God and His Messenger shall remain bound for all time by the contents of this treaty, unless decreed by God, provided they (the Christians of Najran) remain sincere and continue dealing with fairness among themselves and without resorting to injustice or acts of oppression against each other.’
A careful study of the life of the Prophet, through the Quran and traditions, confirms that he never tired of calling people to the path of God, or of exhorting them to maintain peace. He was firm in his stand that peace was better than war. Peaceful coexistence, established through a network of peace treaties and divine guidance, especially pertinent in the treatment of non-Muslims and even the Muslims’ opponents, was more pleasing to God than direct hostilities. The Quran says: ‘Permission to fight is granted to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged—God indeed has the power to help them.’ (22: 39) and ‘Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression—for surely, God does not love aggressors.’ (2: 190)
To emulate the Prophet is considered Sunnah in Islam and his treatment of other communities should serve as a guideline to be emulated also in today’s world. If he considered the treaties as a framework for working out differences and ensuring peaceful living conditions, the same should be done in the contemporary world.
Policy Towards People of other Faiths
The attitude of Islam towards non-Muslims is summed up in the Quranic verses: “There should be no compulsion in religion” (2: 256) and “Your (Prophet’s) duty is only to convey the Message” (42: 48). Compulsion is thus ruled out for the purpose of the propagation of Islam. The duty of the Prophet is merely to communicate and propagate the Message. It can be said of the period of the Prophet and the regime of his Rightly Guided Caliphs that no one ever embraced Islam through compulsion.
The Quran lays down a unique principle in regard to the treatment of non-Muslims. It grants complete autonomy to every religious community, which not only then enjoys freedom of faith and worship in its own way, but is also free to follow its own laws and cases decided by its own judges. The concept of complete internal autonomy has been advocated in a number of Quranic verses, one of which is very clear: “And let the People of the Gospel judge according to what God has revealed therein”. (5: 47)
This means Christians should judge according to the laws given by God in the Bible. In deference to this principle, every religious community was granted complete autonomy during the time of the Prophet. They enjoyed as much freedom in respect of their religion, worship and legal matters as did any Muslim. A little later a new development took place. It was made incumbent on every Muslim to participate in war but non-Muslims were exempted from this duty for the simple reason that they could not be compelled to help the cause of Muslims. Muslims defended the frontiers of the state and laid down their lives for it, but non-Muslim citizens of the state enjoyed the fruits of peace, safety and security. They only paid a small price for this enviable privilege, by way of a tax called jizyah. This was not an innovation of Islam. Islam inherited this institution from Iran, where those who did not discharge military duty had to pay this tax. The tax on non-Muslim citizens was very light. It was equivalent to ten days’ food in a year—a small price to pay for being guaranteed full protection as a citizen and an exemption from military duties.
No discrimination was exercised against non-Muslims on the basis of religion. In AD 624, after the Muslim victory at the Battle of Badr, Makkans sent yet another delegation to the Negus (King of Abyssinia) with a view to seek the repatriation of Muslims from Abyssinia so that they could be persecuted at home. To counter the move, the Prophet sent a non-Muslim, Amr ibn Umayyah al-Qumri, as his ambassador to the court of the Negus.
The attitude of the Prophet towards his Jewish neighbours was kind and cordial. He always visited their homes to enquire after the health of their sick children. There was a Jewish tribe by the name of Banu Arid in Madinah. The Prophet had been pleased with them for some reason and had fixed an annual stipend for them. When the funeral procession of a Jew passed by in the street, the Prophet always stood up as a mark of deference.
The attitude of the Muslims towards their non-Muslim compatriots was one of kindness, consideration and extreme tolerance. This generous treatment was reciprocated by their trust and loyalty. A civil war started in the Muslim state during the Caliphate of Uthman and continued down the ages, but never once did non-Muslim subjects raise the standard of revolt. They sided neither with one nor the other party. They always remained neutral and never took advantage of the situation. The ruler of Byzantium strongly urged the Christian citizens of Islamic empire to rise in revolt while a civil war was raging between Ali and Mu’awiyah. He promised to liberate them by attacking the Muslims, but he did not succeed in inciting a rebellion. Such efforts continued down the ages until the time of the Crusades, but the Christians responded by saying that they preferred the Muslim rulers to their co-religionists.
The reason for this loyalty was the fact that the Muslims never compelled the Christians to renounce their religion and gave them complete religious freedom. Their religious institutions received aid and assistance from Muslims. An authentic original document exists belonging to the period of Umar in which a Christian gives the good news to his co-religionists in another city, saying that a new nation had taken over as their ruler, but it did not indulge in tyranny. On the contrary, it protected their churches and gave financial aid to their converts.
There are no priests or missionaries in Islam. It is the duty of all Muslims, men and women both, to convey the message of Islam to humankind. This duty cannot be performed by ignorant and illiterate persons who can neither read the Quran nor understand its meaning. So, to convey the message the Muslims should know the beliefs of Islam and they should be helpful and kind to the non-Muslims. If they keep away from the non-Muslims, if they hate them or do not respect them, they will not be able to convey the message. That is why the Quran says: ‘Do not abuse the gods of other religions or their prophets and religious men’. The Prophet always showed great respect for the non-Muslims, treating them kindly, and never doing anything that injured their feelings. Therefore, friendship and cooperation with people of other faiths is a religious duty of all Muslims. War is allowed only as an act of defense. For friendly nonMuslims, Islam offers friendship and goodwill. There is not a single instance in history where the Muslims stabbed a friendly non-Muslim power in the back. Islam stands for justice and fair-play for all, whether Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Rights of Non-Muslims in Islam
Islam as a religion possesses very clear guidelines for the treatment of non-Muslims and gives them the right to live according to their own faith. The Jews and the Christians are called the People of the Book and considered to believe, like the Muslims, in the One and Only God. On the authority of Abu Da’ud (a noted compiler of Prophetic traditions), it has been reported that Messenger of God said: “On the day of resurrection I shall stand as the defender of anyone whose covenants are broken by others, whose rights are usurped; who has burdens imposed upon him which are beyond his physical capacities, and from whom things are taken without his consent."
Another tradition recorded by Abu Yusuf in his book, ‘Al-Kharaj,’ mentions Caliph Umar as saying:
‘I advise whosoever is going to be my successor to be kind and just to ‘the people of Dhimmah’ (non-Muslim citizens living under the protection of an Islamic state), to fulfil all their obligations towards them, to defend them against any external threats and not to compel them to do what is beyond their physical powers.’
It can therefore be said with great truthfulness that Islam has been remarkably unique in legislating laws with compassion and sympathy in matters relating to the non-Muslim citizens of a Islamic state. It is the duty of the Islamic state to provide internal and external security and religious freedom to its non-Muslim citizens. To offset this protection and exemption from defence service granted to them, Islam imposes a small tax, known as jizyah, which is to be paid only by those who are financially solvent. The rights and privileges awarded to the non-Muslim minority in an Islamic state have no precedent in the entire history of humankind.
Here are some of the teachings of Islam that underline the need for justice and equality to the non-Muslims living in an Islamic state. It is stated in the Quran: ‘God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you on account of your faith or driven you out of your homes.’ (60: 8)
God also calls upon Muslims to strictly adhere to the principle of justice and equity while dealing with those who do not share their convictions. He says: ‘Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing. Fear God. God is aware of all that you do.’ (5: 8)
The teachings of the Prophet abound in similar injunctions. He has repeatedly commanded his followers to be kind and fair to their non-Muslim fellow-citizens and prohibited them from subjecting them to oppression or injustice and denying them their basic human rights and freedom. Non-Muslims were allowed to be ruled by their own laws, and to follow the tenets of their own faith. Muslims were prohibited from coercing them into acceptance of Islam.
The Islamic state was bound to provide the People of the Book with full protection in old age, physical weakness, poverty and hunger. It is well-reported that Caliph Umar used to show great personal concern for the welfare and well-being of the non-Muslim minority living under his care by keeping himself well informed of their conditions and suffering. He came to their rescue whenever the need arose. While patrolling the neighbourhoods, he once came upon an old man belonging to the non-Muslim community begging from door to door. Feeling grieved and perturbed, he commented: ‘How can I have the courage to face my Lord (on the day of Judgement) when one of my subjects is compelled to beg in order to earn his livelihood. Certainly, this is not the justice and equity that the Islamic Shariah intends to achieve in dealing with the non-Muslim subjects living in an Islamic State.’
As its name signifies, Islam is a religion of peace and security; therefore, non-Muslims should be free of any fear of being treated in a way displeasing to God. The Quran states:
‘The believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans—all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds— will be rewarded by their Lord; they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve.’ (2: 62)
The rights conceded to non-Muslims by Islam cover a wide range of what today might be classified as basic human rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to belief and worship, the right to security and privacy, and the right to protection by the state and the authorities. In no way, as mentioned in the verse of the Quran quoted above, should a dislike or hatred of a nation influence Muslims in their dealings with it, or cause them to abandon the code of justice prescribed by God.
Original Headline: FROM THE LIFE OF THE PROPHET: Peaceful Coexistence with People of other Faiths
Source: The Spirit of Islam