Modern-Day Lessons from Prophet Muhammad’s Religious Pluralism

Relations between Muslims and Christians have been described as a centuries-old “clash of civilizations,” a binary worldview in which “Western Christendom” is “civilized” and the “Muslim world” is backward. This clash of civilizations proclaims that Western values and Islamic values are mutually exclusive and cannot coexist alongside one another in the same society or nation.

Current relations between Muslim and Christian communities are negatively shaped, even further, by the persecution of Muslims in Western countries and the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries, especially across the Middle East. Considering these all-too-avoidable realities, it is essential to distinguish the rise of Islamophobia among Christians and the mistreatment of Christians by Muslims from Prophet Muhammad’s revolutionary Covenants. Simply, these Covenants are a set of charters or writs ratified by Prophet Muhammad which grant protection and other human rights to Christian communities in his midst. They help to contextualize current affairs and provide us with the necessary tools to build a more just world in which Muslims and Christians can live alongside one another in peace.

Muhammad’s Covenants with the Christian Community

While long known to religious scholars, Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with the Christians of his time have largely been neglected or ignored by Muslim and non-Muslim leaders and policy makers alike. These Covenants, which have been resting for centuries in old monasteries and libraries across the world, have been made accessible to non-specialists thanks largely to Dr. John Andrew Morrow, author of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. In his book, Morrow describes the Covenants as:

a clear rejection of classism, elitism, and racism… all [people under the jurisdiction of the Covenants] are equal before God for whom the most important thing is not language, skin color, social status or class position, which exclude others, but rather the degree of piety, humanity, love for others (which includes not only human beings but the entire natural order), sincerity of faith, the acceptance of His Commandments, and complete certainly as to the special place occupied by His Prophets, Messengers, and Imams.

Morrow refers to the Covenants as the third foundational source of Islamic scripture, and as entirely compatible with the Qur’an and Hadith. These documents uniformly command Muslims not to attack peaceful Christian communities, rob them, stop churches from being built, or tear down churches to build mosques.

One of the most well-known Covenants is that of “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai,” which has been housed at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt for the last nine centuries. According to the Covenant with the Christians of Mount Sinai, a “Muslim nation” must extend protection to Christian communities including their buildings and leaders. Consider the following passage from this Covenant:

A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower, nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims.

So long as the monks of Mount Sinai submitted to Muslim authorities and sought the protection of Muslims, Prophet Muhammad was prepared to support them. Indeed, under the Prophet’s egalitarian vision, the Christian monks of Mount Sinai received the special statuses of dhimmi, or “protected peoples,” and al-mu’minin, or “the faithful.” This worldview is also one that supports democratic principles, such as the right to private property and freedom of religion.

Religious pluralism is clearly a central theme of the Covenants. According to Professor Diana Eck of the Harvard University Pluralism Project, religious pluralism is, among many things, an energetic engagement with religious diversity, as well as between religious communities. Religious pluralism involves speaking and listening as well as criticism and self-criticism, between and within religious communities. While religious pluralism has been discussed primarily as a Western sociological construct, as the Covenants reveal, the West does not have a monopoly on religious pluralism. The concept has a long history amongst philosophers of Islam and theologians of various schools of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence.

The Prophet’s Example

The freedom that Prophet Muhammad granted to the monks of Mount Sinai directly contrasts with the actions of ISIS, a group which persecutes and attacks Christian communities in their midst. In February 2017, The Washington Post reported that Christians had recently been forced to flee the Sinai Peninsula in fear of attacks by Egypt’s ISIS affiliate. ISIS had targeted hundreds of Coptic Christians, as well as Coptic clergymen and human rights activists. Several deadly skirmishes have also taken place between Egyptian military forces and ISIS operatives, near the walls of Saint Catherine’s.

To confront these developments, Pope Francis traveled to Egypt in April 2017 in the hope of countering attacks on Christians and building bridges between Muslim and Christian communities. In a speech he gave at an international conference in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, the Pope called on Muslim and Christian leaders to build a “new civilization of peace” by declaring together “a firm and clear ‘no’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion and in the name of God.”

The Pope’s message of peace is clearly echoed in Prophet Muhammad’s Covenant with the monks of Mount Sinai:

If a monk or pilgrim seeks protection, in mountain or valley, in a cave or in tilled fields, in the plain, in the desert, or in a church, I am behind them, defending them from every enemy; I, my helpers, all the members of my religion, and all my followers, for they [the monks and the pilgrims] are my protégés and my subjects.

I protect them from interference with their supplies and from the payment of taxes save what they willingly renounce. There shall be no compulsion or constraint against them in any of these matters.

Prophet Muhammad made it obvious that protecting Christians was a priority under his leadership. What this passage also makes apparent is that in the levying of the jizya—the poll tax on Christian communities which was similar to the Islamic “spiritual tax” or zakat—Muslim leaders should not extract money if Christians are unable to pay the tax. Rather, Prophet Muhammad asks Muslims to negotiate with the Christians on these and other matters, without forcing them into an agreement or committing any violence against them. Such conditions were clearly stated in several other Covenants, including the “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of the World,” “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Persia,” and “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Najran.”

“The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Najran” stems from the Prophet’s early contact with the Christians of Najran around the second year of the hijrah, or great migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina. Around 631 CE, Prophet Muhammad sent letters to various religious and ethnic communities in the region, encouraging them to embrace Islam and accept his authority. The Najrans lived approximately 450 miles south of Medina in what is modern-day Yemen. Although they did not accept Prophet Muhammad’s call to Islam, the Christians of Najran sent a delegation of roughly forty-five scholars and fifteen assistants to Medina. When they arrived, Prophet Muhammad allowed these Christians to pray inside his mosque. Together, they later agreed to the Treaty of Najran, which, according to Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s senior companions, conferred complete religious and political autonomy to non-Muslims living in the Islamic state.

As the Covenant with the Christians of Najran underscores, Prophet Muhammad was a religious pluralist who engaged in a form of proactive cooperation with other religious groups, for the sake of the well-being of all members of the Islamic state. Consider this passage from the Covenant with the Najrans:

The Muslims must not abandon the Christians, neglect them, and leave them without help and assistance since I have made this pact with them on behalf of Allah to ensure that whatever good befell Muslims it would befall them as well and that whatever harm befall Muslims would befall them as well.

A similar passage is found in the Covenant with the monks of Mount Sinai, in which Muslims and Christians are asked to work alongside one another:

If in the interest of the benevolent Muslim public, and of their faith, Muslims shall ask of the Christians for assistance, the latter shall not deny them that help, as an expression of friendship and goodwill, they are to render… we deem all help and succor rendered to them every way legitimate.

These passages command Muslims and Christians to depend upon one another for both safety and prosperity. In doing so, they align closely with the Qur’an (16:91): “And fulfill the covenant of Allah, when you have made a covenant, and do not break (your) oaths after making them firm, and you have indeed made Allah your surety. Surely Allah knows what you do.” In this Qur’anic passage, God proclaims that mutual dependence between Christians and Muslims fosters a sound and healthy society. The sense of justice exuding from the passage can help to protect society from bitterness and violation of human rights.

Civic principles were also important to Prophet Muhammad’s vision for an Islamic state. The Prophet refused to allow the Islamic state to devalue citizens based on their ethnicity, religion, race, or cultural orientation. In the Covenant with the Christians of the World, he made it clear that he would not inflict harm on Christians or interfere with their privacy, simply because they were Christians:

The covenant of Allah is that I should protect their land, their monasteries, with my power, my horses, my men, my strength, and my Muslim followers in any region, far away or close by, and that I should protect their businesses. I grant security to them, their churches, their businesses, their houses of worship, the places of their monks, the places of their pilgrims, wherever they may be found.

The rights that Prophet Muhammad granted to Christians in his realm are neutral in nature. He did not grant different rights to different religious communities. Nor did the Prophet pursue policies that would result in the disenfranchisement of Christians. Citizenship, as outlined in the Covenants, relied on the right of all people to have a “fair hearing” of their views and “fair protection” of their interests and lives, regardless of their beliefs or religious preference.

Toward Religious Pluralism

The Covenants—alongside the Qur’an and Hadiths—attest to Prophet Muhammad’s support for religious pluralism and equal citizenship rights. The Qur’an (2:256) underscores the correctness of this belief, stating, quite clearly, that “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”

This should come as no surprise to those individuals and groups who have a clear understanding of the place of Christian communities in the Islamic tradition. A special place is reserved in Islamic scripture for Christians, as well as Jews. The Qur’an refers to both populations as ahl al-kitab (“People of the Book”), or people who have received the word of God. As the Qur’an (2:62) notes:

Those who believe in the Qur’an and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians and the Sabians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

Without a doubt, the Covenants offer a blueprint for advancing freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and civic rights in “Muslim nations” and beyond. In the context of Islam, the Covenants remind us that the ummah is a form of social consciousness and an imagined community where Christians are also treated as “righteous believers.” This egalitarian creed, which stands for freedom and equality, entitles Christians and other non-Muslim communities to a secure and protected place in all Islamic societies.

So what can be done to improve relations between Muslims and Christians worldwide? It is simple: follow the example that Prophet Muhammad set by fostering religious pluralism and citizenship rights in societies across the world.

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Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a senior scholar specializing in Islamic, Indigenous, and Hispanic Studies.