I.M.A.M. (December 20, 2018)
In democratic societies like the United States and Canada, where religious freedom is one of many protected liberties and people from all levels of society are constitutionally free to express their beliefs, it is essential to consider the viewpoint of each faith tradition towards the adherents of other religions. Indeed, history is pockmarked with religious intolerance and societal structures that prevented individuals from having the choice to practice their faith. Even within a free society like the one we live in today, secularism and individual freedom do not necessarily guarantee a harmonious milieu. Currently, one can see that advocacy for religious freedom includes not just those who practice a minority faith, but also those who do not ascribe to a religion and even the followers of the majority religion who claim that they are being judged because of their devotion to their faith. As a result, religious liberty must represent a philosophy that starts with freedom and tolerance, and then builds the foundations of a compassionate society through dialogue and outreach.
As such, to understand the Islamic perspective on this matter, past injustices, narrow mindedness, and oppression by various despotic regimes notwithstanding, a person only needs to examine the implementation of religious liberty in the city of Medina during the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp).
The Muslim society in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) established the fundamental code of Islam was similarly diverse; not only was it comprised of people of various religions, but numerous tribes and social groups as well. In fact, it is that narrated “when Muhammad arrived in Medina, its inhabitants were a mixed lot. They consisted of the Muslims united by the mission of the Messenger of God, the polytheists who worshiped idols, and the Jews who were the armored people of the forts and the allies of the tribes of Aws and Khazraj.”1 Reflecting on the diversity of Medina and the different religious backgrounds of its residents, one can ask how Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) fostered cooperation and cohesion. Did Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) give any religious rights to Christians, Jews, and the followers of other religions? Were they free to practice their religion? In other words, does Islam impose belief upon humanity or is religious conviction a personal choice left to each human being? Furthermore, religious freedom, along with every other freedom (e.g., living in safety, owning property), must pertain to each human being and their value. To reflect on these questions, here we examine some examples of how the Prophet (pbuh&hp) treated followers of other religions.
There are many well-documented instances of Prophet Muhammad’s dealing with people of other religions. The Hilf al-fuḍul agreement, 2 his dealing with the king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the case of the Christians of Najran,3 the Constitution of Medina, and the numerous covenants with Christians of Arabia are among the many examples which historians have highlighted. These examples portray how the Prophet (pbuh&hp) treated non-Muslims in both Mecca and Medina, during times of war and peace and when struggling for freedom or while in power. In what follows we touch upon three of these instances: the Hilf al-fuḍul agreement, the Constitution of Medina, and one of the many covenants with the Christians of Arabia.
The Hilf al-fuḍul agreement
According to al-Baghdadi’s account of the Hilf al-fudul agreement, before the Prophet (pbuh&hp) received his mission, he signed, along with some other youth, an “Accord of Chivalry” (futuwwat) to respect the rights of other people who came to Mecca for trade. They agreed that “we will support the victim whether respectable or inferior in status, belongs to us or others.”4 Ibn Hisham and Ibn Athir have commented in the following manner on this agreement: “They pledged to stand with any victim at Mecca or from outside and against all those victimizing [others] unless they were convicted to make amend.”
The importance of this document becomes clear when considered in the context of the social norms in seventh century Hijaz, where rights and liberties were determined by blood ties and tribalism with very little provision made for or accommodation afforded to the outsider.
The Constitution of Medina
After the Hilf al-fudul agreement, the Constitution of Medina is the oldest piece of evidence that presents the Prophet’s legacy regarding people of other faiths. The documents were drafted after the Prophet’s migration to Yathrib (Medina al-Nabi) in 622 and is considered authentic by both Muslim scholars and historians of Western academia.5 The following are two short articles taken from the 30 articles that this document contains, showing examples of its progressive and inclusive approach to governance:
The Jews who follow us as clients are entitled to support and are granted equal rights; they shall not suffer any injustice, and no one will be aided against them.
The Jews of the clan of Awf are a community (umma) with the faithful covenanters, the Jews having their religion ([deen]) and the Muslims their religion, their clients, and their persons, except for any wrongdoer or traitor who brings perdition upon himself and his household. It is likewise the same as the Jews of the clan of Awf with the Jews of the clans of Najjar, Harith, Saida, Jusham, and the Aws.
Prophet’s covenants with Christians of Arabia
In addition to the Constitution of Medina, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) explained the rights of Christians under Islamic rule in several covenants. Dr. John Morrow has translated some of these covenants.6 In a covenant with the Christians of Mount Sinai, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) begins by saying, “This covenant [kitab] was written by Muhammad, the son of Abdullah.” It continues with many detailed articles that are beyond the scope of this discussion, yet three of the most significant include:
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 [awani], all the members of my religion [ahl millati], and all my followers [atbai].
A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower [sawma], nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage.
Moreover, no building from among their churches [bayt min buyut kanaisihim] shall be destroyed, nor shall the money [mal] from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims. Whoever does such a thing violates God’s covenant [ahd Allah] and dissents from the Messenger of God.
None of them shall be compelled to bear arms, but the Muslims shall defend them, and they shall never break this promise of protection until the hour comes and the world ends.
It is interesting that the mentioned documents show a consistency in the Prophet’s attitude toward religious liberty throughout his life. He presented the same level of tolerance in all circumstances, before and after his prophethood and while Muslims were a minority or a majority. He signed the Hilf al-fudul agreement before starting his mission as a prophet, showed the same level of tolerance in dealing with the king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) while Muslims were a minority, and continued the same attitude when he signed the covenant with the Christians and Jews when Muslims were the majority in Arabia.
Other covenants that the Prophet (pbuh&hp) signed with the Christians and Jews of his time contain similar protections but unfortunately have rarely been studied and written about. The underrepresentation of these precious letters and treaties, both in the Muslim world and in the West, has probably been one of the causes of the misrepresentation of the Prophet’s character and Islam in general. Our efforts, as his followers in advocating for and representing these documents to the public, are necessary both to restore the true character of our beloved Prophet (pbuh&hp) as the “Prophet of Mercy” and to build a truly free, equitable, and just society—a society that he invited people to and fought for.
1. Saeid Amir Arjomand, “The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the ‘Umma,’” Cambridge University Press, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 41, no. 4 (November 2009), 555- 575.
2. Muhammad b. Habib al-Baghdadi, Kitab al-munammaq fi akhbar Quraysh , ed. Khurshid Ahmad Faruq, Beirut: Alam al-Kutub, 1985.
3. Ref. Dr. Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqi, “The Prophet Muhammad: A Role Model for Muslim Minorities.”
4. Muhammad b. Habib al-Baghdadi, Kitab al-munammaq fi akhbar Quraysh, ed. Khurshid Ahmad Faruq, Beirut: Alam al-Kutub, 1985.
5. Saeid Amir Arjomand, “The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the ‘Umma.’” Cambridge University Press, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 41, no. 4 (November 2009), 555- 575.
6. Morrow, J.A., The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, Sophia Perennis, 2013.