[Say: We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another.] (Aal `Imran 3:84)
As is borne out by this command of God in the Qur’an, Muslims must believe in all the prophets of God previously sent to humanity. This means that they are not permitted to show any disrespect to any prophet or to the religion he taught to his followers. To a Muslim, religious belief must come out of a person’s free choice, as God has also commanded not to use any kind of coercion in the matter of religion:
[Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stands out clear from error.] (Al-Baqarah 2:256)
It is the conviction of a religion’s adherents, not the compulsion they can impose on others, that establishes its moral force on earth. This was a principle evident in the life and practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as well as the Constitution of Madinah which he drew up with the multi-religious community of Madinah.
This document guaranteed the freedom of worship to all religious communities. This was the spirit of the Qur’an that shines into the hearts of all its perceptive readers: the spirit of tolerance and understanding. Allah says in the Qur’an that He has made people into nations and tribes so that they can know and deal with each other in an equal temper of kindness and generosity:
[O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know and deal with each other in kindness (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God (is he who is) the most righteous of you, and God is Knower, Aware.] (Al-Hujurat 49:13)
The above verse emphasizes the point that in Islam there is no place for intolerance, prejudice, or bigotry based on color, race, nationality or any such considerations. This all-encompassing tolerance of Islam applies to all elements of life and all affairs of Muslims.
The Muslim’s acceptance of the Jews and Christians (referred to in the Qur’an as People of the Book) as authentic religious communities is made clear:
[And dispute not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong and injury.] (Al-`Ankabut 29:46).
This verse tells Muslims that they should take all measures to avoid dispute, anger or other negative feelings between themselves and others.
A Historical Context
In his book, More in Common Than You Think: Bridge Between Islam and Christianity, Dr. William Baker explains how Muslims view the Torah and the New Testament as inspired revelations of God and how Islam neither targeted the Jews nor Judaism.
In his article “The Prophet of Islam and the Jews: Basis of Conduct, Acceptance, Respect and Cooperation”, Fysal Burhan quotes Dr. Baker: “It is a fact of history that when the Jews were being persecuted in Europe during the middle ages they found peace, harmony, and acceptance among the Muslim people of Spain. In fact, this was the era of Jewish history that they themselves refer to as “the golden age.”
Marmaduke Pickthall, whose translation of the meanings of the Qur’an remains one of the most popular today, also commented on the subject:
In Spain under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid Khalifas, Christians and Jews, equally with Muslims, were admitted to the Schools and universities – not only that, but were boarded and lodged in hostels at the cost of the state. When the Moors were driven out of Spain, the Christian conquerors held a terrific persecution of the Jews. Those who were fortunate enough to escape fled, some of them to Morocco and many hundreds to the Turkish empire, where their descendants still live in separate communities, and still speak among themselves an antiquated form of Spanish. The Muslim empire was a refuge for all those who fled from persecution by the Inquisition.
The Western Christians, till the arrival of the Encyclopaedists in the eighteenth century, did not know and did not care to know, what the Muslim believed, nor did the Western Christian seek to know the views of Eastern Christians with regard to them. The Christian Church was already split in two, and in the end, it came to such a pass that the Eastern Christians, as Gibbon shows, preferred Muslim rule, which allowed them to practice their own form of religion and adhere to their peculiar dogmas, to the rule of fellow Christians who would have made them Roman Catholics or wiped them out…
If Europe had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in those days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension…
It was not until the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they became more tolerant; and it was only when the Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of the highest culture. Before the coming of Islam it had never been preached as an essential part of religion.” (Madras Lectures on Islam)
The Prophet’s Pluralistic Constitution
The Qur’an never claimed to teach a new religion. It consistently contextualized the Prophet Muhammad as being the final messenger in a long line of messengers from Allah confirming the truth of all earlier scriptures. This continuity is clear in the respect the Prophet showed to people of other religions.
Muhammad’s mission was to restore the pure religion of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. The Islamic view of earlier religions is clear from the following verses of the Qur’an:
[The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah–which We have sent by inspiration to thee (O Muhammad)–and that which We enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus… Call (them to the Faith), and stand steadfast as thou art commanded, follow not thou their vain desires; but say: “I believe in whatever Book Allah has sent down; and I am commanded to judge justly between you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord: for us (is the responsibility for) our deeds, and for you for your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to Him is (our) final goal.] (Ash-Shura 42:13 & 15)
It was in the year 622 CE that the Prophet came to Madinah after a period of thirteen years of preaching Islam to the Quraish tribe in Makkah. In Madinah he found many who were ready to receive him and help him in his mission. At that time, the city of Madinah and its surrounding area was home to many Jewish and Arab tribes. There were also people of various racial and national origins including Romans, Persians and Ethiopians living in Madinah.
Taking into consideration the hopes and aspirations of this community of multi-religious background, the Prophet Muhammad drew up the basic principles of a pluralistic constitution. In addition, it established the rights and equality of every citizen before the law, as well as freedom of religion, trade and speech. The constitution spelled out the political rights and duties of both the Jews and Muslims to protect each other from every threat to their security and to uphold moral conduct and fair dealing.
Part of the constitution reads as follows:
The Jews of Banu `Awf are one nation with the Muslims; the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs, their freedmen and their persons shall be protected except those who behave unjustly or sinfully, for they hurt but themselves and their families. The same applies to the Jews of Banu an-Najjar, Banu al-Harith, Banu Sa’idah, Banu Jusham, Banu al-Aws, Banu Tha’labah, and the Jafnah, clan of the Tha’labah and Banu al-Shua’ibah. Doing good deeds is a protection against sinfulness. …….There is no responsibility except for one’s own deeds….This document shall not constitute any protection for the unjust or the wrongdoers.
Whoever goes out to fight or stays at home is safe in the city, unless he has committed an injustice or a crime. God is the protector of whoever honors his commitment to this document, and is God-fearing and so is Muhammad, the Messenger of God. (Ibn Hisham)
The Constitution of Madinah was a historical document authored and dictated by Prophet Muhammad as the law of a land inhabited by different ethnic groups and nationalities. The document secured and promoted cooperation and fraternity among all people of any creed, color, ethnicity, and lineage, and set down the criterion of righteousness as the base of distinction.
A Human Soul
In addition to the legislation that the Prophet laid down in Madinah, he also practiced the spirit of acceptance and respect for those who were different in his daily life. The Prophet used to visit the sick people among the Jews as well as the Muslims; and when on one occasion the funeral procession of a Jew passed before him, he stood up as a sign of respect for the deceased. “Why did you stand up for a Jewish funeral?” he was asked. The Prophet replied: “Is it not a human soul?” (Al-Bukhari)
In this age of racial profiling and targeted killings directed at Muslims this attitude of the Prophet may sound other-worldly.