Comment: Religious tolerance in Muslim history

This article originally appeared on the website of Idris Tawfiq. Republished with permission.

Religious intolerance has become too much a part of modern life. It is a fact of life, though, that good people, of whatever faith, do not poke fun or try to insult one another’s religion.

On the contrary, we find that real people of faith are keen to get to know each other better and to learn from each other. Goodness, wherever it is to be found, comes from God. Where else would it come from?

We should never feel threatened by goodness. It is only a threat to us when our own faith is weak or lukewarm and it shows up our own shortcomings.

Since the very beginning, Islam has taught respect for the beliefs of others. We see it in the teaching and the practice of Islam right through history. Indeed, it is the sign of a Muslim that he or she respects the religion of others, and their Books and their Prophets. Those who teach otherwise, Muslim or not, are distorting the message of Islam.

Muslims are no more or less perfect than anyone else. They believe, though, that the message they follow is a perfect message and is meant for the whole of mankind. Islam is perfect and it has existed since the beginning of time.

Whilst some Muslims, throughout history, have not always lived up to the beauty of its message, Islam itself has nothing whatever to be ashamed of.

It is an absolute basic belief of Islam, though, that people of other religions should be free to believe whatever they wish. In the Quran, which Muslims believe to be the word of God, we read:

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: Whoever rejects Satan and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy handle, that never breaks, and Allah heareth and knoweth all things. (Al-Baqarah 2:256)

In another place, Allah says:

Wilt thou (Muhammad) then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?] (Yunus 10:99)

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived side by side with Jews and polytheists. In Madinah, he made treaties with both, guaranteeing their freedom of religion and joining with them in a pact to defend the city.

It was not that they were Jews or polytheists that made the Muslims eventually fight them, but because they broke the terms of the treaty and sided with the enemy which was attacking the city.

It is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of the way Prophet Muhammad dealt with others, believers and non-believers, that he would listen very carefully to what they had to say, and he would ask, “Have you finished?” before giving an answer.

He set the bench mark very high by showing Muslims that if they engage in dialogue, they must listen with great respect.

When the second of the four rightly guided Caliphs, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, entered Jerusalem in 638 AD, he entered the city on foot, out of respect for the holiness of the place.

His first action was to clear the rubble and the debris from the area of Al-Aqsa Mosque and to cleanse the whole sight with rose water.

There was no bloodshed. There was no slaughter. Unlike the slaughter of 70,000 men, women and children which accompanied the arrival of the Crusaders in 1099, the Muslims entered the city peacefully, signing a treaty with the Patriarch Sophronius, which guaranteed their rights to worship, their lives and their property.

The Patriarch, no doubt acting upon his lived experience in the city, asked that no Jews be allowed to live in Jerusalem. Salah Al-Din, known as Saladin in the West, lifted this injunction when he retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

Those who wished to leave were guaranteed their safety. Those who wished to remain were allowed to do so.

In fact, allowing religious minorities to live within the Muslim state would be a test of how faithful the Muslims were to their high calling as a “mercy to mankind”.

Prophet Muhammad said,

He who unfairly treats a non-Muslim who keeps a peace treaty with Muslims, or undermines his rights or burdens him beyond his capacity, or takes something from him without his consent; then I am his opponent on the Day of Judgment. (Abu Dawud)

There is a period in the history of Islam which is lovingly known to Muslims as the Golden Age of Islam. This was the period of the Muslims in southern Spain, which lasted for centuries.

During this time, Christians and Jews held high office in the royal court. It was only when the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, retook the Muslim cities in the south that mosques and synagogues were burned down and Muslims and Jews were either expelled or forced to convert.
Mehmet II officially recognized Patriarch Gennadius II as leader of the Orthodox peoples throughout the Ottoman Empire following the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

In the same year, he granted to the leader of the Jewish community (the Chief Rabbi) the title “Hahambasha”, or Chief Wise Man. Both actions show the respect for other faiths which was to symbolize the Ottoman rule.

We have only to look at Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, to see that this was the greatest period when the region knew peace. Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together happily in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Finally, a word of hope in our own day from the city of Edinburgh in Scotland. Some weeks after the Israeli attack on Gaza in January 2009, there was a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and hate crimes in many countries.

In Edinburgh, the synagogue of the United Hebrew Congregation was attacked by vandals, allegedly protesting against the war on Gaza. The response from the Scottish-Islamic Foundation, Scotland’s largest umbrella organisation for Muslims, was swift: “We will guard the synagogue for you”, they said, if it proved too difficult for the Jewish community to do so.

What better example can we give of Muslim attitudes to other faiths than that? The Muslims of Scotland were prepared to guard the synagogue of the Jewish community.

Muslims believe that God (Allah) is the Lord of all people on earth. He is not just the God of the Muslims. Because of this, Muslims have a very great responsibility to act with justice and kindness to all those who have not yet come to the fullness of truth, which Muslims believe was revealed in the message of Islam.

Muslims have a responsibility to teach the world about Islam. In the Quran we read:

Thus We have made of you a nation justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves. (Al-Baqarah 2:143)

Religious intolerance has no place in our world. Muslims and others should know that it has no place in Islam, either.

Idris Tawfiq is a British Muslim writer and broadcaster. He visited the Maldives to speak in July on invitation from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: When we just can’t agree

This article originally appeared on the website of Idris Tawfiq. Republished with permission.

Some time back, the Russian foreign minister was interviewed by a British journalist on television. The journalist gave him a hard time, but the minister seemed able to give back as good as he was getting! He was asked if he thought relations between the United States and Russia had worsened over the last few years, especially since both countries seemed to be criticising each other a lot at the moment.

The foreign minister’s reply was very clever. He said that because of these criticisms, he thought relations between the two countries were actually better rather than worse because only real friends can offer constructive criticisms of each other.

It isn’t our aim here to talk politics or about relations between the world’s powers, but this incident is a good starting point for us to talk about relationships and about how we fit into the whole scheme of things. There are times in our lives when we don’t agree with others. We might disagree with members of our family. We might disagree with close friends. We might even find ourselves in disagreement with some teaching at the mosque or with the society in which we live.

This needn’t mean the end of the world. It just means that at times we just can’t agree, for a variety of reasons. It could be that we are just digging our heels in and being awkward — it does happen!

It could be that we are not really getting our own point across well and so we are being misunderstood. It could be that we don’t fully understand the other. The important thing is that disagreements need not signal the end of a relationship or a breakdown in communication. In fact, disagreements can often, in a strange way, strengthen relationships.

Take the first years of marriage, for example. After the rosy period of first settling down together, little things start to happen that can annoy us. We begin to realize that we haven’t married Mr Perfect or Miss World, and we begin to get annoyed and find ourselves arguing over things that really aren’t that important at all. This doesn’t mean the end of the marriage. It just means we are realising that there are two people involved here and we need a bit of give-and-take for the marriage to work.

If you want to paint the living room red and your spouse wants it white, the marriage need not break up. You have to come to a compromise. At other times, though, there are things you won’t agree on. You support one political party, for example, and your spouse supports another. You will have to learn to disagree, respecting what the other one wants. We don’t need to make our loved ones agree with us in everything for us to carry on loving them.

A real friend is someone in life who can disagree with you and yet still be your friend. A real friend respects who you are and loves you for who you are, but can still tell you things you might not want to hear.

Only a real friend can tell you how stupid you look in that particular outfit. Only a real friend can tell you what a fool you are being by behaving in a certain way. Only a real friend can tell you that you should be praying when you are not. We listen to what friends have to say because we know that when they criticise something we do, it is not an attack on us but a criticism of our behavior. Real friends are often the ones who can tell us what is staring us in the face. We don’t need to reject them if they disagree with us or hold a different point of view.

There are many occasions, then, when we have to admit that we don’t agree. After having tried everything, we need to accept that there are times when we just can’t agree all the time. This will happen in the family, with parents, or with brothers and sisters. It will happen with the broader issues of what is going on in society.

Sometimes we need to speak out against what we believe is wrong in our society, but we still need to respect the right of others not to agree with us. It may be that after a while our opinions begin to converge, either at home or in the broader community, and we realise that there isn’t such a big difference after all. The important word is respect. Our opinions deserve the respect of others, and we should give to others the same respect we are looking for.

As Muslims we should be the most caring nation. Six years after leaving Makkah, our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) signed a peace treaty, the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, with his enemies. This didn’t mean that he agreed with the idol worshipers or with what they believed, but that for the sake of Islam he was prepared to disagree with them for the time being. The treaty didn’t mean he became their friends, either. It just meant that it was wise to make peace despite their disagreements. In the Qur’an, Almighty Allah describes this peace treaty in the following terms:

“Verily We have granted thee a manifest victory. ” (Al-Fath 48:1)

The victory was peace. The Muslims didn’t set aside their differences with the Makkans. They didn’t pretend that all was well between them. They just admitted that there were big differences and they would leave them on hold for the moment, allowing Almighty Allah to solve them. This peace treaty, broken very soon by the Makkans, led the way to the conquest of Makkah.

So in our own lives there are times when we just can’t agree. We need to use these occasions to grow. We need them to become sure of what we really believe. We need them to develop relationships and to understand where we stand in the scheme of things. We are always attentive, as Muslims, to what our community is saying, and we take examples from the life of our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

Disagreeing with others does not make us odd. It is quite normal and quite healthy, and it will lead us to be better people and better Muslims. Almighty Allah knows what is best for us. By trusting in Him we can’t go wrong.

Idris Tawfiq is a British Muslim writer and broadcaster.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]