What Prophet Muhammad’s covenants with Christians say about IS
Picture this. A Muslim leader reaches out to a group of Christians and invites them to his country. The Christians happily accept the invitation, while the Muslim leader prepares his people for their arrival. This is the first time the two communities have met in an official delegation. Matters of state, politics and religion are the topics of discussion. The two groups see eye-to-eye on most issues, but also agree to disagree on theological issues. If one phrase can best describe their meeting, it is “mutual respect”.
At the end of their talks, the Christians tell the Muslims, “It is time for us to pray”. The problem for the Christians is that there is no church nearby to worship. Instead of letting the Christians pray on the dirty street, the Muslim leader tells the Christians, “You are followers of the one true God, so please come pray inside my mosque. We are all brothers in humanity.” The Christians agree to use the “Islamic space” as their own. A bridge between these religious communities is made in the name of peace and goodwill.
This story is not some fairytale. It is a historical fact (I did, however, make-up quotes based on how the interaction might have played out). The Muslim leader of the story is Prophet Muhammad and the Christians are from Najran, or modern-day Yemen. The event happened in Medina in 631 AD. This moment in time represents one of the first examples of Muslim-Christian dialogue, but more importantly, one of the first acts of religious pluralism in Islamic history.
Now fast forward to 2016 in Damascus, Syria. The city – and much of the Middle East - has plunged into darkness. Pastor Edward Awabdeh leads a prayer in a Church despite threats on his life by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group. Pastor Awabdeh maintains the Christian faith, although many of his religion have fled a country which is now ranked the fifth most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian.
The militant group regularly persecutes religious minorities in the large swathes of Syrian territory it has taken, and its ultimate aim is to destroy all traces of Christianity in the Middle East.
But to put it bluntly, the daily abductions, murders, beheadings and destruction perpetrated by IS fanatics on the vulnerable Christians of the Middle East directly contradict Prophet Muhammad’s vision of an Islamic state.
The covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of his time indicate that Christians living within the ummah – Arabic for community – were protected and defended. These covenants were written between 622 and 632 AD and were designed to protect peaceful Christian communities, not attack them.
The covenants have been located in obscure monasteries around the world and books that have been out of print for centuries. Islamic scholar John Andrew Morrow, author of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of His Time (Angelico Press 2013), is responsible for translating the documents and distributing them to a wider audience. Scholars like myself are turning to them now in the hope of countering the widespread violence against Christians in the Middle East.
In “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Najran,” the prophet was emphatic on the issue of complete religious freedom. He was not relegating Christians to the status of second-class citizens. On the contrary, the prophet was treating them as equal citizens of the Islamic state.
Muhammad wrote: “I hereby declare that my horsemen, my foot-soldiers, my armies, my resources, and my Muslim partisans will protect the Christians as far away as they may be located… I commit myself to support them, to place their persons under my protection, as well as their churches, chapels, oratories, the monasteries of their monks, the residences of their anchorites wherever they are found… I will protect their religion and their Church… I commit myself to protect them from any harm or damage; to exempt them from any requisitions or any onerous obligations and to protect them myself, by means of my assistants, my followers and my nation against every enemy who targets me and them.”
Prophet Muhammad is clear – Christians should be free to be Christians while living in the ummah. This is an integral part of any “Islamic state.” Similar, if not identical passages are found in other covenants of the prophet with Christians that were living in Egypt, Persia and Jerusalem.
“The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Najran” goes further than simply tolerating or supporting Christians in practicing their religion. Muhammad commanded that Muslims are duty bound to aid and care for Christians.
In a recent peer-reviewed paper that appeared in the academic journal Religions, I argue that the principle of religious pluralism espoused by Muhammad in the covenants can and should be used to further improve relations between Muslims and Christians not only in “Islamic states,” but also around the world.
The covenants reveal that Muhammad preferred religious pluralism over mere tolerance. He called on Muslims to energetically engage with diversity, both cultural and religious, and called on his followers to embrace commitments and agreements across the religious divide. Ultimately, the covenants show that the prophet of Islam encouraged members of the ummah to celebrate – instead of denounce – difference. Tolerance, after all, is too thin of a foundation for a community of religious difference and proximity.
The covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of his time clearly show that modern-day “Islamic states” that mistreat Christians cannot be justified in light of Prophet Muhammad’s commandments and vision. Considering that IS’s treatment of Christians is so severe that it has been called “genocide” by the United States, it is difficult harmonise Muhammad’s views and the actions of IS.
Christian heritage is part of the social fabric of the Middle East and always has been. Prophet Muhammad’s treatment of Christians is a testament to that. His covenants can be viewed as a kind of medicine to cure the diseases of both Islamophobia and Islamic extremism. It is time that IS and its sympathizers heed his call.
-Craig Considine (PhD, Trinity College Dublin) is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Rice University in Houston, TX. His research interests include Muslim-Christian Relations, Islamophobia, Prophet Muhammad and Islam and American identity. His website is craigconsidinetcd.com. You can follow him on Twitter @CraigCons
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Muslim pilgrims walk outside the Prophet Mohammed Mosque in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, on 13 December, 2008 (AFP).