Lessons from the Life of the Prophet
The Prophet Muhammad exemplified the highest level of virtues and spirituality, to teach which he was sent to the world. The Prophet spent 13 years in Mecca after having received prophethood, during which he quietly worshipped God, engaged in conveying God’s message, and patiently faced persecution at the hands of his opponents. In Medina, he received from God the opportunity to establish a polity, which he set up on the basis of pluralism and common values and principles. Accordingly, at the Constitutional level, Jews and the polytheists (mushrikeen) were given the same rights as Muslims. In this way, the state of Medina, headed by the Prophet, was the first regularly-established polity to be based on the concept of multiculturalism.
The Charter of Medina that outlined the structure of this polity was the first written Constitution in the history of Islam. According to this treaty, all those who were bound by it, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, enjoyed equal rights. Muslims and Jews (there were no Christians in Medina) were given the status of a united ummah. Ibn Hisham relates in his biography of the Prophet that according to the Constitution of Medina, the religion of the Muslims was for the Muslims, and the religion of the Jews, for the Jews.
According to the Quran (5:47), every religious community should be given complete internal autonomy:
“Therefore, let those who follow the Gospel judge according to what God has revealed in it. Those who do not judge by what God has sent down are rebellious’’.
Not only should every religious community have full freedom of belief and worship, but it should also have the freedom to judge its own affairs according to its laws, administered by its own judges. That is why the Prophet could not limit the range of rights and freedoms given by the Quran to non-Muslims in the polity that he headed.
In the course of his peaceful mission of dawah or inviting people to God, the Prophet had to engage in armed confrontation with some of his opponents on some occasions. These were battles of a defensive nature, as the Quran (2: 192; 9: 36) clarifies. These battles aimed putting an end to the religious persecution that was a legacy of the age of imperial despotism and was the biggest barrier to the exercise of freedom of belief and thought. This is what is meant by the term fitna in the Quran. This fitna was ended during the time of the Prophet.
The Prophet’s movement was not a political one. Rather, it was a purely religious and ethical movement. However, in the early biographies of the Prophet that came to be compiled after his demise, the battles in which the Prophet had been engaged were given particular focus, and so these biographies themselves came to be known as maghazis or battle-chronicles. In the medieval period, some Muslim rulers who were confronted by non-Muslim powers, such as the Byzantines, and others who wanted to expand the sphere of territories under used Islam for their own purposes and sought to portray Islam as a political project. And so, in this environment of confrontation and conflict with people of other faiths, a certain political image of Islam came to be constructed that did not reflect Islam’s true spirit. The crystallization of Islamic law in the form of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence in the fourth century of the Islamic century was also greatly influenced by this environment, as reflected, for instance, in the invention of the concept of the world being divided into darul-Islam (‘abode of Islam’) and darul-harb (‘abode of war’), the notion of offensive jihad, and several rules about dhimmis or non-Muslim subjects that the world simply cannot accept today. Muslim scholars must go back to the teachings of the Prophet and rethink issues related to religious pluralism afresh, unhampered by such medieval accretions.
In our understanding of God, it is important to remember that according to Islam, God is the Sustainer of all creatures. He loves and protects all of them. He will decide the fate of every person on the Day of Judgment. God has made man as a dignified creature. That is why all human beings—be they Muslims or others—deserve respect and dignity. This point is expressed by the Hanafi jurist Ibn Abidin al-Shami (1783-1836), who says that from the point of view of the Shariah, every man is dignified and respectable, even if he is someone who denies the truth.
Islam supports pluralism. In fact, its ideological and practical structure is based on it. In Islam, diversity is presented as a requirement of nature and also as beauty. It sees the differences of languages and colours among human beings as among the signs of God.
Thus, the Quran (30:22) says:
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.
It also says (49:13):
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.
The Quran (2:256) relates, as a clear principle, that there is no compulsion in religion—that people can choose to follow the religion or ideology of their choice:
There shall be no compulsion in religion
Elsewhere, the Quran (18:29) says :
Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.
It is against the Creation Plan of God that everyone should conform to one way of thinking or one way of behaviour. Thus, the Quran (10: 99) says:
Had your Lord pleased, all the people on earth would have believed in Him, without exception.
The Quran (64:2) also relates:
He it is Who created you, then some of you are disbelievers and some of you are believers.
In this way, Islam accepts that along with true believers (momins) there will also be deniers (munkirs), taking the existence of both to be natural realities.
Every community has its own mentality, environment, natural capacities and the possibilities of rebutting or accepting Truth. That is why God has established a law (shiratun) and a way (minhaj) for each community. The Quran leaves the choice of one’s religion and one’s action to each person:
‘For you is your religion, and for me is my religion’ (109:6)
‘For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds’ (28:55)
Another expression of the importance of pluralism in Islam is the fact that the Quran (22:40) condemns the destruction of places of worship of both Muslims as well as others. In doing so, it mentions churches and synagogues before it mentions mosques:
If God did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is much invoked, would surely be destroyed. God will surely help him who helps His cause—God is indeed powerful and mighty.
This Quranic verse indicates that God has taken it as His own responsibility to protect non-Muslims and their places of worship. The treaties that the Prophet entered into with the people of Najran and Hirah, many of whom were Christians, provided for full freedom and autonomy for non-Muslims.
The understanding of Islamic pluralism that emerges from the Quran and the practice of the Prophet indicates that relations between Muslims and people of other faiths and persuasions should be based on joint efforts to promote goodness, justice, and equality. ‘Believers, be strict in upholding justice, the Quran (4:135) says. The Quran (5:8) gives great stress to justice in inter-community relations. Thus, it lays down:
Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.
On the issue of equality, the Prophet declared that people (and this includes Muslims as well as non-Muslims) are brothers of each other, and that they are the equals of each other, like the teeth of a comb.
Islam aims at enabling people to rise above narrow boundaries of colour and race and work together for welfare and justice and help each other. The Treaty of Medina is a brilliant illustration of this objective. After the Prophet’s demise, Muslim history went through many ups and downs. Yet, even then people of other faiths often enjoyed considerable religious freedom, although not everywhere and at all times. However, as Muslims became politically dominant over a large part of the world, prejudices against people of other faiths did creep in. In this regard, the corpus of fiqh that developed in this period of Muslim political dominance failed to retain Islam’s true universal spirit.