*Note: This is the text of a speech I gave during the 4th Annual Peace Walk and Peace Conference at the Al-Mustafa Islamic Centre Ireland in Blanchardstown, Dublin on 26 January 2014. A special thanks to my friend Dr-Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri for inviting me and organizing this beautiful event. A report from Al-Mustafa can be found at Report of Mawlid Interfaith Peace Conference 2014.
Brothers and sisters…
Peace be with you…
My name is Craig Considine. I am a Roman Catholic American and current PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Today, I want to share with you my experience in studying Islam and, more specifically, what I have learned about this great faith through the life of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.
Since 2004, I have studied closely with Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University in Washington, DC. In 2008 and 2009, I travelled with him throughout the US to over 100 mosques and 75 cities in order to understand American identity through the lens of Muslims. Professor Ahmed is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on contemporary Islam. He is like a father to me. Although his family is Muslim, they have embraced me as part of their wider family.
Before meeting Professor Ahmed in 2004, I knew practically nothing about Islam. Never once had I met a Muslim while growing up in suburban Boston. My town, Needham, is composed of mostly English Protestants, Irish Catholics and Jews. As a teenager, I understood Islam through the events of 9/11. At that time, Islam was bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and violence as depicted in the media.
This perception of Islam changed when I met Professor Ahmed. On the first day of his class, he shared with the students a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him. The hadith read: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
Muhammad’s (PBUH) thought showed me that the quest for knowledge and learning is more holy than taking up the sword and using violence against one’s opponents. This holy passage not only changed the way I thought about Islam, but it changed how I thought about the purpose of life. It transformed me in ways I could not have imagined.
Since that day in Professor Ahmed’s class, I have devoted much time and effort to improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. My aim as a Catholic American researcher is to shed light on Islam in a fresh and new way, all in an effort to build bridges between Muslims worldwide and Americans.
In particular, I have researched the life of Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him. In my readings and experiences, I have learned that Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, had important beliefs on how to treat non-Muslims. His ideas on religious freedom make him a universal champion of human rights, particularly as it pertains to freedom of worship and the right for minorities to be protected during difficult times.
What has struck me most about Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, was his reverence for Christianity and Judaism, the two other faiths of the Abrahamic tradition. For example, the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, made a covenant with Christian Monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt, in which he called on Muslims to respect Christian judges and churches, and for no Muslim to fight against his Christian brother or sister.
Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, also cared a great deal for the Jews in his midst. In the Treaty of Maqnah, he stated that Jews “may be in peace… you are in security [under Muhammad’s rule]. Towards you is no wrong and no enmity. After today you will not be subject to oppression or violence.”
By developing these covenants with Christians and Jews, the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, made it clear that a citizen of an Islamic state did not have to be Muslim. He was clearly rejecting elitism and racism and demanded that Muslims see their Abrahamic brothers and sisters as equals before God.
I have also studied Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, in light of what it means to be American. Although Muslims worldwide and Americans are sometimes seen as overwhelming opposites, my research has showed me that Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, and the Founding Fathers of the US shared similar moral beliefs.
For example, Muhammad’s (PBUH) revelations from God directed him to celebrate diversity and cherish it as a staple of Muslim society. His encounter with God would later be recorded in the Quran, which states: “O mankind, We created you from male and a female and made you into tribes and nations that you may get to know each other.”
Additionally, in his final sermon at Mount Arafat, the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, stated that “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab… a white person has no superiority over black nor does black have any superiority over white except by piety in good action.” Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, did not like to judge people based on their religious beliefs or the color of their skin.
In a similar way, the Founding Fathers of America also cared about promoting equality. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states that Americans are “to hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” In the US Constitution, it also states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which notes that an individual can be from any religious background and still be an American.
More specifically, Muhammad, Peace and George Washington, the first President of the US, shared similar moral beliefs, especially on the treatment of religious minorities. In the Constitution of Medina, Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, wrote that “strangers” in a Muslim society were to be treated with special consideration and “on the same ground as their protectors.” Over 1,000 years later, Washington would write that “the bosom of America is open to receive… the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom [America] shall welcome to a participation of all [their] rights and privileges.” Washington added: “They may be [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect.”
In essence, Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, and the Founding Fathers had a vision for tolerance and equality. Muslims worldwide and Americans would be wise to remember their approach in finding balance and harmony in their communities.
To me, Islamic values as expressed by Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, and American values as put forth by figures such as George Washington, were not very different from each other. Through their example, we can sow the seeds for understanding and peace in our societies.
In conclusion, I see the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, as a man who fought racism before the days of Nelson Mandela, and as a leader who sought to unite, not divide, people of diverse backgrounds. As a Catholic American, it does not matter to me that Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, is not of my faith. What matters to me is his character and conduct. In the end, that is what he expected of human beings: for them to see through peoples’ religious beliefs and skin colors and inside to their hearts and souls.