Countries in the so-called “Western world” often depict themselves as the true torchbearers of democratic principles and religious freedom. In setting themselves up in the binary of the “Western world” versus “Islamic civilization,” Western leaders suggest that Muslims worldwide are less tolerant and accepting of religious minorities. Such an argument is a gross misrepresentation of Islamic scripture and traditions.
Despite arguments that the Qur’an is an “evil book,” there is much to celebrate in this holy scripture. At its heart, the Qur’an is a pluralistic text, as the following verse tells us: “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another” (49:13). Yet the argument that Islam and religious freedom are somehow antithetical is regularly used by Islamophobes. Terms like “Islam” and “Qur’an” are often viewed with suspicion. Muslims are sometimes depicted as backward and even dangerous.
Pluralism in Islamic history, however, is an age-old idea. In fact, pluralism is the very foundation from which Prophet Muhammad built his Muslim society.
Let me first say a few things about the concept of “pluralism.” Pluralism is not simply diversity, but the celebration and active engagement with diversity. Pluralism does not just exist in diverse societies; pluralism is a social state that is reached through genuine social interactions among different groups of people. Pluralism is also more than mere “tolerance.” Tolerance encourages respect for religious differences, but it does little to counter ignorance and stereotypes of religious communities. In thinking about pluralism, we are dealing with encountering the Other in a way that leads to positive social changes. In pluralist societies, there is room for criticism and self-criticism too. Dialogue highlights real differences (that is okay), but it also leads to revealing common understandings.
People sometimes laugh at me when I praise Prophet Muhammad, notably Islamophobes who regard him as a raging tyrant bent on death and destruction. But anybody who seeks a truly enlightened understanding of Prophet Muhammad’s character need only refer to the Covenants that he made with the Christians of his time. Written over the course of several years in the 7th century, the Prophet urged Muslims to respect, protect, and care for Christian communities around the Middle East and beyond. Consider the following passages from two of the Covenants:
A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower, nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims (“The Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai”).
The Muslims must not abandon the Christians, neglect them, and leave them without help and assistance since I have made this pact with them on behalf of Allah to ensure that whatever good befell Muslims it would befall them as well and that whatever harm befell Muslims would befall them as well (“The Covenant with the Christians of Persia”).
The Covenants present an uplifting picture of the position of Christians in the ummah, which is a “safe space” for all humanity. Muhammad’s message, in my humble opinion, is that the ummah is truly Islamic only when there is asabiyah – solidarity – between Muslims and Christians. Perhaps this was why he called on Muslims to help Christians build and maintain their churches as well as provide support for Christian leaders. Prophet Muhammad even said that he would protect Christians “until the end of time” and defend them whether they be on land or sea. This is obviously a radical departure from the depiction of the Prophet in Islamophobic circles and networks. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see that Muhammad was an exceptional leader who cared greatly for people and groups on the margins of society. Here are two other excerpts from the Covenants which highlight this point.
If in the interest of the benevolent Moslem public, and of their faith, Moslems shall ask of the Christians for assistance, the latter shall not deny them what help, as an expression of friendship and goodwill, they are to render…we deem all help and succor rendered to them every way legitimate (“The Covenant with the Christians of Persia”).
All pious believers shall deem it their bounded duty to defend believers and to aid them whosesoever they may be, whether far or near, and throughout Christendom shall protect the places where they conduct worship, and those where their monks and priests dwell. Everywhere, in mountains, on the plains, in towns and in waste places, in deserts, and wheresoever they may be, that people shall be protected, both in their faith and in their property, both in the West and in the East, both on sea and land (“The Covenant with the Christians of Persia”).
The Covenants of Prophet Muhammad show that pluralism – particularly religious pluralism – is the bedrock of Islamic civilization. Indeed, the Covenants have extraordinary importance in our age. The Prophet’s call to respect and protect Christians has been ignored in the Middle East and elsewhere in the “Muslim world.” The idea of persecuting and even killing Christians simply because of their religion is completely outside the boundary of normative Islam. This point is clearly made in the Covenants.
Of course, Muhammad made an important distinction between peace-loving Christians and aggressive Christians. Peace-loving Christians should be embraced by Muslims as brothers and sisters. Aggressive or violent Christians should be dealt with accordingly, particularly in self-defense of the ummah. Islamophobes who claim that Islam oppresses Christians in the Qur’an often leave out the social and political context in which these verses were constructed. Islamophobes interpret these verses literally and rarely ever mention the unethical and immoral actions of Christians themselves. That approach is intellectually dishonest and has no value in our fractured world.
The idea that Prophet Muhammad – and Islam more broadly – encourages discrimination against Christians ought to be entirely erased from our minds. As a Christian, I believe that Islam teaches a transcendent morality. Islam champions pluralism and condemns all forms of prejudice, especially religious intolerance. It is through the Covenants that Muslims and Christians can enhance pluralism within their communities. What is needed is to foster interfaith dialogue and create social justice movements that bring members of these two religious traditions together, in understanding and eventually peace.