Interfaith

Pluralism and the Najran Christians: How Prophet Muhammad Went Beyond Toleration

A door facing the sea is seen open as it was left by workers of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco (@torrenegra).
A door facing the sea is seen open as it was left by workers of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco (@torrenegra).

Last week I gave a presentation in front of a group of undergraduate and postgraduate students at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The title of my lecture was “Religious Pluralism in Islam: Analyzing Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with Christians”. The Prezi is available here. As is the case with academic presentations, there was a short question and answers session towards the end of our time slot. One member of the audience pushed back on my assertion that Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with the Christians of his time promoted religious pluralism. This particular person argued that the Covenants foster mere tolerance, which is distinct from religious pluralism.

To frame my argument early in the presentation, I turned to Harvard scholar Diana Eck who notes that religious pluralism has four ingredients. The first is an energetic engagement with diversity. To be clear, religious pluralism is not simply “diversity”. Reaching a pluralist “state” or “mindset” requires genuine social interactions and the building of authentic relationships. Tolerance, however, is more “stand-offish” and allows people and groups to stay in their isolated bubbles with little cross-cultural interaction. The second part of religious pluralism according to Eck is seeking to understand across religious lines. Religious pluralism is active in the sense that it encourages exposure and dialogue; tolerance, however, reproduces old patterns of division due to distance among social groups. As such, Eck argues that tolerance “is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity”. Her third element of religious pluralism is encounter of commitments that requires things like formal and informal agreements, formal contracts, trust, and principles. Lastly, religious pluralism requires give and take, criticism and self-criticism. This last component demands inter-religious dialogue and involves finding common understandings and recognizing/understanding real differences between faith groups.

The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of his time are an excellent starting point to discuss pluralism in the Islamic tradition. The point of my presentation – as well as my recently published paper in Religions – was to distinguish between tolerance and pluralism and to highlight Muhammad’s egalitarian vision for the ummah, or “Muslim nation”. Instead of reiterating the claims laid out in the presentation and paper, my aim in this piece is to turn to the delegation of the Najran Christians to shed light upon Muhammad’s preference for pluralism over toleration.

The visit of the Christians of Narjan to the city of Medina in 631CE is perhaps the most important noted interfaith interaction between Christians and Prophet Muhammad. At this time Muhammad had sent letters to different communities and their leaders, encouraging them to embrace Islam. In the case of the Narjans, who lived near Yemen, about 450 miles south of Medina, the Prophet sent Khaled ibn al-Walid and Ali ibn Abi Talib to deliver the letter. At the time of this diplomatic endeavor, Najran Christians had a highly organized religious system. As such, after considering Muhammad’s letter, it is unsurprising that few Christians embraced Islam. In reaction to this “failed attempt” of conversion, Prophet Muhammad sent another representative to Najran, Mughira Ibn Shu’ba, who was meant to elaborate on this new religion called Islam. Intrigued by Ibn Shu’ba’s message, the Najran Christians sent a delegation of sixty people to visit the Prophet in Medina. The delegation consisted of about forty-five scholars and fifteen assistants.

When the Christians of Najran arrived to Medina, Muhammad allowed them to pray in Nabawi mosque where the Muslims also prayed. This invitation was not only the first example of Christian-Muslim dialogue, but it was the first time that Christians prayed in a mosque. While Prophet Muhammad and the Najrans were not able to reach common ground on all theological issues, he nonetheless gave them a place to stay near his home, and even ordered Muslims to pitch their tent.

Upon leaving Medina, the Najran Christian leaders told Muhammad: “O, Abu al-Qasim, we decided to leave you as you are and you leave us as we are. But send with us a man who can adjudicate things on our properties, because we accept you”. The Christians left Medina with a written guarantee that Prophet Muhammad would protect their lives, property, and freedom to practice Christianity.

The visit of Najran Christians to Medina is one of the first examples of religious pluralism in Islam. Recalling Eck, religious pluralism embodies 1) energetic engagement with diversity; 2) understanding across religious traditions; 3) encounter of commitments; and 4) interfaith dialogue. Each characteristic is on display during the meeting between the Najrans and Medinans. The Prophet engaged with these Christians in a theological conversation about the nature of Islam and Christianity. Both groups sought to understand the perspectives and narratives of the other side. Muhammad opened the doors of his mosque to give Christians a safe space to pray, an unprecedented example of engaging with religious diversity. And when they left Medina, the Najran Christians had an agreement with Prophet Muhammad that protected their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

The story of the Najran Christian delegation that visited Medina reminds us of an important lesson – it is an understatement to argue that the Prophet simply tolerated Christians. Toleration is only the absence of religious persecution. Muhammad, it should be made clear, embraced the otherness of Christians. That is religious pluralism.

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32 thoughts on “Pluralism and the Najran Christians: How Prophet Muhammad Went Beyond Toleration

  1. Is it not shameful that Dr Considine should present these covenants to his students as a factual basis for discussion of religious pluralism, just as he does to us here? They are in fact highly contested, particularly the Covenant to the Christians of Najran, as he must know. It is only Dr Andrew Morrow’s book on the subject, half scholarship half dawah, that provides the support for Dr Considine’s claims about them.

    Even if you accept Dr Morrow’s account, here is a later communication, according to his book, from Mohammed to the Christians of Najran: “…I invite you to worship God instead of men. If you refuse, you must pay jizyah. Otherwise , I will declare war on you. And peace be upon you”. The Christians elected to pay the jizyah, not surprisingly.

    That is what we would call “an offer you can’t refuse”. Do you think it a good basis for religious pluralism? Why does Dr Considine not mention it? Now we’ve brought it up, how does he think it provides a good basis for religious pluralism?

    In Barbara Eck’s list of four conditions for religious pluralism where is equality? Does she think that pluralism can exist between dominant and subservient religions as was the case in the Islamic state of Mohammed? Or perhaps, writing in general terms, she thought that equality is such an obvious pre-condition that she didn’t think it necessary to mention it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There was nothing called ‘Islamic State’ during the times of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him). Stop visiting anti-Islam websites and do a mainstream research.

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      1. I am only following Drs Considine and Morrow in referring to Mohammed’s Islamic State. Considine uses the term with quotes and Morrow without:

        https://craigconsidinetcd.com/2015/12/19/under-the-government-of-prophet-muhammad/

        Are they the anti-Islam sites you refer to? I quoted no others in making my points.

        Regarding this mainstream research you talk of, what could be more mainstream than the Koran, Hadiths and Sira themselves? They were quite enough to fill me with revulsion for the criminal prophet Mohammed and his sadistic god Allah, obviously no more than the product of Mohammed’s imagination but an excellent troop motivator.

        It is a mystery how Craig Considine can wade through the blood of the Islamic scriptures and claim to have found a wise and benign Prophet. Out of interest, and for comparison, let’s see what Enlightenment philosopher (and notorious Islamophobe) David Hume made of the Koran:

        “…would we know, whether the pretended prophet had really attained a just sentiment of morals? Let us attend to his narration; and we shall soon find, that he bestows praise on such instances of treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry, as are utterly incompatible with civilized society. No steady rule of right seems there to be attended to; and every action is blamed or praised, so far only as it is beneficial or hurtful to the true believers”.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. But not mere name calling. If I call Mohammed a criminal or Allah sadistic, I do try to explain why, here or elsewhere. How about doing the decent thing and explaining why my comment was silly and uneducated? I’m sure you can do it.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Hi Truth Digger!

        What would you call the state formed under the guidance of muhammad and the quran, which, less that 100 years after his death in 632, conquered Northern Africa and parts of Europe, going as far as France (717)?

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  2. @ECAW you need to get educated and learn the basics of the subject. When you have done that others might begin to take you seriously. Tell then, you will be mocked for your silliness.

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    1. Ah, I was wrong. You are not able to justify your dismissal of my comment at all and so continue with abuse. It is saddening that there appear to be a great many people out there who feel no need to justify their views at all. For them “silly and uneducated” or the various other “boo” words mean no more than “doesn’t agree with me”….but that’s enough for them. What astonishing conceit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dude – please don’t embarrass yourself any further. The Catholics have a wonderful phrase to describe people who pigheadedly refuse to attend to the evidence: ‘invincible ignorance’. Don’t be one of these.

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  3. I now see that one of the comments which I took to be from Paul Williams was in fact from Craig Considine himself. Well, I’m glad to make your acquaintance. I would be grateful if you would address the points I made in my original post, such as whether Barbara Eck’s formulation assumed equality between the interacting faiths and the marked difference in tone between Mohammed’s purported earlier and later communications to the Christians of Najran..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. yawn…

    Judging by your blog, you express extremist and Islamophobic views and are clearly unbalanced and delusional. Dr Considine quite right not to waste any of his time with you.

    He is a serious scholar. You are not. Go play your games elsewhere.

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    1. Extremists ? Islam is pure extremism like fascism or communism. It’s credo is simple: rule the world, kill unbelivers or turn them into slaves. Pure evil ideology managed and ruled by Devil itself. It’s so simple …

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is my first visit to this site and to this thread. I think ECAW makes valid points in his initial comment and would love to see a serious response from Dr. Considine. I have never yet been accused of being a troll, only one interested in discerning the truth as accurately as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dr. Considine is under no obligation to deal with trolls. Its like insisting that a Jewish person answer ‘valid points’ (sic) from a self confessed neo-Nazi. Just aint gonna happen…

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      1. Who gets to determine what a troll is? From my point of view as a first-time visitor, reading both Dr. Considine’s post and the responder’s comment with questions, the questions themselves seemed very valid and to the point (to me). Why not put aside any personal animus and just respond to the intellectual challenge in the interest of furthering truth and understanding?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is quite concerning. Someone asks two pointed but very valid questions and is met only with insults from Dr Considine and his ill mannered supporter. Suppose one of your students had asked those questions. Would you have responded the same way or would you have answered them? I am starting to wonder whether you do have answers to them.

    Liked by 1 person

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