I am happy to share a new book review of People of the Book – Prophet Muhammad’s Encounters with Christians. The review was created by Haris Fatwa, a religious moderation activist at the Islamic Institute, and published on Islamico.co. Below is an English translation of the article’s original title and the review itself. Thank you to Haris for the favorable review.
“People of the Book – Record of the Prophet Muhammad SAW’s encounter with Christian Community in the Arabian Peninsula”
By Haris Fatwa
Stories about Christian communities living around the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the Prophet Muhammad are still shrouded in mystery. Some say that the Prophet’s interactions with them are fabricated stories, while others assert that these interactions are authentic and recorded in history.
The question is, who exactly are these Christians? Why did the debate about the interaction story get so dramatic? And what lessons can Christians and Muslims today take from these stories?
It is Craig Considine , an Irish-Italian American Islamic scholar who provides answers to these questions. He articulated all these worries in his work People of the Book : Prophet Muhammad’s Encounters with Christians .
Considine is a professor who is currently very popular among the Muslim community, not only in the US, but also in various parts of the Islamic world. His popularity has skyrocketed since he won an award for his 2020 bestseller, The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View .
He has authored seven books and numerous articles in the areas of Christian-Muslim relations and Islamic studies. His writings offer a fresh perspective in reviewing the life of the Prophet and his interactions with the Christian community, as well as reflecting on the brotherhood between Christians and Muslims throughout the past 14 centuries.
Considine provides an interesting description of Muhammad’s youth and how his attitude towards life came to respect for Christians or communities from different religious backgrounds.
He highlighted the central ideas in Muhammad’s vision, namely an inclusive ummah, a nation rooted in human rights, inter-religious dialogue, freedom of conscience, religion and the right to speech. In his sociological analysis, Considine offers a groundbreaking narrative that can redefine Christian-Muslim relations in the present era.
The title “ People of the Book ” refers to the term ahl al-kitāb in the Qur’an which talks about Jews and Christians. The term is mentioned 31 times and is spread over 9 different surahs. This shows that the Qur’an is also concerned with the relationship between Islam and the two religions that preceded it.
However, this book does not question the discourse of ahl al-kitāb at the level of its interpretation, but instead focuses on the Christian community that was present in every part of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey.
The book People of the Book begins with the story of Muhammad’s meeting with Bahira, the Christian Priest, who first identified the sign of Muhammad’s prophethood. Bahira is described as a Christian heretic (rebel). Through this meeting, in his book, Considine continues to point out similarities between Christian and Muslim doctrines, while talking about the various sects within Christianity at that time.
Muhammad’s knowledge of monotheism impressed Bahira. He immediately stated that the young Muhammad possessed the attributes of a prophet. In examining the years of Muhammad’s personal formation, Considine terms him a “cross-cultural navigator” which means someone who has insight and understanding of the functions and values of various cultures across time and space.
This mention implies that Muhammad had the divine insight that was also brought by the earlier apostles. This insight, according to Bahira, cannot be possessed by ordinary people who do not have the sign of prophethood.
Another picture presented about Muhammad’s recognition of Christianity is about the functions and main duties of the Prophet’s family clan, the Hasyim Bani, as caretakers of the Kaaba. This responsibility allowed Muhammad to interact with the diverse Meccan visitors who came to worship at the Kaaba. The young Muhammad’s interaction with various traditions through the pilgrims made him a person who was friendly and tolerant of diversity.
Prophet Muhammad’s interaction with Christianity was also told after the “Cave of Hira” revelation. After Jibril came to Muhammad, Considine recalled the important influence Khadija, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, had in convincing him that she had the fortitude to convey God’s message to mankind.
To confirm her future husband’s prophethood, Khadija summoned her cousin Waraqah bin Naufal, a Christian, who assured Muhammad that his experience with Gabriel was a sign that God had chosen him as God’s messenger. This story is presented as an event that shows that Muhammad’s prophethood, one of them, departed from the role of a Christian.
After actualizing the apostolic function, the Prophet Muhammad and his people faced fierce opposition from the rich and powerful tribes of Mecca. After receiving many persecutions, the people of Muhammad sought asylum from Ibn Abjar, the Christian king of Abyssinia (Habasyah).
Considine describes how Ibn Abjar recognizes the legitimacy of Islam because Muslims have the same respect for Jesus and Mary. Also, it is also described how the two religious traditions respect each other. He emphasized the important role Christians played in the early days of Islam and how this experience further strengthened Muhammad’s respect for Christians.
The second migration of Muslims to Yathrib seemed to be a new point in Muslim-Christian relations . Considine examines how the Prophet Muhammad used his extraordinary leadership skills as a just and charismatic statesman to interact with various local tribes.
The article on how the Prophet Muhammad resolved conflicts and established the Medina Constitution is also one of the important points in this book. He said the Prophet Muhammad promoted an egalitarian society that gave Christians, Jews and others equal rights and protection.
Thus, conversion to Islam was unnecessary because Muhammad basically recognized the freedom of Christians and Jews to worship God and express their religious teachings. Considine’s book allows us to see how the Prophet Muhammad accomplished in creating an equal and just community.
In terms of conflict, Considine investigates the many tensions that arise. He quoted many verses of the Qur’an about the context of verses of self-defense in war. The Prophet saw war as a last resort, and forbade any initiation into aggression.
As soon as hostilities ceased, he sought peace negotiations. Considine shows how Muhammad always sought peace. More specifically, this attempt by the Prophet Muhammad was manifested in a remarkable agreement with the Christians of Najran to ensure peaceful coexistence and provide them with protection after centuries of friction.
Considine provides an understanding of how throughout Muhammad’s life, every encounter with Christians became a momentum to strengthen his open mind to accept everyone. Muhammad’s encounter with Kristen helped develop his grand vision of human rights.
On the other hand, Considine manages to capture the human side of the Qur’an when he says that “it does not only embrace diversity but also invites readers to find ways to work together with other communities that have different beliefs from theirs”.
Considine was raised in a Christian tradition, but he seems to value the knowledge she has gained from the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The People of the Book gives us an eye-opening account of Muhammad’s interactions with Christians.
This historical meeting can serve as a guide for those of us who live in the modern generation on how to embrace people of all faith backgrounds and remind us that an attitude of inclusiveness and peace between all nations has been exemplified by previous figures.
The book People of the Book can be said to be the antithesis of Huntington’s famous “ Clash of Civilizations ” thesis. He seeks to build bridges between religious traditions by displaying moments in history where Islam and Christianity lived in harmony, side by side, respecting and accepting the sacredness of the teachings of other religions.
In this era where religious people are suspicious of each other, the meeting space presented by the Prophet, as studied by Craig Considine, can provide justification in developing pluralism and strengthening inter-religious dialogue.