Feeling the same way the French Philosopher, Denis Diderot felt during the age of Enlightenment, a movement that was devoted to a critical reexamination of accepted doctrines and institutions from the point of view of rationalism; I have resolved to start this piece with his assertion, that
“education, persuasion, and prayer are the only legitimate means of spreading religious faith. Any method that produces hatred, indignation, and contempt is impious. Any method that arouses the passions and supports selfish interest is impious. Any method that weakens the natural bonds of the family and alienates fathers from their children, brothers from brothers, and sisters from sisters is impious. Any method that would tend to stir up men, to arm nations, and to soak the earth with blood is impious. And it is impious to want to impose laws upon man’s conscience: this is a universal rule of conduct. People must be enlightened and not constrained”.
To further reiterate his point, Denis categorized intolerance into two. Whiles Ecclesiastic intolerance according to him consists in regarding as false all other religions except one’s own and in demonstrating or shouting this true religion from the rooftops without being stopped by any form of terror, sense of decency, or even the risk of death, Secular intolerance consist in breaking off all relations with those people who have a different conception and way of worshipping God and in persecuting them by all sorts of violent means.
It is to purge this orgy of servitude that all the Heavenly Books, although may be advocating for one faith or the other, did not make a believe in a particular religion obligatory to all mankind. And Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights signed on the 12th of October, 1948, asserts freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It particularly affirms the individual’s right to worship, observe and teach a religion of his/her choice.
Seriously frustrated by the fact, that many of the Pagans in Mecca at that time turned a deaf ear to his call to Islam, God made it categorically clear to Muhammad not to be upset, for
[If it had been thy Lord’s Will, they would all have believed,- all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!] Q10: 99. He was also reminded of his main mission, which is to; [Preach! for you are just to preach, but not to exert influence over them] Q 88:21-22. And to the Prophet and Muslims in general, the final and the sacred command was/is; [Let there be no compulsion in religion] Q2: 256.
So the recent pogrom attacks on Christians and incursions on their Churches in some part of the world and in Nigeria in particular has not only come as a shock to all well meaning Muslims across the globe, but has remained a bigger embarrassment to West African Muslims in particular. And as a student of Islamic Civilization, I feel ashamed of myself, and wished those Muslims have not grown to become enemies of Islam. Pushed by this circumstance, I have decided to make an expose` of how Islam has enjoined us to relate to our fellow brothers and sisters, the Christians.
THE QUR’AN AND CHRISTIANS
In describing the most pious Muslims, the Qur’an stated among other things, that they are those who say; [We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord: we make no distinction between one and another of them: and we submit to Allah] Q 2: 136. [And in their footsteps We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: therein was guidance and light. And confirmation of the Torah that had come before him: a guidance and admonition to those who fear Allah] Q5:46.And [This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the Christians and Jews is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women among Christians and Jews, when ye give them their due dowries, and desire chastity, not lewdness, taking them as lovers] Q5:5.
MUHAMMAD AND CHRISTIANS
The excellent relations the Prophet had with Christians was driven by two main factors; first is his obedience to Qur’anic legislations to that effect, and two is his own affable demeanor which always translated into love and compassion to the other. In embarking on his exhortative activities, the Prophet wrote letters to some renowned political and religious leaders, explaining to them Islam, and inviting (and not threatening) them to embrace it. And although Maquqas, the then Archbishop of Alexandria and the Byzantine Governor of Egypt received a copy of such letters, he declined to embrace Islam. He was however touched by the Prophet’s “approach”, that he offered Him two Christian girls for marriage. The Prophet married Mariya whiles she remained a Christian for some months before she, on her own volition embraced Islam. For Sireen, He encouraged and assisted his personal Poet, Hassan binThabit to marry her. And she also remained a Christian for almost a year before embracing Islam on her own free will. And when a delegation of Priests visited Him in His house, the Prophet, in honor of these august visitors spread His bridle on the floor for them to sit.
Totally dismayed by His constant and total cooperation, solidarity and collaboration with Christians in social, political and economic issues, the companions asked the Prophet why all these “love and care” for people with different faith?
He answered; “whoever harms a Christian has harmed me, and whoever harms me has harmed God”. And “whoever kills a Christian (intentionally) will never enter the kingdom of God”.
THE CALIPHS AND CHRISTIANS
Having such a strong foundation established by the Prophet, the right guided Caliphs (Abu-Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) did not reinvent the wheel, but rather continue, super cum laude, the good relationship the Prophet exhibited with Christians. But the Caliphate era which spanned from 632-661AD witnessed an upsurge in the spread of Islam outside Arabia, a scenario known as “the conquest” (al-futuhāt in Arabic). As was the norm at that time, empires, religious groups and tribes moved around in a marauding way, raging attacks and annexing the lands (countries) of their victims. When this happens, the conquerors often imposed their language, culture and religion on the vanquished.
And it is through the conquest activities of these (Arab) Caliphs that Islam entered Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and others. Years before then, these countries had their own languages, and Christianity was the religion largely practiced there. As usual of the political ethos of that time, the indigenes of these countries were “arabized” in language and culture when the Caliphs invaded it, but were not “Islamized”. And if they were, the magnificent ancient and pre- modern Churches conspicuously coruscating in the cities of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Amman, Jerusalem, etc will not have been there till date. And there are two reasons why the Caliphs did not impose Islam on the Christians. First is their obedience to the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, and second is the fact, that their target for the conquering was not Christians, but Pagans living in these countries, and who were not only at loggerhead with Christians, but also constantly tortured them for “insulting” their gods. So in some of these countries, Christians actually “assisted” the Muslim conquerors to success. And history has testified to the camaraderie and esprit de corps that existed between Muslims and Christians during this time.
And though he was the strictest of all the Caliphs, Umar’s relation with Christians in Palestine after he conquered it was very congenial and meritorious. He ingenuously organized both the Muslim and Christian youths to clean-up churches that were in shambles, and renovated those that were in tatters. He also kept reminding his Governors to vigorously ensure the rights and liberties of Christians in their territories. He also decreed for the poor, disabled and aged Christians (like their Muslim counterparts) to be taken care of by the “Islamic Endowment Fund”.
Again, the Muslim-Christian relations during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties between 661-1258AD was very amicably and “Abrahamic”.
In the modern age, Egypt which is the leader of the Sunni States has a diplomatic relation with the Vatican.
It is therefore sad, that the relationship between Muslims and Christians has largely soured in many part of the world in the modern times. And Denis got right when he postulated in his conclusion, that if you cry out loud that the truth is on your side, I will cry out as loudly that I have the truth on my side but I will add: it does not matter who is mistaken, provided there is peace between us, and if I am blind, must you strike a blind person in the face?
Saleh Mohammed Salis