Tolerance and Cooperation in the Prophetic Paradigm

by Sheikh Faid Mohammed Said

In Makkah the Prophet Muhammad had to contend with those who not only rejected his perspective, but also subjected him and his companions to severe hostility and persecution. Before the mass migration to Madinah, the Muslim community in Makkah suffered physical and verbal abuse, social and economic exclusion and forced displacement. Enjoying overwhelming might and power, the Makkans boasted of their flagrant aggression. However, in Madinah the Muslims faced different kinds of opposition in an environment where they enjoyed some semblance of security.

In and around Madinah, the interests of three groups—the native Arabs who claimed allegiance to Islam, the native Jews and the still-pagan Arabs—converged, so that the Muslims had to contend with foes pretending friendship. Resenting the loss of their former influence, some native Arabs outwardly professed Islam, but frequently undermined the Prophet on various levels. One might have expected to see condemnation of this two-faced group in the Qur’an as a justification for punitive measures against them. However, the response of the Prophet was to patiently invite them into Islam. Instead of adopting a too-easy interpretation of divine censure to punish them, he was extraordinarily lenient with the subversive elements in his society. Limiting himself to general warnings about hypocrisy, he never exposed their identity, out of concern that his own loyal companions might exact retribution. Only Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman, his secretary, was privy to his dismay.

The Prophet’s attitude is striking, a sizeable element of the community was brazenly conniving with enemies, and yet he consciously chose not to expose them. We may be tempted to think it a dangerous policy, this clement treatment of the subversive group led by one Abdullah Ibn Ubay. To put this into context, the Muslim community faced considerable danger and Ibn Ubay’s treachery included battlefield desertion and unabashed collusion with the Prophet’s enemies. However, the striking feature of such clemency was that Ibn Ubay’s party, the much-maligned hypocrites, were eventually won over, as the son of Ibn Ubay remained a staunch Muslim all along.

When informed on his arrival in Madinah that the native Jews annually fasted on the tenth day of the month of Muharram in thanksgiving for Moses’ victory over Pharaoh, the Holy Prophet exhorted the Muslims to also observe a fast on that day, declaring, “I am closer to Moses than they.” He taught the Muslims that Moses’ victory was their victory, because all prophets strive for the same goal, while demonstrating to the Jewish constituency that he shared their values and found their custom appealing. As far as the Prophet was concerned, the personal always was the political. One of his wives, the Lady Safia bint Huyay, famously traced her descent from the line of Aaron and of Moses. Although she had happily embraced Islam, the Lady Safia was derided by her fellow wives for her Jewishness until the Prophet taught her the unanswerable challenge, "My father was a prophet, my uncle was a prophet and I am the wife of a prophet." Disavowing discrimination in any form, this sketch of life within the Prophetic household simultaneously shows how the Prophet was always readily able to transcend barriers of race and religion, even as he encouraged his wife to be proud of her own ethnic identity.

The exaggerated difference between Jew and Muslim in our time would have appalled both the early Muslims and the Jewish communities, with whom they lived closely. Standing up from a reclining position to mark respect for a Jewish funeral procession, the Prophet was questioned about this and simply replied, “Is it not a human soul?” Troubled by the absence of a Jewish boy in his service, the Prophet was informed that the youth was fatally sick and went to visit him. Invited to recognise him as God’s Messenger, the dying youth looked to his father. The latter, resolute in his faith, nonetheless recognised the Prophet’s benevolent concern and urged his son to, “follow Abul-Qasim.”. There was no obvious gain in the material world for either party from the conversion of one about to expire, so the only motivation was the sincere concern of the one and the willing acceptance by the other. It was common humanity that had induced the Prophet’s visit. Jews and pre-Islamic Arabs in Madinah had in any case enjoyed cross-cultural interaction, including inter-marriage. After the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah, these traditions were enhanced and he set the pattern for community contact and mutual exchange in civil society to the very end of his life.  On his death, the Prophet’s companions discovered that his shield was mortgaged with a Jew.

The Prophet’s clemency and forbearance, given expression in his embrace of plurality and diversity, represents the authentic culture of Islam. So it is that in the life of the Prophet Muhammad we find a timeless model for all humanity. “Indeed in God’s Messenger you have the outstanding example.”

The rigid social system in Makkah was seriously undermined in the early years of Islam, which facilitated movement across social barriers, emancipating and empowering disadvantaged groups. However, it was the Muslim experience in Madinah that witnessed the growth of a truly pluralistic society. The famous Madinah Declaration would forever be associated with the Prophet’s city, because of the social charter ratified there, which conferred individual liberties and civic responsibilities upon the disparate communities who signed up to the document. Intimately linked to this charter of rights and enshrined freedoms in the emergent state of Madinah was the personal history of its originator, the Prophet Muhammad.

Built on a network of tribal alliances, the delicate balance of power in Madinah had shifted decisively with the arrival of the Muslim émigrés from Makkah. The internecine war between the Aws and the Khazraj, the two Arab tribes in Madinah, had come to an end following their embrace of Islam, although not all indigenous Arabs of Madinah had entered the fold. Joined by the Makkans, the Muslims now became the majority community in Madinah, unified through faith.

The Aws and the Khazraj had formerly built alliances with the three dominant Jewish tribes in Madinah, but these had become obsolete overnight. The Aws and Khazraj had also enjoyed complex affiliations with outlying desert tribes, so that, all in all, power relations were completely transformed and the Prophet found himself leader of this newly-dominant constituency. Far from issuing orders to the minority communities, he embarked on an integration programme that extended well beyond mere pacification. Through the instrument of the Madinah Declaration, he conferred equal rights on the various participants in the now-unified state, in the process granting its signatories the distinction of becoming the first-ever human community to enjoy a charter of rights. The status of the immigrants, namely the Makkan refugees, also changed dramatically. Any anxieties about their deracination or reduction to second-class citizens in the new environment were soon dispelled. Article Four of the Declaration ensured that all Madinans had the same right of redress under law. In the first instance, it enshrined equality in law so that a native of Madinah had no greater right than an immigrant or naturalized citizen. Second, that law was self-referentially Madinan, meaning that the Makkans wholly embraced the laws of the host province.

The Declaration made the equality conferred upon all parties explicit. Various articles of the instrument proclaim the, “indiscriminate rule of law and justice for all communities,” and the, “prohibition of unjust favouritism”, that, “non-Muslim minorities possess the same right to life protection” and the, “guarantee of freedom of faith for both Muslims and non-Muslims”. The Declaration also recognised differences among its signatories, as evidenced by Article 40, which granted, “equality of rights for all branches of the Jews”. In this regard, the various subdivisions that exist within Islam would do well to rethink their relations. Differences might not be so irreconcilable; certainly there is nothing to prevent harmonious co-existence.

While the Madinah Declaration was very much a product of its historic context, the tenets enshrined—freedom of belief, equality in law and recognition, and consequent protection of differences—are fundamental principles of Islam and its culture. Freedom of belief is explicit in the Qur’an, which over and over confirms this principle. It is of paramount importance if peaceful coexistence is to achieve real meaning.

Compulsion in belief is explicitly forbidden: “There is no compulsion in belief, for truth stands out clear from error.”. Thus, in the Islamic perspective, God has granted His Creation freedom of choice: “Whosoever wishes, let him believe and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”  Moreover, God confirms that one of the requirements of His cosmic order is diversity: “Had God willed, He would have made you one community.”  Recognition of the other is an equally important logical extension of freedom of belief and here "belief" means, not simply religious alignment, but something approaching ‘way of life’ or ‘culture’. Hence in the Qur’an: “Unto you, your belief and unto me, my belief.”   The chapter containing this verse is revealingly entitled, “The Unbelievers”. The verse begins the chapter thus: “Say, O Unbelievers!”.  The Qur’an thereby gave Islam’s culture its particular hue, by establishing not only freedom of choice, but also recognition of another’s belief, ideology and inclination.

When seen in its natural way, the generosity and open-handedness of the real culture of Islam confounds even its staunchest critic. Now customary arguments against organised religion include fear of total enslavement, and yet closer inspection reveals that the God of Islam offers complete freedom of choice. By no means is this a rarefied position. It was in this manner that the Prophet and his followers received, understood and sustained the Qur’an. When Islam is viewed this way, it appears surprising modern and far from the common conception that it is stuck in the Middle Ages. This again confounds totalitarian conceptions about Islam. At the very least, such an understanding of Islam leads to the opening up of more positive dialogue with it. The scholarly community of Islam frequently says, “The key to the Qur’an is the Qur’an.”  Or we might say that the puzzle contains its own solution. On the other hand, the proclamations of a host of noisy Muslims do not make Islam very appealing, much less comprehensible. The Qur’an states: “Do you enjoin right conduct upon mankind while you neglect (its practice) yourselves? And you read the Scripture!”

Unsurprisingly, even the most enlightened efforts at coexistence will degenerate if the approach and application are faulty. Efforts at interpersonal and social relations are contingent upon communication at its finest and according to all that is best in manners, without loquacity or intimidation. The Qur’an exhorts benevolence in dialogue, even in the face of received offence: “And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless in a way that is better.”  The stress on gentle persuasion in this Qur’anic verse is more than a call for objective reasoning. Generosity means sincere goodwill, and not merely grudging acceptance. The Qur’an’s exhortation to adopt only the best speech is especially instructive, because mankind is greatly esteemed by God: “Indeed, We have honoured the children of Adam.”.  The point is not whether one is a theist, polytheist or an atheist but that the human being occupies a lofty position, reflected in the mode and manner in which we respond to differences of opinion and belief.

The Madinah Declaration was unique to its historic context, but freedom of belief, equality in law and recognition of difference are universal principles in Islam. If commitment to rights and liberties is the goal of modern humans, then these were set in stone by the last of the prophets, but first among modernists, namely Muhammad. Seventh-century forms are long out of fashion, but these principles are timeless and this spirit is enlivening in every age.

Educated by some of the most prominent scholars of our times in his native Eritrea and in the illuminated city of Madinah, Shaykh Faid is a qualified Maliki jurist and commentator of the Holy Qur’an with specialism in the Arabic language

1 Bukhari, Sahih: 2004
2 Tirmidhi, Sahih: 3984
3 Bukhari: 1312
4 Bukhari: 1356
5 Bukhari: 2916
6 Qur’an, Al Ahzab, 33:21
7 Sometimes referred to as the "Constitution of Madinah". The present author, however, cannot agree with the designation "constitution", which has technical associations appropriate to the framework of a state, and has preferred the term "charter", which defines rights and liberties, to describe the instrument of the Madinah Declaration. Early Muslim sources that refer to the Declaration include the historian Muhammad Ibn Ishaq in his Sirat. Scholars subsequently have attempted to define it as a "constitution" or "treaty". The Declaration perhaps accords to the idea of a social contract or charter.
8 Q, Al Baqarah, 2:256
9 Q, Al Kahf, 18:29
10 Q, Al Maeda, 5:48
11 Q, Al Kaafiroon, 109:6
12 Al Kaafiroon, 109:1
13 Al Baqarah, 2:44
14 Q, Ankabut, 29:46