True, Islam is a missionary faith that, like Christianity, obliges its followers to carry its message to all humanity till what it believes to be true is accepted as such by all mankind. But there’s a hitch. It stops short of propagating the faith by force. God is very clear on this:
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error
(The Heifer: 256)
Thus there can be no compulsion in Islam. Those who embrace it must do so by sincere conviction. Muslims are supposed to invite non-believers to Islam in a manner that will convince them of the truth of the faith rather than through futile arguments or means of brute force which could only be counter-productive.
Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance
(The Bee: 125)
Every endeavour except force may be resorted to in order to attract persons to Islam. Even if this goal is not achieved by whatever means at our disposal, we are not supposed to curse, but rather pray for the guidance of those who don’t believe so that we all become one in faith. As the Qur’an very beautifully puts it:
God is our Lord and your Lord. For us our deeds and to you yours. Between us and you let there be no strife. God will bring us together. And to Him shall we return
(The Consultation: 15)
Tell those who believe to forgive those who do not look forward to the Days of God. It is for Him to recompense each people according to what they have earned
(The Kneeling Down:14)
There are no less than three verses of the Qur’an which make it clear that Islam is not to be compelled on people and that they are to adopt it of their free will without any compulsion whatsoever being brought upon them.
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks
(The Heifer: 256)
If it had been the Lord’s Will, they would all have believed- All who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?
And say to the People of the Book, and to those who are unlearned “Do ye submit yourselves?”. If they do, they are in right guidance. But if they turn back, thy duty is to convey the Message. And God’s Sight is on His servants
(Family Imraan: 20)
What all this shows is that Muslims are only obliged to convey the message of Islam. Since no Prophet will come after Muhammad, upon whom be peace, it is the community of believers who are charged with this responsibility. In fact, they may employ every possible inducements to convince people of the truth of Islam since the underlying intention is a noble one. In fact, one of the areas in which the Alms tax collected from Muslims could be used is, as the Qur’an says:
To attract the hearts of those who have been inclined (towards Islam)
(The Repentance: 60)
Thus Islam did not merely preach toleration of other faiths. It embodied it into law. Why, because unlike other religions which preached blind faith, Islam looked upon it as a matter of conviction. Truth after all mattered a great deal and whoever desired to pursue it had to be allowed the liberty to do so. In fact Islam explicitly allowed Muslims to maintain good relations and treat those of other faiths on equal terms. All it prohibited was having relations with those who sought to imperil the faith or harm the community by acts of aggression:
God forbids you not, regarding those who fight you not for faith , nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them, for God loves those who are just. God only forbids you only regarding those who have fought you for your faith, and driven you from your homes, and have supported (others) in driving you out, that you should take them for friends;
(The Examiner: 8-9)
But that’s not all. It called for inter-faith dialogue with those of other scriptures to reach a common ground and to understand one another better:
Say: “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you. That we worship none but God, that we associate to partners with Him, that we erect not from among ourselves lords and patrons other than God”
(Family Imraan: 64)
This is why you will find it was always the Muslims who reached out to the West, such as when Caliph Haroun Al Rashid sent his emissaries to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne to build good relations between Frank and Arab, Christian and Muslim, West and East. and presented to him the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which lay in the Caliph’s extensive domains, thus recognizing the Christian claim to the Church. When the West engaged with Islam, it was very often with the sword as we saw during the Crusades. Even then, Muslim leaders always sought negotiated peace, offering the foe very favourable terms as Saladin did to the Crusaders of his day.
In spite of all such verses that speak of tolerance, there are detractors who refer to what they call the Verse of the Sword:
Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). But if they repent and establish regular prayer and practice regular charity, then open the way for them, for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful
They argue that this verse called for the death of unbelievers, taking it completely out of context. Why, because for one thing it referred to the idolators of Mecca who were sworn enemies of the faith and had done everything in their power to destroy it, including killing its more helpless followers like the slave girl Sumayya. For another, the verse in question has to be read in conjunction with what precedes and follows it. So let’s see what precedes it:
(The treaties) are not dissolved with those Pagans with whom you have entered into alliance, and who have not failed you nor aided anyone against you, So fulfill your engagements with them to the end of their term, for God loves the righteous
So here we are told that those Pagans with whom the Muslims have a treaty and who had not aided their enemies against them are not to be harmed. So now let’s see what follows the so-called verse of the sword:
If any amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it so that he may hear the Word of God and then escort him to where he can be secure
Here we are told that when the Pagans ask for asylum they are to be given it to learn about Islam and escorted back in safety if they did not wish to embrace it, But that’s not all. The following verse commands Muslims to stand true to them so long as they stand true to the Muslims by not betraying or oppressing them:
As long as they (Pagans with whom ye have made treaty) stand true to you, stand ye true to them, for God loves the righteous
That the Pagan Idolators were not to be killed or forcibly converted was seen in the example of the Prophet himself when his ten thousand strong army took Mecca. A general amnesty was given and all its inhabitants including the Prophet’s arch enemy Abu Sufyan and his wife Hind embraced Islam freely of their own accord. Even those who feared for their lives and fled from Mecca were forgiven. Thus when Ikrima, the son of Abu Jahl and a leading critic of the new faith fled to Yemen, his wife who had embraced Islam and knowing of the great mercy of the Prophet brought him to his presence for forgiveness, whereupon the Prophet forgave him by saying: “Oh, the running cavalry! Welcome!” (Al Isabah, Ibn Hajar Asqalani).
The Prophet also made it very clear that Islam was to be marked by its tolerance of other faiths. As he put it: “Let the Jews know that in our religion there is latitude. I was sent with the kindly Hanifiyyah” (Musnad, Ibn Hanbal). The word for ‘kindly’ samha used by the Prophet in association with the hanifiyyah (the natural religion, i.e. Islam) also suggests tolerance since it is of the same root as the Arabic word for tolerance samaha or tasamuh.
The Prophet also made it very clear that whoever killed a Dhimmi or non-Muslim citizen of the state would be liable for worldly punishment. Once when a Muslim had killed a Dhimmi, the Prophet promptly ordered his execution saying “I am responsible for obtaining redress for the weak ones” (Nayl Al Awtar, Shawkani). That’s not all, he also promised that the perpetrators would be punished in the hereafter as well:
Whoever kills a Dhimmi shall not smell the fragrance of paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of travel)
One who hurts a Dhimmi hurts me, and one who hurts me, hurts God
Whoever oppresses a Dhimmi I shall be his prosecutor
(Mukhtasar Al Maqasid)
Since the protection of the Dhimmis is a religious duty, Muslims are bound to treat them well, and protect their blood, property and honour. In fact, the persecution of non-Muslims in an Islamic state has long been considered by Muslim Jurists as a crime even more heinous than the persecution of Muslims by non-Muslims. This is precisely why the Caliph Umar when on his deathbed, exhorted his successor to treat the Dhimmis as the Messenger of God treated them, so that their life and property should be defended even if it means going to war (with oppressors) (Kitab al Kharaj). All this, despite the fact that he himself had been fatally stabbed by a non-Muslim Persian named Aboo Lulu. The word Dhimmi used of such persons comes from the Arabic word dhimma meaning ‘security’, thus Dhimmi is a person to be so protected.
Thus at the very inception of Islam, the Prophet enunciated the principle of tolerance which is remarkable for a faith that in its nascent stages faced so much intolerance that its adherents had to migrate to save themselves from persecution and in some instances even attain martyrdom for the sake of their faith. Who can, after all forget the fact that when the Prophet began his mission in Mecca his own tribe, the Quraysh opposed him except for a very few, the leaders among them employing every possible means at their disposal to stamp out the new faith. Who after all can forget the sufferings of Bilal the slave who was forced to lie in the hot sands of Arabia and whipped mercilessly to force him to revoke his faith, who can forget the beatings taken by Zanira who lost her eyesight as a result and the martyrdom of Sumayya when her master speared her private parts; who can forget the sufferings of Prophet Muhammad whom they scorned and placed animal entrails on and finally plotted to do away with his life. So vehement indeed was the opposition of the Meccans to the new faith that the Prophet and his little band of followers were compelled to migrate to the town of Medina in 622 AC which would change the course of history forever, for here they were welcomed by its inhabitants, leading to the establishment of the first Islamic state in the world.
The Prophet not only invited people to Islam through preaching, but also by dispatching emissaries to rulers of other nations with letters he himself wrote, among them the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, the Persian emperor Kisrau and the Negus of Abyssinia. The letter he sent the Negus, the Christian ruler of Ethiopia is very telling:
In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful. From Muhammad, the Messenger of God, to the Negus Al-Asham. King of Abyssinia. Peace Be with you. I Praise before you God, the Most Holy, the King, the Peace, the Keeper of Faith, the Watcher, and bear witness that Jesus the son of Mary is the spirit of God and Word from Him that he cast into Mary, the chaste, goodly and virgin, so that she conceived him. For God has created him from his spirit and breathed into him, similar to the way he created Adam by His Hand and breathed into him. I call you to God, the one with no partners, and to persist in His obedience. I also call you to follow me and believe in what has been revealed to me. For I am the Messenger of God
(Tarikh Al Rasul Wal Muluk, Tabari)
This letter, the first to a foreign ruler by the Prophet, was received by the Negus with great reverence. He is said to have kissed it and after reading it, came down from his throne and declared his Islam by uttering the Kalima (Tabaqat Ibn Sa’d). His people however chose to remain Christian. The Prophet received news of his death the very day he died from the angel Gabriel in spite of the vast distance between Medina and Ethiopia and said to his companions: “Today a pious man has died. So get up and offer the funeral prayer for your brother Ashama” The Prophet then made them stand in rows and led the funeral prayer for the Negus (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
But that’s not all, the Prophet even entered into treaties with those of other faiths, guaranteeing the free exercise of their faith. One such was a covenant he entered into with the Christians of Najran in Southern Arabia. When the delegation led by Bishop Alqama arrived at Medina the Prophet permitted them to pray in his mosque and gave them a lasting promise despite their choosing to remain Christian:
The people of Najran and their dependents shall remain under the protection of God, and Muhammad the Prophet, the Messenger of God. Their persons, their religion, their lands, their possessions and their churches shall remain safe. This treaty holds good for all people of Najran, whether present or not. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monasticism and no devotee from his devotions
(Tabaqat al Kubra, Ibn Sa’d)
These Christians had many years earlier suffered a terrible persecution by a tyrannical King named Dhu Nuwas, a convert to the Jewish faith. When they refused to convert to Judaism, the King had them thrown into burning ditches. Islam on the other hand took them under its wing, gave them protection and won their hearts, so that in a generation or two all of them embraced Islam.
What’s more, the Prophet gave the monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai a covenant in the closing years of his mission enjoining the Muslims to protect Christians. And this mind you was at a time when Islam was well established in Arabia. The covenant, preserved to this day, runs as follows:
This is a message from Muhammad son of Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, damage it, or carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)
(Tabaqat Ibn Sa’d, Qasas Al Anbiya, Ibn Kathir)
St Catherine’s monastery still stands. It is one of the oldest standing monasteries in the world, having been built shortly before the Prophet’s birth, and is fitting testimony to the tolerance shown by the Prophet’s followers throughout the ages.
As could be expected, the Jews were hard of heart and could not be easily won over, despite the Prophet’s entreaties to them. Still he persisted in his mission. In his letter to the Jews of Khaybar he wrote:
I adjure by God and by what he has sent down to you, by the manna and quails he gave as food to your tribes before you, and by His drying the sea for your fathers when He delivered them from Pharaoh and his works, that you tell me, do you find in what He has sent down to you that you believe in Muhammad? If you do not find that in your book, then there is no compulsion upon you. The right path has become plainly distinguished from error
The Prophet’s first and finest followers followed his example of tolerance to the letter, among them the early Caliphs of Islam Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, all companions of the Prophet. Although they embarked on some grand conquests for Islam by military means, they never resorted to force. For them it was a war to win hearts and establish justice. Those who refused to convert to Islam were given the option of paying a capitation tax known as jizyah and living peacefully under Islamic protection. Besieged towns or villages so besieged were in keeping with the orders of the Prophet given three choices. This is best illustrated in an encounter that took place between the Muslim general Khalid bin Walid and the besieged citizens of Hirah. When the inhabitants of the city sent a deputation to arrange the terms of capitulation, Khalid told them: “Now choose you one of these three things. Either (1) accept our faith. Then your rights and obligations will be the same as ours, whether you choose to go to another country or stay in your own land; or (2) pay capitation tax; or (3) war and battle. Verily by God ! I have come to you with a people who are more desirous of death than you are of life”. Upon hearing the delegate say that they chose the second option, namely, paying the capitation tax known as jizyah , Khalid simply commented: “Ill-luck to you! Unbelief is a pathless desert and foolish is the Arab who, when two guides meet him wandering therein – the one an Arab and the other not – leaves the first and accepts the guidance of the foreigner” (Tarikh of Tabari).
The Caliph Umar even had no qualms about entering into covenants with cities that the Muslim armies were about to take. One such was the covenant he entered into with the Christians of Jerusalem following the capitulation of the city:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. This is the security which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia (Jerusalem). He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed. Neither shall they or their appurtenances be in any way diminished.
When Umar was visiting the holy sites in the city, the patriarch Sophronius accompanied him to the Church of the Resurrection. As it was the appointed time for prayer, he bade Umar offer his prayers there. Umar thoughtfully refused and disclosed his honorable motive: “Had I yielded to your request” said the Caliph in all candor:“the Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under the colour of imitating my example” (Tabari).
Even captives taken in the course of war were given the option to embrace Islam freely without being compelled or harmed in any way. During Umar’s caliphate, the Christian prisoners of war in Egypt were given the choice of embracing Islam or retaining their faith by paying the poll tax. When one chose to be a Muslim, the Arabs “cheered louder than they captured the city of Alexandria” and when they chose to keep their old faith they became gloomy (Tabari). That the same was true of women is seen in the words of Umm Al-Muhajir who was captured with some other women in the course of a campaign by Caliph Uthman:
I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: “Go and circumcise them and purify them”
In fact the Muslim armies were so tolerant that they won the confidence of their Christian Cousins in no small measure. So much so that they contributed significantly to the Muslim victory against the Persian Empire. In the Battle of the Bridge and the Battle of Buwayb fought a few years after the Prophet’s demise, the Christian Arab tribes of Banu Tayy and Banu Namir contributed to the Muslim victory in no mean measure For example, in the Battle of the Bridge when the Arab warriors were hemmed in between the Persian army and the Euphrates, it was a Christian chief of the Banu Tayy who came to the assistance of Muthannah, the Muslim general to defend the bridge of boats which provided an orderly retreat and when reinforcements were sought to turn the tide in favour of the Muslims, the Banu Namir who dwelt within the confines of the Byzantine empire lost no time in throwing in their lot with their Muslim compatriots. Many such Christian tribes eventually accepted Islam thus swelling the Muslim ranks.
How tolerant the Muslims were could be seen from the contents of the following letter sent by the Nestorian Patriarch Ishoyabh to Simeon, the Metropolitan of Revardashir in Persia regarding the conversion of the Christians of Khurasan to Islam:
And the Arabs, to whom God at this time has given the empire of the world, behold they are among you as you well know…And yet they attack not the Christian faith, but on the contrary, they favour our religion, do honour to our priests and the saints of the Lord, and confer benefits on churches and monasteries. Why then have you people of Merv abandoned your faith for the sake of these Arabs ? And that too, when the Arabs, as the people of Merv themselves declare, have not compelled them to leave their own religion.
Indeed, Islam was thought of as a liberating force even by those who chose to keep their faith. Why because it offered every sect a peaceful atmosphere to practice their faith if they so wished. We know that in the days of the Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz there lived a Christian physician named Abdur-Rahman whose consultation rooms were just below the minaret of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, while a Christian tutor named Jufaina lived in Medina, teaching reading and writing to little children (Ibn Sa’d).
This was in sharp contrast to Christendom where one sect fought against the other over petty theological issues with the help of the authorities in power drenching it in blood. Take the persecution of the Copts, Jacobite Christians of Egypt 200,000 of whom the Byzantine emperor Justinian put to death in the city of Alexandria alone. The persecution was so severe that the Patriarch Benjamin went into hiding. Let’s hear what the Coptic historian Al Moqanna says of how the Arab army under Amr Ibn Al As ensured the Copts could practice their faith freely again:
Sanotius, a leader of the Egyptian church told the Arab leader Amr that the Egyptian pope Benjamin had been hiding for 13 years in an unknown place. Amr forthwith published a notice stating: “Wherever the Coptic Pope Benjamin is – there is the promise of security and peace of God for you. Come back calm and safe, lead your church and take care of your community. Pope Benjamin heard of the integrity and reliability of the Arabs and returned with a Muslim escort.
It was this turn of events that led Michael the Elder, the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, to see in the conquests of the sons of Ishmael (the Arabs) the hand of God:
This is why the God of vengeance, who alone is all-powerful, and changes the empire of mortals as He wills, giving it to whomsoever He wills, and uplifting the humble, beholding the wickedness of the Romans who, throughout their dominions, cruelly plundered our churches and our monasteries and condemned us without pity, brought from the region of the south the sons of Ishmael, to deliver us through them from the hands of the Romans. And, if in truth, we have suffered some loss, because the catholic churches, that had been taken away from us and given to the Chalcedonians, remained in their possession; for when the cities submitted to the Arabs, they assigned to each denomination the churches they found it to be in possession of; nevertheless, it was no slight advantage for us to be delivered from the cruelty of the Romans, their wickedness, their wrath and cruel zeal against us, and to find ourselves at peace.
More than a thousand years later let use see what Macarius, the Patriarch of Antioch had to say about the atrocities the Catholics inflicted on the Russians of the Orthodox Church:
“We all wept much over the thousands of martyrs who were killed by these impious wretches, the enemies of the faith, in these forty or fifty years. The number probably amounted to seventy or eighty thousand souls. O you infidels ! O you monsters of impurity ! O you hearts of stone What had the nuns and women done ? What the girls and boys and infant children, that you should murder them ? And why do I pronounce them accursed ? Because they have shown themselves more debased and wicked than the corrupt worshippers of idols, by their cruel treatment of Christians, thinking to abolish the very name of Orthodox. God perpetuate the empire of the Turks for ever and ever ! For they take their impost, and enter into no account of religion, be their subjects Christians or Nazarenes, Jews or Samaritans. Whereas these accursed Poles were not content with taxes and tithes from the brethren of Christ, though willing to serve them; but they subjected them to the authority of the enemies of Christ, the tyrannical Jews, who did not even permit them to build churches, nor leave them any priests that knew the mysteries of their faith”.
It was because of Islam’s tolerance of others that when the Muslim army in its conflict with the Byzantines reached the Arab lands to their north then peopled by Christians, they preferred to submit to Islamic rule in preference to that of the oppressive Byzantines. This is what they wrote in a letter to the Arabs:
O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith, because you keep better faith with us and are more merciful to us and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and our homes.
The people of Emessa went to the extent of closing the gates of their city before the Byzantines could enter and told the Muslims that they preferred their rule and justice to the oppression and injustice of the Byzantines. In like manner many other cities in Syria and elsewhere entered into treaties with the forces of Islam where they agreed to submit to their rule while preserving their religious freedoms.
To this day you will find Christian communities living peacefully amongst their Muslim neighbours in Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. They have lived thus for over a thousand years under Islamic rule freely practicing their faith. Indeed there is reason to believe that in the first century of Islamic rule in the Middle East when Muslims were ruling from Egypt to Persia, the majority of its citizens were Christians belonging to various sects who had submitted to the Pax Islamica, living under such peace and liberty as they had never seen under Rome or Byzantium, Christian states that ruthlessly persecuted other followers of Christ who did not conform to the official sect. It appears that they embraced Islam gradually over a period of time so that today they are a minority living among the Muslims.
However, even in cases where Christians had abandoned their faith for Islam, the churches were left standing. Even when in ruins, they were still left alone since the Muslims could not even think of razing them down, so that if they wanted to build a mosque they would build it in front of these churches. Indeed the survival of Christianity under Arab rule even surprised the Spaniards when they re-entered Tuledo and the Normans when they took Sicily. Christian churches were found to be intact while its clergy celebrated its holy liturgy without any interference whatsoever.
Likewise when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 after nearly a thousand years of holding out against the forces of Islam, the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad II did everything in his power to make its citizens feel safe. He proclaimed himself Protector of the Church and strictly forbade the persecution of Christians. He even granted a decree to the newly elected patriarch Gennadios, securing to him and his successors and the bishops under him, the enjoyment of all the old privileges enjoyed under the former Byzantine rule. The patriarch received from the hands of the Sultan himself the pastoral staff, the symbol of his office, together with a purse of a thousand gold ducats and a horse with gorgeous trappings, on which he was privileged to ride with his train through the city. All this for a church that had not only fought against Islamdom tooth and nail for over a thousand years, but had also oppressed fellow Christians of rival sects.
The same was true of Spain where Muslims ruled for over 700 years with such mildness that everybody including the large Christian and Jewish communities prospered equally. In Moghul India, where Muslims ruled for over 300 years, the Hindus were never forced to embrace Islam. Those who did so entered the faith willingly and were mostly from the depressed castes who were looked down upon by their fellow Hindus. When the British took over India, they found the Hindus to be a thriving community governed by their own laws and customs tempered of course by a few restrictions the humane Moghuls had imposed such as laying down that a widow could only be burnt on her husband’s funeral pyre in keeping with the then common Hindu custom if she herself desired it and was not being forced into it.
Coming to more recent times, did you know that the keys to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Christendom’s holiest site, has been in the custody of a Palestinian Muslim family – The Nuseibeh. This has been so for over a thousand years to prevent rival Christian sects clashing for control of the church shared by six different Christian denominations, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Syrian and Coptic. Tradition has it that the keys were entrusted to the family when Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem. The clan takes its name from a woman named Nusaibah Umm Umara Al-Mazinniyah who fought alongside Prophet Muhammad in battle and is regarded as a war heroine in the Islamic world. Sorry to say this, but had it not been for Islam, the Christians would have probably bled each other to death so that none would have been alive today. It was Islam that protected them and ensured their survival to this day.
True, Islam spread far and wide by Jihad or Holy War in the days of the Prophet and the early Caliphs, but bear in mind Jihad then was not oppression but liberation, so unlike the wars of Europe that were meant for the glory of kings or nations at the expense of the common people who had to do the dying. True, the early caliphs waged jihad, but bear in mind it was all in good faith – to spread the Islamic order of justice in the conquered territories and to ensure that its message of could reach people freely without any sort of repression. To allow the enemies of faith a free hand to oppress the believers had to be rooted out at all cost. To turn a blind eye to such oppression would only be cowardice. Had Islam not ensured the freedom of all those who wished to profess it to do so freely by means of arms in those benighted times when the rest of the world did not recognize this right, Muslims would have probably been confined to a few pockets, persecuted and hounded out of existence. Why, because pacifism could not have succeeded in a world that knew only brute force.
Take the battle of Mutah in Syria when the Muslims fought against the Byzantines. It was the result of the arrogance of an ally of the Byzantine empire, an Arab Christian prince of the Ghassanid Kingdom named Sharhabil who had the Prophet’s envoy Harith Ibn Umayr executed for seeking to convey the message of Islam there. But that’s not all. A couple of years earlier the Byzantine emperor Heracles had crucified one Farwah bin Amr al Juthami, who was his governor in Greater Syria. Farwah had embraced Islam and sent some gifts to the Prophet. When Heracles heard about it, he had him crucified him and passed a law that anybody who embraced Islam in Byzantium was to be crucified.
As the Qur’an tells the believers :
And why should you not fight in the cause of God and for those weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women and children
Fight for the sake of God those who fight against you, but do not aggress against them. God does not love transgressors
(The Heifer: 190)
And fight them until there is no more oppression, and there prevails justice and faith in God. But if they cease let there be no hostility except against the oppressors
That Jihad was to be a collective effort against oppression is made clear in the Qur’an again and again:
To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they have been wronged, and verily God is Most Powerful for their aid (They are) those who have been expelled from their homes without just cause except that they said: “Our Lord is God”.
(The Pilgrimage: 39)
Had not God checked one set of people by means of another, there would have surely been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is remembered abundantly. God will certainly aid those who aid (His Cause)
(The Pilgrimage: 40)
But that’s not all. Even those who had waged war against the Muslims and later relented and sued for peace were to be forgiven:
If they (thine enemies) withdraw from you and fight you not, but send you peace, then God allows no way for you (to war against them)
(The Women: 90)
This jihad of the Prophet and the early caliphs was not without its benefits even to the conquered peoples, for it ended the oppression of one religious group by another and established a system of social justice based on the idea of human equality never seen before in history. The message was clear and went something like this: Are you for the Kingdom of God which includes all of us, or are you for your own community against the rest of mankind?. In this sense, the Jihad of those days should be looked upon not as a war in the sense we usually understand it, but as a means to a lasting peace, in other words A war to end all wars!
Besides, Jihad was governed by strict rules of combat in the prosecution of war which was followed to the letter by the Islamic armies wherever they went. Non-combatants including women, children, aged persons and those who had taken to religious pursuits were not to be harmed in any way. That non-combatants were not to be harmed in war is seen from the Prophet’s own reaction, when, seeing a woman lying dead in the battlefield, he protested: “She was not engaged in fighting”. That’s not all. He quickly sent instructions to his military commander Khalid bin Al Walid not to kill women or neutral bystanders who took no part in the war against the Muslims. He also instructed his military leaders: “Do not kill the elderly, infants or children and women. Do not exceed the proper bounds” (Aboo Dawood). Only those who actively took part in hostilities were liable to be killed, be they men or women. This is seen from the siege of the Banu Qurayzah where a Jewish woman who took part in attacking the Muslim army by throwing a millstone was beheaded.
Not only humans, but even animals and crops of the enemy were not to be harmed in any way as seen in the Prophet’s instructions to his troops before dispatching them against the oppressive Byzantines: “In avenging the injuries inflicted upon us, harm not the harmless inmates of homes, spare the weakness of the female sex, injure not infants at the breast, or those ill in bed, Demolish not the houses of unresisting folk, destroy not the means of their sustenance, nor their fruit trees” (Seerah Ibn Hisham)
In like manner the first Caliph of Islam Abu Bakr ordered Usamah Ibn Zayd before he sent him to war:
Do not commit treachery or fraud nor depart in any manner from the right. Do not mutilate any one, nor kill a child or aged man, nor any woman. Injure not the date-palm or burn it with fire; nor cut down any fruit-bearing tree. Slay not sheep or cows or camels except for your needful sustenance. You will come across persons who spend their lives in retirement in monasteries; leave them in their state
Thus Islam not only prohibited killings of innocent non-belligerents in wartime, but also forbade for all time, ‘scorched earth’ policies that western armies employed until very recent times to subdue other nations, like the English did against the Boers of South Africa a little over a hundred years ago when they wantonly destroyed livestock and crops to starve the people into submission, so they could lay their dirty hands on the rich gold mines of Transvaal.
Islam also prohibited killing Prisoners of war. The Qur’an commands the believers:
When ye have subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them). Then (is the time for) generosity or ransom until the war lays down its burdens
Thus captives are to be shown generosity and freed without ransom or for ransom, whichever benefits Islam, until the war lays down its burden. Such ransom could even take the form of teaching. In the days of the Prophet, some Meccan captives were released on condition that they taught some Muslims in Medina how to read and write. So long as they were in the hands of the Muslims they were to be treated like any one of them. As the Prophet commanded his companions concerning captives of war:
They are your brothers. Offer them what you eat and drink!
So well treated were they, that a Meccan prisoner of war would later recall: “Blessings be on the men of Medina!. They made us ride while they themselves walked, they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates” (Seerah Ibn Hisham)’. In the Battle of Hunayn, as many as 6000 prisoners of war were taken from the Hawazin tribe and they were all set free (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). It was in the same spirit that Caliph Abu Bakr said when he sent his troops to Syria: “Beware not to stain your swords with the blood of the one who yields”, adding “Treat prisoners and he who renders himself to your mercy with pity, as God shall do to you in your need” (Tarikh of Tabari and Seerah Ibn Hisham).
This was more than a thousand years before the Geneva Convention established the rights of prisoners of war. As I said Islam was well ahead of its times!
Much has also been said of the Capitation tax known as Jizyah Islam expected those who did not embrace it to pay. Let’s look at it this way. Such Jizyah was like the alms tax known as zakat every Muslim male and female had to pay the state. Thus while Muslims were obliged to pay the Alms Tax, non-Muslims were not obliged to do so, and in its stead had to pay a poll tax which differed according to one’s means – 48 dirhams for the rich, 24 for the middle classes and 12 for the poorer sections for a full year. Fair enough.
But that’s not all. It released them from the military service the Muslim subjects of the state had to provide. Thus one has to look at it as a form of protection secured to them by Muslim arms since their faith prevented them from serving in the army. For instance when the people of Hirah contributed the sum agreed upon, they expressly mentioned that they paid the tax on condition that “the Muslims and their leader protect us from those who would oppress us, whether they be Muslims or others”. Further, in a treaty entered into by Khalid with some towns in the neighbourhood of Hirah, he stipulated: “If we protect you, then jizyah is due to us; but if we do not, then it is not due”.
Thus we hear that in the reign of Caliph Umar, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius had raised a large army to drive back the Muslim forces who had now to concentrate all their energies on the impending encounter. The Muslim General Abu Ubaydah wrote to the governors of the conquered cities of Syria, ordering them to pay back all the jizyah that had been collected from the cities, and wrote to the people saying “We give you back the money we took from you, as we have received news that a strong force is advancing against us. The agreement between us was that we should protect you, and as this is not now in our power, we return you all that we took. But if we are victorious, we shall consider ourselves bound to you by the old terms of the agreement”. In keeping with this order, large sums of money were paid back out of the state treasury. The Christians were so touched that they called down blessings on the heads of the Muslims saying: “May God give you rule over us again and make you victorious against the Romans; had it been they, they would not have given us back anything, but would have taken all that remained with us”.
Even when some zealous Muslims went against the teachings of their faith and oppressed those of other faiths, the rights of the wronged were restored without delay. It once happened that a complaint was brought before Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul Azeez that the grand mosque in Damascus had been enlarged at the expense of a church. The caliph promptly ordered that the part of the mosque that had been built on the usurped piece of land be demolished and the church restored. However the Christians preferred being compensated by money and the matter was settled to the satisfaction of all. Had it been the Jews they would have probably demanded their pound of flesh as we may gather from Shakespeare’s Shylock, but even this would have been conceded. In fact, it once happened in the days of the first Umar, that some zealous Muslims had constructed a place of worship on the land of a Jew. The Caliph ordered the restoration of the land to the Jew in spite of the fact that it meant demolishing a mosque.
Alhough one might think that this tolerance was confined to Christians and Jews as ‘The People of the Book’ this is not so. The Prophet made it clear that the Zoroastrians, the followers of the Persian Prophet Zarathustra, were to be treated exactly like the People of the Book and that jizyah might be taken from them in return for protection (Kitab Al-Kharaj, Abu Yusuf). So strictly followed was this rule that in the reign of the Caliph Al-Mutasim we hear of a Muslim general ordering an Imam (Leader of Prayer) and a Muazzin (Caller to Prayer) be flogged for the offence of destroying a Zoroastrian temple in Sughd and building a mosque in its stead.
Islam did not stop at just ensuring the rights of Non-Muslims, it also did everything possible to make them feel at ease and win their hearts, even if it meant giving them important concessions which included among other things their livelihood. The Prophet himself is known to have engaged Non-Muslims in his service and the early Muslim rulers saw no harm in it. After all, had not the Prophet himself sent an emissary named Amr Ibn Umayyah Al Damri to the Negus of Abyssinia to intercede in favour of the Muslim refugees there while he was yet a non-Muslim?. Some non-Muslims even held prominent positions in state service, like after Caliph Umar wrote to his governor in Syria: “Send us a Greek, who could put in order the accounts of our revenues”. Thus it was that a Christian came to head the revenue department in Medina (Baladhuri).
There were even cases of Non-Muslims who had made a meaningful contribution to society being exempted from paying the Jizya, among them an Egyptian who came up with the idea of digging a canal from Cairo to the Red Sea to facilitate maritime trade. Caliph Umar rewarded him by exempting him from paying Jizya for his entire lifetime (Husn Al-Muhadarah, Suyuti).
This is the kind of tolerance Islam extended to those of other faiths. In contrast, one could not find a single Muslim community peacefully living amidst Christians in Europe before the French Revolution, for the simple reason that they were not allowed to exist. The fate of the Muslims that followed in the wake of the Spanish inquisition speaks much for the kind of tolerance Christian Europe extended to Muslims. They were either expelled, put to death or prohibited from exercising their religion. This never happened, and could never happen under Islamdom. Had the Muslim rulers chosen to impose Islam by means of force, they could have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain. The fact is that it was not until the Western World kept the church out of politics that they became tolerant. In fact, before the French revolution, religious tolerance was regarded as something Satanic and unthinkable.
Mediaeval Christendom, in spite of Jesus’ teachings of love and compassion, simply did not know the kind of tolerance Islam did. Take for instance how Charlemagne, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire forced the pagan Saxons to undergo baptism at the point of the sword, even declaring in his Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae that any Saxon who refused to convert to Christianity was to be put to death.
And who can ever forget the cold-blooded massacres of the crusaders during the first crusade, when in 1099 AC, the entire Muslim population of Jerusalem, seventy thousand men, women and children were all put to the sword by around 20,000 crusaders led by knights such as Godfrey, Roland and Tancred. Raymond, Chaplain to the Count of Tolouse described the gory scene in gloating terms: “When our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights rewarded our eyes. Some of our men, and they the more merciful, cut off the heads of the enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the City”. The chroniclers related with savage joy how the streets were filled with heads and mangled bodies, and how in the sacred area, the knights rode in blood up to the knees of their horses. The carnage did not stop there. The women and children who had escaped the initial fury were butchered next and even the three hundred to whom Tancred had promised safety were slaughtered in cold blood. This was by way of a solemn sacrifice in the name of Jesus. The slain as pointed out by historian J.M.Robertson included a great multitude of every age – mothers with the infants in their arms, little children, youths and maidens, old men and women bowed with age. This massacre took place about 460 years after the conquest of Jerusalem by Umar who had given security of life and religion to its Christian inhabitants and done injury to none.
Even in spite of these atrocities, the Muslim rulers of a later era who retook Jerusalem for Islam were sure to follow the Prophet’s word to the letter. That’s why we had Saladin sparing the lives of all Christians when he took back Jerusalem in 1187. When the Crusaders had taken the city 88 years earlier, they had killed all the Muslims inside it. However Saladin’s army did not touch even a single Christian in the city. Only those Christians of Crusader origin who belonged to the Roman Catholic Church were told to leave, while native and orthodox Christians were allowed to remain and enjoy all the privileges they did under Islamic rule. When Saladin took Jerusalem, thousands of Christians of Crusader origin, mainly women, were unable to pay the ransom for their freedom as part of the terms of surrender.
The terms of surrender were very clear that those who did not pay would be reduced to slavery. As a way out, Saladin’s brother Safadin who served in his army requested for a thousand of these unfortunates whom he promptly freed. The generous act was followed by others, both Muslim and Christian, resulting in the freedom of thousands more. This was despite the fact that the Patriarch Heraclius had so much wealth in his coffers that he could have paid their ransoms and still retained much of his wealth. In this sense the Muslims were far more ‘Christian’ than the Crusaders themselves who had taken Jesus’ teachings of love and compassion with a pinch of salt if not less.
Saladin’s contemporary Richard the Lionheart whom he would later go to war with did not even have the heart to reciprocate the Muslims’ kindness. He massacred in cold blood as many as 2700 Muslim prisoners in Palestine who had surrendered, killing along with them their wives and children just because Saladin had delayed in paying their ransom. When he had defeated Richard, the Sultan not only let the Christians be, but also respected their churches and even gave those who chose to leave a guarantee that they could make pilgrimage to the Holy Land whenever they wished.
And who can ever forget the unspeakable atrocities of Vlad who was given the epithet Dracul, or dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund for defending Christianity against the Ottomans. It was his title Bram Stoker immortalized as the name of his bloodthirsty vampire Dracula. This sick sadist, still regarded as a folk hero by Romanians was so brutal that he cared not whether one was a soldier or civilian. All alike were impaled, innocent men, women and children by the thousands. Had a Muslim ruler dared do such a crime he would have probably been killed by his own men or in the least not obeyed as it would have infringed the Islamic Law of War.
Before killed by the Turks he had taken about a 100,000 lives. Mostly of innocents, all in the name of Christ. It was not only Muslims he impaled, but anybody who earned his ire. He even impaled his own – women, children and old people because he felt they were useless in his war to save Christendom from the Muslims. When the Turks were on their way to stop him in the winter of 1462, they were greeted by a forest of 20,000 dead or dying impaled corpses of innocent men, women and children before they could get to Vlad’s capital of Targoviste. One can only imagine the feelings of the Turks going through this real time physical vision of hell with a fetid forest of impaled bodies blocking their path. It was only after a bloody blitz by the Ottomans that Vlad was killed and his head taken to the Sultan as proof they had killed the monster. The head, preserved in a jar of honey so that it would not rot on its way to Contantinople was then impaled in the centre of the city for all to see. The Muslims had at last killed Dracula, ending his tyrannical reign and bringing peace to that blood-splattered nation once again. Had Islam not made Jihad a religious duty, one can only imagine what kind of place the world would have been.
It is therefore clear that the Jihad of Islam was in fact a war for tolerance, to pave the pay for the peaceful spread of Islam sans oppression of any kind. Contrast this with the oppressive wars against Islam even well after the crusades from the Spainish inquisition of the 16th century to Srebrenica in the mid-1990s when as many as 8000 innocent Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in cold blood execution-style by Serb militia, showing that the spirit of the crusades lingered with equal ferocity and ruthlessness long after those shameful days.
As such, it is sad to see some misled extremist groups purporting to fight in the name of Islam perpetrating all kinds of injustices against other religious minorities and especially Christians in our times. These misguided fools know nothing of Islam as you can see from how they take the very Word of God, the Qur’an in vain disregarding the tolerance it teaches us and how they dismiss the Prophet’s teachings and the Caliphs’ examples of tolerance. Rather these devils coming in the guise of Muslims have taken a leaf not from Islam, but from the Crusaders of old and from the Jewish Law of War that told its followers to kill everything that breathes.
In the Bible we read:
When the Lord, your God, brings you into the land which you are to enter and occupy, and dislodges great nations before you – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizites, Hivites and Jesusites; seven nations more numerous and powerful than you- And when the Lord your God delivers them up to you and you defeat them, you shall doom them, make no covenant with them and show them no mercy
So like just as the Crusaders of old were inspired by such Biblical passages that called for the wholesale slaughter of other peoples, so are the misled Jihadists of today. But theirs is not inspired by Islam, neither the Words of God in the Qur’an nor the teachings of our Noble Prophet. Theirs is a pervasion of the true faith. Do not think they are fighting for our faith. Nay, they are fighting for the devil. Just as the Crusaders of old killed innocents in total disregard to the true teachings of Jesus, so do these misfits kill in total disregard to the teachings of Islam. What they’re doing is serving the Zionist agenda to give Muslims a bad name. But neither faith nor history is on their side. As Lacy O Leary observes in his Islam at the Crossroads:
History makes it clear that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated
Any unprejudiced historian will contend likewise. Islam is, after all, the only faith where the conquerors adopted the faith of the conquered. That was when the Mongols who sacked entire cities like Baghdad in the middle ages gave up their animistic ways for Islam. Could these Mongols who were victors over the Arabs been forced to have become Muslim?
Then take Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country in terms of population with well over a hundred million people. How could it have been converted by force when not a single Saracen Soldier landed in any one of its over two thousand islands? The truth is that it was a very peaceful affair made possible by dedicated missionaries who did all they could through peaceful means to win them for Islam. Within a very short period of time this Hindu nation had become Muslim. The same holds true of countries that were once Buddhist like Maldives and Bangladesh. This is not because it imposed itself by force, but because it endeared itself to the peace-loving Buddhists of these countries. Why because these folk saw in the Muslims the mercy and compassion the Buddha taught them.
Toleration is not a weakness of Islam. Rather it is its strength because it is the attitude of truth. And truth is by its very nature bound to prevail!
Finally let me end tonight’s discourse with a quote by Duncan Greenless who observes in his Gospel of Islam:
The nobility and broad tolerance of this creed, which accepts as God-inspired all the real religions of the world, will always be a glorious heritage for mankind. On it could indeed be built a perfect world religion