Harmonious Relations Among Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Historical Examples

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Published April 7, 2017

By Sh. Suleiman Hani

In studying history and the phases of peace and conflict, one is quickly exposed to the common arguments about norms and exceptions. One opinion holds that peace is the norm throughout history and that war is the exception, and this position is ardently supported by peace studies programs worldwide. On the other hand, opposing opinion posits that war has been the norm throughout history and peace was the exception, using evidence of the great number of conflicts and wars that have been documented and studied.

Ultimately, as human beings we must ask ourselves if we truly want to establish harmony globally, and what obstacles, if any, are present and require clear resolutions. In order to achieve local and global harmony, one must study the circumstances and dynamics of intra- and intergroup co-existence in recorded history. Thus, regardless of one’s opinion about the norms and exceptions throughout history, there are striking precedents that illustrate to the modern reader how harmony was established among various ideological and political groups, and that harmony is, in fact, a documented reality and an achievable one at that. Following are important examples from history that illustrate harmony among three religious groups: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The Tribe of Banu Najraan

During the era of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a delegation arrived from the tribe of Banu Najraan in order to meet and ask questions of the Prophet, as his message had spread far and wide in the region. The people of Najraan, supported financially by the Byzantine ruler, sent a delegation of 60 people to Madinah, and they were received in the mosque of the Prophet (pbuh), where they prayed to the east. Many issues were raised and a variety of questions were asked over the course of several hours. When they discussed the nature of God, the Prophet (pbuh) recited Surat Al-Ikhlaas (chapter 112 in the Quran, “Sincerity”) in which God says: “Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the Eternal, the Absolute. He begets not nor was He begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him” (112: 1-4).

Some members of the Najraan delegation were moved by the meaning of the recitation, while others disagreed as they believed that Jesus is the begotten son of God, and himself divine. On the following day, verses related to Jesus were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and he recited them to the Najraan delegation: “The nature of Jesus, in the sight of God, is the same as Adam, whom He created from dust and said to him, ‘Be,’ and he was. This is the truth from your Lord. Be not, therefore, one of the doubters. Should anyone argue with you about him after what has been given to you of true knowledge, say to them, ‘Let us summon our children and your children, our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves. Let us then all pray humbly and invoke the curse of God on the liars” (3: 59-61).

Most of the Najraan delegation could not accept that Jesus was merely a mortal man and a prophet; yet, God, Himself, challenged them with the above verses. The delegation initially agreed to meet for the challenge, but they feared the anger and curse of God, so they decided to decline. Nevertheless, the delegation requested a peace treaty and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) agreed by the following day. Based only on their short time with the Prophet, they promised to accept the terms of the peace treaty without question, as they had seen fairness and honesty in the character of the Prophet (pbuh).

The following excerpt of the peace treaty is relevant to our modern times and a reminder of pluralistic harmony and co-existence: “Najraan has the protection of God and the pledges of Muhammad, the Prophet, to protect their lives, faith, land, property, those who are absent and those who are present, and their clan and allies. The Najraans need not change anything of their past customs. No right of theirs or their religion shall be altered. No bishop, monk or church guard shall be removed from his position.”

The treaty continues: “Whatever they have is theirs, no matter how big or small. They are not held in suspicion and they shall suffer no vengeance killing. They are not required to be mobilized and no army shall trespass on their land. If any of them requests that any right of his should be given to him, justice shall be administered among them. He who takes usury on past loans is not under my protection. No person in Najraan is answerable for an injustice committed by another.”

The above treaty provided autonomy with regard to political administration, cultural tradition, and religious beliefs, for not only Christians but any non-Muslim citizen living under the Islamic government. This example is just one of many, including the well-known Madinah Charter. For centuries, many just Muslim rulers adhered to the principles and guidelines contained in the treaty when dealing with non-Muslims in local and distant lands.

The Suit of Armor

Throughout Islamic history, there have been clear-cut examples of justice being rendered in an unbiased way in cases of a Muslim violating the rights of a non-Muslim under an Islamic authority. The issue of justice is raised here due to its significant positive impact on achieving harmony locally and globally. One exemplification of justice is the following incident: A man named Taima stole a suit of armor from Qataada, his neighbor. Qataada had hidden the armor inside a sack of flour so when Taima took it, the flour leaked out of the sack through a hole, and flour fell from the armor, leaving a trail up to his house. Taima then left the armor in the care of a Jewish man named Zayed, who kept it in his house. When the people searched for the stolen armor, they followed the trail of flour to Taima’s house but did not find it there. When confronted, he swore to them he had not taken it and knew nothing about it. The people who were supporting Qataada also swore that they had seen Taima breaking into Qatada’s house at night, and had subsequently followed the tell-tale trail of flour, which had led them to his house. Nevertheless, after hearing Taima swearing he was innocent, they left him alone and looked for further clues, finally finding a thinner trail of flour leading to the house of Zayed, and so arrested him.

The Jewish man told them that Taima had left the armor with him, and some Jewish people confirmed his statement. The tribe to which Taima belonged sent some of their men to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to present his side of the story, and asked them to defend him against the accusation. The delegation told the Prophet,” If you do not defend our clansman, Taima, he will lose his reputation and be punished severely, and the Jewish man will go free.” The Prophet (pbuh) was persuaded to believe the delegation’s side of the story and was about to punish the Jewish man when God revealed the following Quranic verses to vindicate the Jewish man : “Indeed, We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth so you may judge between the people by that which God has shown you. And do not be an advocate for the deceitful. And seek forgiveness of God. Indeed, God is ever Forgiving and Merciful. And do not argue on behalf of those who deceive themselves. Indeed, God loves not one who is a habitually sinful deceiver. They conceal [their evil intentions and deeds] from the people, but they cannot conceal [them] from God, and He is in their midst when they plot by night in words that He does not approve. And God ever is encompassing of what they do. Lo! You argue on their behalf in [this] worldly life – but who will argue with God for them on the Day of Resurrection, or who will be their defender?” (4: 105-109).

The Conquest of Jerusalem
It is well established that Umar ibn al-Khattaab, the second caliph, during the opening of Jerusalem in the year 637, issued a decree to the people of the city that they would be protected in their places of worship. At the time, the authority presiding over Jerusalem was the renowned Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government. During the battle, a countless multitude of Muslims had surrounded Jerusalem, but Sophronius refused to surrender the holy city except to Umar in person.

Umar, who was situated in Madinah, heard about the condition of Sophronius, and he set out with a companion on just one donkey. By the time of their arrival, it was not easy for those who had never seen Umar to distinguish him from his servant, due to his humble dress and modest character. Sophronius was greatly impressed by this and gave Umar a tour of the city, which included the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

When the time for prayer came, Umar indicated that he needed to pray, and Sophronius invited him to pray inside the church. However, Umar adamantly refused and he insisted that if he prayed in the church, Muslims in later times would use his visit there as an excuse to convert it into a mosque, and this would essentially deprive Christians of one of their holiest sites. Umar prayed near by the famous church and the Muslims ended up building a mosque at the site fifty-five years later. The Mosque of Umar stands to this day across the road from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

After the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem, Jews, who had been banned from Jerusalem for over five centuries, were finally given permission to worship and reside in Jerusalem with complete religious freedom. Umar gave a speech that became known for centuries later and promoted an unparalleled treaty of co-existence and religious tolerance. The treaty, referred to as Umar’s Assurance, became a recognized standard for relations between Muslims and Christians throughout the Byzantine Empire and eventually throughout the world. It established the rights of minorities and promoted tolerance to a great degree, and forced conversion to Christianity in the Byzantine Empire was no longer a respected or sanctioned act, following the speech of Umar.

Co-existence in Spain

Society under Islamic rule in Spain, referred to as Al-Andalus by the Arabs, was known for its religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Christians and Jews, along with Muslims, held high positions in the courts and in society, and they collectively shared in the wealth of Cordoba, the capital of Al-Andalus. Professor Zachary Karabell, in Peace Be Upon You, stated about that era: “Jews tended to benefit both in Spain and the Mediterranean world. In the towns and cities, Jews found themselves in unique positions as intermediaries between Muslim-dominated Spain and the rest of the world. Having suffered severe discrimination at the hands of the Visigoths, Jewish communities under the Muslims enjoyed more freedom, affluence, and social standing than any Jewish community would until the nineteenth century.”

There are countless other examples of peace and harmony between various groups, politically and religiously, ethnically and racially, and these examples should continue to be highlighted, studied, and imitated in the modern context in order to achieve world peace. Ultimately, the vast majority of mankind genuinely wants to live in peace and desires that same atmosphere of harmony for humanity worldwide. The world is exhausted from the various wars and conflicts that are ongoing, and all decent people are appalled by the horrendous humanitarian crises around the world that result from the mayhem and destructive power of war.

Many researchers and commentators point to various sources of contemporary conflict. These include predatory capitalism, imperialistic national ambitions, ethnocentrism and racism, and ideologies of exceptionalism and superiority. Many groups and individuals around the world tirelessly advocate for a more just and egalitarian global power structure, for the upholding of civil and human rights and international law, and for a principled assurance of social justice for all human beings. We must maintain a realistic optimism and utilize every means to achieve local and global harmony.

Avatar photo Sh. Suleiman HaniAuthor Imam Suleiman Hani is the Director of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib Institute and a research scholar for Yaqeen Institute. He has master’s degree from the University of Jordan’s College of Shari’ah and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

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