God most high has revealed in chapter Mumtahana of the Qur’an two explicit verses which could be considered as the basis for the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. These verses are plain and clear. God says:
“God does not forbid you as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your religion, nor drive you away from your homes, that you should be kind to them, and act towards them with full equity. Surely God loves those who act equitably. God only forbids you from turning in friendship to those who make war against you on account of your religion and drive you away from your homeland, or support others to drive you away. Whoever takes them as allies, such are the wrongdoer” (Mumtahana 60:8-9).
Regarding non-Muslims who are at peace with Muslims and do not fight them for reasons of faith and do not drive them from their homes, God has not forbidden Muslims from treating them kindly and justly, for God loves those who are just. The Arabic word “qist” means justice, that is, to give to each according to his right. As for kindness (al birr), this exceeds justice, for it is the act of doing good (ihsan), meaning that you give somebody their right or more than their right. Kindness (al birr) is to take [only] what is your right or to forgo something that it is your right to take, for the benefit or welfare of another person.
Indeed, God chose to use the same word to express the greatest right after the rights of God in Islam, namely the rights of parents: the kindness due to parents (birrul walidain). God Almighty has commanded us to be kind to our parents. Likewise God has not prevented us from being kind to non-Muslims. A part of kindness is to be able to co-exist, and a part of co-existence is to offer greetings to others on their holidays, as they greet you on yours. Hence, this stems from kindness and co-existence, two things which God has not prevented us from doing, especially in the case of Christians with whom we associate. If that person is a neighbor, then there are rights due to neighbors, even if your neighbor wrongs you or is a disbeliever.
Once, in one of the festivals, Abdullah bin Omar said to his servant: “Don’t forget our Jewish neighbor when you slaughter a sheep, or a similar action.” Each time he entered or left the house he would repeat the saying, “Don’t forget our Jewish neighbor.” The servant replied: “Truly you have been excessive in your exhortations concerning this Jew.” To which he replied: “Indeed, I heard the Prophet—may God bless him and grant him peace—say: ‘The Angel Gabriel kept exhorting me with regard to (the rights of) neighbors until I thought that he would give them the right to inherit.’” Thus, it is clear that neighbors have rights over us.
Respond to a Greeting with a Better Greeting
A fellow student has rights over you. If you are at school or in university, maybe there is a classmate who sits next to you, or for those students who are studying in European countries or other non-Muslim countries, you study with students, professors, or supervisors from other religious backgrounds; should a Muslim treat such people coldly, with a lack of sensitivity, ignoring the religious holiday of their fellow students, not offering any holiday greeting to the person who is celebrating in the customary manner? I believe that Islam does not prevent or forbid this courtesy, particularly when others offer us this same courtesy on our holidays. Indeed God Almighty says: “If you are greeted with a greeting, respond with a better greeting or return it [with the same one]” (Nisa 4:86). Once, a Zoroastrian man passed by Ibn ‘Abbas and said to him: “Peace be upon you!” to which he replied with the words: “And upon you be peace and the mercy of God!” Some of his comrades questioned him saying: “You say [this] to him [the mercy of God be upon him]?” He replied: “Does he not live through the mercy of God?”
Greeting Christians at Christmas-Time
There is no harm in Muslims expressing congratulations to their Christian neighbor, colleague, or relation, especially when we know that Islam elevated the relationship with the People of the Book to the extent that it permitted inter-marriage. “…And (lawful to you) are, in wedlock, chaste women from among the believers and chaste women from among those who were given the Book before…” (Maida 5:5). This is the peak of tolerance to which no other religion has reached. Christianity does not permit a Christian man to marry other than a Christian woman and Judaism does not permit a Jewish man to marry other than a Jewish woman.
This means that the mother of a Muslim can be a non-Muslim. Supposing a person is Muslim and his mother is Christian, is it permissible for him not to wish his mother happiness on this occasion? This relationship of marriage would imply that the grandfather of the children of such a marriage would be Christian and likewise the children’s grandmother, their maternal aunts and uncles and cousins would all be Christian. In this situation, we find that there are mutual ties of kinship that carry rights, for blood relatives have prior rights over each other in the Book of God, so how then is it not permitted for a Muslim to show kindness to their relations by wishing them a happy and blessed holiday?!
I am aware that Ibn Taimiyya took a hard line concerning these occasions and he stated that a Muslim should not greet non-Muslims on the occasion of their religious holidays on the grounds that this implies acceptance of their religion, beliefs, and rites. However, I do not consider his opinion on this matter to be sound. Just because a Muslim wishes a Christian a happy Christmas or Easter, this does not mean that they are accepting their creed or declaring it to be sound; that is another matter altogether. Greeting someone on a holiday does not necessitate accepting their creed. This is why this form of relating to one another is permitted as long as there are relationships that require such co-existence. This is how such matters should be handled.
Muslims believe in Jesus, peace be upon him, and the Gospel; they also believe in the Torah and all the prophets, just as God Almighty has said: “We make no distinction between any of His Messengers [in believing in them]” (Baqara 2:285). And in another verse, “We make no distinction between any of them [in believing in them], and we are those who have submitted to Him wholly” (Baqara 2:136). Indeed, the faith of a Muslim believer is unacceptable unless they believe in all the Books of God and all of His prophets; that is to say, unless they believe in every book He revealed and in every prophet He sent. Thus, Islam considers any person who does not fulfill this tenet to be a disbeliever: “[For there are] those who disbelieve in God [by not recognizing Him at all or not believing in Him according to His guidance] and His Messengers [by denying Messengership or some of the Messengers], and who seek to make a distinction between God and His Messengers [by claiming belief in God but denying the Messengership or some of the Messengers], and say, ‘We believe in some and deny others,’ seeking to take a way in between. Such are those who are the unbelievers in truth, and We have prepared for the unbelievers a shameful, humiliating punishment” (Nisa 4:150-1).
Therefore, Muslims have to believe in all the prophets, and whoever rejects one of the prophets or messengers has rejected all of prophets. We can see this in chapter Shu‘ara of the Qur’an where it is stated in various verses that: “The people of Noah rejected the messengers,” “The (people of) ‘Ad rejected the messengers,” and “The (people of) Thamud rejected the messengers.” Here the plural is used, although in actual fact they only rejected one messenger. However, the rejection of one messenger implies the rejection of all the messengers.
Tolerance in All Human Relations
The difference between people regarding their religions is in accordance with God’s will and His will is connected to His wisdom:
“If your Lord had so willed, He would have made all humankind one single community [with the same faith, worldview, and way of thinking and life]. But [based on their free will and choice], they never cease following paths divergent from the Straight Way, except those on whom your Lord has bestowed mercy [and guides to the Straight Way because of certain merits they have]. And to this end has He has created them [all].” (Hud 11:118-119).
The verse clearly suggests that God granted humanity a mind and a will that meant that He left them with the freedom to choose the religion they wish. Furthermore, if He had wanted to unite them in one religion He would have made them like the angels who are created for faith and obedience. However, He created humans with minds and differing wills and as a result there are different religions. This is all according to the will of God.
The second point with regard to Islamic tolerance and the reason behind this tolerance is that the reckoning for disbelief and error will not be administered in this life. Rather, the appointed time for this is in the Hereafter, just as God has said: “Unto every community have We appointed [different] ways of worship, which they ought to observe. Hence, do not let those draw you into disputes on this score, but call [others] unto your Sustainer: for, behold, you are indeed on the right way. And if they argue with you, say only: ‘God knows well what you are doing.’ Allah will judge between you [all human beings] on the Day of Judgment concerning the matters in which you differ” (Hajj 22:68). The clear implication is that each individual will be held accountable for his deeds alone; and he is not accountable for the deeds of others.
And in another verse: “God is our Lord and your Lord. To us are accounted our deeds, and to you, your deeds. Let there be no contention between you and us: God will bring us all together and settle the matter between you and us. To Him is the homecoming” (Shura 42:15). Thus, in the Hereafter, God recompenses the misguided for their error and the righteous for their proper following of Divine guidance.
The third point is that Islam respects the humanity of each person, regardless of religious persuasion. For this reason Bukhari narrated from Jabir that when a funeral procession carrying the bier of the deceased passed by the Prophet—may God bless him and grant him peace—he stood for it (out of respect). They said to him, “O Messenger of God, it is a Jewish funeral,” to which he replied: “Is it not a soul?” This implies that every human soul has dignity and honor as a son or daughter of Adam, even if the deceased in question be a non-Muslim. What an admirable gesture and a beautiful explanation! Indeed, Islam requires Muslims to be just, respecting the dignity and honor of each individual, even of those for whom they feel enmity. God Almighty says: “…never let your detestation for a people move you to commit the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is nearer and more suited to piety” (Maida 5:8).
A Muslim should deal with all of humanity by understanding these meanings and these principles, treating both those who disagree and those who agree with them cordially. This is why Muslims should continue to maintain a dialogue with the People of the Book. God says:
“Do not argue with those who were given the Book save in the best way possible, unless it be those of them who are given to wrongdoing [and therefore not accessible to friendly argument]. Say to them: ‘We believe in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you, and your God and our God is one and the same. We are Muslims wholly submitted to Him’” (Ankabut 29:46).
The Qur’an commands us to mention that which unites us and things which we share in common. We should focus on points of agreement and not points of difference. We say: we and you stand on one and the same Earth. We all believe in God, we believe in the Hereafter, we believe in worshipping and serving God, and we believe in moral values.
Non-Muslims Living Under Muslim Rule
Islam taught the practice of tolerance toward the People of the Book in general and toward the people of dhimma (non-Muslims living under Muslim protection) in particular. The “people of dhimma” refers to those who live in Muslim lands. In Islamic jurisprudence such people are called “people of the house of Islam” (ahl al-dar al-Islam), while nowadays we would use the term “citizens”; that is, non-Muslim citizens. They share the same rights and duties as Muslims except those that pertain to religious differences. Just as we have no right to impose our religious duties upon them, we do not tolerate them to confront us in the expression of our religious duties. This is what Islam asks of us. I told some of them, especially Christian Arabs: “You are not Muslim by creed and religion, but you are Muslim in your culture and civilization. Indeed, the Coptic leader, Mukrim ‘Abid in his time as one of the heads of the Coptic Church in Egypt said: “I am a Christian by religion, but a Muslim by country.” What he meant was that he lives in a land belonging to Daril Islam. So, he regards himself as Muslim in his homeland and country. In these terms he is Muslim; that is culturally he is a Muslim. This is what I wish Muslims to know concerning a matter that has been the cause of much confusion, causing some to take up a position on the extreme right and others on the extreme left. But goodness, all goodness is in the middle way.
“We have made you a community of the middle way, so that you may be witnesses [to the truth] for the people and on behalf of them concerning the ways they follow, and that the Messenger may be a witness for you and on your behalf” (Baqara 2:143).