الراصد القديم

2011/11/09

On the Role of the Islamic Religious Authorities in Strengthening Muslim-Christian Relations

By Mohammad Sammak

(Secretary General of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian dialogue – Lebanon)



A careful reading of the text of the Prophet’s covenant with the Christians of Najran brought two formal matters to my attention. The first is that the covenant was not made with the Christians of Najran only, but with all Christians. The second is that the Islamic obligation to the text of the covenant was not restricted to the Muslims of that time, but that it is a binding text for all Muslims in every time and place and until the end of days. The first observation is confirmed by what is mentioned in the prologue of the covenant, namely, when it states:

“Charter of protection given by God and his Apostle to those who received the Book, to the Christians who belong to the religion of Najran or any other Christian sect. It was written to them by Mohammad, envoy of God to all the men, in pledge of protection on behalf of God and his Apostle.”

The second matter is confirmed by the statement that

“this is for the Moslems who will come after him a pact which will engage them, that they will have to admit, to recognize for authentic and to observe in their favor. It is to be defended before any man, be it governor or holder of authority, and not to be violated or modified. Believers will not impose on Christians other conditions than those which are carried in this writing. Whoever will preserve, respect and keep it, will discharge its duties and will observe the pact of the Apostle of God. Whoever, on the contrary, will violate, oppose, or change it, bears the consequences himself; because he will have betrayed the pact of God, will have violated His faithfulness and resisted His authority and contravened the will of His Apostle: he will be thus an impostor in the eyes of God.”

In the light of the Prophet’s covenant for all Christians and of its binding nature on all Muslims, and in light of the fact that anyone who contradicts, violates or changes it is viewed as having disobeyed God and His Prophet, it is important to pause first and look at the articles of the covenant in order to compare them with the current situation of Muslim-Christian relations and the role of Islamic religious authorities in dealing with this reality.

The covenant states:[1]

First, “that I protect and defend them – i.e., Christians – and their churches, houses of worship, monasteries and pilgrimage sites, wherever they be – in a mountain, a valley, a cave, an urban location, a plain or a desert.”

Second, “that I safeguard their religion and sect wherever they are – on land or at sea, east or west, the same as I would safeguard myself and my own, and the people of Islam of my own nation.”

Third, “that I count them under my protection, covenant and security, from all harm or evil or responsibility. That I, my helpers, followers and people, will back them, defending them from every enemy who wants to harm them and me.”

Fourth, “That I remove from them any harm from the provisions that the people of Jihad have taken from raids or from taxes, except what they are pleased to have. They are not to be forced or compelled to any of that.”

Fifth, “No bishop will be removed from his episcopal see, nor any monk from his monastery, and no pilgrim from his pilgrimage; none of their churches shall be destroyed, and nothing of their buildings shall be used in the construction of mosques or the houses of Muslims. Whoever does this violates the covenant of God and breaks with His Prophet and has removed himself from the protection of God.”

Sixth, “No monks and bishops, or those of them that devote themselves to God, or wear wool, or become hermits in the mountains and in remote, isolated places are to be subjected to personal or property tax.”

Seventh, “No Christian is to be compelled to become a Muslim. ‘Do not dispute with the People of the Book except in the better way.’ Mercy is to be extended to them and harm is to be kept away from them, wherever they are in the land.”

Eighth, “If any Christian commits a crime or a felony, Muslims have to come to his support, protect him and defend him, and pay blood money for his crime, and be involved in reconciliation between him and his victim, until he is either pardoned or ransomed.”

Ninth, “They shall not be rejected nor let down nor neglected, for I have given them God’s covenant, and so they have the rights and obligations of Muslims.”

Tenth, “they owe the Muslims what the Muslims owe them in the right of protection, and defending what they hold sacred, and they deserve that all harm be turned from them, so that they become partners with the Muslims in rights and duties…”

Eleventh, “if they need to repair their churches and sanctuaries or any other thing that relates to their affairs and religion, Muslims are to assist and support them; this should not be considered as a debt they owe, but as a strengthening of them in their religion and a mark of faithfulness to the covenant of the Prophet of God; it is a gift to them and a favor from God and His Prophet.”

I shall not dwell more on these foundational legal and religious principles for the establishment of relations between Muslims and Christians. This is a position that the Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet (pbuh) were committed to, and the most famous declarations that confirm this commitment are the Umarite covenant to the Christians of Jerusalem and the donations the Umayyads gave to the Christians of Damascus to build their churches.

In addition to these binding religious constants, there is a general Islamic position that is also binding and which is expressed in the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). When he was asked: “Who is the Muslim?”, he answered, “The Muslim is the one from whose hand and tongue all people [namely, all human beings regardless of religion, color, ethnicity or culture) are safe [salima]. “ No harm done by the hand and no hurt by a word. If this be the general attitude towards all people, then all the more should it be towards those whom the Holy Qur’an described as “the nearest in love to the believers” and related this closeness to the fact that “amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.”

If we look at the reality of Muslim-Christian relations today in the light of the negative manifestations here and there, we cannot but wonder whether Islamic religious authorities have been successful in disseminating these principles in the general religious culture. Have they worked on implementing it in the daily conduct of Muslims? What makes us pose this question are events and incidents that continue to occur in Arab countries such as Iraq, in non-Arab countries such as Nigeria, and in Islamic countries such as Malaysia, all of which contradict or do not harmonize with the Prophetic principles and values that are binding upon all Muslims. This can be attributed either to the fact that these principles and values are not known or are set aside, hence leading to their absence from public culture in some Islamic societies. If they had been present and effective in the right way, there would have been no assassination of a priest here and a monk there, and no church or Christian house would be blown up.

Since nature does not exist in a vacuum, the absence of this culture opens the doors for a contrary culture, one that is stamped by ignorance of the principles of faith and is ruled by extremism and exaggeration, including hatred of the other and the attempt to eliminate him.

When Islam is subjected to slander, distortion and misrepresentation, influential Christian authorities often stand up against such attempts and expose them: be it the banning of the hijab in France, or the stand against the film that insulted the Prophet (pbuh) in Holland, or the Danish caricatures, or the banning of minarets in Switzerland, or the recent call to burn the Holy Qur’an by a small and unknown Christian church in a small town in the state of Florida, USA. Christian authorities raised their voices in condemnation and disapproval: from the Vatican to the World Council of Churches, to the American National Council of Churches, to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Middle East Council of Churches. Jewish religious authorities also participated in raising their voices in the USA and in Europe.

Even when the 9/11 crime was perpetrated we saw how the late Pope John Paul II took the initiative to host a Muslim-Christian conference to declare the basic position that “crime has no religious identity.”

There is no doubt that such lofty ethical Christian positions are strengthened and supported by similar positions of Islamic religious authorities on causes that relate to the violation of rights of Christians and slander of Christianity here and there. Nevertheless, it should be clear that such positions are not a matter of reciprocity, for adherence to Islam as charter and conduct necessitates such stands.

Returning now to the main point of my talk: the role of Islamic religious authorities in this delicate phase of Muslim-Christian relations in the Arab world and in the world as a whole is very crucial in communicating those noble principles of faith upon which these relations have been based since the days of the Prophet, and which should constitute the basis of such relations today, tomorrow and until the end of time…and, as Muslims, we have in the Prophet of God a fine model.

Finally, I would like to conclude this brief talk with the following Qur’anic verse:

“Of the people of the Book are a portion that stand (For the right), they rehearse the signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration – They believe in Allah and the Last Day, they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong, and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works, they are in the ranks of the righteous “.

مجموعة الوثائق السياسية للعهد النبوي والخلافة الراشدة – جمعها محمد حميد الله - دار النفائس – بيروت ، الطبعة السادسة 1987

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