The Easter Sunday bombings came as a rude shock to me. When the news broke in that fateful Sunday morning that churches were being bombed, I found it hard to believe. My family was horrified. What manner of barbarians would take innocent lives and that too in a place of religious worship?
I could not believe that anybody could have done this in the name of religion, some criminals or hate cult maybe, but certainly not in the name of a peace-loving religion. That night I was toying with the idea whether it could be the work of the drug mafia since it was in their interest to deflect the predicament they were in by creating a new enemy for the nation.
Then came the next phase of the shock, and as the events unfolded it was still harder to believe, that the sacrilege had been committed not by drug lords but in the name of my beautiful faith. The misguided people who committed it had been so arrogant in their views that they had not even bothered to read the Qur’an. To recite maybe, but certainly not to understand it, for had they, they would have realised that what they had done was not in keeping with what the Qur’an teaches us, but the very opposite.
This brings us to a matter of vital importance, which is understanding the Qur’an. How can we expect people of other faiths to understand what we believe to be God’s Final Revelation when we don’t understand it ourselves? But that is the pathetic situation we are in.
I could not believe that anybody could have done this in the name of religion, some criminals or hate cult maybe, but certainly not in the name of a peace-loving religion… Then came the next phase of the shock, and as the events unfolded it was still harder to believe, that the sacrilege had been committed not by drug lords but in the name of my beautiful faith. The misguided people who committed it had been so arrogant in their views that they had not even bothered to read the Qur’an. To recite maybe, but certainly not to understand it, for had they, they would have realised that what they had done was not in keeping with what the Qur’an teaches us, but the very opposite
God chose to reveal the Qur’an in a human language just as He revealed His previous revelations. He did not reveal it as a meaningless liturgy of chants or mantras, but as a meaningful revelation for all time and all peoples, containing words of wisdom, a code of law, rules of engagement, stories of inspiration from the lives of the prophets and records of His all-encompassing mercy from the time He created man and in operation throughout history as reflected in nature, the love we have for one another and even in the manner He checks one superpower by another so that the balance is maintained and the limits are not transgressed:
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 would have been demolished. God will certainly aid those who aid (His Cause) – (The Pilgrimage: 40)
So there you are. The Qur’an is clear that places of religious worship are to be protected and this protection is an obligation of Muslims. In fact, He Himself would ensure that our religious places are protected by intervening if needs be by raising nations against others so that our religious freedoms are maintained.
Freedom of faith
The Qur’an is very clear that there can be no compulsion in Islam. Those who embrace it must do so of their own free will. There are no less than seven verses of the Qur’an that say so, such as the following:
Let there be no compulsion in religion.
Truth stands out clear from error
(The Heifer: 256)
That’s not all, God impresses it on us in the following vein so we understand it better:
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?
As Muslims we are not supposed to curse, but pray for the guidance of all humanity so that we all become one in faith. As the Qur’an 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)
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)
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 no 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 recognising 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 peace, offering the foe favourable terms as Saladin did to the Crusaders of his day.
In spite of all those verses of the Qur’an 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 who became the first martyr in Islam. 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 fulfil 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:Keeping...
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
Thus verses such as this are actually contextual, revealed at a time when the Pagan enemies of Islam were all out to annihilate the new faith and were revealed only as a means of accommodating a war situation. Even then, in subsequent verses toleration, security and protection of non-believers is stressed. Further, these verses can come nowhere near those verses that speak of tolerance of others and which are not contextual, but perpetual.
The Prophet’s example
The Prophet made it clear that Islam was to be marked by its tolerance of other faiths. This tolerance was exemplified in his own lifetime, such as when he entered into a treaty with the Christians of Najran in Southern Arabia. When the delegation arrived at Medina the Prophet let them lodge and even pray in his mosque and gave them the following accord:
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 of Ibn Sa’d)
The Prophet also made it very clear that whoever killed a Dhimmi (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 assured us that the perpetrators would be punished in the hereafter as well:
Whoever kills a Muahid (A Dhimmi or Non-Muslim under the protection of a Muslim state) shall not smell the fragrance of paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years (of travel)
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).
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 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 and the martyrdom of Sumayya when her master impaled her with his spear; who can forget the sufferings of Prophet Muhammad whom they scorned and stoned and placed animal entrails upon before finally plotting to do away with his life?
In spite of having to face all this oppression in its earliest days, and even in later times such as in the dark days of the crusades, Islam never believed in the kind of harshness that today’s terrorists fighting in its name have done. Rather it always stood for peace and held high the olive branch to all those who wished for peace.
(The writer is the Vice President – Outreach, Centre for Islamic Studies Sri Lanka.)