Monday,19 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Monday,19 February, 2018
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Brothers in faith

Not only tolerance but pluralism is at the heart of Islam and the teachings of Prophet Mohamed, though many appear to have forgotten this fact, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed

Al-Ahram Weekly

This year when I exchanged Christmas and New Year greetings on Facebook, some fellow travelers were upset. “Sir, is it okay to greet Christians?” a bewildered Facebook “friend” asked.

I chose to ignore him. But that was not the end of it. There were similar messages on many Whatsapp groups, warning believers against “aping the West”. The thrust of these messages was this: since Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, greeting them on Christmas would be celebrating his birth and thus accepting a calumny against God. I was taken aback by the convoluted logic.

Others questioned the exchange of New Year greetings arguing that it’s wrong to mark the beginning of the “Christian” calendar and that we should only celebrate the Islamic New Year beginning with Moharram. Even if much of the world, including Muslims, for all practical purposes, follows the Gregorian calendar.

But it was the argument against Christmas greetings that really got my goat. It was not only steeped in ignorance about Islam’s strong affinity with Jesus, it also betrays an intolerance that is against the spirit of our faith.

How many of us know that there are as many 71 verses in the Quran praising Jesus? Not only do Muslims believe in and love Jesus, just as they believe in Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Joseph and all other prophets, their belief is incomplete without the reaffirmation of all prophets who preceded the last prophet.  

Although unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe that Jesus (Eissa in Arabic) was the son of God, they have a very special bond with him. According to Islamic belief, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary (Mariam) and will return to earth to clear it of all evil, including Dajjal (the antichrist), and restore justice before the end of the world.

Not only do Muslims believe in the virtue of Mary, an entire chapter in the Quran is devoted to her, the only chapter named after a female figure. The Quran also says that Jesus performed miracles such as giving sight to the blind and raising the dead. Probably because in the long line of messengers, Prophet Mohamed was preceded by Jesus, the prophet always had a special relationship with him, talking about him with great fondness.

In the early days of Islam, when the new faith and its followers faced great adversity in Arabia, the first country that the prophet turned to for protection for his persecuted followers was Abyssinia, present day Ethiopia, ruled then by King Negus (615 CE). He believed that as the people of the book and fellow believers, the Abyssinians, would help the Muslims. And they did by sheltering them in the face of great odds. King Negus firmly stood with his guests, rejecting all entreaties by the Meccans to throw out the asylum seekers.

This was something that the prophet and Muslims never forgot. When Islam conquered the whole of Arabia and beyond, the prophet in turn extended the same protection to the Christians when a delegation from St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt called on him seeking his help in 626 AD.

Located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine’s Monastery is the world’s oldest. Home to a huge collection of rare manuscripts, second only to the Vatican, it is a world heritage site and a treasure trove of Christian history that has remained safe for 14 centuries under Muslim protection.

In an extraordinary charter granted to St Catherine’s Monastery, the prophet promised protection to all Christians and committed all Muslims to observe it:

“This is a message from Mohamed Ibn 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, to damage it, or to 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 to 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 (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

The extraordinary charter imposes no conditions on Christians. This is a charter of rights without any duties. Far ahead of its time, it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of faith, freedom of work, and security of the person. The document is available on the Sinai monastery’s website.

In 1517 AD, the Ottoman emperor Sultan Selim I reaffirmed the charter but took the original letter for safekeeping in Constantinople, after giving the monastery certified copies of the rare document, bearing the handprint of the prophet.

This was not an isolated example. The prophet offered the same protection to the Christians of Najran in Yemen. When a 60-member delegation of Najran Christians — 45 of them scholars and priests — arrived in Medina in 631 AD to meet the Prophet he not only hosted them and asked Muslims to pitch their tent, he invited them to pray inside Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the three holiest mosques.

As Craig Considine argues in The Huffington Post, this had been the very first example of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Although the Christian delegation left Medina choosing to follow their own path, they left with a written assurance from the prophet that he would protect their lives, their homes and properties and, above all, their right to practice their faith. And yes, they also requested him to send someone as his representative to adjudicate in their matters.  

Considine, a Christian scholar, has repeatedly argued that unlike the modern concept of tolerance, the prophet believed in genuine pluralism and practiced it in his interaction with all non-Muslims.

John Andrew Morrow, in his book The Covenants of the Prophet Mohammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press, 2013), attaches the highest importance to the charter given to St Catherine’s Monastery, holding it as a model for both Muslims and Christians. I am sure the prophet would have offered the same kind of protection to people of other religious persuasions.

Given this remarkable history, isn’t it odd that today even a harmless exchange of greetings with Christians, or for that matter with any community, is frowned upon?

Since when and why have we become so rigid and small minded in our ways? Certainly Islam and its prophet do not sanction such intolerance. Our faith cannot be so fragile and insecure that it feels threatened every time we exchange greetings with followers of other faiths.

The writer is a Gulf-based author and columnist.

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