Summary of 2.9 “Muslim & Non-Muslim Relations”
Five basic issues were discussed in the previous program.
The first was that, as a general rule, the Qur’an establishes that the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is that of justice, kindness and peaceful co-existence.
Second, we said that in addition to this general rule, which applies to all non-Muslims, we find that the Qur’an addresses Jews and Christians as the People of the Book. This special status is given to them because of the commonalities that the three faiths have concerning the basic notions of the belief in God, prophet-hood, revelation, basic moral codes of life and the hear-after.
Thirdly, within this basic rule that applies to all non-Muslims there are definitely exceptions and the Qur’an specifies them including those in chapter 5 and 60. People who commit hostility and violence towards Muslims can’t expect to also have friendship and intimacy with them.
On the fourth point, we said that even in these cases the door is not closed to friendship, we quoted in the Qur’an where it mentions that one should inculcate in himself the attitude of forgiveness and tolerance so long as the attitude of violence and hostility of non-Muslims ceases (41:33-35).
Finally, as additional evidence of this attitude of tolerance as documented in the Qur’an we referred to (5:5) in which it shows that the food of the People of the Book; that is the meat slaughtered by Jews and Christian is food that Muslims may partake in. We also said that the ultimate evidence of this tolerance is the fact that in Islamic law a Muslim man is permitted to marry a Jew or Christian but not marry those who are atheists or polytheists. This is a special privilege and the relationship of marriage is the biggest evidence of extension of friendship and peaceful co-existence.
2.10 The Spread of Islam
Host: The claim is often made that “Islam was spread by the sword.” Is there anything in the Qur’an that deals with this issue of compulsion in religion?
Of course this is a vital topic and the Qur’an, being a complete revelation, doesn’t leave out any aspect of human life. To start with I would like to say that there is not a single verse in the entire Qur’an or in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that either encourages or condones compulsion in religion by use of force, pressure or manipulation.
Perhaps the most obvious and self-explanatory documentation is found in this following verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error.” (2:256). This clearly forbids a true Muslim from committing the act of compulsion. The Qur’an also indicates that guidance is not something that we decide on and can give, but instead it is totally in the hands of God. For example the Qur’an says, “If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe! No soul can believe, except by the will of Allah, and He will place doubt (or obscurity) on those who will not understand.” (10:99-100) Also we find that the idea or concept on bringing people to account on whether they believed or not is a matter that is not up to us. So only God is the judge and He is the One who can hold people accountable if they believed or not.
The Qur’an is very clear that the mission of Prophet Muhammad and those who follow him and that is simply to convey the message. For example, the Qur’an states, “Thy duty is to make (the Message) reach them: it is our part to call them to account.” (13:40). There are numerous other evidences one can find in the Qur’an, another example, is the verse that says that you (the Muslim) are only a reminder, you are not a guardian over them (paraphrased).
“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians, Christians, Magians, and Polytheists, Allah will judge between them on the Day of Judgment: for Allah is witness of all things.” (22:17) There are similar statements also that the matter of faith is something that no power on earth can force as it lies in the hands of God when the heart is enlightened and the mind opens to receive the truth. No human effort can bring this about. More specifically compulsion is very clearly condemned in the Qur’an.
Host: If Muslims are forbidden from using force to spread Islam’s message what methods are permissible for the spreading of Islam according to the Qur’an?
I can give the answer directly from the Qur’an using two relevant verses. The first one applies to all people whether Jews, Christians or others. “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125) As far as Jews and Christians in particular, the People of the Book, we find that the Qur’an makes a special reference to the approach in discussing religious matters with them and sets the criteria to one’s behavior. The Qur’an says, “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).”” (29:46) I don’t think I need to add anything more this – these verses are obvious and self-explanatory.
Host: Jihad is a word that is used quite often. How do the teachings we have just discussed relate to the concept of Jihad?
The biggest problem when we discuss the concept of Jihad is that in English the common translation given to it is Holy War. To start with, nowhere in the entire Qur’an nor in the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the equivalent of the term Holy War found. I know this may sound startling, but it is true because Holy War in English, aside from the connoted meaning that goes with fanaticism and forcing people into a specific faith, when translated into Arabic is harb muqadasah and this term never appears in the Qur’an or sayings of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I think it is a very misleading and distorted translation to translate Jihad into Holy War.
The word Jihad in Arabic comes from the word jahida or juhd, which means to exert, create an exertion of effort, to strive for or to struggle. In that sense the true meaning of the word Jihad, as found in the Qur’an, simply means to exert effort and to strive or struggle in the path of God.
In that sense it is ironic like some people say that there is some kind of Pillar of Islam that is Jihad. It is not the fifth or sixth pillar. Jihad is not a pillar of Islam but is the essence of Islam. We said Islam means submission to the will of God. How does one submit? One submits through Jihad; by struggling, striving and exerting effort in order to please God or to follow His commands. So in that sense Jihad is the essence of Islam.
Just to give one documentation where the very term Jihad is used in the Qur’an in reference to striving is “And those who strive in Our (cause), We will certainly guide them to our Paths: For verily Allah is with those who do right.” (29:69). There are also another passage that says, “O ye who believe! bow down, prostrate yourselves, and adore your Lord; and do good; that ye may prosper. And strive in His cause as ye ought to strive, (with sincerity and under discipline). He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion; it is the cult of your father Abraham. It is He Who has named you Muslims, both before and in this (Revelation); that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and ye be witnesses for mankind! So establish regular Prayer, give regular Charity, and hold fast to Allah. He is your Protector – the Best to protect and the Best to help!”(22:77-78) This obviously shows that Jihad is connected with worship and prayers; it shows that any action or struggle that an individual performs for the sake of God is actually within the boundaries of the definition of Jihad.
This doesn’t exclude, to be honest, the fact that one aspect of that Jihad might take the form of military encounter for self-defense or to fight oppressors. It is erroneous to say it is connoted directly with fighting. Fighting could be one aspect of Jihad but not the totality of it.
Host: Would you mind elaborating a little further on the various levels and types of Jihad?
There are three levels at which we can discuss Jihad, the struggle in the path of God, as the essence of Islam. The first is Jihad within ones self or at an individual level. The second is Jihad or struggle on a social level. The third is Jihad on the global or universal level.
As far as Jihad on the individual level, the Prophet of Islam himself explained this. When returning from a battle, he told his companions that they were now returning from the minor jihad (struggle) to the major jihad. His men raised their eyebrows because they had just been putting their lives on the line to defend Islam and their land. They asked what the major jihad was and the Prophet responded with Jihadul Nafs or the struggle against evil inclinations from within. This means that the very core of Jihad or struggle is against the evil within ourselves and is the cornerstone for any other form of Jihad.
The second level is Jihad within society. That is the struggle against evil, indecency, oppression and injustice. This is known in Islamic terminology, as it appears in the Qur’an, as amru bil ma’aroof and nahe a’an munkar that is ordaining the good and decent and forbidding or discouraging all that is evil and indecent. This is considered another jihad because one struggles within the society to try and ordain what is good and discourage what is wrong. Jihad is not ‘by the sword’ but by the tongue, writing and conviction.
The third level would be the global jihad could mean fighting against oppression and is not limited to one community or area since Islam doesn’t acknowledge all the boarders that separate states and countries. Oppression is oppression wherever it is found and Muslims have the obligation to try and fight it and stop it. This is one aspect of the universality of Islam and it may take the form of actual battles only when other peaceful means fail to bring a halt to the violation of basic human rights and freedom of choice.
Host: Historically speaking have these teachings been adhered to by Muslims?
When you ask a question like that, we have to be perfectly honest and avoid two very common extremes not only when dealing with Islam but whenever the history of any people is discussed. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that the history of Muslims which extends over 1400 years in all parts of the world including hundreds of millions of people living under all kinds of circumstances have all been nothing but a series of violations of the teachings of the Qur’an and their behavior has nothing to do with it. I think this is just carrying things a little bit too far.
There is another very similar type of extreme if anybody comes and says that the followers of a faith for 1400 years in all kinds of places have nothing but a history of angels and no deviation has taken place is not correct and is dishonest. This applies to any followers of any faith. An example, of this is that no sincere Christian would expect that if one wants to explain Christianity one has to explain the barbarous Crusades, Spanish Inquisition or the fighting going on in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Because any sincere Christian will say ‘you better go back to the teachings of Christianity and find whether people’s behavior measures up to those standards or not.’ The same thing applies to Islam and as I said to any other people.
However, suffice to say at this juncture that the details would require a separate series on history. The notion or claim, which is a stereotype, that Islam was spread by the sword is nothing more than a myth. This was deliberately circulated during medieval times and it’s stuck till this day. However, it is a claim that no serious and honest modern scholar or historian is accepting or spreading anymore.
Host: When you refer to modern scholars and historians are you referring to Muslims?
No, not necessarily, in fact this includes many non-Muslim scholars. For example De Lacy O’Leary says in his book Islam at the Crossroad, “history makes it clear however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims, sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of sword upon the conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myth that historians have ever repeated.”
Take another famous author, James Michener wrote an article in 1957 in Readers Digest in which he says “no other religion in history spread so rapidly as Islam…The West has widely believed that this surge of religion was made possible by the sword. But no modern scholar accepts that idea, and the Qur’an is explicit in support of the freedom of conscience.”
A very famous scholar on religion, A.S. Tritton, says in his book Islam, “the picture of Muslim soldiers advancing with a sword in one hand and the Qur’an in the other is quite false.”
A very well-known British historian H.G. Wells says in his book History of the World that “Islam flourished because it was the best social and political order the time could offer.”
Another Orientalist, Gibbon, says that the claim that Islam spread by the sword “is a pernicious tenant that has been imputed on Muhammadens the duty of extirpating all other religions by the sword. This charge of ignorance and bigotry is refuted by the Qur’an, by the history of Musilman, Musilman conquerors and by their public and legal toleration of the Christian worship. As early as the sixth year of Hijrah (the migration of the Prophet) the Prophet granted the monks of the Monastery of St. Katharine near Mount Sinai and to all Christians a charter which secured to the Christians all their privileges and immunities and the Muslims were enjoined to protect the Christians, to guard them from all injuries and to defend their Churches and residencies of their priests. They were not to be unfairly taxed, no Bishop was to be driven out of his Bishopric, no Christian was to be forced to reject his religion, no monk was to be expelled from his monastery, no pilgrim was to be detained from his pilgrimage, nor were the Christian churches to be pulled down for the sake of building mosques or houses for Muslims. Christian women married to Muslims were to enjoy their own religion and not to be subjected to compulsion or annoyance of any kind on that account. If the Christian should stand in need of assistance for repair of their churches and monasteries or any other matter pertaining to their religion the Muslims were to assist them.”
Again, like I said, these are non-Muslim historians and scholars that oppose the idea of Islam being spread by the sword. There are many others such as Bernard Shaw the British historian, Arnold Toynbee and many others that say similar things in regards to Islam. Any respectable and serious author can no longer hold to this mythical or legendary claim that Islam was spread by the sword.
Host: Are there any other additional sources that you can share with us to confirm the fact that Islam was not spread by the sword?
The biggest mix up is that some people thought that the early wars of the Muslims during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the ones immediately after were to compel people to accept Islam. Like I said, the Qur’an doesn’t condone and does not accept that. The wars and battles that were fought were either in self-defense or to remove human tyranny.
An example is the state in which the subjects of the Persian and Byzantine empires were treated. There is historical evidence that indicates that the natives welcomed the aid and the ruling of the Muslims in ending tyranny, persecution and oppression. Some even joined in the Muslim lines to fight against their own religious leaders who were persecuting them whether they were Byzantine or Persian emperors. This is another area, like I said, that causes some people to think that because the Muslims fought, it must have been to force religion not to remove human tyranny. There are lots of logical and factual information that make it clear that this conclusion is not something that one gets out of thin air.
First of all, the whole notion of compulsion in religion is not only contradictory to the very text of the Qur’an, as we have amply documented, but it is contrary to the very logic of Islam. The very logic of Islam is to surrender or commit, to voluntarily choose to submit to the will of God and follow His commands and His way of life. No power on earth can impose something into one’s heart. In Islamic law it is not acceptable for me to force you to believe or die; and by taking away from you the ability to choose you begin to believe. Even a Christian wife of a Muslim should not be bothered and should be allowed to practice her own faith let alone strangers and others.
The second point, to keep in mind, is that a cursory look at the map of the Muslim world today, with a population of nearly one billion all over the world, shows very conclusively that the great majority of Muslims today live in places where conquest or the “sword” has no role whatsoever and are not in the immediate areas where the early wars took place.
An example is the largest Muslim country Indonesia with about 120 million Muslims. One fourth of the population in Russia, about 50 million, are Muslim and are suffering under all kinds of religious persecution, which also applies to other people of other faiths too.
How did Islam spread to Russia and China? Places like central and South Africa contain countries with a majority of Muslims or countries that have substantial minorities and in most of these places the “sword” had no role. In other faraway places like the Philippines and Thailand, there is a substantial number of Muslims and Islam spread there by merchants or people who devoted themselves for that particular mission. South America, United States, Canada and Europe, to my knowledge, have people who are converting to Islam everyday. This includes people from among the most educated and religious minded. In all these, where is the sword?
If it is true that Islam was spread by the sword, or military might, how is it that Islam continued to spread much faster at the time of Muslim defeat? One Orientalist said that it is very strange that even at the time of hardship and war on the Muslims, like when the Seljuk Turks and Mongolians conquered Muslim countries, they themselves as conquerors embraced Islam, which is contrary to any logic. Most would say a conqueror imposes his religion but those who invaded the Muslims they themselves became Muslim. There are records in history of some of the highly placed people among the Crusaders who fought against Muslims, under the reason of liberating the Holy land actually ended up embracing Islam. This all shows how little battle had to play with the spread of Islam.