Religious Freedom: A Muslim Perspective

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Religious Freedom: A Muslim Perspective
The Qur’an requires Muslims to recognize all of the prophets and messengers of God: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Hud, Joseph, Salih, Moses, Aaron, Job, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Dhu al-Kifl, Jonah, Zacharias, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad.

Delivered at the Catholic-Muslim Forum in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, hosted by Sacred Heart Catholic Church and the Islamic Society of North America

By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

The position of Islam vis-à-vis religious freedom is unambiguous. The Qur’an requires Muslims to recognize all of the prophets and messengers of God: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Hud, Joseph, Salih, Moses, Aaron, Job, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Dhu al-Kifl, Jonah, Zacharias, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad.

Muslims are required to believe in the scrolls and scriptures received by Abraham, David, Moses, and Jesus. They recognize both the Major and Minor Prophets of the Bible. Muslims are mandated to respect Judaism and Christianity. They are commanded by the Prophet Muhammad to respect rabbis, priests, and monks.

The tolerance of Islam toward other religions extends specifically to Sabianism, which is mentioned in the Qur’an, and to Zoroastrianism, which is mentioned in the Hadith and Covenants of the Prophet.

Jews and Christians, and in some cases Zoroastrians, were all placed in the category of Ahl al-Kitab, People of the Book, who were protected by the Prophet and granted special privileges. Although there were no Buddhists in Arabia, some leading Muslim scholars believe that the name Dhu al-Kifl is an allusion to the Buddha.

Although the Prophet Muhammad was persecuted by polytheists, he did not put all polytheists in the same category. Case in point, the Bedouin guide who helped the Prophet escape from Makkah to Madinah was a polytheist. The Prophet Muhammad judged people on the basis of their human qualities.

As Islam spread out of Arabia, and Muslims came into contact with Buddhists, Hindus, and members of many other religions, Islamic authorities decided to place them in the category of Ahl al-Dhimmah or Protected People. Although they were not People of the Book, they were, nonetheless, citizens of the Muslim Ummah, and entitled to all the rights and protections that such a status entails. In India, Muslim leaders even subsidized Hindu temples. The norm was protection, not destruction.

There are those who claim that he Prophet merely patronized the People of the Book. They are those who claim that he merely tolerated the People of the Book. As we know, there is a huge difference between mere tolerance, namely, putting up with someone or something, and pluralism, which signifies active engagement with diversity.

How did the Prophet put it? He describes the People of the Book as his flock. He viewed himself as their shepherd. He said that they were a part of his Community and an honor to him. He said that anyone who hurt them hurt him.

The Prophet Muhammad did not simply preach tolerance: he promoted pluralism by word and example. One day, when he was sitting, a funeral procession passed by. The Prophet immediately stood up. His companion asked: “Why are you standing up? He was a Jew.” The Prophet responded: “He was a human being with a soul.”

The Prophet’s pluralistic teachings were followed by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali, all of whom renewed the protections that the Prophet had provided to the People of the Book.

The words and actions of Imam ‘Ali, the Fourth Caliph of Islam, illustrate the Islamic ideal. In the letter he sent to his governor, Malik al-Ashtar, he wrote: “Know that people are of two kinds. They are either your brothers in faith or your equals in humanity.”

Under Imam ‘Ali, Muslims and non-Muslims were all equals. On another occasion, Imam ‘Ali made a most pertinent point that highlighted his pluralistic policies: “Know, O Muslims! Our enemy is not the Christians or the Jews. Our enemy is our own ignorance.”

In short, religion is not the problem: people are the problem: people who are ignorant, fanatical, intolerant, misguided, extreme, and ill-intentioned are the problem. Religion is inherently good. However, there are people who exploit it for evil.

One day, when Imam ‘Ali walked past a church, one of his companions commented: “I wonder how much polytheism is practiced in that church.” The Fourth Caliph retorted: “I wonder how much monotheism is practiced in that church.” It’s all a question of perspective.

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The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World by Dr. John Andrew Morrow is constructed around covenants that the Prophet concluded with various Christian communities of his time, which Prof. Morrow has discovered in obscure monasteries, collections, and book out of print for centuries, in some cases newly translating them into English, as well as providing cogent arguments for their validity. They uniformly state that Muslims are not to attack peaceful Christian communities, rob them, stop churches from being repaired, tear down churches to build mosques, prevent their Christian wives from going to church and taking spiritual direction from Christian priests and elders, etc. On the contrary, the Prophet commands Muslims to actively protect these communities “until the End of the World”.

With the publication of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World we may in fact be witnessing—unexpectedly, miraculously, at this extremely late date—the emergence of a third foundational source for Islam in addition to Qur’an and hadith: the application of western methods of textual and historical research to the documents composed by the Prophet himself during his lifetime. These documents—letters, covenants, treaties etc.—though known to a few scholars for many centuries, have been largely neglected by both traditional Muslim and modern western scholarship, and are virtually unknown to the mass of believers.

One of the most valuable contributions of this work is that it represents a comprehensive treasury of rare, ancient, Islamic sources, many of which have been quite difficult to obtain. Rather than spend their time scouring European and Middle Eastern archives, scholars will now have all the sources they need to conduct further studies on the Covenants and advance our knowledge in this fascinating field. Not only has Dr. Morrow included the original primary sources in Arabic and Persian, he has provided corrected versions of most of these in modern Arabic typescript, along with a wide variety of translations for the purpose of comparative analysis.

Consequently, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World represents a necessary and foundational resource and source of reference for all subsequent studies. And now that we are witness to widespread Islamicist violence against Christians in places like Syria and Egypt—often perpetrated by groups fighting as proxies for the United States and Israel—It is nothing short of providential that The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World should see the light of day at this precise historical moment.

John Andrew Morrow was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1971. He received his doctorate from the University of Toronto where he acquired expertise in Hispanic, Native, and Islamic Studies. He has served as a faculty member and administrator at numerous colleges and universities, the most notable of which was the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program for which he taught Spanish, English, and Religious Studies while circumnavigating the globe.

Dr. Morrow had authored and edited a wide body of books in various fields. In the area of Islamic Studies, his works include: Arabic, Islam, and the Allah Lexicon: How Language Shapes our Conception of God (Edwin Mellen, 2006), the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine (McFarland, 2011), Religion and Revolution: Spiritual and Political Islam in Ernesto Cardenal (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), Islamic Insights: Writings and Reviews (Ansariyan, 2012) and Islamic Images and Ideas: Essays on Sacred Symbolism (McFarland, 2013), among many others.