It is no secret that Christians are being persecuted in the ‘Muslim world’. According to the World Watch List for 2015, nine out of the top ten countries where Christians suffer ‘extreme persecution’ have populations that are at least 50% Muslim. Much of the discrimination happens in the Middle East, where ancient Christian communities are abandoning their homeland to avoid the wrath of the ‘Islamic State’. To say that Christian- Muslim relations are deteriorating is an understatement. It is time for us to discuss an important question: what can Muslims do to ensure that religious freedom, not religious bigotry, reigns supreme in their societies? My answer to the question is a simple one: return to the Prophet Muhammad’s vision of an ‘Islamic state’, one that is merciful, compassionate, and respectful of all citizens, regardless of religious backgrounds. Not only was the Prophet a proponent of justice, but he ensured that all people in the ummah had equal rights under ‘Islamic rule’. Let us examine several of Muhammad’s covenants with Christians as a way to show how Christians and Muslims can live harmoniously in an ‘Islamic State’. Muhammad’s covenants with the Christians of the world are unknown to many Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide. To shed light upon them, I turn to the research of Islamic scholar Professor John Andrew Morrow. Two of Professor Morrow’s recent books The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press, 2013) and Six Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of his Time: The Primary Documents (Covenants Press, 2015) offer groundbreaking insight into long forgotten documents outlining Muhammad’s love and reverence for Christians. Scholars of Islam have referred to ‘The Covenants’ as a third foundational source for Islam in addition to the Qur’an and hadith literature. Charles Upton, who wrote the foreword to The Primary Documents, summarised the covenants as follows: …[‘The Covenants’] uniformly command Muslims 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.
Not only was the Prophet a proponent of justice, but he ensured that all people in the ummah had equal rights under ‘Islamic rule’. Let us examine several of Muhammad’s
covenants with Christians as a way to show how Christians and Muslims can live harmoniously in an ‘Islamic State’.
So-called ‘Islamic groups’ such as the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) have blatantly disregarded Muhammad’s commandments. By murdering Christians because of their faith and by destroying churches in Syria and Iraq, members of ISIS have disobeyed the very Prophet they claim to revere. Members of ISIS have forgotten how Muhammad referred to Christians as ahl al-kitab, ‘People of the Book’, and even allowed Christians to use his mosque in order to pray. As ‘The Covenants’ demonstrate, the Prophet did not simply call on Muslims to honour Christian leaders and their places of worship, but he demanded that they be considered revered members of a political and geographical ‘confederacy’ in which Jews, Christians and Muslims were all equal members of an ‘Islamic state’. ‘The Covenants’ also make it clear that Muhammad would have fought for Christians if their communities were under threat. In his covenant with the Christian monks of Mount Sinai in Egypt, the Prophet of Islam guaranteed protection for Christians in ‘East and West, near or far, Arabs or non- Arabs, known or unknown’, meaning that he intended to protect Christians of all backgrounds who lived anywhere in the world. He added: ‘I am behind [Christians], defending them from every enemy… There shall be no compulsion or constraint against them [in any matter]’. Muhammad’s words demonstrate that he did not simply ‘tolerate’ the beliefs and practices of Christian monks at Mount Sinai; he had compassion for them by defending their beliefs and practices and offering assistance in building and maintaining churches. By giving the monks complete religious freedom, the Prophet echoed the pivotal Quranic passage: ‘let there be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256). The Prophet Muhammad’s covenants called for Muslims to protect Christians during times of peace as well as strife. In the covenant with the Christians of Persia, Muhammad states that ‘Christians shall not be asked to fight for Muslims against the enemies of faith’. He added that Muslims are not to tyrannise Christians by forcing Christian women to marry Muslim men. The Prophet of Islam envisioned all women in his ‘Islamic State’ having equal rights to that of Muslim women and men. According to the covenant with the Christians of Persia, Christian women who married Muslim men were able to retain their faith and practice their religion without any form of discrimination.
The Prophet Muhammad’s pluralistic vision could not be more timely considering the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. It is also worth pointing out that Christians in countries like the US, where Islamophobia is running rampant, would also be wise to follow Muhammad’s pluralistic ethos in relation to their Muslim neighbours.
Muhammad’s benevolence is a far cry from the actions of ISIS, who condemn Christians to death and turn Christian women into ‘sex slaves’. The Prophet Muhammad was not simply calling on Muslims to ‘contemplate’ his covenants; rather he made it obligatory for all Muslims to stand by them. In the covenant he made with the Christians of Najran, the Prophet ordered Muslims to protect, respect, defend, conserve, and live up to their agreement of respecting Christian monks and churches, or else they run the risk of opposing his vision and disobeying God. As he stated in the covenant with the monks of Mount Sinai, Muslims who break his treaties ‘[break] the Covenant of God’ and ‘[make] a mockery’ of Islam. Those Muslims who promote the persecution of Christians in any form whatsoever are ‘Muslim’ in name only. The Prophet Muhammad’s pluralistic vision could not be more timely considering the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. It is also worth pointing out that Christians in countries like the U.S., where Islamophobia is running rampant, would also be wise to follow Muhammad’s pluralistic ethos in relation to their Muslim neighbours. The covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of his time teach Christians as much about justice, compassion, and peace as they teach Muslims about the same values. The Prophet’s universalist message was not simply for Muslims, but for all of mankind. Let Christians and Muslims never forget it.
Dr. Craig Considine is a Catholic American of Irish and Italian descent. As a sociologist, he focuses on Christian-Muslim relations, interfaith studies, and identity. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Trinity College Dublin.