Tolerance in Prophet’s Deeds

The subject I have chosen is the Prophet Mohammad’s SAWS life at Medina, and my guiding theme will be the tolerance that inspired his activity there.

The Prophet Mohammad’s SAWS biography is a vast field: there are numberless volumes on the subject, and we see there that tolerance always guided him. This is even truer of the Medinan period when he wielded power than of the beginnings of Islam at Makkah. The Prophet Mohammad’s life falls into two main periods, The Makkan and the Medinan. At Makkah he began preaching Islam; though persecuted and subject to tremendous difficulties, he was not discouraged. He did not leave his native land and his birthplace Makkah to seek glory, or even in the hope of working better elsewhere, but because a serious plot was afoot to assassinate him. The Makkans had assembled all the inhabitants of the town and concluded that the only remedy for this heresy (as they saw it) of Islam was to kill the disseminator of it, namely the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad.

But this was no easy matter in the Arabia of those days, where family and tribal support had to be reckoned with. If someone was killed, the victim’s closest relatives (whatever their feelings for him) banded together to defend their kin. The Makkans had decided to form an assassination squad consisting of one member of each of the many tribes, reckoning that the Prophet Mohammad’s tribe would not be able to fight alone against twenty other tribes. So the Prophet decided to leave the town.

According to a little anecdote reported by the biographers, on the evening when he left the town the Prophet went during the night with his cousin Ali to the Kaaba, the House of Allah SWT, which was nothing but a pantheon of idols. He asked Ali to climb on his shoulders to reach the roof of the Kaaba and knock over the big idol there. Ali managed with some difficulty to topple the idol to the ground, and they both ran away.

At Medina the Prophet SAWS began a new life. Remember that from the outset Islam was not a tribal, racial or Arab religion. Indeed, from the first day this religion had a universal vocation. We can see it in the Prophet’s words to non-Muslims when he added the following sentence to his explanation of Islam: ‘If you embrace my religion, if you follow the commandments Allah SWT has revealed to me, the treasures of the two lords of the world, the Emperor of Byzantium and the Kisra (Khosrow) of Persia will fall at your feet.’ Thus Islam affected not just Arabia but the whole world, including the two great figures of the time, the Emperors of Byzantium and Persia.

Another little incident during the Makkan period will give an idea what the Prophet SAWS could do when he was free to. When some Medinans embraced Islam, 2 years before he left for Medina, he asked each one of them what tribe he belonged to. There were in fact a dozen or so tribes, each of which had sent a small party of those who had embraced Islam that day. The Prophet SAWS appointed a delegate for each tribe, called the naqib; and he also appointed a naqib al nuqaba or ‘chief of chiefs’ as a sort of viceroy for this people. Thus from the very first day he was thinking about the organization of the community. This example gives us a foretaste of what he was to do at Medina.

On arrival at Medina the Prophet SAWS came up against two serious problems. He was not the only person to have fled from Makkah. Hundreds of Makkans had left their homes and hearths, and taken refuge at Medina with nothing more than the clothes on their bodies.

The question of the refugees and displaced persons arose very acutely: finding ways of fitting these people into the economy of the new homeland, Medina, was an extremely difficult practical problem. We in the twentieth century know what difficulties refugees create for even the most powerful governments. Admittedly there were not very many Makkan refugees at Medina, only a few hundred; but remember that Medina, too, was not a big city like Paris today. It did not have more than 10,000 inhabitants.

Finding shelter for 500 people among 10,000 inhabitants was no easy matter. The first problem was to find a way of fitting these refugees into the economic life of Medina. The second, even more serious problem was that the Makkans in their annoyance had sent an ultimatum to the Medinans: ‘Our enemy is among you. Kill him or drive him out, otherwise we shall take the necessary steps.’ Faced with the terrible threat of this ultimatum, something had to be done by way of self defence against the power of Makkah, which was an enormously rich town supported by military allies. At Medina there were only a few hundred Muslims.

As regards the few hundred Makkan refugees, the problem was quickly solved. The Prophet SAWS assembled the heads of all the Muslim families of Medina, and said to them: ‘Here are your brothers, who have come for the same cause that is dear to you, Islam, I suggest that each family among you take in one refugee family. The two families united and enlarged , working from now on as one family, will share their earnings and expenses and make up one bigger family.’ Such was the fervour of the people of Medina that they unhesitatingly accepted this proposition. Thus the displaced persons immediately found a shelter and a means of livelihood. This is now the problem of the refugees was solved.

Next the Prophet SAWS turned his attention to the common defence. Until then there had never been a state in Medina; there were only tribes, fighting ceaselessly among themselves, according to our historians, for 120 years. To bring them under the authority of a single leader and organize them into a single state seemed an arduous task. Moreover, there were prejudices and memories to be reckoned with. The Prophet SAWS assembled the representatives of all sections of the population of Medina, Muslims and non-Muslims, Jews, Christians and idolaters, and demonstrated to them that it would be difficult for tribes to defend themselves against foreign invasion: ‘Until now you have been defending yourselves on your own, while the other tribes remained neutral. This encouraged foreigners, your enemies, to attack you. Would it not be better for all the tribes to unite to establish a city-state? This would discourage your enemies from attacking you, and you would be strong enough to defend yourselves even against the most powerful tribes.’ Everyone agreed, probably because a few years earlier Medina had been the scene of a bloody, exhausting, lethal civil war. The two sides in the war, the Aws and the Khazraj, were tired of it and were looking for an honourable way out.

Everyone agreed to the settingup of a city-state; and the Prophet of Islam SAWS, the wise and humane man whose idea it was, was chosen by all to be its head.

This city-state justifies us in speaking of tolerance. The Prophet SAWS was illiterate, and it is an extraordinary thought that the first written constitution to be promulgated by a head of state should have emanated from this illiterate man. Neither the Romans, the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese or anyone anywhere in the world before Islam had ever thought of promulgating a written constitution for a state – though there had been laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi. The test of the constitution of Medina has come down to us complete. I shall mention only on or two points from this document, which has fifty- two clauses covering all the requirements of the then state.

The text states that there was to be freedom of conscience for each community and also mutual tolerance. The jews were to have their religion, the Muslims theirs and so on. The implication of mutual tolerance was that everyone was to be not only free in respect of the dogma and practice of religion but also free to comply with the laws of the community to which he belonged. Jews were to be judged by Jewish law, Christians by Christian and so on.

Another very interesting point is that this constitution introduces some highly modern conceptions, e.g. social insurance. Surprisingly though it may seem, there are definitely references to it in a dozen or so clauses. When someone had to meet heavy expenses (e.g. prisoner’s ransom or blood money) which he was unable to pay on his own, it was his group, i.e. his tribe, that bore the cost. Social insurance had been set up on a pyramidal basis, so that if one group did not have enough money to honour its obligations another tribe or insurance group, whether neighbour or kin, had to come to its assistance. In the last resort the state became the debtor. This sort of social insurance did not cover the cost of illness or house fires, as it does today, but a wider range of accidents (which were commoner then than they are now). For example, a house on fire was not regarded as a very serious accident, given that everybody built his house with his own hands and was therefore able to build another one if it burned down. Similarly these people lived out of doors, and as a rule were less often affected by illness than people used to modern comforts.

On the other hand, killing was much commoner. Generally speaking, the lex talionis prevailed; but if the murder was not premeditated or deliberate blood money had to be paid, and the price was enormous: the victim’s family had to be given 100 camels. We know from the Prophet’s SAWS own words that a camel was enough to feed 100 people for one day: hence 100 camels would suffice for 10,000 people for one day (or for one person for 10,000 days, i.e. about thirty lunar years). Another method of reckoning the amount of compensation is to note that the price of a camel in the Prophet’s SAWS time was between 40 and 500 dirhams; and an index of the purchasing power of a dirham is that the Prophet SAWS paid the Governor of Makkah 30 dirhams a month – i.e. one dirham a day met all the expenditure of a well-off family. To pay a minimum ransom of 4,000 dirhams was impossible even for a governor, and all the more so for an ordinary offender.

Another burden was payment of ransom. A prisoner’s ransom was also equivalent to the price of 100 camels.

An ordinary offender on his own had not the means to meet the demands of the victim’s family. In order to be able to pay any compensation at all, people had to have recourse to insurance companies, known as ma’aqil. Later, under the caliphate, they were recognized according to professions and trades, by towns and so on. That non-Mulsims also could make use of these companies is reflected in the following incident:

At a somewhat later date some non-Muslim citizens, or dhimmi, were captured by the enemy. The then caliph, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, sent an order to the governor of the province concerned to the effect that the ransom for everybody, even the non-Muslims was to be paid from public purse.

The Sura of the Cow, the second sura of the Quran, is considered to have been the first one revealed at Medina. This is a very instructive Sura, since it contains (verse 256) a statement of the famous Muslim rule of religious tolerance ‘La ikraha fid-deen’, namely, ‘There is no compulsion in religious matters’. Thus from the Prophet’s SAWS time until the present day non-Muslim subjects never experienced difficulties in the Islamic state. To be a citizen of the state it was not necessary to be a Muslim. Indeed, all religions were admitted, both revealed religion such as Christianity and Judaism and also idolatrous beliefs. All were admitted as citizens subject only to their remaining loyal to the state (a sine qua non even for Muslims). If a Muslim rebelled he received no quarter, but was punished in accordance with his crime.

Also in the second Sura there is a verse about the Muslim creed that has always greatly moved me. With Christians the creed comes not from Jesus Christ but from the Apostles: ‘I believe in God the Father, the Almightly . . . And in Jesus Christ . . .’ It is not the creed of the founder of the religion, but a later creed. The Muslim creed, on the other hand, comes from the founder of the religion himself. We find in the Quran (Chapter 2: Verse 285) the text the Prophet Mohammed SAWS taught as the wording of Muslim belief: ‘They all believe in allah and His angels, His scriptures, and His Apostles.’ It does not say ‘in a revealed book’, which would limit it to the Quran revealed by Allah SWT and in all the apostles from Adam AS to Mohammad SAWS. Thus the Torah is not only the book of the Jews; the Gospel is not only Christian; the Book of Abraham, the Book of Enoch and the Book of Adam, if they existed, would all be books recognised by Islam as Allah’s book for Mankind. Secondly, ‘His Apostles’ – not one apostle but all the apostles. Hence we must believe in all the prophets, and Mohammad SAWS assures us that Allah SWT sent 124,000 prophets from Adam AS to himself SAWS, he SAWS being the last of them.

It is tolerance par excellence that we find in the Muslim creed. Muslims do not confine themselves to the Quran or to Mohammad SAWS, but believe in all the prophets and all the books revealed by Allah SWT.

In another Surah there is an amazing thing about the extent of this belief. The Quran quotes the names of twenty or so prophets as examples, and then adds: ‘Those were the men whom Allah guided. Follow them O Mohammad SAWS their guidance’ (Chapter 6: Verse 90). In other words, the laws of the ancient prophets remain in force for Muslims also, except where the new revelation, the Quran, alters something. The laws brought by Moses will remain in force for Christians unless Jesus Christ under divine inspiration alters their content.

This Islam has become a religion of continuity and universality: continuity since Adam, and universality covering all parts of the world in all periods.

Thus the constitution of the Muslim state founded by the Prophet SAWS and the revelations in the Book, the Quran, give the quality of tolerance as the source of inspiration needed for the policy of the new conception of life for both religion and state.

There is another interesting point. In our time the grant of naturalization to someone is a privilege, and comes under the authority of central government. But in the constitution of the state of Medina to which I have just referred this right was given to every citizen of the state; even the humblest inhabitant had the right to give protection (jiwar) to anyone he wished, after which the ‘jar’ (protected person) was treated on the same footing as all the other members of the tribe. A Jew could give the ‘nationality’ of his tribe to a foreigner, Jew or other, who automatically became a citizen of the state of Medina. A Muslim or a Muslim slave could do the same.

The point is that the object of this religion was not to dominate or exploit individuals or peoples but to create a climate of peace for all mankind. It showed the way for later periods: and today we have not reached the level of the rules set forth by the Quran fourteen centuries ago.

I said that under the constitution of the state of Medina the various sections of the population had the right to independence, and I stressed the fact that the law was decentralized: Islamic law was certainly not imposed on the non-Muslim members of the population. A famous verse in the Quran explains and emphasizes this: ‘Therefore let the followers of the Gospel judge in accordance with what Allah has revealed therein’ (Chapter 5: Verse 47). The Quran was not to be imposed on non-Muslim groups. Thus there was to be independence for Christian groups, Christian judges, the Christian court and Christian laws, and there was no compulsion to appeal to the Islamic court.

This decentralization of state laws, according to the religions of the citizens of the state, has always been a reality in Islam. Alas, even in the twentieth century and even under Unesco’s roof some others have not yet reached that point.

The constitution also contained provisions for solving conflicts between the various laws when the parties involved came from different communities.

We have from the Prophet’s SAWS lifetime the foundations for what was to come later. This tolerance and decentralization of laws and the autonomy of the communities were of value to the Muslims even at the material level. Some thirty years after the Prophet’s death, in the time of the Caliph Ali, Muslims had their first civil war. What happened was that before his time the Muslims had occupied vast territories, and only fifteen years after the Prophet’s death they ruled over three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa. The amazing thing is that in these vast territories there were no wars of rebellion. For instance, the Belgian professor Lamments explains that the occupation of Syria by Abu Bakr’s army was a complete walkover, and the Dutch orientalist De Goeje adds that the Christian population of the country welcomed the invaders not as enemies but as liberators. This is explained by the tolerance of Abu Bakr and his troops.

During the reign of the fourth caliph civil war raged among the Muslims who had occupied vast territories of the Byzantine Empire – thus providing ad ideal opportunity to get them back. The Emperor Constant II sent secret messengers to the Christians in the Islamic state saying: ‘Here is the God-given opportunity: rise up against your government, and I also will at the same time dispatch an army, so that we may drive out his common enemy.’ The Christian population of the Islamic state replied as follows: ‘These enemies of our religion are preferable to you.’ The point was that the freedom the Christians enjoyed was such that they had never known anything like it, even under the Christian government. The religious policy of the Byzantine Empire was sectarian: if the emperor belonged to one sect he did not tolerate the other sects, still less other religions. Under Islamic policy, on the other hand, complete cultural, religious and legal independence was given to every section of the population, and this was something they had never previously known under their own government. Under the Byzantine Empire, the emperors were capricious and changed sects from time to time, Nestorian today, Monothelite tomorrow, Monophysite the day after, and so on; and the people had continually to follow suit and also change sects. People in general tend to be conservative where religion is concerned; and those who were unwilling to obey the emperor’s orders were either sentenced to have their noses or ears cut off, or were put to death, or were subjected to all kinds of persecution. The Muslims on the other hand, allowed other religions complete independence, so that during the civil war, while the Muslims were killing each other, non-Muslims lived in peace, engaged in trade and grew rich.

While, as I have just shown, Islam accepts the laws of the ancient prophets, this is subject to the principle laid down in the Quran (Chapter 4: Verse 24): ‘All other than these are lawful to you’ – i.e. whatever has not been forbidden is allowed. This accordingly applied to the customs and practices of pagans and idolaters as well as to those of the Arabs in general, and was to apply in all the parts of the world where the Muslims settled. Islamic law was thus enriched by foreign influences. Among other things there was the Prophet’s SAWS own practice to show the way. In the Sahih of Al Bukhari there is a Hadith to the effect that if the Prophet Mohammad SAWS had not received a direct revelation and precise rule, i.e. a verse of the Quran, he observed the customs of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). Hence account was taken of the practices of followers of other religions. There was an illustration of this principle, and in particular of the way foreign laws could be accepted as Islamic laws, under the reign of the second caliph, i.e. four or five years after Prophet’s death. One day the governor of a frontier province wrote to the caliph and asked him the following question: ‘Some foreigners wish to enter our territory to trade. What customs tariff should we charge them?’ The reply was. ‘The tariff charged on Muslim traders in these foreigners’ country.’ Supposing some traders came from the Byzantine Empire, Muslims officials had to know how much customs duty was charged to a Muslim trader entering Byzantine territory. In the case of the Persians, Chinese and so on, the customs tariff levied in their countries was applied to peoples of these nationalities on a reciprocal basis. If in some country Muslims traders were not charged customs duties, then traders from that country should not be charged duty. If in another country women’s property was not dutiable, Muslims would not levy duty on women traders from that country.

Obviously there was no question of adopting this approach indiscriminately. For instance, in pre-Islamic Egypt the practice prevailed of offering up a beautiful girl to the god of the Nile, the source of fertility. Thus each year a search was made for such a girl, and she was decked with jewels and other ornaments and thrown alive into the Nile. This offering to the ‘god’ of the Nile, if accepted, was believed to bring about the beneficial floods. When the Muslims arrived in Egypt the governor, Amr ibn Al As forbade this practice. Now it so happened that that year the floods did not come. The people began to get worried and lament, and asked the Muslim governor to take action. He wrote to the caliph giving the details. The reply came: ‘Enclosed is a letter to the Nile; send it to the addressee.’ There was indeed a letter to the Nile, in the following terms: ‘O Nile, if you rise of your own accord, we do not need you. But if it is Allah SWT who makes you rise, I pray Allah SWT to do so.’ This letter was thrown into the Nile, and next day there were tremendous floods in a single night the water rose by 16 cubits. From that time onwards the old savage and barbarous practice was abolished.

By way of another example, the Muslims who went to India at the time of Caliph Umar found a custom there just as savage and barbarous as the previous one, but basically understandable: marriage being an eternal relationship, a wife ought not to survive her husband. In the event that the husband died before the wife, the widow had to commit by jumping on the funeral pyre where his body was being burned. The Muslims abolished this practice in the areas they controlled.

In other words, tolerance operated only for the good practices of whatever country it was. The Prophet SAWS said: ‘The word of wisdom constitutes the lost property of the Muslims: they will search for it wherever it is to be found.’ Thus the fact that laws were foreign was never a reason for despising them: the good ones were accepted and the bad ones rejected, and even non-Muslims were forbidden to comply with the bad ones. The practices of non-Muslim subjects abolished by the Muslim conquerors often dated from a later period, and did not exist in the original religion. For instance, among the Zoroastrian Persians the Khuvezvagdas law recommended marriage with a near relative, such as one’s own daughter, one’s full sister or even one’s mother; and such a marriage was considered preferable to marrying a foreigner. It was incest, but for them it was something holy and sacred. The caliph Umar ordered this practice to be forbidden, since it did not exist in Zoroastrian religion and had grown up in a later period at the behest of a king who wanted to marry his own sister.

There is much I could still say on this subject; but I should like to conclude my remarks with a few words on the way enemies were treated. The Makkans had driven the Prophet SAWS out of his native town, Makkah, and eight years later the Prophet conquered it. Including the first thirteen years of persecution, the Makkans had for over twenty years been persecuting their Prophet SAWS and preventing the spread of his religion by war, torture, and destruction of property and so on. When he SAWS conquered Makkah the Prophet SAWS send heralds to proclaim: ‘Everyone in front of the Kaba, Mohammad SAWS wants to speak to you.’ Anxiously they all gathered; the Muslim army of occupation was there, and also thousands of non-Muslim Makkans. It was the hour of the midday prayer, and the Prophet ordered his muezzin, the Negro Bilal, to give the call to prayer. Bilal climbed on to the roof of the house of God (the Kaaba) and chanted: ‘There is no God by Allah.’ Among the non-Muslims present was a certain great chief, Attab ibn Asid, who whispered in his companion’s ear (literally): ‘Thank God my father is dead, otherwise he would not have tolerated this black donkey braying on the roof of the House of God.’ The Prophet led the Muslim prayers, then turned to the non-Muslim Makkans and asked them what they expected of him. They were all ashamed and hung their heads, unable to find words to ask for the leniency they did not deserve. It would have been feasible, and I would say justifiable, for the Prophet to have given the order to massacre all his enemies. He did not do so. It would have been perfectly within his power to have confiscated the property of all the Makkans. He did not do this either. It would have been perfectly within his power to have sent them all into slavery; but he did nothing of the kind. What he did , seeing the Makkans ashamed, was to say: ‘No responsibility burdens you today. You can go, you are freed.’

One can imagine the reaction of the non-Muslims, who only a moment before could not bear the call to prayer – a prayer that did not criticize the Makkans but glorified Allah SWT. Attab, the great chief in question, jumped up spontaneously, presented himself before the Prophet SAWS and said: ‘Mohammad SAWS, I am Attab – that is, a great enemy of Islam – and I bear witness that there is no God but Allah SWT and that Mohammad SAWS is the messenger of Allah SWT.

He was not the only one, overnight the whole town of Makkah embraced Islam, and most sincerely.

But the Prophet’s reaction at the time of Attab’s conversion was also interesting. Without a moment’s hesitation he said to Attab: ‘I appoint you Governor of Makkah.’ Thus he appointed governor the man who a moment before had been the enemy; then, without leaving a single Medinan soldier to occupy the conquered town, he withdrew and went back to Medina.

This is how the Prophet SAWS behaved towards foreigners, whether foreign to his religion or to his policy.

– This article is based on one of the lectures delivered by Dr. Hamidullah

– Edited and posted by Quranic Resources Administrator.

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