Umar Shariff, President, Discover Islam Education Trust
The topic of tolerance in Islam, is the one that is raised in today’s times in public domain, due to the misconceptions that is prevalent amongst the general masses. After reading some incidents of extremism done by some Muslim fringe elements, the debate has gotten very hot in the intellectual circles too. With all humility I must confess that Islam has issued dictums to a high level of tolerance in the society. The Qur’an – the book of God, and the Sunnah – the way and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) testifies to the fact that Islam is against all kinds of chauvinistic and racist ways. And God, whom the Muslims call in Arabic language as Allah, wants the Muslims to establish peace and harmony with people of various religious and ideological beliefs. Here below I shall quote some lessons from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet to explain this further.
The model Islamic culture is the one that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established in his life time. I will not be able to mention a lot of information here, since the contents can go for several volumes. Hence would just highlight some instances for us to get an overview. And I would not be moving in a chronological order even, for this is not a book on history. So let’s start to look into some crucial proofs on this subject matter.
The Prophet lived in Makka, the city where he was born. Upto the age of 40 he didn’t claim to be a Prophet, nor did he preach about Islam. Eversince he claimed to be a Prophet of God, while he started to call the people of Makka to worship only Allah, and asked them to shun the worship of idols and other deities, the majority of the people there turned against him. They spat at him, beat him up, boycotted him and his family, tortured those who followed him, killed several such believers and left a lot to go on an exile while having confiscated their wealth and properties. After rigorous hardship, the Prophet decided to migrate to the city of Madina, where his followers and some helpers invited him to live amidst them. While he reached the city of Madina, the first of the thing that he established was the Constitution of Madina. The Constitution of Madina brought out the Islamic concept of the Islamic State.
The Prophet said that the Muslim community of Madina is one community, while it extends to live with the other communities of Madina. At that time, there were the tribes of Aus and Khazraj that were the tribes of idolaters. And there were the Jewish tribes of Banu Nadeer, Banu Qainuqa and Banu Quraida. There were also other communities and tribesmen who came under the direct leadership of the Muslim statesman. The Prophet said that all of the tribes were one on purpose when any one tribe is attacked by an external force. He said that all have to unite against the intruders who attack the people and tribes of Madina. He preached the religion of Islam, while his approach towards the people living there was of a political nature. And this is what Islam calls to establish. Islam guides its rulers to support and unite with all the members of its state irrespective of their religion and beliefs, in order to establish peace in the state. Hence the Prophet was the statesman of Madina, whose people were the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Idolaters and tribal groups. And his mission was to ensure that all found safety and peace under his governance.
He didn’t force anyone to embrace Islam. He maintained the identity of being the leader and Prophet of the Muslim community, while he also showed the people that he is also the leader and statesman of all the members in the society, that included the people of all the religions. That’s a very important thing to be noted and highlighted. As a political leader, a Muslim statesman is the leader of all the people of his state. And as a religious leader, he would represent his community members on a platform that discusses about the religious commitments they have. Hence this distinction is important to understand the role of a Muslim statesman. A Muslim statesman cannot and must not force the members of his state to embrace Islam. That’s because the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. The law to govern the Muslim rulers are also obtained by the sources of Islamic law; i.e the Qur’an and the Hadeeth. Here are some proofs to establish this point.
The Qur’an says in Chapter 2, verse 256,
“There is no compulsion in religion. And the truth stands out clear from falsehood…” Forcing people to Islam is deemed as haraam – forbidden in Islam.
As a Prophet of God, his duty was to teach people about God. He invited people to follow the way of all the previous Prophets who came to this world at different times and different places. He said that all the previous Prophets too worshipped the same God. The point to be understood at this point is, the Prophet never forced anyone to become Muslim. Nor did his rightly guided caliphs who ruled for 30 years after his death converted anyone by force. Had he wanted to force anyone to Islam, then he would have forced his dear uncle Abu Taalib to Islam. He loved him very much, since he was raised by his uncle as an orphan child. Even when his uncle was on his deathbed, the Prophet was inviting him to become a Muslim. But his uncle chose to die upon the religion of his forefathers. The Prophet wept profusely at the time of Abu Taalib’s death. That shows the level of love he had for him. What more example do we need to understand this matter! I shall narrate some other incidents to establish my point.
There was a man by the name Thumama, who happened to be the chieftain of a tribe that hated the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. He had even killed many Muslims out of hate for Islam and the Prophet. So Thumama was a war criminal whom the Prophet asked his army to search for. And when they set out to find him, they trapped him and took him in custody, and was brought before the Prophet. The Prophet asked him: What do you want Thumama? Thumama said: I shall be grateful to you if you don’t kill me. The Prophet asked his men to tie him up at the masjid of Madina, so that he can see the living style of the Muslims. After a couple of days the Prophet went to him and asked him: Do you want to become a Muslim, assuming that he must have got impressed by the Muslims’ way of life? Thumama said: No, but I shall be grateful to you if you spare my life. The Prophet instructed his companions to set him free, and at once he was released.
Thumama went out of the masjid and reached upto a pool, cleansed himself with water, and returned back to meet the Prophet and said: I want to become a Muslim. He then immediately embraced Islam and said: Before embracing Islam, the face that I hated the most was that of Muhammad, and now the face that I love the most is that of Muhammad (may peace be upon him). The fact that the Prophet set the war captive free, while being a statesman, even when the man didn’t embrace Islam, is the proof for us to know that the Prophet didn’t force anyone to embrace Islam.
There’s another incident from the life of Prophet Muhammad that will make us understand this matter. Once the Prophet and his companions were returning from a battle. And while they were on their way to Madina, they wanted to take rest under the shade of the trees. So they halted and hung their swords on the branches of the trees and rested. Just then when they were resting, a man from among the enemy tribe who was watching them from the bushes all along got close to the place where the Prophet was and pulled the sword from the tree and pointed it at the Prophet who was lying down on the ground. The man filled with enmity said to the Prophet, “Who will help you now?” The Prophet replied, “Allah”. As the man heard to the voice of conviction and the name of God, his body started to shiver instantly, to the extent that his hand that was holding the sword let go of the sword, and the sword fell down on the ground. The Prophet then picked up the sword from the ground and then pointed it towards the man and said, “So who will help you now?” The man filled with fear, pleaded before the Prophet and requested that the Prophet sets him free. The Prophet said, “Do you want to become a Muslim?” The man said that he will not become a Muslim, but he promised that he would be grateful to the Prophet. The Prophet set him free and asked him to go to his tribe. The man later ran upto his people and talked about the generosity of the Prophet. Now let us understand the above incidents. When the Prophet was the head of the Islamic state, while he had all powers to take retribution against the enemies who had killed the Muslims, he chose to show mercy to them. And even when the man attacked the Prophet with the sword, and threatened to kill him, the Prophet chose to forgive him and set him free. That’s the magnanimity of the Prophet. Other kings and rulers at this situation would have not spared their enemies. But then the Prophet was exceptionally a great man of peace. There are many such anecdotes from the Prophet’s life, that will make you understand that he was a King of peace.