[Note: The following excerpt by a Muslim intellectual is perhaps the best antidote for the ongoing violence of mosque bombings, Taliban and Basij brutality towards Muslim women and vitriolic sermons.]

Islamic Perspectives of Inter-Community Relations

by Maulvi Yahya Nomani (Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand) TwoCircles.net

The issue of what Islam has to say about inter-community relations is one about which much misunderstanding exists. Anti-Muslim propagandists claim that Islam preaches hatred for non-Muslims, and that the Quran is a menace to world peace. They go so far as to argue that world peace is simply impossible as long as the Quran exists. In order to back their propaganda, they have deliberately twisted and misinterpreted certain verses of the Quran. Many people with little knowledge have fallen prey to this poisonous propaganda, which has been aggressively spread on an enormous scale through the media.

At the same time, we must also admit that some Muslims themselves entertain misunderstandings and extremist views about the issue of relations between Muslims and others that are based on a completely wrong interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet. This calls for a detailed study, so that misunderstandings, wrong interpretations and extremist views about Islamic teachings regarding relations between Muslims and others can be countered.

It is true that Islam stresses that Muslims, here understood in the sense of true submitters to God, are distinct from others in terms of their religious views and ethical virtues. It cautions them from imitating others, especially their religious symbols and rituals, which Islam does not accept. It is also true that Islam strictly forbids befriending enemies of the faith and those who conspire against Muslims. At the same time, however, Islam exhorts Muslims to relate to other non-Muslims with softness, good manners, gentleness and love.

Respect for the Human Race

Islam teaches that all human beings, irrespective of community or race, are children of the same set of primal parents, and, so, are bound together by their common humanity. As the Quran states:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you.” (Quran 49:13).

This basic Islamic teaching about the whole of humankind being children of the same parents stresses the need for consciousness of our common humanity and of us being brothers unto each other. This is why, according to a hadith report, the Prophet would, after finishing his prayers, supplicate with God, saying, ‘O Allah! Sustainer of myself and of everything! I bear witness that all human beings are brothers of each other.’

According to the Quran, human beings are creatures worthy of respect:

“We have honoured the sons of Adam […]and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of Our Creation.” (Quran 17:70)

This clearly indicates that Islam regards human beings as deserving respect, love and concern on the basis of their humanity. A hadith report well illustrates this teaching. Once, the Prophet was present along with some of his disciples when a funeral procession passed by. The Prophet stood up. Seeing the Prophet stand out of respect for the dead man, some of his companions informed him that the man had been a Jew. But, the Prophet responded, ‘Was he not a human being?’ After the Prophet, some of his companions, too, followed this example of his, as is related in the books of Hadith compiled by Bukhari and Muslim.

In another hadith report, the Prophet exhorted his followers to relate with kindness to all creatures thus:

‘God is merciful to those who are merciful. Deal with mercy towards creatures on earth and He in the heavens will be merciful towards you.’ (Sunan Tirmidhi, 1924; Sunan Abu Daud, 4941).

This hadith report very clearly expresses a basic Quranic teaching. The Quran states that the true path to salvation is through showing mercy and love to others:

“And what will explain to thee, the path that is steep? (It is:) freeing the bondman; Or the giving of food in a day of privation to the orphan with claims of relationship, or to the indigent (down) in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion. Such are the Companions of the Right Hand.” (Quran 90: 12-18)

This is the path of salvation—not simply to be kind-hearted, but also to participate in the mission to promote, in practical terms, kind-heartedness and compassion for others. Such are the steps on the path to salvation. Islam does not restrict good behaviour simply to other human beings. Rather, it insists that Muslims should behave in this way with all living creatures. Thus, according to a hadith recorded in the Sahih of al-Bukhari, the Prophet said, ‘There is merit (sawab) in behaving well towards all living creatures.’

The Bond of Nation/Community (Qaum)

Islam recognizes a certain sort of brotherhood and feeling of oneness among members of the same community/nation as an established fact. This is expressed in the Quran in the form of various prophets, such as Hud, Saleh, Shoeb and so on, addressing the non-Muslim members of their communities as brothers, and, in this way, accepting a relationship of nation- or community-based brotherhood between Muslims and non-Muslims belonging to the same nation or community. When these prophets of God preached His message to their own people (who were not Muslims, or ‘submitters’ to God), they addressed them as ‘ya qaum’ or ‘O my people’, appealing to their hearts and reminding them of the common bond of community that they shared with them. This clearly indicates the sort of concern and love that Muslims should adopt when addressing their non-Muslim compatriots and in seeking to cement bonds with them.

The importance of how concern and love should infuse relations between people belonging to a common race or nationality, despite their religious differences, is evident from the fact that the Prophet Muhammad cared for the (the then non-Muslim) Egyptians just because the mother of the Prophet Ismail (Ishmael), son of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), was from Egypt. The Prophet instructed the Arabs to remember this ancient racial tie, saying that they would soon conquer Egypt and that he wanted them to deal with the Egyptians kindly because they had the right to protection (haq-e zimma) and because their racial ties with the Arabs demanded this.

Kind Behaviour Towards Non-Muslims: Some Examples

Various Islamic teachings and Sunnah or practice of the Prophet indicate the kindness and concern that non-Muslims deserve from Muslims. The Quran mentions that needy non-Muslims are deserving of the financial assistance of Muslims, and that, therefore, they should be helped. In the Surah Al-Baqara of the Quran, God says that guiding others to the faith is not the work of human beings, and that God guides whom He wills. The Quran adds that we must not refuse to help a needy person simply because he or she refuses to accept Islam. It says that we shall be rewarded for whatever we spend in God’s way:

“It is not required of thee (O Messenger) to set them on the right path but Allah guides to the right path whom He pleaseth. Whatever of good ye give benefits your own souls and ye shall only do so seeking the “Face” of Allah. Whatever good ye give, shall be rendered back to you and ye shall not be dealt with unjustly.” (Quran 2:272)

This verse indicates that while providing financial help to others it is not necessary to distinguish between those who accept Islam and those who do not. In other words, all needy people are deserving of such help.

Elaborating on this verse, the noted scholar Imam Ibn Jareer Tabari wrote in his Tafsir-e Tabari that the verse commands Muslims not to deprive non-Muslims of charity. He was of the view that this was how numerous companions of the Prophet and those who came after them in the next generation understood this verse.

This was also the practice of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. Thus, as mentioned in the Kitab al-Kharraj by Abu Yusuf, the Caliph Umar sent a letter to his governor, instructing him to provide for his poor and needy non-Muslim subjects from the wealth of the Muslims.

Reconciliation and Kind-Heartedness

Islam stresses kindness towards relatives, especially close relations, so much so that it says that God declares war against he who does not fulfill his responsibilities towards his relatives (Masnad Ahmad 1684; Sahih al-Bukhari 5987-5989). It also declares that those who sunder their relations with their relatives will have no place in heaven (Sahih Muslim, 2556).

Kindness towards and reconciliation with relatives applies to all relatives, Muslim as well as non-Muslim. It is their right. Islam seeks to cement relations, not to destroy them. Thus, non-Muslim relatives have all the rights over a Muslim, so much so that the Quran lays down that if a Muslim’s parents are not Muslim themselves, and even if they seek to pressurize their Muslim son or daughter to abandon Islam, they must be treated well under all conditions, although one should not yield to their pressure. As the Quran puts it:

“And We have enjoined on man (to be good) to his parents: in travail upon travail did his mother bear him, and in years twain was his weaning: (hear the command) “Show gratitude to Me and to thy parents: to Me is (thy final) Goal. “But if they strive to make the join in worship with Me things of which thou hast no knowledge obey them not; Yet bear them company in this life with justice (and consideration) and follow the way of those who turn to Me (in love): in the End the return of you all is to Me, and I will tell you the truth (and meaning) of all that ye did.”(Quran 31:14-15).

The mother of Abu Hurairah, a companion of the Prophet, used to say bad things about the Prophet, but Abu Hurairah tolerated this. When he complained about her behavior to the Prophet, the latter prayed for her, rather than expressing hatred for her. Because of this, she was guided (Sahih al-Muslim, 2491).

The mother of Hazrat Asma bint Abu Bakr was a polytheist. In the wake of the Treaty of Hudaibiyah between the Muslims, led by the Prophet, and the Meccan pagans, relatives from both sides were able to meet each other. At this time, Hazrat Asma’s mother came to Medina to meet her, bringing along with her some gifts. Hazrat Asma thought of reciprocating this gesture by giving her mother some presents when she was returning. However, she hesitated for a bit, not sure if Islam allowed for Muslims to present gifts to their non-Muslim relatives. Accordingly, she approached the Prophet and asked him if she should seek to strengthen her ties (silah rahmi) with her mother. In reply, the Prophet said she must, and instructed her to give her gifts. (Sahih al-Bukhari 2602; Fath al-Bari).

Some commentators have claimed that Hazrat Asma’s mother had come to Medina because she was in need of help. But, the fact is that she was a well-off woman, and Hafiz Ibn Hajar and other scholars have written that she herself had brought gifts for her daughter. Thus, it could be that she wanted to restore her bonds with her daughter that had been earlier sundered. In other words, Hazrat Asma’s giving of gifts to her mother appears not to have been an expression of help to a needy mother, but rather, a way of expressing and fulfilling her duty of familial love.

Other Social Relations Between Muslims and Others

While Muslims have been forbidden to engage in such relations with non-Muslims that might undermine or destroy their religious distinctiveness, Islam stresses that Muslims must relate with concern, and a high standard of morality with non-Muslims in order to create a better society. Treating neighbours kindly is such an important Islamic teaching that in the corpus of Hadith, narrations relating to the Prophet, it has been said that not abiding by this teaching can sometimes even lead to the danger of one’s own faith being taken away. The Prophet thrice proclaimed that he who is a source of discomfort to his neighbour is not a true believer (momin) (Sahih al-Bukhari, 6016).

One’s neighbour, who deserves exemplary treatment, can be a Muslim or a non-Muslim, and the above-mentioned principle applies in both cases. This is well-illustrated in the following story. One day, a goat was slaughtered in the home of Hazrat Abdullah Ibn Umar. When he returned home, the first thing he did was to ask if some of the meat had been sent to the house of his Jewish neighbour. ‘I have heard the Prophet stressing the importance of kindness towards neighbours’, he said (Abu Daud, 5152).

One aspect of the life of the Prophet, which serves as a model for Muslims to emulate, is that even if an enemy is in great trouble one should supplicate for him with God. On the one hand, the Prophet would beseech God to punish bloody oppressors, but, on the other hand, we see the Prophet helping the Qureish of Mecca, who stiffly opposed him, when they were faced with a severe famine. In that critical situation, Abu Sufiyan, the Qureish leader who had stridently opposed the Prophet, came to him. Invoking their relationship, he said that the Quraish, the tribe that the Prophet himself belonged to, were dying, and requested him to beseech God. The Prophet prayed to God, and because of his prayer the situation was cured (Sahih Bukhari, 4824).

It is said that if a Jew present in the Prophet’s congregation would sneeze, the Prophet would do the same dua, ‘May God give you guidance and improve your condition’, for him as he would for a Muslim (Sunan Abu Daud 5040). Because they were so fond of this dua, some Jews would pretend to sneeze, but the Prophet still do this dua for them. In the Masannaf Ibn Abi Shiba, the Masannaf Abdur Razzak and the Sahih of al-Bukhari, there are numerous narrations about the Prophet making dua for non-Muslims. This clearly shows that Islam exhorts its followers to deal kindly with people of other faiths.

Commensality or eating together has great importance in building relationships. The Prophet used to invite non-Muslims for meals. Expressing concern for the oppressed and distressed, irrespective of religion, is something basic for good social ties, and the Prophet Muhammad also abided by this. He would visit the homes of non-Muslims when they were sick, to enquire about their health (Sahih al-Bukhari 5657). The Prophet also gave gifts to non-Muslims, and courteously accepted the gifts that they presented him with, as has been recorded in the books of Hadith. It is said that a non-Muslim ruler sent the Prophet a beautiful silken cloak, which the Prophet accepted (Sahih al-Bukhari 2616). He gave it to Ja‘afar bin Abi Talib, saying that he should send it to his ‘brother’, Najashi, the Christian ruler of Abyssinia, who had helped the Muslims (Masnad Ahmad 13214). The Caliph Umar sent a valuable cloth as a gift to a ‘polytheist brother’ of his, and the Prophet knew about this (Muslim 2068). The ruler of Aila sent the Prophet cloth and a mount, which were put to use (Sahih Bukhari 3161). At the time, when the Prophet was departing from this world, he instructed Muslims, especially their leaders, that delegations of guests (who were generally non-Muslims) that would come to them should be given presents while departing, as he himself had done (Sahih al-Bukhari 3053, Sahih al-Muslim 1637).

From these references to the shariah and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, it is clear that Islam stands for humanitarianism, love, concern, compassion, large-heartedness and good behaviour with people of other faiths, in general. That is to say, if a person who follows another faith is not an oppressor or an enemy of Islam or a conspirator or is not waging war against Muslims, Islam considers him or her worthy of help and solidarity and stresses respect for his or her humanity. *

This is a translation of excerpts from Yahya Nomani’s Urdu book, al-Jihad [Lucknow: Al-Mahad al-Ali Lil Darasat al-Islamiya, 2009. Yahya Nomani works with the Lucknow-based Urdu Islamic monthly, al-Furqan.