Doctrines >Dialogue with the people of the Book


Dialogue with the people of the Book (1)

part (2) < > part (3)

Prophet Mohammad (p.) did not engage in any struggle with the People of the Book in Mecca, as the Meccan society was predominantly polytheistic. This could explain the dearth of revelation in Mecca, which might have recorded any dialogue or argument between the two parties. The other reason might have been that at the top of Prophet’s agenda was fighting idol worship and polytheism. Besides, the People of the Book did not pose much of a problem to Islam.

Empathy with Christianity

In the early days, we might notice a kind of sympathy and affinity between the Prophet (p.) and a far-flung Christian community. This was apparent in the flight of early Muslims to Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia), where they found a haven, peace and security, which enabled them to practise their religious duties. There is reference to this incident in the Holy Qur’an, as well as in history annals. Muslims who migrated to Abyssinia were guaranteed the protection of its king. When Quraish followed them to inflame the king’s feelings against them, he preferred to believe the Muslims’ side of the story. Alongside his courtiers, the king listened to the Muslims as they were reciting to him the Quranic verses, which tell the story of Jesus and his mother (a.s.), and the great spiritual aspects of Islam, God has revealed to His Prophet (p.). The king and his people found this related to what they believed in, i.e. the spirituality of pristine Christianity, so much so that they could not hold back their tears:

Strongest among men in enmity to the believers wilt thou find the Jews and Pagans; and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, “We are Christians”: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the revelation received by the Apostle, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognise the truth: they pray: “Our Lord! We believe; write us down among the witnesses.” (5: 82–83)

Treaty with the Jews

Prophet Mohammad (p.) immigrated to Medina to lay the foundation for the new Islamic society. There he came face to face with the Jews; it is noteworthy that there were no Christians in Medina. He did not want to clash with the Jews, as he did not want to open up a new front of confrontation. Instead, he let wisdom prevail, by signing a treaty with them, whereby the followers of each of the two faiths could live side by side in peace and harmony. The treaty was indicative of a new reality, i.e. religious tolerance built on a solid base of both religious groups recognizing what unified them. Thus, both opted for the middle ground, where dialogue was the way forward to a mutual understanding, away from bigotry and prejudice.

It is in the interests of genuine Muslim researchers to understand how realistic and dynamic was the Islamic movement in the arena of doctrinal as well as social conflict. Such readers in history are advised to study the aforesaid treaty, which is a great document paving the way to exemplary co-existence of religions, if only to know how Islam considers dialogue the bedrock of settling conflict. This is indicative of its drive to create the right conditions, which open the way to the birth and nurturing of ordinary relations based on mutual respect, both religiously and humanly, in a climate that is not governed by bigotry but rather based on reason and law.

Before we examine this treaty, as a prelude to understanding the nature of struggle between Islam and the Jews among the People of the Book, we find it necessary to reiterate one point we reckon is important. It is that the treaty was not a unilateral agreement between the Prophet (p.) and the People of the Book. It was in the general harmonious climate that was prevalent in the field of relations between the believers themselves. So the treaty was part of this relationship, which was indicative of the fact that the Prophet (p.) wanted to transform civic society into a mosaic of tribal and religious persuasions, be they the Meccans who migrated with him to his new base, the Medinites who supported him, or the People of the Book, regardless of their creed. The driving force behind this thinking was the recognition that the future of the entire society, its security and welfare were paramount. That is, without any fears on Islam’s part as a new religion. This would lead us to conclude that Islam did not harbour any enmity for, or intentions of war against, the People of the Book, Jews included. On the contrary, it was planning long-term projects for peaceful co-existence between religions.

The treaty’s text

The following is the text of the said treaty, as has been recorded by Ibn Hisham in his Prophetic Biography:

Ibn Ishaq said: The Messenger of God (p.) wrote an undertaking, in the presence of Muhajireen [lit. immigrants – the Meccans who immigrated with the Prophet to Medina] and Ansar [lit. supporters – among the residents of Medina]. In the undertaking, he confirmed that peaceful coexistence with the Jews had been achieved, that he recognized their religion, and that they should feel secure in their possessions. There were stipulations both the parties to the agreement should honour:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful: This is a letter from Prophet Mohammad for the believers and Muslims among Quraish and Yethrib [old name of Medina], and all those who would follow them and take part in the jihad with them. They are one nation (ummah) [or community], to the exclusion of other people. The Muhajireen of Quraishite descent, in their stronghold, should cooperate and ransom the distressed among them with fairness and equity, as is the case among believers. Banu Awf, in their original stronghold, should co-operate, and each group should ransom the distressed among them with fairness and equity, as is the case among believers. [The wording of the previous sentence has been repeated for the following tribes: Banu Saa’ida, Banu Jashm, Banu an-Najjar, Banu an-Nabeet, Banu Aws.] The believers should not abandon any person, heavily in debt, without helping them out equitably in ransom or blood money.

A believer should not make an alliance with the servant of another believer without his knowledge. The devout believers should come together against him who transgresses or seeks to oppress, do injustice to, sow corruption or be aggressive against anyone among them; they should join hands against the transgressor, even if it were one of their offspring. An unbeliever should not be supported against a believer. God’s covenant of protection is one; the least significant of people should be given sanctuary. The believers should stand united more so than others.

[It has also been agreed] that, who joins us from the servants of the Jews, they should qualify for our support and be treated as one of us; they should neither be oppressed, nor ganged up against. In war in the cause of Allah, a believer should not, separately, seek peace with an unbeliever, except with justice and fairness. The believers can replace one another in the bloodletting that has befallen them in the cause of Allah. The devout among the believers are the best guided and on the right path. A polytheist should not withhold money due to a Quraishite, nor a soul; he should not withhold it from a believer. Whoever caused the blood of a believer to be spilled with proof, he would be held responsible, until he comes to agreement with the next of kin of the slain person; all the believers should take a position against him.

(It has also been agreed) that, it is not permissible for any believer who testified to this document, and believed in Allah and the last Day of Judgement, to lend support to any initiator of evil or mischief, nor shelter him. He who supports and provides him with shelter should be mindful that Allah’s curse shall abide with him till the day of judgement; he would not be bartered or compensation accepted from him. Whatever you disagree on, you have to seek to settle it by having recourse to Allah, the Most High, and Mohammad.

That, Jews and Muslims are to finance the war, so long as they are being fought. That, the Jews among Banu Awf are a community like the believers. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs, masters and slaves alike. The exception being those who transgressed or sinned. They have themselves to blame. The Jews of Bani an-Najjar have the same rights as the Jews of Banu Awf. [The last sentence had been repeated so as to mention the Jews from other tribes, i.e. Banu Saa’ida, Banu Jashm, Banu Aws, Banu Tha’laba]. Those who relate to Tha’laba should receive the same treatment as members of Tha’laba themselves. That which Banu Awf have right to, should be equally given to Banu Shutaiba. Doing good deeds is highly commended to the exclusion of doing evil. The servants of Tha’laba should receive the same treatment as their masters. Those in the fold of the Jews are to receive the same treatment accorded to the Jews themselves. That, no one of them should go out, except with the permission of Mohammad. That, not a single wound should be inflicted in revenge. That, whoever does harm to himself, he should have himself to blame, except those who were done injustice. God is capable of mending this.

That, the Muslims would provide sustenance for themselves, so would the Jews. They should stand united against him who wages war against the signatories of this treaty. They should give good counsel to one another and enjoin what is good, to the exclusion of what is evil. No one should be made to suffer for a crime his ally has committed. Help and support should be given to the one who is wronged.

That, the Jews should finance the war effort so long as they are being fought. Yethrib is a sanctuary for the signatories of this treaty. That, neighbours are on a par with oneself, without prejudice. That, the privacy of the individual should be respected.

That, should there be any quarrel or discord, whose potential danger could be great, should be referred to Allah, the Most High and to Mohammad, the Messenger of Allah. Allah is with the most sincere parties of this treaty and the good among them. That, no haven should be given to Quraish and their allies. [The signatories of this treaty] should help each other, if Yethrib came under attack; should they be called to make peace, they should respond in kind. Should this happen, they should have the same responsibilities of the believers, except those who fought for the faith, for each party their own share with their counterparts. The Jews of Aws and their slaves have the same rights and responsibilities of the signatories of this treaty of that which is purely fair.

Ibn Ishaq then said:

Fairness is more praiseworthy compared to evildoing. Whichever bad deeds committed by any person, they have themselves to blame. Allah is with those signatories of this treaty who are most well intentioned and the most just.

This treaty should not be viewed as providing protection for those who transgress or do evil. Residents of Medina should feel secure, whether they remain within its boundaries or go out of it, except the transgressors and mischief doers.