Visiting Fellow, Harvard University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal School of Islamic Studies
In central Syria, Daesh (“ISIS”) recently destroyed an ancient monastery and a church. This, after abducting several Christians, in what has become the group’s long scourge on humanity. While global Muslim leaders have categorically condemnedDaesh, Daesh continues to insist their acts are permitted — even commanded — by Islam.
But if, as Daesh claims, Islam obliges Muslims to raze monasteries, kidnap Christians and rape women, then several questions arise.
For example, how then did an ancient Christian monastery survive this long? Built in432, or roughly 180 years before Islam’s advent, this monastery withstood nearly 1,500 years of Muslim rule in peace.
Likewise, how did Syria’s 2.3 million Christians, or 10 percent of the Syrian population, survive all these centuries? For centuries, Muhammad and Muslims have practiced a religion foreign to the one Daesh practices.
Contrary to Daesh’s ignorance and propaganda, Prophet Muhammad sought to protect the rights of Christians.
To begin with, the Qur’an 3:114 praises Christians and refers to them as “the People of the Book,” afforded immense respect. The Qur’an 2:63 additionally acknowledges that Christians can and will attain divine reward. Moreover, the Qur’an 22:40-41 explicitly forbids destroying any house of worship, including churches.
Irrespective of what religion people follow, the Qur’an 60:9 commands Muslims to kind and equitable to all those who do not persecute them and drive them out of their homes on account of their faith. Likewise, the Qur’an 8:61-63 forbids fighting anyone, regardless of faith, who “inclines towards peace.”
In a 2012 letter to Emeritus Pope Benedict, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, said, “If any Church or other place of worship stands in need of protection, they will find us standing shoulder to shoulder with them.”
Prophet Muhammad exemplified the Qur’an’s commandment to protect the rights of Christians. Over a thousand years before America’s founding fathers guaranteed religious freedom for all Americans, Muhammad penned a groundbreaking “covenant to those who adopt Christianity near and far.”
We are with [Christians]! Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Around 628 AD and after gaining power, Prophet Muhammad placed his seal on this letter and sent it to the Christians of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. The letter survives to this day, as does the monastery.
While Daesh attacks Christians under the guise of religious authority, Muhammad’s letter guaranteed Christians protection from all attacks. He ensured Christians had complete freedom of religion and expression. While Daesh destroys monastery after monastery, Muhammad’s letter explicitly ordered, “No one is to destroy a house of their religion, [or] to damage it,” as doing so would, “spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet.” And while Daesh rapes women, Muhammad guaranteed Christian women autonomy in marriage and in worship.
Muhammad advanced this teaching from the Qur’an 4:20 which declares, “It is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will.” Thus, the Qur’an resoundingly rejected any permission to rape — let alone commandment. A Christian woman living under Muhammad’s rule in 630 AD had the right to marry and divorce whomsoever she chose. For perspective, this right to divorce was not afforded to Christian women in the United States until the early 19th century, in the United Kingdom until 1857and in France until 1884. Moreover, a Christian woman had religious freedom under Muhammad’s rule. So much so that even if she married a Muslim, Muhammad’s covenant guaranteed that no one had the right to hinder her from worshiping in her church.
The proverbial deathblow to Daesh comes in the last line of Prophet Muhammad’s covenant, “No one of the nation [Muslims] is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day.” By disobeying every tenet put forth in Muhammad’s covenant, Daesh instead identifies itself as the extremism Prophet Muhammad warned about and condemned.
Far from the exception, Muhammad’s covenant with St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai is but one of the numerous written covenants he sent to Christians guaranteeing equal rights. Islam guarantees Christians equal rights as Muslims in all affairs including worship, economics and social status. Following these teachings after Muhammad died, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived without violent religious conflict for centuries in Islamic Spain. This is why this peaceful, prosperous and advanced era is also known as the Golden Age for Muslims.
We can revive that golden age for people of all faiths and no faith by adhering to the true Islam that Prophet Muhammad established — one of universal religious freedom and equality for all humanity.