So, what are these documents that every Muslim must know? Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler? The Protocols by the Learned Elders of Zion? The International Jew by Henry Ford? Join the Caravan by Abdullah Azzam? How about the Al-Qaedah Handbook? No, not quite. This is completely and totally false: just like the claim that Muslims are devoid of a sense of dark humor. What do you expect? We Muslims are the bomb!
What is the most important book in Islam? The Arabian Nights? The Perfumed Garden by Shaykh Muhammad al-Nafzawi? The Sources of Pleasure by Harun al-Makhzumi? No. It is the Qur’an: the Glorious Qur’an. And what goes hand and hand with the Qur’an? Terrorism? No. I must be watching too much Fox News. I must be reading too many tweets from President Trump. Astaghfirullah. May God forgive me. No, the second most important source in Islam is the Sunnah: the teachings, traditions, sayings, and actions of Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah. And within the Sunnah, we find some sparkling jewels: the Constitution of Madinah and the Covenants of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
Let us commence, then, with the Qur’an, which, as Muslims, we believe to be the Word of God. The Qur’an is a book. Texts are inert. You can pray all day and wait your whole life, but the Qur’an is not going to speak to you. A text only comes alive when we engage with it through reading, thought, analysis, contemplation, and interpretation. It only comes to life when we put its teachings into practice. Although it is important to read the Qur’an, it is even more important to understand how to read the Qur’an.
Read the Qur’an with an open-mind, an open-heart, and an open-spirit. Absorb what you can from the surface of the text. Ensure that you understand all the vocabulary and all the terminology. Unless you read the Qur’an in Arabic, consider reading and comparing many translations of the Qur’an for every translation represents an interpretation. They convey different shades of meaning. In the past, this required comparing half a dozen physical translations of the Qur’an. Now, fortunately, one can easily compare over a dozen translations in English, not to mention numerous other languages, using Quran.Com, SearchQuran.Com, Islamicity’s Qur’an Search, and other sites.
To understand a text, one must also understand its context: the time and place in which it was produced. This is where the sirah, the biography, and the sunnah, comes into play. You also need a broader understanding of Middle Eastern history, culture, and religion. Unless you are familiar with the broader Judeo-Christian tradition, you will have a challenging time comprehending all the allusions and references found in the Qur’an. You get what you put in to it. In other words, what you derive from the text is what you bring to the text. The greater your knowledge, your culture, and your points of reference, the broader and deeper your understanding of the text will be.
After you have read the Qur’an, dozens and dozens of times, at the very least, it is valuable to consult works of commentary. Know that works of exegesis are of various kinds. There are Qur’anic commentaries that focus on language and linguistics. Some are theological in nature. Some are legal in nature. Some are political in nature. And others are spiritual in nature.
Commence with classical commentaries of the Qur’an. On the Sunni side, that would include commentaries of Tabari, Suyuti and Mahalli, Ibn ‘Abbas, Ibn ‘Ajibah, Ibn Juzayy, Wahidi, Baydawi, Nasafi, Razi, Tustari, Kashani, Qushayri, and Sabuni, among others. On the Shiite side, that would include Tusi, Qummi, Tabarsi, Ayashi, Kufi, Bahrani, Tabatabai, Amuli, and Makarem Shirazi, among others.
Understand that the Qur’an has seven, seventy, or seven hundred layers of meaning: both inner and outer. Understand that the Qur’an is both literal and allegorical. Understand that Qur’anic commentaries convey opinions and should never be accepted blindly, uncritically, and unconditionally. They represent an independent intellectual effort to understand the sacred text. They are not binding upon believers. One is not required to accept an interpretation as if it were divine revelation. According to Sunni and Shiite Islam, it is the Prophet Muhammad who is mas‘um or infallible: not Qur’anic commentators and scholars.
Recognize that Islam represents a spectrum at the center of which is found Sunni Islam, and its major schools of law, alongside Twelver Islam, and its major school of law. Stick to the center as much as possible. Maintain moderation. Avoid extremes. Stay far away from fringe groups. This applies in matters of theology, jurisprudence, and spirituality. Stick, as much as possible, to the straight path while recognizing elements of truth found on the periphery of Islam and even on the outside of it. One can study, analyze, and appreciate marginal aspects; however, one should stand firmly at the center of the spectrum.
Keep away from anyone who claims to have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Run from any literalist or fundamentalist who claims that there is only one interpretation of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and Islam. Flee from pompous pretenders who believe that they know the Qur’an better than anyone. Hide from arrogant extremists who believe that they, and only they, are right and that anyone who disagrees with them are unbelievers. As Obi-Wan Kenobi has said, “Only a Sith speaks in absolutes.”
Now that we have a general idea of how to approach the Qur’an, let us examine some of its most important teachings regarding the Muslim attitude towards the Other. As Almighty God revealed in the Glorious Qur’an:
The verse in question is clear. It establishes that all monotheists who do virtuous deeds will ultimately attain salvation. This is confirmed by several traditions of the Prophet. In fact, it is a fundamental Sunni belief. As Ghazali stated: “The believer must give credit to the final leaving of Hell of all the monotheists; for no one who believes in God’s Unity will abide eternally in the Fire.” As Almighty God elucidates in the Glorious Qur’an:
For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So, vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (5:48)
We, believers in One God, whether we are Jews, Samaritans, Christians, Muslims, Sabeans, Zoroastrians, Brahmans, or monotheistic members of the First Nations, have theological differences. Big deal. Get over it. Almighty God explicitly opposes uniformity. The Creator espouses unity within diversity. Rather than fight over religious differences, God challenges us to “compete with each other in righteousness” (5:48). As Almighty God explains once again:
O humankind, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing, and All-Aware. (49:13)
Differences enrich us. Homogeneity is boring. Rather than focus on areas of disagreement, Almighty Allah asks us to concentrate on areas of agreement:
Say: We believe in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. We believe in what given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them and to Him do we submit. (3:84)
In other words, Allah asks us to seek common ground with the People of the Book:
O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah. (3:64)
Although there is little common ground between monotheists, polytheists, and atheists in theological matters, there are areas of agreement in ethical and moral areas. Consequently, Allah encourages Muslims to adopt a tolerant attitude towards those who do not share their beliefs. As Almighty Allah says in the Glorious Qur’an: “To you your religion and to me mine” (109:6). As far as Islam is concerned, nobody has a monopoly on truth. We should all respect the elements of truth found in different religious traditions and socio-political and economic philosophies.
There are, no doubt, verses of the Qur’an that are harsher when they speak of the People of the Book. However, these need to be properly interpreted and placed into context. There is also a tendency, among extremists, to take verses of the Qur’an that were revealed regarding belligerent unbelievers, polytheists, that is, and apply them, erroneously and unfairly, to Christians and even to Muslims. The term mushkrikin or polytheists, as used in the Qur’an, applies to pagan Arab polytheists and idol-worshippers. It does not, and cannot, apply to Christians, who are monotheists. It does not, and cannot, apply to Sunni Muslims, Sufi Muslims or Shiite Muslims as a pretext to persecute and kill them.
Second only in importance to the Qur’an is the Sunnah, the teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. In accordance with the Qur’an, the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, consulted with the community in Madinah. He met with tribal and faith leaders. He deliberated with them. Then, under his leadership, but in collaboration with non-Muslims, he created and promulgated the Covenant of Madinah, the first constitution in the history of humanity which provided equality for all, regardless of religion, tribe, race, gender or social class. “They are one community [or ummah],” proclaims the Covenant of Madinah: “conditions must be fair and equitable to all.” Jews, Muslims, polytheists all had to contribute equally to the defense of the Ummah.
The religious rights of the People of the Book were protected: “The Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.” “To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality,” it proclaims, “he shall not be wronged, nor his enemies aided.” Muslims were even obliged to protect and defend the allies of the Jews: “The close friends of the Jews are as themselves.”
The enemies of the Ummah, namely, the pagans from Quraysh, who persecuted the Muslims and non-Muslims who followed the Prophet, were to be given no protection. All members of the Ummah were bond “to make peace and maintain it.” However, in the event they were attacked by their common enemies, they were all required to rally in defense of it.
The Covenant of Madinah established the rule of law among a lawless people: “Whenever you differ about a matter it must be referred to Allah and to Muhammad.” The teachings of the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an, became the law of the land, governing their respective communities. The Prophet was to oversee their implementation impartially. He was the final arbiter.
Word of the Prophet Muhammad’s rise continued to spread to the four corners of the world. In the second year of the hijrah, a delegation of monks from St. Catherine’s Monastery visited him in Madinah where they reminded him of his promise of protection.
There, in his mosque in Madinah, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, dictated to ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, the ‘ahd al-nabi, the ‘ahd nabawi, the ashtinameh, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, which guaranteed freedom of religion, protected religious establishments, granted tax-free status to priests, monks, and nuns, and prohibited forced conversions.
The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, provided the same protections to the People of the Book throughout the Greater Middle East. He protected the Christians of Najran, Aylah, Egypt, Syria, Persia, Armenia, and the world. He protected the Samaritans in Palestine. He protected the Jews from the Yemen and Maqnah. He also protected the Zoroastrians.
The authenticity of Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the People of the Book is indisputable. They have been transmitted consecutively from the 7th century to the present. Hundreds upon hundreds of scholarly authorities have concluded that they are genuine. What is more, they were treated as authentic and established as law by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali, by the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Ottomans, and the Safavids, among others. So, what do these documents say? They are quite lengthy, and time is of the essence. Allow me, then, to provide you with some key quotes for the sake of clarity and concision.
The Treaty of Najran, which appears in the Tafsir of Muqatil ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi (d. 767 CE), the Kitab al-kharaj of Abu Yusuf (738-798 CE), the Kitab al-Siyar of Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani (d. 805 CE), the Tabaqat of Ibn Sa‘d (845 CE), and the Kitab al-Amwal of Ibn Zanjawayh (d. 865 CE), reads: “No bishop is to be driven from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, and no priest from his priestly vocation.”
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran, the original of which was found in the House of Wisdom in 878/879 CE, and entered the Chronicle of Seert in the 9th century, reads:
It is not permitted to remove a bishop from his bishopric, a monk from his monastic life or an anchorite from his vocation as a hermit. Nor is it permitted to destroy any part of their churches, to take parts of their buildings to construct mosques or the homes of Muslims.
The Treaty of Najran, cited in Baladhuri’s (d. 892 CE) Kitab Futuh al-Buldan, reads: “No bishop is to be driven from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, and no hermit from his hermitage” (online edition). The Treaty of Najran, which was recorded by Ibn Qayyim, prior to 1350 CE, is very similar to the version published by Ibn Sa‘d in the 9th century. It reads: “No bishop is to be driven from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, and no priest from his priestly vocation. No changes will be made with regards to their rights.”
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai which was placed in the Ottoman Treasury in 1517 CE, reads:
A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower, nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims.
We find the very same protections in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, which was recorded in 1538 CE and in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, which was printed in 1630 CE.
Although no Arabic version of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia is currently known to exist, it also contains a very similar clause:
Their building enterprises shall not be interfered with; their priests shall not be molested in the performance of their task… neither shall their churches be dismantled or destroyed, or their homes and mansions confiscated by Muslims, for mosques or residences…
And while a Persian version of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians survives, the Arabic is apparently no longer extant. Nonetheless, it conveys the same key components:
Leave their possessions alone, be it houses or other property, do no destroy anything of their belongings… their church buildings shall be left as they are, they shall not be altered, their priests shall be permitted to teach and worship in their down way… None of their churches are to be torn down, or altered into a mosque…
Enough with the repetition, you may think. However, its purpose is didactic. There are those who claim that the Covenants of the Prophet are 16th century forgeries. When that was proven to be false, they claimed that they were 10th century forgeries. However, even that has been proven to be false.
I am sorry to disappoint Islamophobic trolls who refuse to believe that any good could come from the Prophet or Islam; however, the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad were circulating in the 9th century, the 8th century, and yes, even the 7th century. They are what we call in Hadith Studies: mutawatir, transmitted by so many people, for so long, from the 7th century to the 21st century, that it is impossible to accept that they all agreed upon a falsehood.
There are those who claim that I am full of it. I cannot say what “it” is. I can only say that it is not chocolate ice cream. There are those who accuse me of lying about the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Hundreds upon hundreds of scholars, writers, political and religious authorities have authenticated the Covenants of the Prophet from the 7th century to the 21st century. Are all these sources, half of whom are Muslim authorities, including myself, full of “it” as well? Yes; yes, we are: we are full of chocolate ice cream! Not only do we make Islam palatable: we make it down right delicious. Provecho! L’chaim! Salud! A votre santé! To your health!
Islam, true Islam, traditional, civilizational Islam, balances justice with mercy. It creates a tolerant, pluralistic, society, governed by the rule of law, which provides equality and equity for all its citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, gender, social class or economic status.
“I have left two things,” said the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, “the Qur’an and my Sunnah” (Malik and Muslim). The Qur’an and the Sunnah, which includes the Constitution of Madinah and the Covenants of the Prophet, provide fundamental and universal civil and human rights. Islam, and by Islam, I mean traditional Islam, I mean classical Islam, provides safety and security for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
As al-Sharif Ahmad ibn Muhammad Sa‘d al-Hasani al-Idrisi al-Azhari, the Founder of the Ihsan Institute and a distinguished graduate from al-Azhar University, has stated, the Covenants of the Prophet “serve to clarify the true meanings of the verses of the Qur’an.”
So, let us hold fast to the Qur’an, in its true, traditional, balanced, orthodox, mainstream, normative, and moderate interpretation, and avoid excesses and extremes. Let us hold fast to the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, particularly the Constitution of Madinah and the Covenants of the Prophet with the People of the Book.
I close with greetings of peace: peace be upon you, que la paix soit sur vous, que la paz sea con ustedes, salaamu ‘alaykum, and shalom aleichum. And Allah Akbar, God is the Greatest. We need to reclaim the takbir.
Presented at Sound Vision’s Annual Seerah Conference in Chicago, Illinois, on December 3, 2017