That the Prophet was trustworthy, defended justice, sided with the poor and weak, gave importance to familial relations, emphasized the rights of parents, and had many similar characteristics are all matters of historical record.
Religious Tradition in the Hejaz
The Hejaz Peninsula has come into contact with different cultural elements and religious traditions throughout history. This region stretches from Palestine and Jordan in the north, an area known as “the golden crescent”, to Mesopotamia. It has accommodated many different religious traditions, such as pagans in Assyria and Babylon, polytheistic Greeks, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Manichaeists. Apart from these religions, many secret religious movements which involve esotericism and mysticism have also thrived here.
This region was also where many prophets conveyed the faith of monotheism, which is based on the absolute unity of God. Prophets like Abraham, Zachariah, and Jesus invited people to accept God as the one superior power, to avoid associating partners with Him and to worship Him alone; these prophets struggled against polytheism, idolatry, cruelty, immorality and sedition. A similar situation also existed to the northwest of the Hejaz in Egypt, to the west of the Hejaz in Abyssinia, to the south of the Hejaz in Yemen, and to the east of the Hejaz in the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean. Many cultural and religious traditions that have been important for humanity have existed in these regions.
The Hejaz, located in the center of these regions, has been impacted by different political and religious traditions throughout history. The Hejaz was bordered by two powerful and important states: Byzantium representing Christianity in the north and the Sassanians in the northeast, representing Zoroastrianism. Judaism was another important religion at the time, and Jewish communities lived in various parts of the region. Apart from these, it is known that the religion and culture of the Nabatene kingdom, which ruled in the north of the Hejaz, were very influential for the Arabs in the area.
During the time of Prophet Muhammad, the people of the Hejaz region were, for the most part, polytheist Arabs. They were called ummis by the Jews and Christians living in the region. The term ummis refers to people who do not have a tradition of a revealed book in their religion. The polytheist Arabs called the Jews and Christians Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book). This term was related more to the Jewish assertion of their written tradition of revelation in order to distinguish themselves from the polytheist Arabs. The Jews lived mainly in the cities of Yathrib and Khaybar. Some Christians lived in important cities of the region such as Mecca, but Christianity was more prevalent to the north and south of the Hejaz.
Apart from the Jews and the Christians, in later sources a community called the Hanifs is mentioned. These people were important as they did not adhere to traditional Arabian polytheism. It is known that the Prophet (pbuh) made contact with these people from time to time, but it would not be correct to say that there was a close relationship between them. It is interesting that while the Arab idolaters did not react strongly against the People of the Book, who were different from them in terms of faith, they were violently opposed to Prophet Muhammad. The most important reason for this may be that the People of the Book were not considered to be very influential; in other words, it was not feared that they would threaten the social and political structure in Mecca.
These rules apply not only to Muslims, but to all human beings. Accordingly, Prophet Muhammad protected these basic rights in the society in which he lived, whether the people were Muslim or not. He made clear the approach that must be taken towards those non-Muslims who agreed to live in an Islamic state with the following words: “He who torments non-Muslims torments the Messenger of Allah. Accordingly, he who torments the Messenger of Allah torments Allah.”
The Basic Principles of the Prophet’s Relations with Non-Muslims
The most obvious facet of Prophet Muhammad’s attitude and behavior towards non-Muslims is the fact that he never compromised his moral virtues. As the Qur'an states, the Prophet always showed “the most beautiful morality” and presented humanity with the most beautiful example of this morality. He was referred to as “Trustworthy Muhammad” (Muhammad al-Amin) and acted this way toward all people, whether they were believers or not. Although non-Muslims, who were fiercely opposed to him, accused the Prophet of rejecting the traditional teachings, eradicating the common religion and concept of society, and changing the religion of their ancestors, they never accused him of deceit or mendacity in his words or attitude. In fact, the Prophet climbed Mount Safa during the early period of his prophethood in order to publicly convey the message of Islam to the people of Mecca. From this mountain, he addressed the people gathered there: “O Quraishis, if I inform you that an aggressor's army is behind this mountain advancing toward you and is ready to attack you, would you believe me?” They replied in unison, “Surely, we would consider such a report from you as absolutely correct, because we have never heard you telling a lie.” The Prophet continued: “Well, I inform you that a great torment is quite near you. Allah has told me to warn my closest kin. I can help you neither in this world nor in the afterlife if you do not proclaim that there is no god but Allah.” (Balazuri, I. 120). That the Prophet was trustworthy, defended justice, sided with the poor and weak, gave importance to familial relations, emphasized the rights of parents, and had many similar characteristics are all matters of historical record. That he had such a character indicates his uniqueness. The Prophet continuously warned the Muslims to treat the non-Muslims using positive behavior and attitudes. For instance, addressing Muaz, whom he had sent to Yemen as a governor, a place that was largely inhabited by the People of the Book at that time, he said: “Avoid being cursed by the aggrieved, because there is no barrier between their curse and that of Allah” (Bukhari, Zakat 41, 63, Magazi 60).
The Prophet showed endless patience while conveying the message of Islam to the non-Muslims. He never tired of speaking to people and sharing with them the monotheistic belief which is the essence of the religion. He was always sincere in his relationships and he abstained from useless polemics or quarrels. As is stated in the Holy Qur'an, the Prophet always treated people well; he used kind words and avoided rude and aggressive behavior. As a matter of fact, despite the rude behavior of some of the communities he encountered while spreading the religion, the Prophet curbed his anger and asked Allah for salvation for them. For instance, when Prophet Muhammad went to Ta'if with Zayd ibn Haritha in search of a freer environment in which to convey the message of Islam due to the increasing pressure in Mecca, the leading figures in Ta'if treated him rudely and ordered the people to stone him and drive him out of the city. In response to this sad experience, Prophet Muhammad prayed that the people of Ta'if would be granted deliverance. It was due to his kind and forgiving attitude that the people did not refuse to listen to his message; rather, they considered it and decided to accept Islam, despite their initial opposition.
It was due to his kind and forgiving attitude that the people did not refuse to listen to his message; rather, they considered it and decided to accept Islam, despite their initial opposition.
Prophet Muhammad never coerced people when communicating Islam to them. He never forced them to accept the messages he was conveying in line with the principle, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Al-Baqarah, 256). He did not listen to those who advised or desired the use of violence to bring people to Islam and always remained distant from such people.
The Prophet was always constructive in his relationships with people, whether they were believers or not. In particular, he maintained good relations, particularly in the Medinan period, with the Jewish tribes and the Arab polytheists with whom he lived as long as they did not show hostility towards the Muslims and did not violate any mutual treaties. Prophet Muhammad saw no harm in different communities living together, with each community contributing something useful to society. For instance, Muslims and non-Muslims were able to live together in peace in Medina under the agreement known as “The Medina Document”, which was signed by the different groups living there in the early Medinan period. The different communities undertook common responsibilities to form a society; this situation could continue as long as the provisions of the agreement were not violated. The Prophet even worked with some Arab polytheists who had been prisoners of war. For instance, after the Battle of Badr, the Muslims benefited from the ability to read and write that some of the idolaters and prisoners had: in return for their release, they taught the Muslims how to read and write.
d) Respect for Basic Rights and Freedoms
Prophet Muhammad focused on the humanity of the people he addressed, rather than on their differences in faith, ideas and lifestyles. In other words, he behaved in line with the idea that the people around him were human and possessed a life and soul. He did not base his actions on whether they were Muslim or not. For instance, in Medina the Prophet stood up before a passing funeral procession. His companions said to him: “O Prophet, that man was not a Muslim.” In response to this, the Prophet emphasized the quality of being human, a common feature that all people share, with the following words: “Did he not have a soul?”
The Prophet guaranteed the lives, property, honor and freedom of religion of the non-Muslims who lived among the Muslims, and he put a great emphasis on these issues. Islam gives great importance to the protection of basic values in the religion. As a matter of fact, the protection of life corresponds to the basic right to live, the protection of religion corresponds to the freedom of belief, the protection of the mind corresponds to the freedom of faith, the protection of property corresponds to the freedom to be able to earn capital and property, the protection of the generations corresponds to the freedom to have a family. These constitute the fundamental rights that humans have according to Islam. These rules apply not only to Muslims, but to all human beings. Accordingly, Prophet Muhammad protected these basic rights in the society in which he lived, whether the people were Muslim or not. He made clear the approach that must be taken towards those non-Muslims who agreed to live in an Islamic state with the following words: “He who torments non-Muslims torments the Messenger of Allah. Accordingly, he who torments the Messenger of Allah torments Allah.”
e) Invitation to Allah and the Truth
The most important mission of the Prophet was to convey the book of Allah to the people, to warn them and to invite them to Allah and the truth. In this context, the Prophet acted as a forewarner and reminder for everyone. There were times when people debated, argued and even struggled against him. However, he always maintained his principled attitude with patience and perseverance. For example, when the Christians of Najran and some other non-Muslim groups came to debate him and even to test his Prophethood, Prophet Muhammad debated them for days, explaining Islam to them. Although they strongly opposed and challenged him, the Prophet never resorted to violence or anger; he responded to them with calm reliance and commitment to Allah. When the non-Muslim guests of the Prophet and the Muslims requested a place to worship, he did not hesitate to invite them to pray in the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, one of the most sacred locations in Islam.
Prophet Muhammad never refused those who wanted to meet, speak or debate him; this attitude led many people to accept Islam.
In the revelations imparted in Mecca related to the attitudes to be adopted towards non-Muslims (for instance, Al-Ankabut 46-47), it is commanded that Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims behave kindly towards the People of the Book and that the commonalities between them be emphasized.
f) Ruling with Justice
Prophet Muhammad was always an unbiased arbitrator and leader who acted justly to defend the middle ground. His ability to arbitrate was recognized not only by the Muslims, but also by the non-Muslims. Probably for this reason, the non-Muslims asked him to arbitrate in the conflicts that occurred with the Muslims from time to time and in the problems they had amongst themselves. For some of the legal problems that occurred among the Jews, the Prophet ruled according to Jewish law. His commitment to justice and his reliable character were well-known long before he became a prophet. For example, he arbitrated in a disagreement among the Quraishis in Mecca regarding who should replace the al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone, considered holy even before the advent of Islam, as it is said to have descended from heaven) in the walls of the Ka'ba after renovations had been completed on the building. By finding a way for the tribes to cooperate equally in the task, he prevented a tense situation from escalating into war.
In daily life, Prophet Muhammad continued to have socio-economic relations with the non-Muslims; from time to time he gave and took loans from non-Muslims. There is a very interesting account of how the Prophet pawned his armor to a non-Muslim in return for a sum of money. According to Aisha, the Prophet passed away while his armor was still in pawn to a Jew (Bukhari, Jihad 89, Maghazi 86; Muslim, Musaqat 124-126). Also, within the scope of the good relationships he had established with other people, the Prophet always accepted invitations from non-Muslims and listened to them. In fact, once he accepted an invitation from a Jewish man who then tried to assassinate him.
g) Guarding the Cultural Differences
Although Prophet Muhammad guarded the basic rights and laws of the non-Muslims in terms of human relations, he always took care to be different from them in terms of culture and tradition. He emphasized that Muslims should take care not to resemble non-Muslims in their traditions or the way they cut or wore their hair and beards. In many of his speeches, the Prophet warned the Muslims about these points. For example, he said, “Jews and Christians never dye their hair. You should not act as they do.” (Bukhari, Anbiyâ 50, Libâs 67). On the issue of how to call the people to prayer, the Prophet did not approve of the idea of using horns or bells since these practices would resemble those of the Jews and Christians.
In his attitudes towards non-Muslims, Prophet Muhammad never exhibited a collective approach that placed everybody on the same level; he always was aware that people have different strengths. It is significant that in the Meccan period he sent some Muslims who were overburdened by the oppression of the idolaters to Abyssinia, the state of the Christian ruler who was known for his justice, and said; “… That place is a land of truth. Stay there until Allah saves you from your predicament.” On the other hand, it is known that the non-Muslims, polytheists and the People of the Book occasionally were violent, hateful and hostile to the Prophet and the Muslims and their envy and jealousy of them was evident. The Holy Qur'an explicitly mentions the attitudes of the non-Muslims towards the Muslims, in particular those of the Jews and Christians who are considered the People of the Book. In the revelations imparted in Mecca related to the attitudes to be adopted towards non-Muslims (for instance, Al-Ankabut 46-47), it is commanded that Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims behave kindly towards the People of the Book and that the commonalities between them be emphasized. It is emphasized that the People of the Book also believed in the revelation that had been revealed to the Prophet. When these statements related to the Meccan period are taken into account, it is obvious that it was expected that the People of the Book, who came from a tradition of revelations, would accept the revelations imparted to Muhammad.
These expectations continued for a while, even after the emigration of the Muslims to Medina. The Treaty of Medina, guaranteeing the coexistence of the various groups living in Medina with respect for each others’ presence and faith, was one of the first actions undertaken by Prophet Muhammad after arriving in Medina; this treaty also included the Jews and those who made treaties with them. Article 16 of this treaty guaranteed that the Jews who were the subjects of the Muslims according to the treaty would be allowed to continue their lives “without tyranny and without aid to their enemies.” Articles 18, 24, 37 and 45 specify the liabilities of those who signed the treaty in relation to issues of mutual defense and expenditures, whereas in Articles 23, 36 and 42 it is emphasized that Prophet Muhammad was the sole authority on the text of the treaty and the authority to be referred to in times of conflict. However this treaty did not last long and the Jewish tribes that had signed it violated the agreement one at a time. The Jews in Medina also strongly opposed the Muslims much like the Arab polytheists in Mecca did. Many Jews did not accept the revelation that Prophet Muhammad conveyed and acted together with the Arab polytheists against the Muslims.
The Holy Qur'an mentioned that the People of the Book fell into disagreement because of extreme actions and jealousy among themselves; in response to this, Allah told the believers the truth about their disagreements (Al-Baqarah 213, Al-i Imran 19). The Qur'an also emphasizes that Prophet Muhammad was sent to them to explain the things that they had concealed (such as Allah) and so that he could bring them an illuminating and clear book from Allah and invite them to allow the book of Allah to rule over them (Al-i Imran 23, Al-Maida 15, 18).
The Holy Qur'an invites the People of the Book to accept the common doctrine (tawheed) with these words: “O People of the Book! Come to an agreement between us and you: that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside Allah.” However, the People of the Book generally rejected this invitation; they opposed Islam and tried to entice the Muslims away from it due to their jealousy and resentment (Al-Baqarah 105, 109; Al-Maida 59). The Qur'an states that People of the Book knew that the Qur'an had been sent by Allah (Al-Anaam 114) and that they recognized the Holy Qur'an like they recognized their own sons (Al-Anaam 20), but were concealing the truth on purpose (Al-Baqarah 146). The People of the Book (Jews and Christians) claimed that they were “the sons of Allah and His loved ones” (Al-Maida 18); accordingly, only they (the Jews and Christians) would go to heaven (Al-Baqarah 111) and people must accept Judaism or Christianity in order to gain deliverance (Al-Baqarah 135). The Christians and Jews even continued the disagreement between them; the Jews said that the Christians were following something that was completely untrue while the Christians said that the Jews were not following the truth (Al-Baqarah 113). They also argued among themselves about Abraham, each claiming that Abraham was one of them (Al-i Imran 65-66). Due to their attitudes towards the Prophet and the Muslims, some of the non-Muslims developed arguments against the Holy Prophet and the Muslims whenever they could and insulted them by making plays on words. For instance, when they came across the Muslims, they sometimes said samun alaykum (may fire/torment be on you) instead of asalaam alaykum (may greetings/well-being be on you). In response to this, the Prophet told the Muslims to say “wa alaykum” (the same is upon you) when they came across them (See Bukhari, Salam 7, Isti’zan 22, Murteddin 4).
Naturally, some conflicts occurred between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. The Prophet always told the Muslims to protect the innocent people, even when these conflicts turned into fights or battles. By doing this, the Prophet ensured that no harm would come to those who did not participate in the battle, such as the elderly, women and children and those who had sought shelter in their homes or places of worship.