Before the advent of Islam, there were polytheists, Sabeans, Zoroastrians, Hanifis, Christians and Jews living in the Arabian Peninsula. No one particular group was dominant on the peninsula. While Christianity consisted of opposing parties, the Jews were a religious community that had not been chosen among the Arabs. Of the neighbors of the peninsula at the time of the advent of Islam, Iran was dominated by Zoroastrians, while in Byzantium and its ally Abyssinia Christianity was supreme.
At the time when Islam was revealed idolatry was dominant in Mecca. The other religious groups made up a minority. There were almost no Jews in Mecca. They only came to Mecca for brief periods for reasons of trade. The verses, "Those who were given the Book (before) know him as they know their own sons" (1) and "Those to whom We granted the Book before rejoice in what is sent down to you." (2) Speak of the People of the Book who know Prophet Muhammad as they know their own sons. As there were no Jews in Mecca, this must refer to the Christians. In fact, when the first revelation came to Prophet Muhammad his wife Khadijah took him to her cousin Waraqa b. Nawfal, who was a Christian. He said that what had come to Muhammad was the same as that which had come to Moses, and that if Waraqa b. Nawfal were to live he would help Muhammad. Some commentators say that the verses of the Qur'an, which state that there were People of the Book who believed in Prophet Muhammad (3), are referring to the Christians living in Mecca. In the Meccan period, due to the oppression of the polytheists, Prophet Muhammad recommended that some Muslims emigrate to Christian Abyssinia. Despite the political pressure of the Meccan polytheists, the Muslims were not oppressed in Abyssinia.
Other than the few hadith mentioned in the Meccan period, Prophet Muhammad had no relationship with the People of the Book at this time. The Meccan period passed in struggles with the polytheists, and therefore Prophet Muhammad's relationships with the People of the Book generally occurred during the Medinan period. Here we will examine these relationships under the titles of belief, law and human relations.
Relationships in the Field of Law
Prophet Muhammad is known as the last prophet to be sent and one that was sent to all of humanity. (4) He desired that everybody he invited to Islam became Muslim and was always extremely saddened when his invitation was refused. In response to this, in the following verses, "If your Lord had so willed, all who are on the earth would surely have believed, all of them"(5); "... had Allah so willed, He could surely have gathered them all to the true guidance"(6); "And say, 'The truth from your Lord (has come in this Qur'an).' Then, whoever wills (to believe), let him believe; and whoever wills (to disbelieve), let him disbelieve"(7) and other similar verses, Allah informs us in a very clear way that on the matter of belief people are free to do as they wish. In addition, Allah says, "Then, if they turn away, what rests with you, (O Messenger,) is only to convey the Message fully and clearly."(8), "But if they turn away, - then only upon you is [responsibility for] clear notification."(9), "If you turn away (from obedience to them), then know that what rests with Our Messenger is only to convey the Message fully and clearly."(10) These and other similar verses (11) make it clear that the Prophet's duty to the non-believers was only to inform (tabligh) and that he was not to force them. (12) Allah orders that, "Do not argue with those who were given the Book save in the best way, unless it be those of them who are given to wrongdoing. Say (to them), "We believe in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you, and your Allah and our Allah is one and the same. We are Muslims wholly submitted to Him."(13), "Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and argue with them in the best way possible."(14) In this way we are told that any argument or debate with the People of the Book should be carried out on a basis of peace.
In fact, after Prophet Muhammad had immigrated to Medina he began by speaking of the book that had been revealed to the Jews and the Allah they believed in. He stated that he was speaking of the same religion that Abraham, Moses and Jesus had been commanded to reveal. (15) The qibla at that time was Jerusalem, which was the direction of prayer for the Jews. For matters on which there had been no revelation, the Jewish ways were preferred, and in this way, the polytheists opposed to the matter. (16) The Muslims fasted on the day of Ashura in the month of Muharram, which was a day on which the Jews also fast. (17) The Muslims are allowed to eat food prepared by the Jews and to marry their chaste women, (18) and tales of the Beni Israel (Children of Israel) were told. (19) The Jews were reminded that the beliefs contained in the Torah were mandatory for them and they were invited to Islam.
In the Medinan period Prophet Muhammad generally invited the leading Christians to Islam via letters. In these letters, he called himself the Messenger of Allah, and invited the Christians to be servants of Allah, the One and Unique. He stated that there was no Allah but Allah, and called upon them to run to nothing but Him. Prophet Muhammad stated that Islam accepted the prophets who had come before him; Prophet Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus. Jesus was the soul and word that was destined to pure Mary by Allah's will. "I am the closest to Jesus, the son of Mary among the people in this world and the afterlife" (20) he stated, expressing his closeness to Jesus. Prophet Muhammad stated that as long as the Nejran Christians worshipped the cross, believed that Jesus was the son of Allah and ate pork they could not be Muslims.
Prophet Muhammad invited Jews and Christians to Islam. He told the Jews that "Ezra was a son of Allah", the Christians that "The Messiah is the son of Allah," and "Allah is the third of the three" (21) thus telling them that their beliefs were misled. (22) He reminded them that although they had been ordered to worship the One and Only Allah the Jews had turned their rabbis into lords, as had the Christians their priests. (23) He made clear the error of the People of the Book in believing in some of the prophets and not in the others. (24) He discussed the incorrect beliefs about the Prophets; for example, that Prophet Solomon had performed magic. (25) He said that the Jews and the Christians had distorted their books. (26) He told them where they were mistaken in their beliefs, but he never forced them to become Muslim. In fact, a short time after the emigration (in the first year of the emigration) Prophet Muhammad made an agreement with the Jews who were in Medina, which stated that they were free in regards to their religion. Prophet Muhammad told Safiye, a Hayber Jew, that she could keep her religion if she wished or she could choose Islam. When she chose Islam, he married her. In the letters he sent to the governors, he gave the following instructions, "Do not refuse the desire of those Jews and Christians who wish to keep their religion";"There can be no oppression of those who remain with their old religion";"Do not oppress anyone or force them to abandon their religion." When he appointed Muaz b. Jabal as governor of Yemen he told him that he was going into a society of the People of the Book and that he should beware of their curses and be just. (27)
Prophet Muhammad allowed the Jews the freedom to run the foundation that carried out religious and educational functions at one period in Medina, known as the Beytu'l Midras and he did not interfere in religious matters. The agreement made with the Najran Christians prevented the obstruction of religious leaders carrying out their duties and secured the churches from being destroyed; this is a document that provides freedom in every matter of worship. He allowed the Najran Christians to pray in the Prophet's Mosque, and when Hayber was conquered he returned the Torah Copies to the Jews, another example of the respect he showed to the holy objects of other religions and the worship of their members.
All of these practices show that Prophet Muhammad's relationship with the unbelievers, whom he invited to Islam, was within the framework of the following verses, "There is no compulsion in the Religion." (28), and "You have your religion, and I have my religion" (29), and "And do not (O believers) revile the things or beings that they have, apart from Allah" (30), and "And say, ‘The truth from your Lord (has come in this Qur'an).’ Then, whoever wills (to believe), let him believe; and whoever wills (to disbelieve), let him disbelieve." (31) The fact that Prophet Muhammad forbade his commanders whom he sent to battle killing women, the elderly or those who were worshipping in temples (32) supports this. Moreover, in other examples it is shown that the Prophet always demonstrated a tolerant attitude to the worship and holy relics of the religions of others.
II. Legal Relationships
It would be appropriate to take the legal relationships of Prophet Muhammad with the People of the Book under two separate headings: relationships in times of peace and in times of war.
2.1. In Times of Peace
Prophet Muhammad, who told the People of the Book after inviting them to Islam that they could remain in their own religion and that there would be no oppression wielded against them, particularly emphasized that their lives and property were under protection. In fact, he said, "One who unjustly takes the life of a person with whom there is a treaty will not even receive the scent of heaven even though the scent of heaven can be detected a distance of forty years” (33) thus warning the Muslims with this description of the situation in the afterlife of those who abused the lives of non-Muslims with whom there was an agreement. Moreover, Prophet Muhammad forbade harboring any murderer who had taken the life of a person with whom there was an agreement.
The legal relations with the People of the Book with whom Prophet Muhammad had an agreement were written up after the emigration to Medina and started with what is known as the Medina Agreement. When Prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina, there were about 5,000 Jews there and this agreement was made for the purpose of living with this society in peace. The actual aim of this agreement was to secure peaceful co-existence with the members of the different religions who lived in Medina. They were to defend Medina together against outside attacks; in particular the Jews were not to help the Meccan polytheists. The Jewish community had legal autonomy. They were permitted to deliver decisions according to the Torah. (34) Thus, it was intended that they live together in peace. Prophet Muhammad made a similar agreement with the Christians, in particular the Najran Christians. In these agreements were the following stipulations:
a. Their lives, goods, church, in fact, everything, be they scarce or plentiful, belonged to them and was not to be touched.
b. They had freedom of religion and their religious leaders were not to be prevented from carrying out their duties.
c. They were free in administrative duties. As expressed in the verses, "...those who fulfill their covenant when they have engaged in a covenant" (35), and "O you who believe! Fulfill the bonds (you have entered into with Allah and with people)." (36) Prophet Muhammad remained faithful to the agreements he made, and as long as the other side did not violate the treaties, he did not interfere in the freedom of religion, conscience or legislation of the People of the Book.
2.2. In Times of War
In the verses, "Do not argue with those who were given the Book save in the best way" (37), and "And if they (the enemies) incline to peace, incline to it also..." (38), the priority and essence of Prophet Muhammad continuing his relationship with the People of the Book in an atmosphere of peace is emphasized. This situation ensured that the reality of Prophet Muhammad's life was peace, and that war was only a temporary situation. According to him, war was something that should only be implemented when there was no other option. In fact, the Prophet ordered, "O people, do not desire to encounter the enemy. Ask for peace Allah. If you are forced to encounter the enemy, endure." (39) Thus, he expressed that it is peace, not war, which is the desirable state. However, despite all of Prophet Muhammad's efforts to continue the peace during the Medinan period, the Jews broke the agreement and preferred to cooperate with the Meccan polytheists.
The Jews searched for opportunities to assassinate the Prophet, (40) they recommended to each other that they should "believe" in the Qur'an during the day and deny it at night in order to make fun of the Qur'an, (41) that they should utter that Allah's hands were tied, that he was not generous, (42) thus insulting the beliefs of the Muslims. They also tried to spread the idea that idolatry was superior to Islam, and in particular, after the Battle of Badr, they cooperated with the polytheists on the matter of attacking the Muslims and in this way violated the treaty. As stated in the following verses, "If you have strong reason to fear treachery from a people (with whom you have a treaty), return it to them, so that both parties should be informed of its termination. Surely Allah does not love the treacherous" (43), and "But if they break their pledges after their treaty (with you) and assail your religion, then fight with those leaders of unbelief..." (44) Prophet Muhammad was forced to fight against them. It can be seen that the battles of Uhud and Trench were legitimate defensive actions on the part of Prophet Muhammad, as were the battles with the Jews, which were based on two basic aims: to punish them for the violation of the treaties and to punish those who had helped the enemy. Prophet Muhammad's aim was not to kill people, but to defeat the enemy with the least possible loss of life on both sides. The fact that the total number of dead in the battles in which Prophet Muhammad participated was approximately 400 on both sides confirms this. In addition he commanded, "Do not kill the elderly, children or women" (45) and in another hadith he forbade the killing of those who were worshipping in the monasteries or those priests who were not fighting in the battle, (46) thus preventing harm coming to those who were not active participants in the battle. From these we can understand that Prophet Muhammad avoided any behavior that would harm the honor or self-respect of a person, whether in times of peace or war.
III. Human Relationships
The Jews would greet Prophet Muhammad with the greeting "as-samu alaykum" (Death be upon you) when they encountered him. Prophet Muhammad replied "wa alaykum" (And upon you). When A'isha replied, "Death and curses be upon you" the Prophet said "A'isha, be careful! Allah loves those who act with mercy in everything; it is enough to say ‘wa alayka' (And upon you)." (47) These expressions show that he encouraged the Muslims to work to establish good relations with the members of the different religions, despite negative behavior.
The Prophet would sometimes discuss the problems the Jews were encountering and visit them in the Beytu'l Midras where the Torah was read. (48) He stood up when a Jewish funeral passed in front of him, and he recommended that the other Muslims do the same. (49) He made a Jewish boy happy by frequently visiting the boy when he was ill. (50) Prophet Muhammad expressed the priority given to close neighbors saying, "Even if your neighbor is a Jew, they have prior rights." (51) Prophet Muhammad entered into trade relations with the Jews. In fact, Prophet Muhammad purchased some provisions a Jewish trader, and left his armor as collateral. (52) When Prophet Muhammad died, it is reported that his armor was in the possession of a Jew in lieu of payment. (53) Some of the Companions entered into debt trading with Jews and requested help Prophet Muhammad on this matter. (54)
The information given in the sources shows that the Prophet and the Muslims had a relationship with the Jewish population in times of peace, they greeted them, visited them, traded with them, went into debt to them, and were good neighbors.
The statements of the ambassador Hatib b. Abu Balta, who was sent by Prophet Muhammad to the leader of Egypt, show the attitude of Prophet Muhammad to non-Muslims; of all the people Prophet Muhammad invited to Islam, those who were the most fierce were the Quraysh. The Jews were those who showed the greatest enmity, and those who were closest were the Christians. "You will most certainly find that, of the people, the most violent in enmity toward the believers are the Jews and those who associate partners with Allah. And you will most certainly find that the nearest of them in affection to the believers are those who say: "We are Christians," (55) verifies this observation.
The agreement that was carried out in the framework of the Medina agreement with the non-Muslims shortly after the arrival in Medina shows that Prophet Muhammad was searching for good relationships with these different sectors and it makes clear his intentions. In this agreement not only was there freedom of religion and conscience, but it was also based on the fundamentals of good reciprocal relations. In the treaties that were drawn up one can see the special care given to the rights of life, property and religion. Despite the hostile attitude demonstrated against the Muslims, including assassination attempts against Prophet Muhammad, until the situation became clearly one of war there were no armed struggles on the part of the Muslims. Before battle, during the battle and afterwards there was no hostile attitude displayed against holy objects. After the battles, the Muslims behaved justly and they were reminded that it was forbidden to abuse any property of those with whom they had agreements.
Prophet Muhammad sincerely desired that everyone would become Muslim, but also tried to live together with those who wished to continue following their religions. In brief, the relationship of Prophet Muhammad with the non-Muslims was not one of oppression, but of justice, not one of cruelty, but of mercy. He never employed oppression in delivering the message of religion.
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1. 'Al-An´am 6:20.
2. Al-Ra´d, 13:36.
3. Al-Qasas, 28:51-52.
4. Al-Saba, 34:28, Al-Ahzab, 33:40.
5. Yunus, 10:99.
6. Al-An´am 6:35.
7. Al-Kahf, 18:29.
8. An-Nahl, 16:82.
9. Al 'Imran, 3:20.
10. Al-Ma'ida, 5:92.
11. Al-Ma'ida, 5:99, Ar-Ra'd, 13:40, An-Nahl, 16:22, An-Nur, 24:54, Al-Ankabut, 29:18, Ya-sin, 36:17.
12. Al-Al-Ghaashiyah, 88:22.
13. Al-Ankabut, 29:46.
14. An-Nahl, 16:125.
15. Ash-Shura, 42:13.
16. Bukhari, "Merits of the Helpers", 52.
17. Bukhari, "Fasting", 69.
18. Al-Ma'ida, 5:5.
19. Abu Dawud, "Knowledge", 11.
20. Bukhari, "Prophets", 48; Muslim "Fedail", 143.
21. Al-Ma'ida, 5:73, At-Tawba, 9:30,31.
22. Bukhari, "Prophets", 48.
23. At-Tawba, 9:31.
24. Al-Baqara, 2:102.
25. Al-Baqara, 2:75, 79, An-Nisa, 4:46.
26. Bukhari, "Magazi", 60.
27. Al-Baqara, 2:256.
28. Al-Kafirun, 109:6.
29. Al-An'am, 6:108.
30. Al-Kahf, 18:29.
31. Bukhari, "Jihad", 146, Abu Dawud, "Jihad", 121.
33. Bukhari, "Jizya", 5, Abu Dawud, "Jihad", 153.
34. Bukhari, "Muharibin", 37.
35. Al-Baqara 2:177.
36. Al-Ma'ida, 5:1.
37. Al-Ankabut, 29:46.
38. Al-Anfal, 8:61.
39. Bukhari, "Jihad", 112, Muslim "Jihad", 19-20.
40. Abu Dawud "Haraj", 23.
41. Al-'Imran, 3:72.
42. Al-Ma'ida, 5:64.
43. Al-Anfal, 8:58.
44. At-Tawba, 9:12.
45. Abu Dawud, "Jihad", 82.
46. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 1,300.
47. Bukhari, "Adab", 35.
48. Abu Dawud, "Hudud", 26.
49. Bukhari, "Funerals", 50, Abu Dawud, "Funerals",47.
50. Abu Dawud, "Funerals", 5.
51. Abdurrazzaq ibn Hammam Musannaf, VIII, 84.
52. Bukhari, "Buyu", 14.
53. Bukhari, "Oaths and Vows", 2,5.
54. Bukhari, "Buyu", 51, "Loans", 10.
55. Al-Ma'ida, 5:82.