The Prophet Muhammad (saw)

The Historical Basis of Tolerance in Islam

"That which We have revealed to thee of the Book is the Truth, -- confirming what was (revealed) before it: For God is assuredly -- with respect to his servants - well acquainted and fully observant." (Al-Fatir, 31)

"Nothing is said to thee that was not said to the apostles before thee." (Al-Fussilat, 43)

The idolaters were the first to be addressed by Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The People of the Book, that is, the Jews and Christians, encountered Islam later on. It is quite difficult to say within the framework of universal moral norms that were part of the cultural structure of that time if there was much that the teachings of Islam had in common with the idolaters.

Whereas, as Christianity and Judaism are religions based on divine revelation, they have many common values with Islam, regardless of how many changes or modifications they have undergone. Many times the Quran has addressed them, pointing out their common denominators and minimum-shared values, inviting the People of the Book to think one more time.

Taking place in the early years of the call to Islam, the dialogue between Jafer-i Tayyar and the Abyssinian king, Najashee, who was highly respected by the Muslims and received praise and commendation from the Prophet, is a very important indication and proof of the common shared values. After being personally informed about Islam by the Muslims, Najashee pointed to a line he had drawn with his cane and said, "The difference between us is no more than this." He showed great interest and consideration to these people who were seeking political asylum.

While there was such common ground with the People of the Book, there was not even a set of shared values regarding the universal right to life with the idolaters. It is known that there was even serious resistance regarding the banning of killing and burying female children alive.

Common Historical Base / Cultural Unity

As between Islam and polytheism there was no common point on any axis that had value Islam avoided making contact with the latter. For, as has already been expressed, the old polytheistic viewpoint had been developed on a foundation of opposition that was conditioned to maintain the status quo of the period.

The dominant culture and class in the Age of Ignorance, polytheism and the idolaters, were at the same time in the midst of a lynch or exile-hysteria and a paranoia that did not see others as having the right to live. Opposition to an understanding that did not allow for "the other" or its imposition is often counted by struggle until it becomes clear that you are the "other". Islam's experience with its first interlocutor occurred in this way.

From the beginning, Islam had a dialogue with Christians and Jews, and used the neutral name "People of the Book" for them, as they had a distinct system of values and a past tradition. However, because the reactions of the idolaters and hypocrites were determined by their behavior, with time, as these matters  were debated, their values became clearer, and as the differences emerged they too began to be called by neutral names; yet there was no common culture or shared values.

Freedom of belief is one of the fundamental aspects of Islamic teaching. Along with reserving all rights that are connected to this belief, it is a person's right to express their belief and thought.

While conveying the truth to his interlocutors, the Prophet explained Islam's clear approach according to the alternatives. Throughout history it is important that the consecutive arrival of prophets who were all followers of the same teaching, that is, they defended universal moral values, is something that is shared by all of humanity. This is an important shared value and an important cultural common denominator for all who find themselves with such a historical background or whoever defines themselves in this way. The Quran frequently refers to this subject and calls to people to think again. In particular, the Abrahamic tradition is shown as an era of purification, cleansing and is a time that serves as a reference. The prayers made for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Abraham, and their family, relatives and followers during the daily Muslim prayer both reinforces common cultural denominators and develops a feeling of loyalty. The prayer and refrain that are repeated during the five daily prayers is a serious form of worship that renews agreement and instills respect, love and loyalty for the past.

Islam's most distinguishing aspect is its attitude towards other sacred books and prophets and the very clear expression of respect and love for them. In this respect, there is nothing that members of other religions can teach Muslims and there are no extra values that they can want them to believe in. For after believing in the Quran and the last prophet, Muhammad, as a natural requirement of being Muslim, they believe in and respect the Old Testament and the Gospels, the Psalms of David, Moses, Jesus and other books and prophets. Without these, Islam and being Muslim does not mean anything. Well then, who can convey to whom what and which values do not exist?

Anyone who says that they are a Muslim cannot reject any of the books or prophets mentioned in the Quran or hadith (sayings of the Prophet), nor can they be disrespectful to them.

This knowledge and these commands regarding common values and cultural unity were given to Prophet Muhammad, the model of humanity, in the Quran in the following way:

  • Protect the values that are common to you and the People of the Book. These values are not worshipping anything but God, not giving partners to Him, and not abandoning Allah or ascribing divinity to someone else. If they do not agree with these values, let them know that you are Muslim and will protect these values.
  • They talk back and forth about Abraham; some saying that he was Christian and others saying that he was Jewish; they try and have him belong to themselves and they constantly debate this among themselves. They talk on every subject, whether they are knowledgeable about it or not; whereas, the Old Testament and the Gospels were revealed after Abraham. He was neither a Jew nor a Christian nor an idolater. He was a true and complete Muslim.
  • In addition, those closest to him and those who have gained his friendship are Prophet Muhammad and those who follow him.
  • Regardless of what the People of the Book do, they want to deter you from your path and make you stray. However, they are not aware that it is they who are on the wrong path.
  • O, People of the Book! Although you see and know the truth, why do you deny Allah's verses?
  • O, People of the Book! Why are you mixing the truth and falsehood and knowingly hiding the truth?
  • Return to the true path, conform to the religion of Abraham, who was never an idolater.
  • O, Prophet! Tell them: Allah conveyed to me a straight path, that is, the religion of Abraham; he believed in Allah and was never an idolater.
  • Jews and Christians say, "Become Jewish/Christian and you will attain the true path." Tell them you are a member of the religion of Abraham, who was a haneef who never touched idolatry, and that you are following in his footsteps. You are truly on the straight path. Do not pay attention to the Jews and Christians who debate with you on this subject.
  • Explain in clear language your viewpoint and thoughts regarding the common value and common denominators of humanity and the prophetical heritage, and say: We declare our faith in Allah and what was revealed to us, which was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the sons of Jacob, and what was given by their Lord to Moses, Jesus and the other prophets. We do not distinguish among them. We surrender only to Him.
  • Leave aside the claims and consolations of the Jews and Christians that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and their progeny are all Jews or Christians. Does Allah know better or do they?
  • Which of the prophets that came before did We command to take gods other than Allah? What a question; could such a thing be?
  • O, Prophet! Tell the Jews: If your speech is true and you are truthful people, bring a more truthful book than that which came to me or to Moses from Allah's presence, and I will conform to that.
  • Let those who say that Muhammad made up the Quran call upon all those who think like them if they trust themselves and let them come up with something similar!
  • Let those who slander the Prophet and pursue tricks know that the Prophet was only commanded to serve Allah, not to take partners to Him, and to call humans only to his path.
  • Changing the qibla which you earlier turned to from Jerusalem and directing you towards the Kaaba was made as a measure of the sincerity of the People of the Book and to distinguish between those who conform and do not conform to you.
  • Except for the things that Jacob forbade, all kinds of food was permissible to you before the Old Testament was revealed. If you are truly honest, say that it is true.
  • O, ignorant ones! Are you recommending to me, a prophet, servanthood to something other than Allah? The common command made to all prophets in the past was: Serve only Allah and be thankful to Him alone. If you assign partners to Him, all your work will be in vain and you will regret this. You will be miserable.

Regarding the minimum common points and cultural unity indicated by the framework of the Islamic message, the verses which introduce general responsibility regarding behavior and expression to all, in particular to Prophet Muhammad, show more clearly the view of the Quran on this subject.

Forbearance / Tolerance / Reconciliation and Social Contract

 "Ah! Ye are those who love them, but they love you not, - though ye believe in the whole of the Book" (Ali Imran, 119).

While expanding its borders via developments in the means of communication, the world, paradoxically, is at the same time narrowing its areas of specialty. Differences that emerge due to an increase in relations with the environment are making themselves felt. Attitudes that are developed in view of these differences are reflected as cause and effect.

In order to reduce to a minimum the negative effects and tension that emerge with differences and in order for those who are different to attain a better and higher state, it should be thought that these differences are a vehicle opening new horizons in the minds of humanity and thus differences will be approached with a love that surrounds the universe. Only then we will be able to see such differences, not as markers of division or fragmentation that should be eliminated, but rather as the life perceptions and life styles of people with different characteristics and capabilities.

It is a law of human nature that each of us is unique and different from others. When uniformity is looked at from this point of view it seems strange. For the essence of every creature is singular and unique. They are the unique, unequalled creatures and works of the Highest Creator. They are each a divine breath.

Human beings have a physical aspect that dislikes and reacts violently against those things with which it is not familiar; this must be trained and controlled. That is why the prophets were sent to civilize man's physical/primitive aspects. Islam and the many words and actions of the prophets are examples for humanity in this regard; they have left behind them a beautiful inheritance. Who knows, perhaps the idea that "the differences in the ummah (community) and the scope and depth of the perceptions of these differences is a mercy which is a means for expansion and is suitable for expansion" 3  This is an expression in words by scholars that allows for an intellectual flexibility in the interpretation of Islam. Differences are not a potential source of conflict, but rather a potential source of power. Agreement and opposition/polarization are cultural nuances by which culture is nurtured. Ideas are born and begin to develop in the world of thought and inquiry and they are nurtured by differences. At least, laziness, stagnation, doubt, fear and oppression are born from the monotony of the status quo, sameness and uniformity.

There should be no acceptance of oppression for any reason whatsoever in regard to color, belief, or any other personal choices that should be made with free will, nor, in fact, for any other reason. The basic rights that are inherent in being human do not allow for such intervention and these are inalienable rights.

In the Era of Happiness there was a social agreement in which everyone defined themselves as they wished and there was a social structure in which all felt safe; this was based on justice. The intellectual texture of this social formation had been determined by the Quran and Prophet Muhammad was held responsible for this like everyone else. A socio-political and socio-cultural fabric was created that did not permit anyone to be changed by force - this was something to which everyone had to conform and to which there was no immunity...

There are many examples of the great tolerance of the Prophet who was sent as a mercy to mankind. However, there are statements from the Quran describes and defines this best: "Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this message" (Al-Kahf, 6). "It may be thou frettest thy soul with grief, that they do not become Believers" (Al-Shuaraa, 3). The Prophet taught us many virtues in regard to social relations through interaction with the Jews, Christians and the members of other religions.

If historical examples of members of different religions who live together in harmony and accord in an environment in which there is no imposition of any policy or of assimilation are to be sought, they will be found only in those regions where there has been Islamic and Muslim dominance. In this respect, Islam's definition of the "other" offers a world in which differences are given the opportunity to flourish without any threat or danger to different thoughts or beliefs and in which there are no attempts to encourage assimilation.

In the Quran, which is in itself a system of human virtues and qualities, the following information and commands, which are related to tolerance, agreement and social contract, were given to Prophet Muhammad:

  • Let Muslims forgive those who do not believe in the Doomsday and resurrection, for Allah will punish everyone according to what they have done. The benefit of good deeds is to the doer; the harm of evil deeds is again to the doer.
  • Ask Jews and Christians if they have surrendered to Allah. If they have surrendered, that means they have found the true path. If they reject it, your only duty is to make the call. Allah sees and knows everything.
  • Call them to stand up for the shared values and common denominator between you; Do not worship anyone but Allah, and do not take partners to Him; let no one deify another. If they do not accept this, then do not persist or argue. Say you are Muslims and that you will stand up for these values, even if you are on your own.
  • Do not take seriously the arguments of the People of the Book that Abraham was a Jew or a Christian. Why do they debate this topic with you? The Old and New Testaments were revealed after the lifetime of Abraham. Then, how could Abraham be Jewish or Christian? This is the way they are! They debate subjects about which they have knowledge, but they do the same on subjects about which they do not have knowledge. Allah knows best. Abraham was neither Jewish nor Christian nor an idolater. He was a true Muslim.
  • Be careful, some of the People of the Book want to deter you from your path and cause you to stray. However, they only confuse themselves, but they are not aware of it.
  • O, People of the Book! Why do you deny God's verses, although you know better? Why do you mix truth and falsehood and knowingly hide the truth?
  • O, Prophet! If the People of the Book side with peace, refrain from war. Side with peace!
  • We cursed the Jews for breaking their word to God and We hardened their hearts. They corrupted and changed their books. Except for a few, you will always see betrayal from them. However, still forgive them! Do not be affected by their betrayal! Allah loves those who do good.
  • Do not allow the Jews who act in darkness with the hypocrites disturb you! It is obvious that they listen to lies and constantly eat what is forbidden. They spread false news. However, judge fairly among them. For Allah loves those who act with justice.
  • May Allah, Who is very merciful, give time to those in error! May they find the true path. However, when the time comes and they are tormented, those who are in trouble will be obvious and everyone will learn of their station and position.

Taking Sides and the Socio-Cultural Environment

"How (can there be such a league), seeing that if they get an advantage over you, they respect not in you the ties either of kinship or of covenant? With (fair words from) their mouths they entice you, but their hearts are averse from you; and most of them are rebellious and wicked" (Al-Tauba, 8).

"In a believer they respect not the ties either of kinship or of covenant! It is they who have transgressed all bounds" (Al-Tauba, 10).

"There is for an excellent example to follow in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people, ‘We are clear of you and whatever ye worship besides God: we have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever, - unless you believe in God and in Him alone" : but not when Abraham said to his father: ‘I will pray for forgiveness for thee, though I have no power (to get) aught on thy behalf from God.' (They prayed): ‘Our Lord! In Thee do we trust, and to Thee we do turn in repentance: to Thee is our final goal" (Al-Mumtahana, 4).

It is only possible to correctly perceive and interpret an environment in which one is found - generally and specifically  - if one correctly defines the socio-cultural, socio-economic, socio-political and psycho-social aspects of those who live in that environment. In this case, people who share the same environment can establish and develop a dialogue with one another, and the distance between them can be comprehended while relations continue on a conscious basis in a civilized atmosphere.

Environments in which "the other" feels safe enable opposing parties to determine their positions in an open, clear and honest way. Individuals who are straightforward, urbane, self-confident and who have character thrive in such a fertile society. What people who are raised in such societies say is meaningful. Individuals who are unable to easily define or express themselves cannot develop their behavior in a realistic way, and the same is true for the behavior of others towards them. For it cannot be known to what degree such behavior demonstrated in the external world is a product of their own free will and their own choice or to what degree it has been imposed by the conditions of the environment.

Speaking in general terms, the fundamental part of Prophet Muhammad's message introduced a value system that rested on bringing forth an individual's essential personality by allowing the freedom to proclaim ideas, thoughts and belief via their free will. The content of the Prophet's first words and his final words and his first attitude and his final attitude is the same. In other words, Prophet Muhammad was sincere. While his first form of behavior was  the command to read,  resurrection and action were the background and the final form of behavior was death, transformation and giving account. While declaring the first verbal command, which is clearly stating one's own identity and not bowing to the pressure of others, the last command  advises trust in Allah, the Almighty Lord, and to avoid courting the favor of anyone other than He.

It cannot be expected that a leader of such concepts, beliefs and thoughts would desire that others bow down before him. Only tolerance and forbearance can be expected from such a leader, from one who emphasizes the individual's identity and personal dignity to this extent.

On this platform, war and peace are considered legitimate and lawful and even sacred. Opening the doors of broad mercy to all, the Prophet who brought peace and happiness was also a prophet of war. Not everyone accepts the advice that is given. Good words are not enough to make those who commit evil into good humans.

We should consider neither the noisy bravado of unnecessary war nor the hypocrisy of advising peace while destroying the world. The Prophet clearly indicated his attitude towards war: "Do not desire war or wish to encounter the enemy. But when conditions demand it and you must meet and fight like a man. Do not turn your back and run away."

It should not be forgotten that while the Prophet tried to embrace all of humanity, he was a partisan. He was a man with certain beliefs and thoughts and he was a partisan of justice. He always took the side of justice or the injured party. When the Creator gave him the duty to be on the side of right and justice, Allah said, "Every people has a prophet. When their prophet comes, they are ruled with justice and he never oppresses them" (Al-Yunus, 47). The Prophet made his position clear when he said: "A society in which the weak cannot attain their rights without bowing down or being pushed around will not/should not find peace".

A system of human merit and virtue, the Quran provided the following knowledge and commands regarding the taking of sides and the socio-cultural environment to Prophet Muhammad:

  • This book, which you were not expecting to receive, is a mercy from your Lord. Take care not to stand by and support the non-believers!
  • If you fear betrayal and opposition to a peace agreement you have signed with a group, tell them you have cancelled the agreement. Allah does not like traitors.
  • If your enemies want peace, you too advocate peace!
  • With a few exceptions, you will always see betrayal from the Jews. But do not swerve from justice!
  • We sent you the Book so you would rule among people with justice. Do not side with traitors! Also, do not defend them!
  • When you see non-believers and hypocrites, their appearance will be likeable. You will think they are real men; when they speak, you will listen. They are like boards without souls. Their hearts are full of fear, and they think every sound is against them. They are truly enemies. Protect yourself from them. May Allah take their lives. How can they be so merciless and cowardly?
  • Struggle against the unbelievers and hypocrites who find every kind of intrigue against you to be acceptable; fight them as hard as they fight you! Their place is in Hell.
  • O, Prophet! When war is inevitable, encourage the believers to fight. Do not allow them to run away or to hang back. Know that twenty determined and patient men are equal to two hundred of them while one hundred is equal to one thousand of them; the righteous will be victorious.
  • Fight in Allah's way so that the strength and enthusiasm of the unbelievers will be defeated. Never bow down before them. Ignore their persecution.
  • Toss aside those who make a game or toy of religion and beliefs.
  • Unless you conform to their religions, you cannot please Jews or Christians. The true path is the one Allah has revealed to you. If after all this you conform to their desires, no friend or assistance will remain.
  • With Allah's permission, Gabriel has brought you this book as a guide to salvation. Let whoever is an enemy of Allah, the angels, the prophets, Gabriel or Michael know that Allah is the enemy of unbelievers.
  • Say to the Jews and Christians, "Since Allah is your Lord and ours, why are you arguing with us? We are responsible for what we do, and you are responsible for what you do."
  • O, believers! Do not make close friends with the "others". For they will not hesitate to commit evil against you, and they always want to get you into trouble. In fact, their antagonism and enmity are obvious from their words. The enmity they hide in their hearts is even greater.
  • You are such a people that even though they do not like you, you like them. You believe in all the books. They, however, bite their fingernails because of their animosity towards you. Let them be devastated by their hatred!
  • O, believers! Let whoever turns back from their religion know that Allah will bring a society of believers whom He loves and who love Him, who are humble and compassionate before believers, who make jihad in Allah's way, and who ignore any reproach. Your friends are only Allah, His Prophet, and the believers. Let whoever makes Allah, the Prophet and the believers their friends know that they will prevail.
  • O, believers! Do not make friends with those from the People of the Book who ridicule your religion nor be friends with the unbelievers! They also make fun of your being called to prayer. This stems from their lack of thoughtfulness.
  • Ask the People of the Book: Do you not like us because we only believe in Allah, this revelation and the revelations before now?
  • A warning and ultimatum from Allah and the Prophet to the idolaters who made an agreement with him before! O, idolaters! Know well that Allah will make the unbelievers miserable and abject. "Allah and His Prophet have no ties with the idolaters."
  • O, Muhammad! Give tidings to the unbelievers of a torture full of sorrow! Only those idolaters with whom you make an agreement and who keep the agreement, not supporting anyone at your expense, are exempt from this judgment. Fulfill the term of their agreements. Allah loves those who avoid injustice. When the sacred months are over, kill the idolaters where you find them. Catch them, imprison them and wait for them from every observation point. If they repent, pray in the correct manner and pay charitable alms, then set them free.
  • If someone from the idolaters asks for your mercy, do not give it until they hear and listen to Allah's word; then, if they still do not become Muslim, take them to a place where they will be safe. This tolerance is due to their being from a tribe that does not know.
  • What makes an oath valid for Allah and the Prophet? As long as they behave truthfully towards you, then you shall act truthfully, too. For Allah loves those who are true to their oaths. If they are victorious, they will observe neither their oath nor their agreements with you. Their exterior is different and their interior is different.
  • They recognize neither oaths nor agreements with believers, because they are aggressors. If they repent, pray and give charitable alms, they are your brothers. If they go back on their word after an agreement and attack your religion, fight their leaders. For they are men without oaths. If you fight against them, maybe they will end their disbelief.
  • O, believers! Will you not fight against a tribe that has broken their word, tried to remove the Prophet from his homeland, and started a war against you first? Or are you afraid of them? If you are true believers, know that Allah is more worthy of being feared.
For the entire text, please see Ali Akyuz, PhD Yasayan Kur´an Hz Peygamber, Istanbul 2006.


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