The Easter Sunday bombings that killed nearly 300 innocent people, mostly worshippers celebrating Easter, came as a rude shock to the Muslim community. Muslim families watched in disbelief as the events unfolded and the finger was pointed at ‘Islamic extremists.’ They could not believe that such a crime would be perpetrated in the name of a faith that has stood for peace for over a thousand years, a faith that has had as a basic teaching the tolerance of other faiths and a faith that values all life as inviolable.
But hold on. Why combine the word ‘Islamic’ with ‘extremist’? Does Islam teach us to be extremists? To answer this, we cannot look at some misguided people bearing Muslim names who are so arrogant in their views that they don’t even bother looking at what the Islamic faith really teaches. Had they done so, they would realise that they are the very antithesis of being a Muslim. Nay, they are even worse than animals, because even animals kill for a reason — these criminals kill for nothing except to satisfy their blood-lust at the expense of life, limb and the unspeakable suffering bereaved families have to go through an entire lifetime mourning their loved ones.
Easter Sunday incidents show evidence of the work of zealots of the worst ilk Muslims watched in disbelief as the events unfolded and the finger was pointed at ‘Islamic extremists’ Islam has always stood for winning the hearts of people, not converting by means of the sword Why combine the word ‘Islamic’ with ‘extremist’? Islam embeds tolerance as part of its basic teachings History bears testimony to the tolerance extended to those of other faiths by the early Muslims.
Rather, we have to go to the foundations of the faith, and these are two, the Qur’an, which we hold to be the Word of God, and the Sunnah or the way of life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) including his sayings and doings. There are no less than seven verses in the Qur’an that speak of tolerating people of other faiths, far more than stressed in the scriptures of other faiths. Killing is especially condemned and killing even one human being is likened to the killing of all humanity.
Mercy the hallmark of a Muslim
As for the prophet’s way of life, as Muslims we all know the mercy and compassion he had not merely for his followers, but also for others to the extent that even the Christian communities who lived at that time loved, respected and protected him and his followers and he in turn returned this love and affection with many kind acts including giving them a covenant known as the Covenant of Najran, in which he guaranteed their right to practise their religion freely for all time, an obligation cast upon all his followers who are bound to protect the followers of Christianity till the end of days. Nay, the prophet was even concerned about the rights of animals and I will cite just one instance of his overpowering compassion for all creatures.
This happened in the days when the prophet with his 10,000-strong army was marching towards Mecca for the final conquest of his hometown, which would be a bloodless one due to the sheer numbers of his followers and the immunity he granted every one of its citizens including a man named Abu Sufyan who had throughout opposed his mission and his wife Hind who had killed his uncle and devoured his liver. So on the way to Mecca, he spotted a female dog by the roadside with a litter of newly-born puppies she was feeding. He promptly ordered that the creatures were not to be disturbed by the passing army and even posted a sentry, Ju’ayl of Damar, to ensure his orders were carried out. So one could ask, if the prophet were so concerned about the life of a single dog, how much more he would be about the life of a human being, believing as we do that we are all one and the children of Adam and Eve.
The prophet not only prohibited the killing of innocents, but even went on to address acts of terrorism, strictly prohibiting his followers from scorched earth policies that involved harming trees or livestock even in the worst times of war. Nay, he even addressed the roots of terrorism, which is extremism in very telling terms; “Beware of extremism in religion because the only thing that destroyed those before you was extremism in religion” (Ibn Majah). Here, he is clearly telling us that it was religious extremism that destroyed the people before Islam which may well refer to the likes of the Jewish zealots who took their lives and that of their families in the aftermath of the Masada rebellion against the Romans, and he clearly warned us not to take that disastrous path.
This begs the question, why are some so-called Muslims becoming extremists and then evolving into terrorists just like the zealots of yore did? The Easter Sunday incidents show evidence not of the work of good Muslims but zealots of the worst ilk who took the lives not only of countless innocent others but even their own families as we saw in Dematagoda when a woman took her life and those of her two little children by detonating an explosive device when the police closed in. And to think our prophet, on whom we peace, warned us about it a long time ago.
Religious tolerance in Islam
Islam has always stood for winning the hearts of people, not converting by means of the sword. There are no less than seven verses in the Holy Qur’an which command Islam is not to be compelled on people and that they are to adopt it of their free will:
Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For thy Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance(Al-Nahl: Verse 125)
Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks (Al Baqarah: Verse 256)
If it had been the Lord’s Will, they would all have believed- All who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe? (Surah Yunus: Verse 99)
This tolerance was also exemplified in the prophet’s life, like when he entered into a treaty with the Christians of Najran in Southern Arabia. When the delegation arrived at Medina, the prophet let them lodge and even pray in his mosque and gave them the following accord:
The people of Najran and their dependants shall remain under the protection of God, and Muhammad the Prophet, the Messenger of God. Their persons, their religion, their lands, their possessions and their churches shall remain safe. This treaty holds good for all people of Najran, whether present or not. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monasticism and no devotee from his devotions (Tabaqat Al Kubra of Ibn Sa’d)
The same instance of tolerance was shown the caliph Umar who entered into the following covenant with the Christians of Jerusalem following the capitulation of the city in 637 AD:
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. This is the security which Umar, the servant of God, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia (Jerusalem). He grants to all, whether sick or sound, security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be changed into dwelling places, nor destroyed. Neither shall they or their appurtenances be in any way diminished.
When Umar visited the Christian holy sites, the patriarch Sophronius accompanied him to the Church of the Resurrection and as it was the appointed time for prayer, he bade the caliph offer his prayers there. Umar thoughtfully refused and disclosed his honourable motive: “Had I yielded to your request” said the Caliph “the Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under the colour of imitating my example” (Tarikh of Tabari). We find the same kind of tolerance being extended to those of other faiths by Umar’s successor, caliph Uthman.
What history says
History bears ample testimony to the tolerance extended to those of other faiths by the early Muslims. For instance, when the Muslim army reached the Jordan Valley in the conflict with the Byzantines, its Christian inhabitants are known to have preferred to submit to Islamic rule in preference to that of the older empire. They even wrote a letter to the Arabs stating: “O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith, because you keep better faith with us and are more merciful to us and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and homes.” The people of Emessa went further, closing the gates of their city against Heraclius army and telling the Muslims they preferred their rule and justice to the oppression and injustice of the Byzantines. So it was that many other cities in Syria and elsewhere entered into treaties with the Muslim army, agreeing to submit to their rule while at the same time preserving their religious freedoms.
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 after nearly a thousand years of withstanding Islamic forces, Ottoman emperor Muhammad II saw to it that he secured the allegiance of the Christians. He proclaimed himself the protector of the Greek Church and strictly forbade the persecution of Christians. He even granted a decree to the newly-elected patriarch Gennadios, securing to him and his successors and the bishops under him, the enjoyment of former privileges under the Byzantine rule. The patriarch received from the hands of the Sultan himself the pastoral staff, the symbol of his office, together with a purse of a thousand gold ducats and a horse with gorgeous trappings, on which he was privileged to ride with his train through the city.
Thus, it is evident that Islam is a tolerant faith that has embedded tolerance as part of its basic teachings and that all those who go against this principle of tolerance are in fact going against Islam itself.
The writer is the Vice President of Outreach, Centre for Islamic Studies, Sri Lanka