From St. Catherine to Jaranwala: Navigating Challenges to Religious Harmony

Holy Quran

It is reported, “A group of Jews came and invited the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) to Quff. So, he visited them in their school. They said, “Abul Qasim, one of our men has committed fornication with a woman; so, pronounce judgment upon them.” They placed a cushion for the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) who sat on it and said, “Bring the Torah.” It was then brought. He then withdrew the cushion from beneath him and placed the Torah on it saying, “I believed in thee and in Him Who revealed thee.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 4449)

This is what the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stood for — justice and unity, and interfaith harmony is a major element for unity in society. The narrated instance speaks volumes about his teachings of respecting non-Muslims, their faith, and religious texts. However, the recent tragedy of Jaranwala and other such instances in the name of blasphemy in the recent past are contradictory to what the Prophet (PBUH) stood for. This piece aims to remind the human race in general and the Ummah (Muslim Community) in particular about the commands of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) regarding justice and interfaith harmony, and the principles that he stood for. It also recommends a way forward to ensure the safety and security of the religious minorities in Pakistan. 

During the years of hijrah or migration, the Prophet (PBUH) entered into different treaties with non-Muslims, including the Meccans. He and his companions, may Allah be pleased with them, respected those treaties. Rights of the majority as well as the minority were ensured under the Prophet`s (PBUH) leadership. Discussions on faith were also carried on with non-Muslims at great length, a dialogue on the matters of faith with the Christians of Najran is only an example in this regard. He (PBUH) often used to call other prophets his brothers in prophethood in such discussions. 

After some years of hijrah, the conquest of Mecca happened in 630 AD. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with his companions entered the city as victors. Instead of answering the Meccans` prosecution against Muslims during the early years of prophethood with counter-prosecution and blood, the Prophet (PBUH) declared a general amnesty. This remarkable act gives many lessons, and one of them is that the wisdom is to prefer unity and peace over rage and fire. It also proves that the Prophet`s (PBUH) mission was not personal but global. This is a reason, he did not believe in forceful conversions, as commanded by Allah, the All-Wise. 

Islamic traditions are loaded with such instances where the Prophet (PBUH) himself and his companions even after his demise treated non-Muslim citizens as well as foreigners with due honor and respect. There are also examples of judicial decisions coming in the favor of non-Muslims against Muslims. For instance, there is a historical account of a Coptic Christian who once came to Caliph Umar (R.A). He complained that Muhammad, the son of the Governor of Egypt, had unjustly whipped him, claiming his own nobility while treating the Christian as inferior. When the Christian’s allegations were proven to be true, Caliph Umar (R.A) summoned both Muhammad and his father to Medinah. Umar (R.A) then instructed the Christian to administer the same punishment, ensuring that justice was served. While the Christian was whipping the man, Caliph Umar (R.A) kept saying over and over again, “Beat the son of the nobleman.”

Karen Armstrong, a famous author on theological subjects, mentions another instance of such nature, in her book, ‘Muhammad: A Biography of The Prophet’. She writes that in Muslim Spain (711-1492 AD), Christians and Jews were given complete religious freedom and Spaniards were proud to belong to an advanced culture that was light years ahead of the rest of Europe. One day in Al-Andalus city of today`s Spain, a Christian monk Perfectus was asked by a group of Muslims to comment on whether Jesus (PBUH) or Muhammad (PBUH) was the greatest prophet. The monk first appeared cautious but then burst passionately against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and said disrespectful words about him. When Perfectus was brought in front of a Qadi (magistrate), the Qadi gave his verdict in favor of Perfectus, blaming the group of Muslims for provoking the monk unfairly. 

The Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself is also reported to have promised safety to Christians in writing. The story is narrated as the custodians of St. Catherine Monastery located in Sinai in Egypt, came to Madinah where the Prophet (PBUH) hosted them. Before leaving, the custodians expressed their fear that “when the Muslims become powerful, they will kill us and destroy our places of worship.” He (PBUH) replied, “You people will be safe from me and from the hands of my Ummah.” The custodians asked for a written confession from the Prophet (PBUH). He immediately asked a companion to write the text, stamped his blessed hand on the paper, and handed over the covenant to them. This inscription is still displayed in St. Catherine today.

A few of the points of the covenant with relevance to the Jaranwala Incident are; 

“This covenant was written by Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allah, the proclaimer and warner, trusted to protect Allah’s creations, in order that people may raise no claim against Allah after  His Messengers for Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. He has written it for the members of his religion and to all those who profess the Christian religion in East and West, near or far, Arabs or non-Arabs, known or unknown, as a covenant of protection.

…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. Whoever does such a thing, violates Allah’s covenant and dissents from the Messenger of Allah.

… “And with the People of the Book there is to be no strife unless it be over what is for the good” [5:48]. We wish to take them under the wing of our mercy, and the penalty of vexation shall be kept at a distance from them, wherever they are and wherever they may settle.

…These people shall be assisted in the maintenance of their religious buildings and their dwellings; thus they will be aided in their faith and kept true to their allegiance, and they will not be forced to take up arms. Every Muslim is required to observe this oath until the Day of Judgement and the end of this world.”

The witnesses of this covenant included a few of the very prominent companions of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with them. They included, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (R.A) who wrote the covenant, Abu Bakr ibn Abi Quhafah (R.A), Umar ibn al-Khattab (R.A), and Uthman ibn ‘Affan (R.A), etc.  

At the bottom of the covenant, there is an imprint of the blessed hand of the Prophet (PBUH). This covenant is the only document in the world that has an imprint of the blessed hand of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This covenant also mentions that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has declared Christians his “proteges and subjects.” 

He also made it clear that violation of the covenant was equivalent to violating the commands of the Prophet (PBUH) and inviting the wrath of Allah the Almighty. The covenant exactly says, “If anyone breaks the covenant herein proclaimed, or contravenes or transgresses its commands, he has broken the Covenant of Allah, breaks his bond, makes a mockery of his religion, deserves the wrath of God, whether he is a sultan or another among the believing Muslims.”

The recent cases of lynching Priyantha Kumara (2021), the Lankan man in Sialkot alleging him of committing blasphemy, and attacking Christians of Jaranwala (August 2023) and their places of worship, their priests, and families on the basis of similar allegations are clear, sheer, and shameful violations of the mentioned covenant that was reached between the Christians of St Catherine and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself. 

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has also commanded, “…Whoever overburdens himself in his Deen will not be able to continue in that way. So, you should not be extremists” (Sahih Bukhari 39). He (PBUH) also commanded to not harm non-Muslim citizens and emphasized that the foundation of a strong society is justice. 

As a way forward to prevent such unfortunate happenings, there are clear guidelines from the life of the Prophet (PBUH). He clearly said in his Last Sermon, “I leave behind me two things, the Qur`an and my example – the Sunnah and if you follow these you will never go astray.” One such guideline from his life is that he told his companions, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or he is oppressed.” People asked, “O Allah`s Messenger! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet (PBUH) said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” (Sahih Bukhari 2443)

Therefore, it is the duty of every Muslim to play his/her part in the prevention of oppression by his/her fellow Muslims. Like Malik Adnan attempted to save the life of the Lankan man Priyantha Kumara and was rightly awarded Tamgha-i-Shujaat, a civil award by the Government of Pakistan for `moral courage and bravery`. It is also a sign of Iman (firm faith) to prevent something bad from happening with hands, or tongue, or at least consider it bad in heart. 

Second, it is mentioned in the Holy Qur`an that the previous scriptures are also divine and sent by the Almighty Allah (5:48 & 3:3), respecting these scriptures and accepting them as sacred are part of the fundamental beliefs of Islam (2:177). 

It becomes the duty of the people who are sitting on Mimber e Rasool (ﷺ) or Pulpit of the Messenger (PBUH), to condemn such incidents in open and clear words to discourage such happenings in the future. Because their disapproval and discouragement of such acts can have more effect than the social disapproval of such acts by the people who are not on the Mimber. Religious scholars who have greater influence on social media platforms also need to be clear on such happenings. Otherwise, it is sheer hypocrisy to condemn and cry over the burning of the Holy Qur`an in Sweden and Finland but not condemning the burning of the Holy Bible which clearly is also a divine scripture, even though it is in its tempered form. 

Third, Allah (Subhana Wa Taala) orders in Surah Al Bakara, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). He also asks in Surah Al Nisa verse 135, Surah Al Hujurat verse 9, Surah Al Maidah verse 8, Surah Al An’am verse 152, and Surah Al Nahl verse 90, to do justice without any biasedness. Our institutions, judiciary in specific, should abide by the law of the God mentioned in the Holy Qur`an and make speedy justice possible for the victims of Jaranwala and other such cases where `blasphemy` is used as a stick to beat these our very own Christian or other Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  

Finally, at the individual level too, the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) should be followed. The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) has said, “Whoever killed a person having a treaty with Muslims, shall not smell the smell of paradise, though its smell is perceived from a distance of forty years.” (Sahih Bukhari 3166) There probably cannot be such a warning as clear as this is for the people who are motivated to harm their fellow Christian citizens when they know that the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan guarantees them their fundamental rights in the very first chapter of that written document. This constitution transparently assures them safety and security. 

In sum, the Holy Qur`an and Sunnah are explicit and categorical regarding harming any human being or their property. The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) has also repeatedly asked Muslims to not harm non-Muslim citizens and respect their beliefs despite your disagreements with them. However, alleging them of committing blasphemy and then deciding to harm them instead of going by the book is anything but Islam. Taking the law in hands will only increase suffering, anarchy, and chaos. Allah Almighty says in the Holy Qur`an, Whoever takes a life—unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land (as per law)—it will be as if they killed all of humanity; and whoever saves a life, it will be as if they saved all of humanity.” (5:32)

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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