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Question of the Day
Freedom of Religion in Islam: a Tough Sell?
In our world today where the issue of racial and religious profiling of people is skyrocketing, there is an urgent need to revisit the Prophet’s attitude with the non Muslims who were residing in the city of Medinah. The uproaring voices of extremism which call for the killing of non Muslims or approve of confiscating their properties and jeopardizing their safety is nothing but a mere aberration of the teachings of Islam both in letter and spirit.
The covenant of Medinah speaks volumes of the nature of the relationship between Muslims and non Muslims who were co-citizens in the city of Medinah. In the newly born state of Medinah, non Muslims enjoyed freedom of religious belief and religious independence; a fact which was emphatically highlighted in the Covenant of Medinah which was ratified and signed by both Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the people of Medinah who happened to be from different religious affiliations and ethnic backgrounds. This covenant in itself is a living proof that Prophet Muhammad did not coerce people to convert to Islam as God says in the Quran “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed - all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? “10:99
This important principle was highlighted when the Prophet approved that people’s religious convictions should remain intact. Having a closer look at the Covenant of Medinah, we find that the legal framework in dealing with different religious sects was based on the principles of justice, equality and respecting the other party. The Jews retained all their civil and religious rights which were secured according to the articles of the Covenant that the Prophet conducted with the Jewish tribes in Medinah.
The Prophet and the Muslims preserved their covenants and kept their promises with the Jews. This covenant resulted in an increase in commercial dealings between both parties to an extent that the Prophet mortgaged his sword to a Jew.
Amid this social, religious and economic security which the Prophet provided to the Jews, their commercial dealings thrived and Muslim women went freely to the Jewish markets to buy and sell. The Jews did not keep their side of the deal and breached the covenant; a fact which resulted in three different models that the Prophet handled according to the terms of the covenant.
The first model is presented by the Jews of Banu Qaynuqa’ as they were the first to breach their covenants through assaulting one of the Muslim women in their market place and revealing her body on public. The Muslim woman in turn screamed and a Muslim man responded and killed the assaulting jeweler who happened to be a Jew. The Jews attacked the Muslim man and killed him instantly; a fact which led the family of the murdered Muslim to scream out for help from the Muslims against the Jews. The Prophet got very angry with the tribe of Banu Qaynuqa’ as their act was an act of treachery, betrayal and a serious breach to the covenant. Therefore, the Prophet went out with his companions to punish them by forming a siege around their dwellings which lasted for 15 days. The Jews finally surrendered and abided by the Prophet’s verdict which was to expel them from the city due to their betrayal. This verdict was issued in the middle of the Hijri month of Sha’ban in the second year of Hijrah and the tribe of Banu Qaynuqa’ were the political ally of the tribe of al Kazraj and thus one of the Kazraj leaders, ‘Ubadah ibn al Samet, repudiated their alliance whereas the chieftain of the hypocrites, ‘Abdullah ibn Abi al Khazraji ibn Salul, stood firmly with the Jews.
As for the second model, it is pertinent to the Jews of Banu al Nadir who after the conquest of Uhud plotted to assassinate the Prophet in one of their market places. It is an eminent threat for a group of people to conspire against the head of the state who guaranteed their safety and security and refreshed their economy and trade. The Prophet in turn placed a siege against their dwellings and they abandon their homes out of fear and demolished them to make sure that their home will not be used by the Muslims.
As for the third model, it was pertinent to the Jews of Banu Qurayza who betrayed the Prophet and the Muslims in Medina through conspiring against them in a plot which would have led to their extermination if it had been successful. The Jews of Banu Qurayza breached their covenant and allied with the Prophet’s enemies who came to raid over the Medinah in the Trench Conquest. Although the terms of the covenant clearly forbid any alliances with Quraysh or assistance to any party attacking the city, the Jews formed an alliance with Quraysh which was an eminent threat to the state as a whole. The Jews were considered as loyal citizens yet they commit treachery against their own city and conspired against it.
It is worthy to be noted that the Jews of Banu Qurayza were totally aware of their betrayal to their covenant with the Prophet and this was apparent in returning back to their dwelling and shielding themselves inside it after the retreat of Quraysh from its raid on the city. In other words, they were preparing themselves to go into a war against the Prophet. The prophet placed a siege around their dwellings for 25 consecutive days yet not a single account was reported that the Jews offered their apology or asked for pardon or sought peace and reconciliation. They thought that the Muslims were going to let the incident slide by or that the Muslims would be forced to return back to the city defeated as they couldn’t avenge for the betrayal of the Jews.
For the first time in history a country’s leader allows the betraying party to choose their own judge who would place his verdict against them. The Jews chose their judge to be Sa’d ibn Muadh who judged that their combatants to be killed, their lineage to be captivated and their money to be divided and the Prophet approved of this verdict. Both Banu Qaynuqa’ and Banu al Nadir breached their covenant with the Prophet and fought against him yet when the Prophet ended up triumphant, he did not approve a judgment like the one he approved for the tribe of Banu Qurayza. This is due to the fact that what Banu Qurayzah had done mounted to high treason; a crime the punishment of which in our modern laws is killing.
Therefore, the Prophet in his dealings with the non Muslims in the city of Medinah based his treatment on the principles of mercy, tolerance and justice with no discrimination against non Muslims as they are all at equal footing in terms of citizenship and loyalty to their country. As for the dissidents who spread animosity, sew discord and commit treachery through allying with the enemies, their punishment is proportional to their crimes. As for those non Muslims who did not assault the Muslims or breached their covenant or allied with the enemy against them, God asked the Muslims to treat them with kindness, justice, leniency and this is reiterated in the Quran when God said “God does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes - from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.” 60:8
This is a general ruling which applies to people of all religions and ethnicities and the emphasis is even greater if these people are partners in citizenship and brothers in nationality who all stand in the defense line in the face of the enemy to protect the country against any assaults.