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Respect for Religious Pluralism in Islamic History

posted on: Nov 4, 2017

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Pact of Umar was a ‘treaty’ forged during the conquest of Jerusalem more than 1400 years ago, at the beginning of Islamic history. It contributes to laying down the foundations of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims. In it are answers to most contemporary issues, such as: How do we deal with our enemies who fight us, how do we treat women and children during times of war, is every means permissible to kill enemies, who use women and boys as human shield, etc. These questions have been addressed in an enlightened manner by modern laws and customs with the aim of preserving human values and dignity.

Islamic rules of engagement

On comparing modern rules of engagement and laws of war that establish the safety of civilians during times of conflict and with Islamic thought and jurisprudence we find many convergences. The reflection of Islamic approach can be drawn from the instructions of first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, may Allah be pleased with him, gave to the army of Osama bin Zaid before the latter’s campaign: “Stop Oh people that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. Do not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.” (cf. History of Al Tabari, Part 3, p 226).

This text is replete with humanitarian profundity and dates back 1,400 years. Even in modern times (especially the 20th century), these values were acknowledged, for example in the Introduction to International Humanitarian Law, Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross under the section titled: Islamic Arab history.

We have witnessed the emergence of religious and ideological divisiveness in all its ugliness, which presents a bleak picture of the Arab world.

Dr. Tayyeb Tizini

“In a conscious look at the long-standing Arab-Islamic heritage, we can see how keen it is to assert egalitarian traditions by adding to its humane character and urging adherence to them in terms of mutual respect. This is consistent with the provisions and spirit of international humanitarian law, which protects the rights of combatants and victims of armed conflict.”

This tradition was evident in the era of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), the first Caliph Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), and was passed on to the second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, (may Allah be pleased with him), who laid the foundations of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims.

This is exemplified in the incident when the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab when he travelled from Jabiyah in Damascus to Jerusalem. In accordance with a pact between him and the Christians, he entered Jerusalem and set up a separate room which he cleaned with his companions and prayed there.

Being the leader of the victorious army, he could have prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but he did not. When asked why he did not pray inside the church, he answered: “If I had prayed inside the church, I was afraid Muslims would say, ‘This is where Omar prayed’, and then may try to establish a mosque in its place.” This shows The Pious Caliph’s great wisdom and commitment to values of tolerance.

Review Islam with new knowledge

In light of these glorious Islamic traditions, why don’t we tackle the issue of tolerance and coexistence in our times, where religious and sectarian wars have again raised their ugly head and have destroyed countries like Syria!

We have witnessed the emergence of religious and ideological divisiveness in all its ugliness, which presents a bleak picture of the Arab world.

While speaking about Islam, we are aware that it is capable of rational interpretation. In spite of several interpretations of religious texts at present, we believe there is room for re-interpretation in the light of new knowledge in disciplines of sociology, politics and history through which we could review traditional understanding of sacred texts, in order to promote the spirit of tolerance and respect for pluralism and human rights.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Dr Tayyeb Tizini is a Syrian researcher and academic.

Last Update: Wednesday, 1 November 2017 KSA 09:55 – GMT 06:55