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Islamic Faith and the Problem of Pluralism: Relations Among the Believers

Madjid Nurcholish

Commentary

Born in East Java, Indonesia, into a family of Islamic scholars, Nurcholish Madjid received his early education at his father's madrasah (school) and Darul Ulum pesantren (school). He completed his Quranic studies, along with English and secular subjects, at Pondok Modern “Darus Salam” Gontor in 1960 and received a B.A. in Arab literature in 1968 at Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, Indonesia. A prominent student activist leader, Madjid served as the General Chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Students Association from 1966 until 1971, President of United Islamic Students of Southeast Asia, and assistant to the Secretary General of the International Islamic Federation of Students Organization. In 1978 Madjid went to the United States, where he earned a Ph.D in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago in 1984.

A gifted and prolific writer and charismatic speaker, Nurcholish Madjid became a prominent and respected voice for Islamic reform. His support for pluralism and democracy made him a prominent public intellectual in both Indonesia and the broader Muslim world. In addition to founding Paramedina Foundation, a major reform organization, and serving as the Rector of Paramadina Mulya University in Indonesia since 1998, he was also a member of the Indonesian National Commission for Human Rights and many international organizations.

In this piece from 2003, Madjid notes the pluralism of Indonesian society, a pluralism he believes to be characteristic of Islam generally. The only exception to such pluralism is the precincts and municipalities of Mecca and Medina, to which non-Muslims are forbidden entry. Madjid believes that Islam has an accepting and tolerant attitude toward those of other faiths. Islam, in preaching submission to God alone, is none other than the faith of Jews and Christians, who also emphasize such submission but who, for various reasons, have diverged from this standard. This fact necessitated God’s sending a final messenger to spread His word. Madjid quotes Qurān 5:69 to show that in fact all those who worship the one God are the inheritors of His pleasure and reward: “Those who believe [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith and the Christians and the Sabians [the Sabaean people of southern Arabia]—in fact any one who believes in God and the last day and performs good deeds—will have nothing to fear or regret.”

Almost all universal religions, particularly those with a great number of followers (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism), have adherents in Indonesia. This makes Indonesia, as Indonesians themselves usually acknowledge, a plural society. Also, Indonesians often proudly refer to the high degree of the religious tolerance they have. Given this situation, they even consider themselves unique among the nations in this world. And one—if not the most important—fundamental factor that is considered to contribute to this positive situation is Pancasila (Five Principles), the ideology of the nation. . . .

Actually, the plurality in Indonesian society is not unique. Particularly during the modern era, in practice there is no society that is not unique in terms of having different groups of believers (consisting of a great number of religious followers), except in certain cities like the Vatican, Mecca, and Medina. Even in Islamic countries in the Arab World, which were formerly the centers of Christianity and Judaism, the significant religious minorities of Christians and Jews have remained there up until now. In fact, those countries developed into the countries in which Muslims became the majority citizen, only after they had undergone a long natural process of Islamization, which took place for centuries. Though it appears that the Arab Muslims managed to liberate those countries when they brought Islam with them, what they actually carried out was socio-political reforms. One of the most important reforms was the affirmation of religious freedom, instead of the compulsory conversion of non-Muslim subjects into Islam (which would certainly oppose the basic principles of Islam).

The only exclusivist policy is that non-Muslims are not allowed to live in the compounds of Mecca and Medina (Hijâz). This policy, which was initiated by ’Umar ibn al-Khattâb, was expanded by the Wahhâbî Saudis, who established modern Saudi Arabia. Apart from these two compounds, however, Christian and Jewish minorities still can be found in almost all Islamic countries. This can be explained not only from the historical and sociological points of view, but also more fundamentally from the perspective of Islamic doctrine. It shows the consistency of Muslim societies in practicing the Islamic teachings on religious plurality.

Concepts of the Oneness and the Truth

Deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Muslim worldview is that Islam is a universal religion, a religion for everyone. It is true that this awareness also belongs to believers of other religions (the Jews deny the universal validity of Christianity and Islam, and Christians deny the universal validity of Judaism and Islam). However, it is only fair to say that for Muslims, this awareness bears with it a socio-religious attitude that is unique, which is very different from the attitudes of other religious believers, except since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Without depreciating the depth of Muslim faith regarding the truth of their belief (an attitude that will necessarily be held by a believer of any religious system), the unique attitude of Muslim believers in relation to other religions is characterized by tolerance, freedom, transparency, justice, fairness and honesty. To date, these principles have been quite clearly observable in the contemporary Muslim societies, but quite phenomenally so in the classical Muslims (salaf). The basic principles are derived from teaching points in the Holy Book which explain that the universal Truth is naturally one, though the physical manifestations of it may vary. Additionally, anthropology explains that in the beginning man was one, because man held onto the truth, which is only one. But later this view started to differ because many interpretations of the oneness of the truth developed. These differences became sharper because of certain vested interests, that is, the desire of certain groups to succeed at the expense of others. The unity of the origin of human beings is visualized in God's saying: “All mankind were once but one single community, and only later did they begin to hold divergent views,” and His saying:

All mankind were once one single community; then God raised up the prophets as bearers of glad tidings and of warnings, and with them revealed the Scripture with the truth, that it might judge between mankind concerning that wherein they differed. And only those unto whom (the Scripture) was given differed concerning it, after clear proofs had come unto them, through hatred one of another. And God by His leave guided those who believe unto the truth of that concerning which they differed: for God guides unto a straight path him that wills [to be guided].

The starting point of the oneness of the universal truth is the concept of God as One or tawhîd (which literarily means “to believe in One”). From the beginning of their existence, humans professed tawhîd, which is symbolized both in Adam and by his faith. Adam is considered the first human and the first prophet and messenger on earth by the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Certainly the empirical truth of this proposition requires comprehensive and scientific anthropological research. For this reason, it is no wonder if there is one research confirming this proposition of the Holy Book, as enthusiastically expressed by Muhammad Farîd Wajdî, a Muslim thinker from Egypt, a follower of Muhammad ‘Abduh's renewal movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, concerning a finding of a scholar:

The activities of the Orientalists in India should be regarded as a part of their brilliant achievements. We should not forget that the most prominent among them is Dr. Max Muller, a German anthropologist, whose greatest contribution was deciphering Sanskrit. Dr. Muller proved that human communities in earlier times already adopted a pure monotheism, but the idolatry which prevailed among them was the result of the acts of the religious leaders who competed against one another. Therefore the result of Dr. Muller's research justifies the truth of the scientific miracle of the Qur'ân. It is so because there are definite texts in the Qur'ân (the texts which are quoted above—NM) regarding the matter which was finally discovered by Dr. Max Muller through his research and study.

The most important consequence of pure tawhîd is the complete submission or self-surrender to God the One, without doing the same for any other purpose, object, or person except Him. This is al-islâm, the essence of all true religions. The following is an explanation by Ibn Taymîyah, a famous figure of Islamic reform:

The (Arabic) word “al-islâm” contains the meaning of the words “al-istislâm” (self-surrender) and “al-inqiyâd” (submission, obedience) and also contains the meaning of the word “al-ikhlâs” (sincerity). . . . Therefore it is necessary in Islam to submit oneself to God the One, leaving behind submission to others. This is the essence of our saying, “There is no god but God” (lâ ilâh illa ‘l-Lâh). If one submits to God, while at he same time submitting himself to others, then he is a polytheist.

Therefore, it is emphasized in the Qur'ân that the tasks of God's messengers are to deliver the teachings of God the Almighty or tawhîd as well as the teachings regarding man's obligation to obey God alone:

We never sent any apostle before you [O, Muhammad] without having revealed to him that there is no god save Me, therefore worship Me [alone].

Since the principles taught by the messengers and the prophets are the same, the followers of them are one single community. In other words, the concept of the unity of the basic teachings lays a foundation for the concept of the unity of prophecy, which then brings about the concept of one faithful community. This is affirmed by God's saying:

Verily, this community of yours is one single community, since I am the Sustainer of you all. Therefore worship Me [alone].

It has been mentioned by Ibn Taymîyah that the word al-islâm carries the meaning of the words al-istislâm (self-surrender) and al-inqiyâd (submission, obedience). From the formal aspect of religious obligation, this is expressed in the act to worshiping nothing but the One, that is, God. Briefly and in conclusion, al-islâm teaching in the generic sense is the core and the essence of all religions of the prophets and the messengers. Ibn Taymîyah states:

Because the origin of religion, that is al-islâm, is one, even though its sharî’ah varies, the Prophet Muhammad says in valid hadiths, “Our religion and the religion of the prophets is one,” and “All the prophets are paternal brothers, [even though] their mothers are different,” and “The nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary, is me.”

From this perspective, we begin to understand better the description in the Qur'ân that to hold on to any religion except al-islâm or to devote oneself without total submission and surrender to God is not genuine and is therefore illegitimate. What I would like to argue here is that although someone may be socially dubbed “Islamic” or “Muslim,” if their attitude is not al-islâm, they are categorized religiously as ingenuine and are denied legitimacy Affirmation of this in the Qur'ân is found in the famous saying of God: “The only true faith in God's sight is al-islâm.” For a comparative study regarding the meaning of Islâm, the following is the complete translation of the verse by Muhammad Asad, one of the best-known modern commentators on the Qur'ân:

Behold, the only [true] religion in the sight of God is [man's] self-surrender unto Him (al-islâm); and those who were vouchsafed revelation aforetime took, out of mutual jealousy, to divergent views [on this point] only after knowledge [thereof] had come unto them. But as for him who denies the truth of God's messages—behold, God is swift in reckoning!

If we look at the above verse carefully, the implication is that the former communities who received scriptures from God through His messengers and prophets, namely, those were technically called Ahl al-Kitâb (People of the Book), did know and understand that the core of the true religion is the act of total submission to God, which is the original meaning of the Arabic word islâm. On this matter, Muhammad Asad writes:

Most of the classical commentators are of the opinion that the people referred to are followers of the Bible, or of parts of it—i.e., the Jews and the Christians. It is, however, highly probable that this passage bears a wider import and relates to all communities which base their views on a revealed scripture, extant in a partially corrupted form, with parts of it entirely lost. . . . All these communities at first subscribed to the doctrine of God's oneness and held that man's self-surrender to Him (islâm in its original connotation) is the essence of all true religion. Their subsequent divergences were an outcome of sectarian pride and mutual exclusiveness.

Religious Plurality

Given the principles above, it can be argued that the Qur'ân essenti-ally teaches the concept of religious plurality. To be sure, this does notnecessarily mean an affirmation of the truth of all religions in their actual practices (in this respect, many of the actual religious practices of the Muslims are not correct because they basically contradict the teachings of the Qur'ân, such as their practice of deifying other human beings or creatures, whether they are dead or alive). However, the teaching of religious plurality emphasizes the basic understanding that all religions are free to be practiced, yet the believers, individually or collectively, have to be responsible for their practices. This attitude can be interpreted as an expectation of all religions: because—as mentioned above—all religions initially upheld the same principle, that is, the necessity of man to submit totally to God the One, those religions whether due to their internal dynamism or their encounter with one another, would eventually find their own original truth, leading them all to “one meeting point,” “a common platform,” or using the Qur'ânic term, “kalîmah sawâ,” as indicated by one of the God's commands to the Prophet Muhammad:

Say: “People of the Book, let us come to an agreement (kalîmah sawâ’): that we will worship none but God, that we will associate none with Him, and that none of us shall set up mortals as deities besides God.”

For a comparison, the following is Asad's translation of the verse:

Say: “O followers of earlier revelations! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common (kalîmah sawâ’): that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God.”

Because of the parallelism between the attitude to “worship none but God” and the concept of al-islâm in terms of its generic meaning explained by Ibn Taymîyah (that is, before islâm becomes the proper noun for the Prophet Muhammad's religion), thus the meeting point for all religions is al-islâm in that generic sense. In other words, the total and genuine submission to God the One, without association to anything else, is the only correct and true religious act. Thus others are denied and hence the affir-mation in the Qur'ân:

He that chooses a religion other than islâm (self-surrender to God), it will not be accepted from him and in the world to come he will surely be among the losers.

Besides the generic meaning of al-islâm as mentioned above, A. Yusuf Ali makes a very pertinent comment:

The Muslim position is clear. The Muslim does not claim to have a religion peculiar to himself. Islam is not a sect or an ethnic religion. In its view all religion is one, for the Truth is one. It was the religion preached by earlier Prophets. It was the truth taught by all the inspired Books. In essence it amounts to a consciousness of the Will and Plan of God and a joyful submission to that Will and Plan. If anyone wants religion other than that, he is false to his own nature, as he is false to God's Will and Plan. Such a one cannot expect guidance, for he has deliberately renounced guidance.

From the original meaning of the term al-islâm described above, we begin to gain a better understanding regarding the following God's saying:

Verily, those who believe [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians—all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds—shall have their reward with their Lord; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.

The immediate understanding regarding this quote is that believers, be they Muslims, Jews, Christians or Sabians, as long as they believe in God and in the Judgment Day (on which day man will be accountable in God's court, and on which day God will deal with everyone personally), and based on their belief and their good deeds, will be guaranteed to “go to Heaven” and be “free from the fire of Hell.”

The above-quoted verse interested many tafsîr experts and produced much controversy. For some it is difficult to reconcile this verse with the common view that everyone who denies the Prophet Muhammad is “kâfir” (an infidel), that “the infidels shall not go to heaven,” and that they “shall not be free from the fire of Hell.” Therefore, one of the tafsîr books which is considered as a standard reading material in Indonesian pesantrens, that is, Tafsîr Baydâwî, explains that those “who shall have their reward with their Lord; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve” are:

Those among [the followers of earlier revelations] who had believed in God and the Day of Judgment and done righteous deeds in their respect-ive religions before their religions were abrogated (mansûkh), and within their hearts they had confirmed the starting point (al-mabda’) and the final destination (al-ma‘ad), and acted according to their religious laws. There is also another view [that holds that this verse refers to]: whoever they are from the infidels who have sincerely attuned to faith and truly converted to al-islâm.

Meanwhile, as a comparison, Yusuf Ali gives a different interpretation of the verse by saying: “As God's Message is one, Islam recognized true faith in other forms provided that it be sincere, supported by reason, and backed up by righteous conduct.” This comment is very much in line with the explanation given by Muhammad Asad:

The above passage—which recurs in the Qur'ân several times—lays down a fundamental doctrine of Islam. With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of “salvation” is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life. The statement of this doctrine at this juncture—that is, in the midst of an appeal to the children of Israel—is warranted by the false Jewish belief that their descent from Abraham entitles them to be regarded as “God's chosen people.”

In other words, according to Muhammad Asad, the above God's saying affirms that anyone, whether they be a descendant of the Prophet Abraham, like the Jews (and Quraysh in Mecca), or not, can obtain salvation as long as they have faith in God and Judgment Day, and they do good deeds. This certainly correlates with God's explanation to the Prophet Abraham when he was taken to be the leader of humankind and when Abraham asked pleadingly: “And what of my descendants?” Then God replied, “My covenant does not apply to the evil-doers.” It is clear that salvation is awarded not based on factors of descent, but based on faithfulness to God and the Day of Judgment, and the carrying out of good deeds. This is a principle that is much emphasized in the Qur'ân.

Furthermore, regardless of the different interpretations above, the above God's saying, in its relation to various principles explained in many other of His sayings, has created a unique attitude of Muslims in the face of other religious believers. This is the attitude based on the awareness of religious pluralism, tolerance, openness, and fairness, as apparently shown in the history of Muslims. This principle is reflected in the concept of the “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitâb).

The Jews and the Christians are often mentioned in the Qur'ân. As is obvious from God's sayings above, the Sabians and the Zoroastrians are mentioned as well. Further, the concept of the “People of the Book,” both in Islamic political history—as in the Mogul Empire in India—and in the explanations made by some ‘ulamâ’, is extended to include other groups who have a holy book. In this regard, Yusuf Ali, for example, doubts whether those who call themselves Sabians and lived in Harran, North Mesopotamia, can be grouped as “People of the Book” because they were Syrian star-worshippers who belonged to Hellenistic society. However, Yusuf Ali believes that the concept of “People of the Book” can be extended “to cover earnest followers of Zoroaster, the Vedas, Buddha, Confucious and other teachers of moral law.” The following is his complete explanation:

The pseudo-Sabians of Harrân, who attracted the attention of Khalifa Ma’mûn al-Rashîd in 830 AD by their long hair and peculiar dress, probably adopted the name as it was mentioned in the Qur'ân, in order to claim the privileges of the People of the Book. They were Syrian star-worshippers with Hellenistic tendencies, like the Jews contemporary with Jesus. It is doubtful whether they had any right to be called People of the Book in the technical sense of the term. But I think that in this matter (though many authorities would dissent) the term can be extended by analogy to cover earnest followers of Zoroaster, the Vedas, Buddha, Confucious and other Teachers of moral law.

This point of view correlates with that of Muhammad Rashîd Ridâ’, a famous Islamic reformer from Egypt, whose opinion was cited by ‘Abd al-Hamîd Hakîm, a figure of Sumatran Thawalib from Padang Panjang, Sumatra. According to ‘Abd al-Hamîd Hakîm, Rashîd Ridâ’ was once asked about the marriage law between a Muslim male and a polytheist female, and he answered:

The polytheist women whom God forbids (Muslims) to marry within a verse of the sûrah al-Baqarah are the Arabic polytheist women. This is the view that is chosen and much supported by the prominent tafsîr expert, Ibn Jarîr al-Tabarî; and that the Magians, the Sabians and the idolaters amongst the Indians, Chinese and Japanese are the followers of the holy books containing monotheism (tawhîd) up until now.

The view that the “holy books” belonging to the Indians, the Chinese and the Japanese contain the teaching of monotheism is still a bone of dispute among the experts. However, if those “holy books” are understood in terms of “their original version or teaching,” then such a view is in line with the “finding” of Max Muller, supported by Muhammad Farîd Wajdî, cited above. Rashîd Ridâ’ and ‘Abd al-Hamîd Hakîm argue that based on the description in the Qur'ân, God sent a messenger to each community. Some of the messengers were described and some were not, and their duties were to deliver the same teaching of monotheism. For this reason, ‘Abd al-Hamîd Hakîm affirms that:

Essentially, the difference between us (Muslims) and the People of the Book is like the difference between the monotheists who are pure in their religious attitude toward God and act in accordance with the Qurân and the Sunnah on the one side and those who make unlawful innovation (bid’ah) on the other, straying from both (the Qurân and the Sunnah), which were left to us by the Prophet Muhammad.

Having described the principles above, it is clear to me that Islam teaches the attitude to behave inclusively within society, which acknowledges that a society's plurality is caused among others by the religious plurality of its members.

Openness, Respect and Tolerance

As pointed out previously, apart from the Mecca-Medina compounds, the Islamic world has witnessed the significant non-Muslim minority groups. The existence of these groups has been a proof of the openness, respect and tolerance of Muslims, from the classical time to the present. Muslims, as clearly seen from their (pure) religious teachings, are the mediators (Ar. wâsit) among many groups of people, and are expected to be the fair and just witnesses to all groups. This is the reason why the classical Muslims were so open, inclusive, and encouraging of other groups while they were in power. In this regard, it is interesting to consider the following long quote from Max I. Dimont, an expert of the Jews history, who wrote about the Jews experience in the classical Muslim society:

When the Jews confront the open society of the Islamic world, they are 2,500 years old as people. . . . Nothing could have been more alien to the Jews than this fantastic Islamic civilization that rose out of the desert dust in the seventh century. Yet nothing could have been more the same. Though it represented a new civilization, a new religion, and a new social milieu built on new economic foundations, it resembled the packaged “intellectual pleasure principle” presented to the doors of Hellenistic society to them. Now Islamic society opened the doors of its mosques, its schools, and its bedrooms for conversion, education, and assimilation. The challenge for the Jews was how to swim in this scented civilization without drowning, or in the language of modern sociology, how to enjoy the somatic, intellectual, and spiritual comforts offered by the dominant majority without disappearing as a marginal minority. The Jews did what came naturally. They fired the old scriptwriters and hired a new set of specialists. Instead of rejecting the Muslim civilization, they accepted it. Instead of keeping themselves apart, they integrated. Instead of becoming parochialized fossils, they joined the new swinging society as sustaining members. Arabic became their mother tongue; wine, women, and secular songs their pastime avocations; philosophy, math-ematics, astronomy, diplomacy, medicine, and literature, their full-time avocations. The Jews never had it so good.

I include this long quote to illustrate how transparent the classical Muslim society was, to the point that even the Jews, who are often mentioned rather cynically in the Qur'ân, still could enjoy the Islamic civilization. Besides Dimont, other experts on Jewish civilization also admit that the Jews experienced their Golden Age under Islamic civilization.

For those who understand the concept of “Islamic spirit,” Dimont's description is nothing unusual. Part of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad was to proclaim Islam as God's mercy for all. Therefore, regarding the relationship with believers from other religions, God told the Muslims to be kind and fair to those who are not oppressive:

God does not forbid you to be kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on your religion nor driven you from your homes. God loves the equitable. But he forbids you to make friends with those who have fought against you on account of your religion and driven you from your homes or abetted others to drive you out. Those that make friends with them are wrongdoers.

In this regard, Yusuf Ali gives an explanation on the spirit of the verse:

Even with Unbelievers, unless they are rampant and out to destroy us and our Faith, we should deal kindly and equitably, as is shown by our holy Prophet's own example.

In line with that, God decrees the faithful not to be involved in the unhealthy disputation with the People of the Book, except to those who try to inflict wrongdoing:

And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better [than mere disputation], unless it be with those of them who inflict evildoing: but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is one; and it is to Him we [all] surrender ourselves.”

The principles discussed above serve as the basis of a great number of political policies of religious freedom in the Islamic world. The principles of religious freedom in the classical Muslim society are similar to modern ideals. It is even not exaggerating to suggest that religious freedom in the modern times is a consistent advanced development of that of the classical Islam. An example of the practices of religious freedom during the classical period of Islam was reflected in an agreement between ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattâb and the people of Jerusalem or Bayt al-Maqdis, al-Quds (it was also called Aelia), after that holy city had been liberated by Muslim soldiers. The following is a complete translation of the agreement:

In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. This is the guarantee of safety granted by the servant of God, ‘Umar, the Commander of the believers, to the people of Aelia (al-Quds): He guarantees their personal safety, and the safety of their belongings, their churches and crosses—whether they are in a good or a bad condition—and for all their co-religionists. Their churches shall not be seized or damaged, and nothing shall be taken from their churches or from their property, nor shall their crosses or even the smallest possession be removed from their churches. They shall not be harassed because of their religion, and none of them shall be harmed. No Jew will be allowed to live with them in Aelia. The people of Aelia will have to pay a poll-tax (jizyah) as the inhabi-tants of other cities (in Syria) do. They have the authority to expel from Aelia the Romans and brigands (al-Lasût). Those (of the Romans) who leave shall be granted safety for themselves and their belongings until they reach a safe destination, and those among them who want to stay shall be safe on the condition that they pay the jizyah like the people of Aelia. If any of the people of Aelia want to leave with the Romans, take their belongings with them, and leave behind their churches and crosses, they and their churches and crosses shall be protected until they reach their own place of safety (Byzantium). Those among the local inhabitants (the Syrians) who have been in the city (Aelia) since before the war (i.e. the war in which Syria was liberated by the Muslim soldiers—NM) shall have the option of either staying on condition that they pay the jizyah like the people of Aelia or if they so wish, they shall be allowed to live with the Romans or go back to their original homes. No tax shall be collected front them until they have gathered their harvest (i.e. they are able to pay it—NM). This writing is placed under the guarantee of God and the covenant of the Prophet, of the caliphs, and of the believers, on condition that the people of Aelia pay their due tax. Witnessed by: Khâlid ibn al-Walîd, Amr ibn al-‘Ass, ‘Abd al-Rahmân ibn ‘Awf, Mu‘âwiyah ibn Abî Sufyân. Written in the year 15 (Hijrîyah).

The agreement between ‘Umar and the people of Jerusalem was actually consistent with the spirit of the agreement that the Prophet Muhammad had made with the people of Medina, including the Jews, immediately after he returned from Mecca during the Hijrah (migration). This agreement was later known as the Medina Charter. Modern scholars are very impressed with it because it is the first official political document that put forward the principles of religious and economic freedoms. Moreover, the Prophet made a particular agreement that guarantees the freedom and safety of the Christians at all times and in all places. In order to get a brief overview of the agreement, the following is a quote from the first part of the agreement made by the Prophet:

In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, and from Whom comes all help. This agreement was written by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allâh, the messenger of God. To all Christians, This is the document for humankind written by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allâh, as a bearer of glad tidings and of warnings, as a holder of God's trust for His creatures, so that man shall have no reason against God after (the coming of) God's apostles, as God is the Most Exalted and the Most Wise. This is written for the followers of Islam and those who adopt Christianity from the East and the West, near and far, Arabs and non-Arabs, the known and the unknown, a document made by him (the Prophet) as a covenant for them (the Christians). Whoever violates the agreement in this document, deviates from it, and disobeys what has been stipulated, then spoils God's agreement, breaks His covenant, insults His religion, which will result in a curse upon him, whether he is a ruler or not among the Muslims and the Believers. If a priest or a traveler takes shelter in a mountain or in a valley or in a cave or in a building or in a desert or in a church, I am behind them to protect them from any hostility towards them, by my soul, my supporters, the holders of my religion, my followers, as they (the Christians) are my citizens and under my protection. I will protect them against anything that displeases them according to the obligations placed upon the supporters of this covenant, that is, to pay the jizyah (the poll-tax), except those who are musta’min (i.e. those who are treated as non-residents, and therefore are exempt from paying tax—NM). They (the Christians) shall not be forced or coerced. There shall be no change to their buildings, or to their monasteries, or to their shrines, or to their surroundings. No building within their synagogues or churches shall be demolished, nor shall the property of their churches be taken to build mosques or houses for Muslims. Whoever commits such things breaks God's covenant and opposes His messenger.

Such is the way the Prophet Muhammad provided the example of how to live life according to one of the Islamic ideals, which is brotherhood among human beings with faith in God. As mentioned above, the Muslims have the obligation to bring as many people as possible to God's way in order to achieve their ideals. However, acts should be in accord with the soul and the spirit of the ideals of brotherhood; hence God Himself reminded the Prophet and all of the believers that to force others to accept the truth is not right. The faithful have been commanded to accept the plurality of human society as a reality as well as a challenge.

Bibliography references:

Nurcholish Madjid, The True Face of Islam (Voice Center Indonesia, 2003).

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