Muhammad and the Christians
Originally Published in The Beliefnet
We recently held an interfaith event at our mosque in Seattle, during which, an audience member asked, “Muhammad killed anyone who did not convert to Islam, why did he teach his followers to kill Christians?” With the atrocities committed against Christians by terrorists such as Daesh (also known as ISIS) and other terror groups claiming to commit their actions in the name of Islam, and the rampant anti-Islam propaganda, it’s not hard to see why one would come to such a conclusion. However, such a conclusion has no basis in fact as it simply did not happen. I will give brief explanation of the encounters and relationships between the Prophet Muhammad and the Christians to determine what the reality was during his lifetime.
In the years prior to the Prophethood of Muhammad there was limited interaction between him and Christians as there was not a large number of them in the vicinity of Mecca and Medina. Most of his interaction came during trade caravan trips to Syria. However, the closest relationship was with the uncle of his wife, a Christian named Waraqa bin Naufal. The Prophet had a good relationship with him, however, he was advanced in age and passed shortly after the call to prophethood. When he received his first revelation his wife, Khadija, brought him to see Waraqa who expressed his belief in his prophethood and remarked that he would experience persecution, a prophecy that was quite literally fulfilled.
During the years in Mecca the Muslims faced severe persecution in which many Muslims were murdered, tortured, and boycotted. The Prophet decided to send some of his followers to live in Abyssinia to escape the persecution. He believed the Christian king of Abyssinia, the Negus, to be a fair and just ruler and hoped that the Muslims would be able to live in peace there. Not being satisfied with persecuting just the Muslims remaining in Mecca, the Meccans sent a delegation to Abyssinia to ask the king to return the Muslims to Mecca and falsely claimed that they were a group of outlaws. The Negus summoned the Muslims to his court to hear their response. The Muslims explained their situation and recited verses of the Qur’an related to the Prophet Jesus. The Negus wept at the beautiful message of the Qur’an and proclaimed that the Muslims would always be welcome and protected in his kingdom.
Another well-known interaction was with a Christian tribe in a town called Najran. This tribe sent a delegation to Medina to meet the Prophet Muhammad and hear the message of Islam. During their stay it came time for their weekly worship services. They told the Prophet that they must leave, however the Holy Prophet insisted that they stay and use his mosque for their services. The Christians of Najran did not accept Islam, but lived in peace under the protection of the Holy Prophet.
There were a number of Arab Christian tribes that were living on the Northern frontier of Arabia towards Palestine and Syria who were loyal to the Byzantine Roman Empire. The other Arab tribes that were hostile and had been actively persecuting them had been attempting to lure the Christian Arab tribes into the conflict. The Prophet received reports that some of these tribes were amassing an army in preparation for an attack on Medina. The Prophet sent a delegation of 15 men to investigate the situation and deliver the message of Islam. The delegation approached the amassed army and begin to relay the message of Islam, to which the Christian Arab tribe responded by attacking and killing all but one of the Muslims. Shortly after this the Prophet sent an emissary to a Byzantine governor, but the emissary was intercepted and murdered in a gruesome display of savagery by another Christian Arab tribe loyal to the Byzantine Empire. At this point the Prophet had no choice, but to respond with force. Murdering an emissary is universally accepted as a declaration of war and a war crime, so the Prophet assembled an army of 3000 Muslims to bring the offending tribe to justice. When the Christian Arab tribe came to know of the advancing army they summoned the Byzantines who then joined in the battle against the Muslims. This battle ended in a stalemate although many Muslims were killed, including some prominent companions of the Holy Prophet.
A couple of years later reports were again received that the Byzantines were amassing another army for an attack on Medina. Again the Prophet raised an army to respond to these aggressive actions. When the army arrived in the area of Northern Arabia they found that the reports were incorrect and so there was no battle that took place. However, the Prophet took the opportunity to make peace agreements with some tribes in the area that had previously been hostile.
The Prophet Muhammad, on many occasions, displayed a peaceful and respectful attitude towards Christians throughout his lifetime. This is reflected in the Qur’an:
And thou shalt assuredly find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ to be the nearest of them in love to the believers. That is because amongst them are savants and monks and because they are not proud. (5:83)
This attitude was reciprocated by some Christians, but not by some others as was the case with those affiliated with the Byzantines. There was never any occasion in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, nor his immediate successors, where a Christian was killed for not accepting Islam. Throughout his mission he stayed true to the Quranic declaration “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:257). In fact, he wrote the Ashtiname, which was a historic declaration of protection and complete freedom of religion for Christians living under Muslim rule. The last line of this charter states “No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day”. Thus those Muslims who persecute Christians, such as Daesh, betray the promise of the very Prophet that they claim to follow. The claims that the Prophet Muhammad or the religion of Islam teach to persecute or coerce Christians, or followers of any other faith, to accept Islam have no foundation in Islamic teaching whatsoever. In fact, there was no founder of any faith that made as much effort to protect the freedom of another faith as did the Prophet for Christians.