The Sum of Our Fears: Islamophobia, Faith & Non-Violence

The Sum of Our Fears: Islamophobia, Faith & Non-Violence

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John Smelcer & Craig Considine

Sometime between 622 and 632 A.D., during what is called “The Medina Years,” the Prophet Muhammad decreed a series of covenants specifically addressing Christians in the region. As far as we can tell, there were six of these contracts: “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai,” “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Najran,” “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Persia,” “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Assyrian Christians,” “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem,” and “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of the World.” The provenance of these documents is well documented, going all the way back to the eighth century with mention or translations of the covenants appearing in numerous historical records. For example, “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of the World” was rediscovered sometime in the mid-1600s in the Monastery at Mount Carmel by Father Pacifique Scaliger and brought to Europe. For the most part, these covenants have been neglected or forgotten in the Western world, although religious scholars have been aware of their existence for centuries.

But given the current climate of religious intolerance and violence in the name of religion, it is vital that Christians and Muslims alike are reminded of the nature of the contracts. All six covenants are promises by Muhammad and his early followers to protect Christians. More than that, they convey Muhammad’s desire for a pluralistic society in which people from different religious traditions are welcome, their freedom of religion respected. This may come as a surprise to most readers. Indeed, verse 9:6 of the Qur’an calls upon Muslims to provide protection for nonbelievers and not to forcibly convert them to Islam. After Muhammad’s triumphant return to Mecca without bloodshed, he issued edicts protecting Christians and Jews alike. The word “Islam” means the “Way of Peace.” Sufism, Islam’s mystic and ascetic tradition, has at its core nonviolence. It may come as a further shock to readers, but the New Testament makes similar declarations. In passages rarely discussed in churches, Paul, who more than anyone else carried the emerging faith around Jesus to the Gentiles (anyone who was not Jewish), wrote in some of the letters attributed to him (though most were certainly written by one or more of his disciples years after his death) that belief in Jesus as the Son of God was not the only path to God, in contradiction to much of the gospels, saying that anyone from any faith tradition could attain God if they lived a virtuous life, even declaring that nonbelievers should not be oppressed or persecuted. After all, when it came to violence, Jesus’s response was emphatic: no violence!

Here is a passage from Muhammad’s “Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai” (parentheticals added):

‘A (Christian) bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric (diocese), nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower (or cave), nor shall a pilgrim be hindered (harassed) from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be (taken and) used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims.’ ([62], p. 14)

And according to “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Persia,” Muhammad declared that nonbelievers should be permitted to live in a nation that does not encourage or oppress any particular religion, and that each person should be allowed to live their life with the freedom of religion. This should sound familiar to American readers. In fact, Muhammad took pains to make it clear that any act to oppress or coerce Christians into conversion was treason, a commandment restated in the Qur’an (2:256). It is not surprising that Muhammad would protect Jews and Christians. After being forcibly driven out from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina) in 622 A.D., Muhammad was welcomed by the three large Jewish tribes living in the region. In “The Constitution of Medina,” Muhammad guaranteed religious freedom for Jews and Christians under his rule. It was during this peaceful period that Muhammad further learned about the Hebrew Old Testament, much of which is recited in the Qur’an, part of the reason why Islam is included as one of the three Abrahamic religions. From them he also learned about Jesus and the gospels (including Gnostic gospels), which also explain why Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an and esteemed as a kindred prophet. From this tenuous relationship with Judaism and Christianity, Muhammad commanded Muslims to pray three times a day facing Jerusalem, like the Jews and Christians, instead of twice a day (that would change to Mecca after 632 A.D.). For almost a decade, things went well enough for Muhammad and his growing band of followers among the Jews, but eventually Muhammad turned his desires to returning to Mecca (Armstrong, A History of God, 153).

We must recognize that our mutual religions do not embolden violence, and blame instead our shameless ability to justify atrocities. At fault are our naked human folly, our blind religious fervor, and our monumentally fragile egos. In John Smelcer's daring new novel, The Gospel of Simon (2016), Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the heavy cross through Jerusalem, asks Jesus why God allows so much hate and violence in the world, especially violence in the name of religion, to which Jesus replies, “God does not reward those who incite violence or kill in the name of God. There is no place for them in the Kingdom of Heaven. Love of God and violence are incompatible. The one countervails the other.” Simon later asks, “Where is God’s mercy?” Jesus replies with one of the most profound lines in the book: “It is never God’s mercy that is absent from the world, but humanity’s...always humanity’s.”

To learn more about Muhammad’s covenants read Craig Considine’s excellent article, “Religious Pluralism and Civic Rights in a ‘Muslim Nation’: An Analysis of Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with Christians” published in Religions (2016). To learn more about John Smelcer’s The Gospel of Simon visit www.thegospelofsimon.com. And be sure to visit the Islamophobia Guide Book, featured on the Charter for Compassion website: http://www.charterforcompassion.org/compassion-and-religion/islamophobia-guidebook

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