Reflections of an imperfect Muslim


by Tamim Saidi | March 2, 2009 • Like many Muslims around the world, I grew up in a country that was 99.9% Muslim. Excluding a very small Hindu population, the only time we saw someone who was not a Muslim was on television. The vast majority of people in Afghanistan, my country of birth, like some other regions in the Muslim-majority parts of the world, had very little interaction with people of other faiths.

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion. Muslims, and friends of Muslims, would like to change this climate. Engage Minnesota is a blog that begins that effort.

On the contrary, the history of Islam is full of Muslims’ relations with people who were not Muslims. The Qur’an (the last revelation from God), and the Sunnah (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), as well as many early Islamic books have rich information guiding Muslims how to properly and benevolently interact with people of other faiths.

Islamic teachings make it clear that in dealing with people of other faiths, Muslims should be kind, truthful, honest, just, generous, respectful, and polite. They should not break their promises or violate others’ property rights.

No one reading the history of Islam can miss that the early Muslims–including the Last Prophet, peace be upon him (p)– were born in, lived with, interacted with and loved many of the non-Muslims in their time. It is documented clearly that Prophet (p) shed tears after the death of his beloved uncle, Abu Talib, who died without accepting Islam. It was at this time that God, Almighty, told the Prophet (p) and the Muslims that it is God, alone, who has the power to convert the hearts of people to Islam, believing in and submitting to the One God.

Muslims understand it clearly that they have no power and no obligation to convert people to Islam.

It is also clearly documented in Islamic history that the first generation of Muslims lived peacefully under a Christian king of Abyssinia, Negus or Najashi. The Qur’an assigns a very distinctive place for Jews and Christians as the “People of the Book.” Muslims believe that God, Almighty, had sent prophets and revealed the earlier scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel. Based on Islamic guidelines, in Muslim-majority countries, religious minorities should be given the freedom to practice their religion and to live by the rules and regulation in their scriptures.

It is made very clear in the Qur’an (chapter 2 verse 256) that there is “No compulsion in religion.” Muslims are forbidden to coerce or force people to convert to Islam. Faith and belief has to originate from the hearts and minds. Forcing people can only create hypocrites, not believers. The presence of numerous active churches, synagogues and temples and large non-Muslim populations under Muslim rule rebuffs the myth of “conversion at the sword point.” If Muslims had practiced forced conversions, no one would have found vibrant Christian or Jewish communities in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, or Hindus in India, where Muslims ruled for centuries. Many non-Muslims, including the conquering Mongols, willingly converted to Islam after finding out what Islam was truly about.

The Qur’an also makes it clear that the places of worship (“monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques,” etc) should be protected as the places where the “name of God is commemorated in abundance.” (Chapter 22 Verse 40)

Omar ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph and a very close companion of the Prophet (p), granted religious freedom to non-Muslim citizens under his rule and the sanctity of their synagogues and places of worship were confirmed:

“This is the protection which the servant of Allah, Omar, the Commander of the Believers, extends to the people of Ilya (Jerusalem): The safeguarding of their lives, properties, churches, crosses, and of their entire community. Their churches cannot be occupied, demolished, or damaged, nor are their crosses or anything belonging to them to be touched. They will never be forced to abandon their religion, nor will they be oppressed.” (At-Tabari, Tarikh, Vol III, Dar Al-Ma`arif)

This is very much in accordance with the pact that the Prophet Muhammad (p) made in the year 628 with Christian monks of St. Catherine Monastery. It is also known as the Charter of Privileges:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn (son of) Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Similarly, many provisions were made in the Constitution of Medina for Jewish tribes of Medina. Additionally, a large number of Spanish Jews, who fled Spain under the Inquisition and took refuge in Muslim lands, thrived and reached high levels of government.

Forget “forced conversions”; in the Qur’an, God forbids the Muslims from even impolitely arguing or quarrelling with People of the Book (29:46). Muslims are encouraged to focus on their common grounds with people of other faiths. The Qur’an commands Muslims to say: “We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we submit (Islam means submission to God). (29:46). God, the Most High and Exalted, never call Himself (God is not considered a man, but genderless in Islam) the “God of Muslims” but the “Lord of the Universe” (Chapter 1) and “The God and the Lord of the humankind” (Chapter 114). Prophet Muhammad (p) is considered as the “Mercy to the Universe” and not just a mercy to the Muslims. There are numerous verses in the Qur’an that God, Almighty, addresses not just the Muslims but the entire humankind.

In an oft-quoted incidence, the last prophet of God taught Muslims to respect humanity irrespective of their religion. It has been narrated that, upon noticing a funeral procession, the Prophet (p) stood up in respect of the deceased. A companion tried to pull him down, saying, “She is a Jew, O Messenger of God!” He (p) asked “Isn’t she a human soul going back to her Lord?”

The Muslim’s respect for the human soul is also reiterated in a story about Abraham (p), the father of the three Abrahamic faiths, who is depicted as extremely generous and kind. As someone would always share the food which was given to him by God with others, Abraham was about to start his meal when he had the urge to share his food with another person. When the old man about to share his (p) meal said he was an atheist, he took away the food from him. He (p) was admonished by none other than God Himself, saying that “O’ Abraham, this man has been rejecting Me for 70 years, and I have provided food for him every day. It is only once that you can share your food with him and you are refusing?” So, it is said, Abraham (p) ran out and found the old man and re-offered him the meal.

Hadith books relate that in prohibiting Muslims from harming and doing injustice to people, the Prophet (p) said: There is no obstruction between the prayer of the oppressed and their Lord, even if he/she happens to be a non-Muslim. This injustice is forbidden at the individual level as well as at the governmental level. Ibn Taymiyah, a renowned Muslim scholar of the early ages, had said “Allah guards the justice-loving government, even if not Muslim, and destroys a tyrant government, even if Muslim.”

I can’t think of a better slogan than this to put on bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards in some of the Muslim-majority parts of the world.

The other part of the responsibility of Muslims is toward neighbors. This is such an important and vast topic that it would require several pages of explanation. The rights of neighbors can be summarized by two of the very famous sayings of the Prophet (p):

“Your faith is not complete until you want for your brother (or sister) what you want for yourself.”

“Your faith is not complete if you are full and your neighbor is starving.”

Scholars have said that these apply to a Muslim neighbor as well as a neighbor who is not a Muslim; to our brothers in faith, or our brothers in humanity.

Thinking about the lofty standards that God and His Messenger have set for us in treating our neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow humans, in spite of my meager attempts, I often feel as if these standards are at the ceiling level, I–like many other Muslims–function barely at about an inch off the floor.

It would be unfair if people around me judged Islam based on my flawed practices. Even on a good day, I do not think I can fully meet the high standards of kindness, generosity, decency, charity, truthfulness, justice, honesty and cooperation towards my fellow humans and neighbors required by Islam.

So maybe the slogan that I should put on my T-shirts, or on my car bumper sticker should be: “I am just an imperfect Muslim, don’t misjudge Islam because of me.”