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Christians and Muslims Gather in Friendship and Fellowship to Celebrate the Birth of Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon both

Catherine Shakdam
John Andrew Morrow

A celebration of Milad al-Nabi was held at the Islamic Society of York Region, in the Greater Toronto Area, in Canada, on Saturday, December 17th, 2016.

The event commenced with the melodious recitation of the Qur’an by Shaykh Ibrahim Hussain Chishti along with a moving recitation by 12-year old sister Arya Bassim.

The speakers included Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought and President of the Islamic Society of York Region, Muhammad Saleem, Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan, Maulana Syed Asad Jafri from the Al-Mahdi Islamic Centre in Pickering, Rev. Joan Masterton from the Presbyterian Church in Stouffville, Rev. Elizabeth Cunningham from the United Church in Stouffville, as well as Dr. Mir Baiz Khan, Head of the Research and Knowledge Mobilization Department at the Shi‘a Isma‘ili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for Canada.

The key-note speaker of the event, Dr. John Andrew Morrow, delivered the following lecture, titled “The Covenants of the Prophet: A Call for Co-Existence, Friendship, and Fellowship,” which was warmly received by the 500 guests in attendance:

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, the Judge and the Just, the Most Patient and Most Loving.

Peace be upon all the prophets and messengers of God, Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, John-the-Baptist, Muhammad, and all in between, and may God be pleased with their Companions and all the Friends of God.

For those who come in peace, who wish to live in peace, and who wish to co-exist on the base of shared beliefs, values, ethics, and principles: welcome.

Celebrating the birth of the Messenger of Allah is not a bid‘ah or prohibited innovation: if anything, it is a sunnah; it is a recommended and rewardable act.

Today, as you are well-aware, we gather for an auspicious occasion: we celebrate the birth of Muhammad the son of ‘Abd Allah, the Messenger of Allah, may peace and blessings be upon him, his faithful wives, committed Companions, and his purified progeny. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Mawlid al-Nabi!

Celebrating the birth of the Messenger of Allah is not a bid‘ah or prohibited innovation: if anything, it is a sunnah; it is a recommended and rewardable act. It is an expression of love, admiration, and reverence, for a man who was sent as a mercy to all the worlds, a man with a heart of gold and a sage with a sublime character.

When the Prophet Muhammad was born, light beamed from his head, illuminating the heavens. The light spread from Arabia and filled the whole world. Every stone, clod, and tree laughed with joy, and all things in heaven and earth uttered praise to God. Sounds like a celebration to me.

It is regrettable that many Muslims have veered away from Mawlid al-Nabi due to the influence of certain ideas that have emanated out of Arabia since the late 1800s. Many Muslims have been deprived of the blessings derived from commemorating and celebrating the birth of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. Likewise, many Muslims have forgotten the letters, treaties, and covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, sallalahu ‘alayhi wa alihi wa sallam, and the way he interacted with non-Muslims.

The Messenger of Allah first reached out to his people, the polytheistic Arabs. He was not well-received. While in Makkah, even before he migrated to Madinah, he reached out to the Christian community. There, in the holy precinct, he received a delegation of Christians.

Some sources say that they came from Najran. Some say that they came from Abyssinia. Some say that they were Armenian Christians from Jerusalem. And others suggest that they came from the Sinai. Their origin is immaterial.

What is uncontested is that the Prophet was engaged in interfaith community-building from the very onset of the prophetic mission and that the Prophet signed a treaty with this delegation from the People of the Book.

This singular act infuriated the Arab polytheists who accused Muhammad of dividing Arabia. Consequently, the persecution against the Prophet and his followers intensified.

If the Prophet Muhammad was so averse to Christians, why did he send his Companions, as refugees, to Abyssinia, “the land of the just Christian king where no man is wronged?” When Islam was properly explained to the Emperor al-Najashi, he famously stated that the difference between Christians and Muslims was like a line in the sand.

We are different. We are distinct. But we share many similarities and we should stand side by side as fellow monotheists, as we all follow the tradition of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Eventually, the persecution of the peaceful Prophet and his peaceful, non-violent, followers become unbearable, forcing him into exile in Madinah. And who brought him there to safety: a Bedouin guide, a polytheist, a pagan, and a heathen.

Did the Messenger of Allah judge him on the base of his religious beliefs? No; not at all: he judged him, first and foremost, on his character and human qualities. He was a non-Muslim but he was trustworthy and loyal.

In Madinah, the Prophet continued with the same conciliatory approach. Madinah was a city divided. Half of the city of pagan. The other half was Jewish. And they had been at each other’s throats for as long as they could remember.

The Muslims, both those from Madinah, and those who came with the Prophet, numbered in the hundreds. Madinah was initially a Muslim-minority community.

Did the Prophet kill all the polytheists? Did he kill all the kuffar? Did the Prophet kill all the Jews? No; not at all. He brought them to the table, discussed with them, dialogued with them, and composed the Covenant of Madinah. It granted equal rights to all. Muslims and non-Muslims all agreed to live together and to protect each other. As the Prophet Muhammad said: “They are one community.”

Gradually, most of the non-Muslims, both pagan and Jewish, embraced Islam: freely as “there is no compulsion in religion.” Some Jews, but not all, opposed the Prophet. Others continued to live in Madinah and remained loyal to him.

In the second year of the hijrah, the Messenger of Allah received a delegation from St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai in Egypt. The Prophet Muhammad granted them what is known as the ‘ahd al-nabi, ‘ahd nabawi or ashtinameh, known in English as the Covenant of the Prophet.

Although some incredulous individuals dispute or deny its authenticity, it is one of the most authentic documents in the entire body of Islamic literature. It has been authenticated by over 150 separate authorities over the past 1400 years.

The Covenant of the Prophet was respected and renewed by the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, most of the Umayyads, ‘Abbasids, Ayyubids, and Mamluks, along with all of the Ottoman Sultans down to the last Caliph, Sultan ‘Abdul-Hamid, who certified it as sahih and asserted, in 1904, that it was binding until the end of times. Anyone who seeks to create a Caliphate, should start by respecting the command of the last Caliph of Islam.

The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is not the only document of its kind. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, also granted several covenants to the various Christian and Jewish communities of Najran. A delegation of Christians came to see the Prophet in Madinah. They discussed, debated, and disagreed.

However, when it came time for the Christians to perform their prayers, the Prophet insisted that they pray in the mosque. For far too long have we had mosques that say “No non-Muslims allowed.” This is un-Islamic. It contradicts a clear Sunnah from the Prophet. This is the reason why we have invited you here today, our friends in faith, the People of the Book, both Jewish and Christian. While we are far from perfect, and have many shortcomings, we strive, to the best of our abilities, to faithfully follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Messenger of Allah also granted Covenants of Peace and Protection to other Christian Communities; to the Assyrians, to the Armenians, to the Christians of Persia, to the Jacobites, to the Copts, and to the Syriac Orthodox Christians.

“What about us?” the sons of Abraham may ask. “Are we a bunch of schmucks?” No, not at all. As I explained, the first Covenant that the Prophet granted in Madinah was made with the Jewish citizens of the Prophet’s city-state.

Since the Prophet came into conflict with some of the Jewish tribes in Madinah, some Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that Islam has been at war against Judaism ever since. How sad it is that people think such things.

In reality, the Prophet Muhammad continued to make peace with anyone who wanted to make peace with him. He was out to make allies. He was not out to subjugate. The Covenants of the Prophet are reciprocal. They are mutual agreements. They involve rights and responsibilities by all parties. They are a two-way street and not a one-way street with a dead-end.

The Messenger of Allah, ‘alayhi salawatu wa salaam, granted a Covenant of Peace and Protection to the Jews of Khaybar, to the Yemenite Jews, and to the Jews of Maqna. In fact, this was one of the last treaties that the Prophet concluded. It shows that he was committed to reconciliation with the Jewish community.

The Covenants of the Prophet provide religious freedom. They protect places of worship. They are blue-prints for the creation of a diverse and pluralistic community. They provide citizenship rights: civil rights, political rights, economic rights, social rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and judicial rights.

Please allow to read some passages from these precious documents so that you can get a sense of the rights and protections that the Prophet provided to the People of the Book:

“I will protect their religion and their Church wherever they are found, be it on earth or at sea, in the West or in the East, with utmost vigilance on my part, the People of my House, and the Muslims as a whole.”

That is from the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran.

“If a monk or pilgrim seeks protection, in mountain or valley, in a cave or in tilled fields, in the plain, in the desert, or in a church, I am behind them, defending them from every enemy; I, my helpers, all the members of my religion, and all my followers, for they [the monks and the pilgrims] are my protégés and my subjects.”

That is from the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai.

Speaking of women’s rights, listen to what the Prophet had to say regarding the way Muslim husbands should treat their Christian wives:

“If a Christian woman enters a Muslim household, she shall be received with kindness, and she shall be given opportunity to pray in her church; there shall be no dispute between her and a man who loves her religion. Whoever contravenes the covenant of Allah and acts to the contrary is a rebel against his covenant and his Messenger.”

Concerning the fact that there is no compulsion in religion, the Prophet said the following in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia:

“No Christians shall be brought by force to confess Islam, and no disputes except over the better things shall be envisaged in with them. Muslims shall extend over the Christians everywhere the arm of mercy and kindness, protecting them from the exactions of oppressors.”

In the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the Messenger of Allah described the followers of Christ in the following terms: “They are my flock.” In other words, he viewed himself as their shepherd, as their guide, guardian, and protector, as any good statesman would do.

The Prophet Muhammad commanded Muslims to protect Christians. As we read in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia:

“All pious believers shall deem it their bounden duty to defend believers and to aid them wherever they may be, whether far or near, and throughout Christendom shall protect the places where they conduct worship, and those where their monks and priests dwell. Everywhere, in mountains, on the plains, in towns and in waste places, in deserts, and wherever they may be, that people shall be protected, both in their faith and in their property, both in the West and in the East, both on sea and land.”

The Messenger of Allah never commanded Muslims to destroy churches. On the contrary, he commanded his followers to protect them and repair them so that God would be praised. As we read in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World:

“If the Christians seek the help and assistance of the Muslims to repair their churches and their convents or to arrange matters pertaining to their affairs and religion, they, [the Muslims], must help and support them. However, they must not do so with the aim of receiving any reward. On the contrary, they should aim to restore that religion, out of faithfulness to the pact of the Messenger of Allah, by pure donation, and as a meritorious act before Allah and His Messenger.”

In the very same treaty, the Prophet affirms that: “In virtue of this pact, [Christians] have obtained inviolable rights to enjoy our protection, to be protected from any infringement of their rights, so that they will be bound to the Muslims both in good and bad fortune.”

Why was the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his purified progeny, so committed to protecting the followers of Christ? As he explains in theCovenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran:

“The Christians … respected my alliance. They recognized my rights. They fulfilled the promises that they had made during our meeting. They assisted the lieutenants that I had sent to the frontiers. They earned my concern and my affection by fulfilling the obligations that I had contracted with them.”

As Muslims, we are duty-bound to protect our friends, neighbors, and allies from the People of the Book. As the Messenger of Allah proclaimed in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran:

“The Muslims must not abandon the Christians, neglect them, and leave them without help and assistance since I have made this pact with them on behalf of Allah to ensure that whatever good befell Muslims it would befall them as well and that whatever harm befell Muslims would befall them as well. In virtue of this pact, they have obtained inviolable rights to enjoy our protection, to be protected from any infringement of their rights, so that they will be bound to the Muslims both in good and bad fortune.”

“If anyone is unjust and unkind to the Christians,” states the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians, “he will be guilty of disobeying the Prophet of God.” Speaking of Christians, the command contained in the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is clear: “The Muslims shall defend them.”

There are those that claim that the Covenants of the Prophet cannot be correct as they contradict the Qur’an which purportedly prohibits Muslims from taking unbelievers as friends. Unfortunately, this all too common misconception is based on a misreading of the revealed text which has been facilitated by inaccurate translations.

As fond as I may be of Yusuf ‘Ali’s (1872-1953) translation, I must opt for Muhammad Asad’s (1900-1992) translation as it more accurately conveys the sense of the verses in question. The verse, that is often cited, typically from Yusuf ‘Ali, reads: “Let not the believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers” (3:28). Ironically, both anti-Islamites and Takfiri terrorists mutilate and misrepresent this verse. The full verse says “Let not the believers take for friends or helpers unbelievers rather than believers” (3:28).

The word awliyya’ is the plural of wali which means friend, helper, custodian, protector, and ally, depending on the context. It derives from the root wly from which we getwilayah which means authority or guardianship and mawla which means master.

The Qur’an does not say do not take non-Muslims as isdiqa or friends in whom you trust; ashab, friends who are companions; rufaqa, friends who are company; or khalilunfriends who are intimate. The revealed text prohibits Muslims from taking kafirun, infidels, namely, polytheists as allies, protectors, and guardians; namely, as friends who have the power of authority over them. It does not say that a Muslim cannot have a non-Muslim friend.

What the Qur’an does say is that a Muslim cannot take an unbeliever as a wali in preference of — min duni — a believing Muslim. Consequently, Muhammad Asad’s translation — “Let not the believers take those who deny the truth for their allies in preference to the believers” (3:28) — more accurately captures the correct meaning of this verse.

The same message is repeated several times in the Qur’an, including: “as for those who take the deniers of the truth for their allies in preference to the believers — do they hope to be honored by them when, behold, all honor belongs to God [alone]” (4:139) and “O you who have attained to faith! Do not take the deniers of truth for your allies in preference to the believers! Do you want to place before God a manifest proof of your guilt” (4:144).

Even if critics accept that the word kuffar applies to polytheists or atheists as opposed to the People of the Book, they might point out that the Qur’an specifically forbids Muslims from befriending Jews and Christians as in the following verse:

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your allies: they are but allies to one another and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes, verily, one of them; behold, God does not guide such evildoers” (5:51).

Once again, the word employed is not “friends” in the sense that we understand it in English, but that of allies, protectors, custodians or overlords. Both anti-Muslimites and Takfiri extremists take verses out of context and interpret them as absolute injunctions even though they are elucidated in other parts of the Qur’an. Why, just slightly ahead in the same chapter, Almighty Allah qualifies the interdiction, explaining:

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not take for your friends such as mock at your faith and make a jest of it—be they from among those who have been vouchsafed revelation before your time, or [from among those] who deny the truth [of revelation as such] — but remain conscious of God, if you are [truly] believers.” (5:57)

Hence, the friends that Muslims are not allowed to take are those who make a mockery of Islam, regardless of whether they are People of the Book or those who deny revelation. The prohibition of having bad guardians is not based on race or even religion; it could even apply to one’s own parents, even if they are nominal Muslims, if they are hostile to Islamic beliefs and practices. As Almighty Allah says:

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not take your fathers and your brothers for allies if a denial of the truth is dearer to them than faith: for those of you who ally themselves with them — it is they, then who are evildoers.” (9:23)

As Allah explains in the Qur’an, Muslims cannot take the enemies of Allah, and the enemies of Muslims, as friends:

“O you who have attained to faith! Do not take My enemies — who are your enemies as well — for your friends, showing them affection even though they are bent on denying whatever truth has come unto you, [and even though] they have driven the Apostle and yourselves away, [only] because you believe in God, your Sustainer! If [it be true that] you have gone forth [from your homes] to strive in My cause, and out of a longing for My goodly acceptance, inclining towards them in secret affection: for I am fully aware of all that you may conceal as well as of all that you do openly. And any of you who does this has already strayed from the right path.” (60:1)

If a person derides your faith in God; if a person makes fun of your religion; your beliefs; your morals; and your ethics, that person is not a true friend. Consequently, Almighty Allah is simply stating an obvious fact. He also forbids Muslims from forming bonds of friendship with people who, due to their beliefs, lack thereof, or evil actions, are clearly condemned. As the Qur’an warns:

“O you who have attained to faith! Be not friends with people whom God has condemned! They [who would befriend them] are indeed bereft of all hope of a life to come—just as those deniers of truth are bereft of all hope of [ever again seeing] those who are [now] in their graves.” (60:13)

None of these verses prevent Muslims from having friends who are non-Muslims, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, so long as they are sincere and honorable in their actions. As Allah clarifies once again:

“God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth: and as for those [from among you] who turn towards them in friendship; it is they, they who are truly wrongdoers.” (60:9)

The imperative here is la tatawallaw (60:13) or “do not take as awliya’” people who are at war against Islam and Muslims. Nothing prevents Muslims from taking people as friends who respect their religion. The Prophet himself had friends who were Jews, Christians, and even polytheists. Their relationship, however, was based on love, loyalty, and respect. The Companions of the Prophet had non-Muslim friends as did the Caliphs of Islam. Not only that: the Prophet, the Companions, and the Caliphs had spouses who were Jewish or Christian.

Since the Qur’an permits Muslim men to marry women from the People of the Book; how could it simultaneously prohibit Muslim men from taking Jews and Christians as friends? Is not a wife the most loyal and loving of friends and companions? Regarding believers befriending non-believers, the Book of Proverbs advises that “the righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray” (12:26). It advises believers to remain aloof from foolish people (12:20; 14:7), from people with bad tempers (22:24), and from the rebellious (24:21).

Much like the Qur’an, the Bible warns believers to stay away from unbelievers: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). As Minou Reeves puts it plainly,

“Muhammad’s message was of friendship and unity, not contempt and war. Hatred did not feature in his plan of social and religious reform. His successors respected the freedom of conscience of their Christian and Jewish subjects. If Westerners will learn to respect Muhammad and Islam, they can hope to be respected in return.” (xii)

Since it is so important, I will say it again: “If Westerners will learn to respect Muhammad and Islam, they can hope to be respected in return.”

I bring you glad tidings that the Covenants of the Prophet with the People of the Book are true and that they represent a call for co-existence, friendship, and fellowship. Let us be bridge-builders and not bridge-breakers. Let us be peace-makers and not peace-breakers. Let us join forces as the Family of Abraham against the enemies of God and humanity. I send you greetings of peace. Salaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.

By Catherine Shakdam and Dr. John Andrew Morrow


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