It is a sad fact that the idea of coexistence is far removed from the conceptual reality of certain sectors of Muslim society.
We do not even have to go so far as to discuss coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths – there is a lack of willingness for some groups of Muslims to coexist with other Muslims who happen to follow a different school of jurisprudence, or are affiliated with a different group, or are from a different country… or in some cases who belong to a different Arab tribe.
These divisions sometimes erupt into violence, causing us to ask: What has torn us apart like this? Too many people see the idea of coexistence as merely a strategy to resort to in times of weakness. This is not true at all. What we see if we observe the world is that coexistence really comes into full flower and sets its roots deep when there is strength.
The societies which have the power to promote coexistence and peace are the same ones who have the power to instigate and successfully conduct a war. By contrast, those who are weak can neither conduct war nor bring about peace.
It is, indeed, at times of weakness and instability that we find the noble idea of coexistence to be most imperiled. This shows strength to be able to accommodate disagreements, to be able to encompass various outlooks, social tendencies, and aspirations while not having any group’s vested interests spiral into discord or civil strife. Strength is not about imposing one particular view by force.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
The strong person is not the one who can wrestle another to the ground; the strong person is the one who can restrain himself when he is angry. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
When the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab entered Jerusalem to receive the keys to the city, he was invited to pray inside the church, but he declined. Umar refused, though he did not in any way disdain praying in the church. He said, showing great foresight and sensitivity:
“I fear that if I pray inside, the Muslims of future times will wish to pray in the same spot and will cause discomfort for the church’s congregation.”
Umar, instead, prayed outside the church and spoke a guarantee to the Christians for their lives and security.
Though Richard the Lionhearted had once killed 2,700 Muslim prisoners of war on a single occasion and hung their bodies around the walls of the city of Acre, breaking the agreement he had made with the Muslims, we see that Saladin, when he retook Jerusalem, guaranteed the lives of everyone, Jews and Christians alike, though he was more than capable of exacting revenge. He instead entered into the Treaty of Ramla with Richard on 2 September 1192, whereby the city would stay in Muslim hands but would remain open to Christian pilgrimages.
Winning Hearts and Minds
This is one of the hallmarks of coexistence in medieval history. Muslim history, which is full of periods of strength and victory, is at the same time a testament to coexistence in action. It is a history of peace treaties, agreements, and covenants with others. God says:
O you who believe, uphold your covenants. (5: 1)
He also says:
Keep the covenants. Lo! The covenant will be asked about. (17: 34)
The Prophet Muhammad said:
Whoever kills a person who is under a covenant, that killer will not smell the scent of Paradise, though its scent can be detected for the distance of a journey of forty years. (Al-Albani)
We can witness that the Prophet Muhammad saw a funeral procession pass by. He stood for it. When he was told that it was the funeral of a Jew, he replied:
Was he not a human soul? (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Look at how the Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyah addressed the King of Cyprus:
“It has reached me of the Cypriot King’s devoutness, his grace, his love of knowledge, and his studiousness. I have seen how Sheikh Abu al-`Abbas al-Maqdisi has shown thanks to the King for his gentleness, kindness, and hospitality, and equally extended thanks to the priests and their peers.
We are a people who love goodness for everyone, and it is our hope that Allah will to bring together for you all good in this world and the next.”
Ibn Taymiyah called upon him not only to free the Muslim prisoners of war that he had, but also the Tatars, Jews, and Christians, saying:
“We wish for all those who are with you who are Jews and Christians and who are under our legal protection, that you free them. We will not abandon any prisoner who is our citizen, whether he be Muslim or not. And likewise know that all the prisoners of war that we have who are Christians, they all know of our goodness to them and our mercy, which the Final Messenger had enjoined upon us.”
Sadly, some people cannot see in the language of coexistence anything other than a justification for and acceptance of their defeat. Others look towards an idealistic notion of coexistence that has no practical expression. A true appreciation of coexistence can bring an end to this confusion.
The success of coexistence depends upon the airing of rational voices willing to engage in fruitful dialogue, through which desired results can be achieved with ease.
By contrast, the failure of coexistence is ensured when irrational and foolish voices take over, of people who care nothing but for the gratification of their own interests.
Such people rely upon the discourse of strength and coercion in their understanding of the world and in their decision-making. They see conflict as the key to dealing with others. They cannot look at things from the vantage point of our shared humanity, our universal values, and the common needs and interests that all people have.
Warmongers never think except in the context of war. Their discourse comes inevitably to one sorrowful conclusion. The purpose of religion – contrary to what some people seem to think – is not to cause conflict between people. It is to give a moral shape and harmonious order to human interaction and to ensure successful cooperation in developing our lives on this Earth.
God says about humanity:
It is He Who hath produced you from the Earth and settled you therein (11: 61)
When God created Adam (peace be upon him) He created him to develop the Earth, to explore it and cultivate it. The angels at first objected to the creation of the human being, saying:
Do you place therein those who will cause strife and bloodshed, while we glorify You with praise and exalt You? (2: 30)
The angels knew full well that God hates strife and bloodshed. Certainly, God did not create humanity and give us the scriptures so we could fight each other. The duty the Muslims have to spread the Message of Islam requires winning over the hearts and minds of people. They need to know about Islam as it really is.
We, as Muslims, need to exercise patience and forbearance. We need to respond to abuse with goodness, as God has commanded us on a number of occasions in the Quran:
The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel evil with what is better, then lo! he, between whom and you there had been enmity, will become like a bosom friend. (41: 34)
This is how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) won over the hearts of his enemies. He responded to their harshness and coarseness with kindness, until their hearts softened and they were receptive to hear the truth. Kind treatment, genuine concern and friendship, treating others well in word and in action – these are the ways to bring an end to hatred and reconcile people. God says:
And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune. (41: 35)
Coexistence preserves human life. It opens the doors to dialogue. It is the atmosphere in which the Message of Islam prospers, where it can present itself with the reason, evidence, and logic that so enriches the Quran.