Religious tolerance in the way of Prophet Muhammad

Are we portraying the message of peace our Prophet (PBUH) had steadfastly upheld?

On 28 August 2009, the Cow Head protests against the construction of a Hindu temple were held in front of the Selangor state government headquarters at the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Building, Shah Alam. The protest received its name because of the act of a few participants who brought along a cow head, which they later desecrated. The cow is considered a sacred animal to Hindus.

The protest was held due to Selangor state government’s intention to relocate a Hindu temple. The protesters were mainly Muslim who opposed the relocation because the area chosen was a Muslim majority area. A group of 50 or so Malaysian Muslims marched from the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque to the Selangor state government headquarters at the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Building with the head of a cow – an animal deemed sacred in Hinduism – and stomped on the head and spat on it before leaving the site. The protest leaders were also recorded saying there would be blood if a temple was constructed in Shah Alam.


In 2010, the church burnings happened. Attacks on churches and other Christian-owned buildings occurred after a High Court judge ruled on 31 December 2009, that the word “Allah” is not exclusive to Islam and that the government’s Home Ministry is “not empowered” to ban non-Muslims from using the word.

The case began two years before when The Herald, the Roman Catholic Church’s weekly Malaysian publication, argued that the word “Allah” predates Islam and is used by Arabic-speaking non-Muslims to refer to God. The Herald filed a suit against the government in order to continue to use the word “Allah” in its Malay language newspaper.

This offended some Muslims, who claim that “Allah” is exclusive to Islam, even though the word means “God” in Arabic, and is used by other faiths in, for example, Arab Christians. The supposed fear is that Christians are plotting to confuse and convert Muslim Malays.

The government had issued the ban on the use of “Allah” by non-Muslims in the 1980s, though the law was never enforced. In the years before the incident, the government began enforcing the law and confiscated Bibles that contained the word “Allah.” So sensitive is the issue that on 6 January 2010, after an appeal by the government and with the consent of the Catholic church, the High Court suspended its own ruling. The government maintains that “Allah” is an Islamic word and if used by non-Muslims could confuse Muslims into converting to those faiths.

A total of 10 churches and few mosques have been attacked or vandalized since the 31 December 2009 decision.


And recently, the surau demolition. The surau at a resort in Sedili Besar which was used by non-Muslims in a religious ceremony on August 10, was demolished by the resort management. Tanjung Sutera Resort entered the spotlight recently following media reports on video recordings found on YouTube that allegedly showed Buddhists using the surau for their worship.

The resort owner, a Singaporean, was arrested last week after police reports were lodged over the incident and was subsequently remanded for four days to assist in police investigations. Last weekend, Home Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi announced that the man’s permanent residence had been revoked over the incident, in a move to deter future religious offenders. The Johor religious authorities also announced last week that the surau would have to be demolished as it had been used by non-Muslims to host their religious activities.

Citing the Quran, Johor Islamic Religious Council (MAINJ) advisor Datuk Nooh Gadut explained that if such a sacred place had knowingly been used for activities outside the Islamic faith, it should be taken down.

“The most sacred places on Earth are mosques and surau. Accordingly, they are not allowed to be used to carry out religious activities other than for Islam and if a surau is found to have hosted other religious activities, it can be demolished based on surah At-Taubah verse 107 (in the Quran),” he was quoted saying on Bernama.

“And [there are] those [hypocrites] who took for themselves a mosque for causing harm and disbelief and division among the believers and as a station for whoever had warred against Allah and His Messenger before. And they will surely swear, “We intended only the best.” And Allah testifies that indeed they are liars.” [9:107]

Last Tuesday, the Buddhist Maha Vihara — a group representing Malaysian Buddhists — apologised over the prayer session in the surau. In a brief statement, Chief High Priest of Malaysia Datuk K. Srï Dhammaratana expressed his group’s regret while urging followers of the religion to be mindful of others in their worship.

“We would like to apologise to our Muslim brothers and sisters for the actions of a certain Buddhist group from Singapore in having their meditation session at the surau of a resort in Kota Tinggi. I advise Buddhists in Malaysia and Singapore to respect the religious sensitivities of other religionists while carrying out our own religious obligations and responsibilities,” Dhammaratana said.


These are just some of the highlighted events of religious intolerance in the name of God that occured in Malaysia. Religious intolerance has become too much a part of modern life. It is a fact of life, though, that good people, of whatever faith, do not poke fun or try to insult one another’s religion.

Every society has its own way to live in peace and harmony, especially societies with diverse ethnicities, religions, and cultures. In fact, diversity can be a source of strength and success of a society, although at first it may seem difficult to unite all the different communities in a society. For Muslims, the Prophet (PBUH) showed the example of a peaceful plural society during his lifetime. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Magian and Sabian were the communities that bonded together under one constitution which generally produces various understandings in many different contexts.

A well-integrated society can be identified where each must maintain their own identity yet are related to one another so that all may function together smoothly and efficiently. Otherwise, they will be infested with conflicts and cannot function harmoniously and effectively, becoming an ill-integrated society. Obviously, a society will never be for Muslims only, for being a Muslim and a believer does not mean that non-Muslims or non-believers lose their human rights in any society. Muslims have been instructed not to seek dissension with them unnecessarily but to live with them with the spirit of coexistence, peace and amity. The Qur’an states that just and proper treatment should be given towards the disbelievers.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and to propagate it (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims). In Article 3, it also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.

Article 3
● (1) Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and
harmony in any part of the Federation.

Article 11
● (1) Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it.
● (3) Every religious group has the right –

    ❍ (a) to manage its own religious affairs;
    ❍ (b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and
    ❍ (c) to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.

● (4) State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.

The status of freedom of religion in Malaysia has always been a controversial issue. Despite Malaysia being a secular state with Islam as its official religion, there has been many debates as to whether it is really an Islamic state or not, and even suggestions to reform the country into an Islamic state.

Malaysia has a population of just over 27 million. More than half of the population practices Islam, secondly Buddhism, thirdly Christianity and fourth, Hinduism. A minority of the percentage are traditional Chinese religions. The remainder is accounted for by other faiths, including Animism, Folk religion, Sikhism and other belief systems.

Malaysia is known worldwide to be a multi-cultural and multi-religious country. For a long time, we have managed to keep a facade of tranquility and harmonious living to the world. But as for those who are under the surface, we are well aware of the religious (over)sensitivities and cultural friction that is happening, and these incidents seem to keep escalating. Religious authorities have grown more rampant and critical of almost everything, questioning, detaining, remanding and banning anything they deem as an insult to Islam.

Religion, especially Islam, is a sensitive subject to most Malaysians, but we must not, however, forget the fact that Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-religious democratic state guaranteeing fundamental rights. Religion, like any other important issue, cannot escape from being subject to scrutiny and comment, what else insult and condemnation. Especially when Islam is the majority in a nation. Islam is bound to be under attack by others who do not understand the compassion of Islam due to the misbehaviour of our Malaysian Muslims.

While it is true that Muslims ought to defend their religion, is degrading and violating another religion the way to do it? Considering that Muslims are the majority in our modernizing country, is it fair for us to step on the minority only because we have the upper hand? Should being a Muslim make you feel superior to those who adhere to another faith? Or are we brave only because we make up more than half the population?

Malaysians Muslims have always emphasized on the importance of following the Qur’an and sunnah, and Malaysian Muslims hold the highest respect for the Prophet (PBUH), always encouraging to follow after his footsteps. The Prophet (PBUH) has always been known as a wise and kind man. Let us ponder and think for a moment: How did the Prophet (PBUH) treat the other religions that existed besides Islam during his time? With the escalating religious friction, are the steps our religious authorities take anything like the Prophet’s (PBUH) exemplary behaviour?

Islam rejects any quarrel and disputes among people in society especially among believers. Moreover, Islam is a religion that maintains peaceful coexistence and integration within a society by putting disputes aside and emphasizing more on the concept of unity and brotherhood. God mentions in the Qur’an.

“And obey Allah and His Messenger, and do not dispute and [thus] lose courage and [then] your strength would depart; and be patient. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.” [8:46]

The Prophet (PBUH) also informs in his hadith:

“The man who is most hateful to God is the one who quarrels and disputes most.” (Al-Bukhari, 1998)

Although men were created with many differences, they originally came from the same lineage and can be distinguished only by religion and their piety, as highlighted by the Prophet (PBUH):

“Indeed your lineage are not insult upon one person, because all of you are sons of Adam, no one from you are preferred or better than one another except due to religion or piety, and it is enough for (destruction of) men to be incredibly lewdly, miserly and obscenely.” (Ibn Hanbal, 2001)

Islam is a peaceful religion that advocates for tolerance, compassion, and respect. Islam is also a religion of equality as we are all God’s creations and as such are all deserving of respect. Islam taught respect among all races, between female and male, and between adult and child.

Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, believes in prophets and messengers of God. One way of understanding the Islamic view on freedom of religion is to look at the role of the prophets and messengers. Had they been sent to forcefully bring the people into their teachings? Were Moses, Jesus and Muhammad ordered by God to impose their teachings upon the people by force? Look at the Qur’an. The revealed words of God where He clearly outlines the duty of his mes­sengers by saying:

“The Messenger’s duty is but to convey (the Message). And Allah knows all that you reveal and all that you conceal.” [5:99]

So we see that from the Qur’anic point of view, the mission of the prophets and messengers of God was not to forcefully impose their teachings on the people but to guide them and ask them to accept God with their own will, in one revelation, God says to the Prophet (PBUH):

“But if the people turn away (then do not be sad because) We did not send you to be a guardian over them. It is for you only to deliver the mes­sage.” [42:43]

Many believe that we have to fight and shun away evil from our religion, different faiths included. They look to the Prophet (PBUH) and the war that was waged against him and Muslims as an example to fight against non-believers. Among various prolific misconceptions concerning Islam, one cannot miss the oft-quoted “Kill them wherever you find them,” [2:191] verse in the Qur’an. Many Muslims use this as a reason to mistreat non-Muslims, however, this bloodthirsty depiction of Islam is far from the truth, as even the line just before that says, “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” [2:190]

What they tend to forget is that these hadith or verses in the Qur’an that have been decreed to slay non-Muslims are all specific to war periods, and that there are also hadith and verses in the Qur’an that promise the safety of non-combatant non-Muslims. A non-Muslim that has a truce with Islam should not be harmed in any way.

Whenever issues of religious conflict rise, the question we should ask ourselves is: What would the Prophet (PBUH) do?

Unfortunately, most of what they do opposes the teachings of not only the Prophet (PBUH), but the Qur’an itself.

Islam is a religion of peace and the Prophet (PBUH) urged compassion and understanding. The Prophet (PBUH) also argued for religious tolerance and racial equality. While the Prophet urged all people to accept Islam and the word of the one true God, he did not believe that people should be forced into accepting a religion. The Prophet (PBUH) was an ideal embodiment of mercy, sympathy, justice and forgiveness. There is not a single instance to show that he ever used force or preached violence to promulgate his religion or to revenge against his foes who persistently opposed the early part of his Prophetic mission. His heart was filled with intense love for all human kind irrespective of creed or color.

During the first thirteen years of his life in Makkah, he and his followers faced much persecution. Muslims were not ordered by God to fight back due to the fact that they had no military strength yet due to the small following which gradually increased. It was only in Madinah when his following and military power rapidly grew that fighting to protect themselves and the new religion was allowed.

When the Prophet’s (PBUH) opponents greatly increased their persecution, his companions asked him to curse them. At this the Prophet (PBUH) replied:

“I have not been sent to lay a curse upon men but to be a blessing to them.” (Muslim)

His opponents continued to treat him and his companions unjustly and cruelly, but he always prayed for them.

He once decided to personally visit the village of Ta’if, to the east of Makkah, to invite its inhabitants to Islam. The people rejected him, stoned him, ejected him, and made him to bleed. Angel Gabriel came to him and said:

“Allah has heard what your people say to you and how they reject you. He has ordered the angels of the mountains to obey whatever you tell them to do.” The angel of the mountains called him, greeted him and said, “Send me to do what you wish. If you wish, I will crush them between the two mountains of Makkah.”

The Prophet (PBUH) said:

“Rather, I hope that Allah will bring forth from their loins those who will worship Allah alone and not associate anything with Him.” (Al-Bukhari)

The unity of society is one of the important aspects brought by the Prophet (PBUH) during his lifetime, as he was the one who built a peaceful society in Islamic era where there were Muslims, Arabs, Christians and Jews living together. The Prophet (PBUH) faced a number of incidents to testify his justice. He lived in a place where people of different religions, languages, races and tribes all coexisted. The difference and diversity experienced by the Prophet (PBUH) at that particular time was a perfect reference for mankind, especially Muslims who were living within a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

The dealings of the Prophet (PBUH) with other religions can best be described in this verse of the Qur’an:

“For you is your religion, and to me is my religion.” [109:6]

The Arabian Peninsula during the time of the Prophet (PBUH) was a region in which various faiths coexisted. There were Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists, and others without any religion. When we look into the life of the Prophet (PBUH), we may find many examples of his high level of tolerance shown to people of other faiths.

This society also was regarded as the first Islamic society which was shaped after the Muslim conquests and very important to be a role model in enhancing the integration of society especially which diverse in terms of ethnicity, religions or cultures.

When the Prophet (PBUH) migrated to Medina, his role as a mere religious leader ended; he was now the leader of a state, governed by the precepts of Islam, which demanded that clear laws of be laid out to ensure harmony and stability in a society once distraught by war, and ensures the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Jews, Christians and polytheists. Due to this, the Prophet (PBUH) laid down a constitution which detailed the responsibilities of all citizens which resided in Medina; their obligations towards each other, and certain restrictions which were placed on each religious group. All were to obey what was mentioned therein, and any breach of its articles was regarded as an act of treachery.

The Constitution of Medina (Arabic: دستور المدينة‎, Ṣaḥīfat al-Madīnah), also known as the Charter of Medina, was drafted by the Prophet (PBUH). It constituted a formal agreement between Muhammad and all of the significant tribes and families of Medina, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans. The document was created to bring to an end the bitter inter-tribal fighting within Medina. It instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the Muslim, Jewish, Christian and pagan communities of Medina bringing them within the fold of one community — the Ummah.

In Islam, social differences is recognized as something that shows the greatness of God rather than the greatness or superiority of one colour, language, or race, or nation over another. It accepts the fact that people are different and that they are created differently as creations of God.

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” [30:22]

Islam emphasizes on unity based on nobility, equality and justice within the diversity of ethnics and cultures instead of exclusiveness, nationalism and racialism. Integrstion of society is directly and indirectly promoted in Islam because Islam is the only system of life which considers the entire mankind to be of one family, binds humans into a fraternity and establishes a world society or community which we call Ummah

One of the articles in the constitution was that all the inhabitants of Medina, Muslims as well as those who had entered the pact from the Jews, Christian, and idolaters, were all considered members and citizens of Medina society regardless of religion, race, or ancestry. People of other faiths were protected from harm as much as the Muslims. Previously, each tribe had their alliances and enemies within and out of Medina. The Prophet (PBUH) gathered these different tribes under one system of governance which upheld pacts of alliances. Any attack on other religion or tribe was considered an attack on the state and upon the Muslims as well.

The lives of the practitioners of other religions in the Muslim society was also given protective status. The Prophet (PBUH) said:“Whoever kills a person who has a truce with the Muslims will never smell the fragrance of Paradise.” (Muslim)

Since the upper hand was with the Muslims, the Prophet (PBUH) strictly warned against any maltreatment of people of other faiths. He said:

“Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

From here, it is clear that anything other than tolerance would not be tolerated, and that although all were members of a society, each had their separate religion which could not be violated. Each was allowed to practice their beliefs freely, and no acts of provocation were allowed.

There are many other articles of this constitution which show exemplary religious tolerance, but emphasis will be placed on an article which states that all inhabitants of the state must recognize a higher level of authority, and in those matters which involved various tribes and religions, justice could not be meted out by individual leaders; rather it must be adjudicated by the leader of the state himself or his designated representatives. It was allowed, however, for individual tribes who were not Muslims, to refer to their own religious scriptures and their learned men in regards to their own personal affairs. They could though, if they opted, ask the Prophet (PBUH) to judge between them in their matters. God says in the Qur’an:

“…If they do come to you, either judge between them or decline to interfere…” [5:42]

The Prophet (PBUH) allowed each religion to judge in their own matters according to their own scriptures, as long as it did not stand in opposition to articles of the constitution, which was essential to the peaceful coexistance of different religions.

Given consent by the constitution, the Jews also had the complete freedom to practice their religion. The Jews in Medina at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) had their own school of learning, named Bait-ul-Midras, where they would recite the Torah, worship and educate themselves.

The Prophet (PBUH) emphasized in many letters to his emissaries that religious institutions should not be harmed. Here in a letter addressed to his emissary to the Christians of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, who has sought the protection of the Muslims:


One of the preserved information at Mt. Sinai’s St. Catherine’s Monastery is a charter from Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) that was given to a Christian delegation who visited him in Medina in 628 AD.

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn 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).”

As we can see, this charter consisted of several clauses covering all important aspects of human rights, including such topics as the protection of minorities living under Islamic rule, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service, and the right to protection in war. The original letter was taken away in 1517 by the Turkish Sultan Selim I and is now in the Topkapi Museum in Instanbul, but the sultan gave the monks a copy of it and sanctioned its terms.

This charter shows how the Prophet (PBUH) regarded Christians during his time, as opposed to Muslim nowadays. Even though the authenticity of this charter has been debated, one cannot deny the kindness that the Prophet (PBUH) had towards other religions. With the evergrowing friction between Muslims and Christians, this charter can serve as a reminder and example to all Muslims of the Prophet’s (PBUH) acceptance of other religions.

A Muslim must also respect and protect the holy places wherein God’s name is remembered in abundance, and protect them. In the Qur’an, the places of worship such as monasteries, churches and synagogues, are mentioned as places of worship protected by God.

“[They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right – only because they say, “Our Lord is Allah .” And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might.” [22:40]

As a manifestation of his loyalty to God’s commands, the Prophet (PBUH) was most careful not to destroy these places. Such destruction means, in the first place, opposing God‘s commands. Indeed, the Prophet (PBUH) promised the Christians, who were the other party to a peace agreement he made, that their churches would not be destroyed and that they would never be harmed.

On one occasion, the Prophet (PBUH) was seated at some place in Medina, along with his Companions. During this time a funeral procession passed by. On seeing this, the Prophet (PBUH) stood up. One of his Companion remarked that the funeral was that of a Jew. The Prophet (PBUH) replied, “Was he not a human being?”

These are only some examples of the Prophet’s (PBUH) religious tolerance.The Prophet (PBUH) was a living embodiment of the Qur’an. Just as the Prophet did (PBUH), we too must look at all men as human beings who deserve to be respected at all events. As a Muslim-majority country, are we portraying the good nature of Islam and examples of the Prophet (PBUH) with the way we treat other religions?

The integration of society is not a new message. It was highlighted and practiced since centuries ago, and it is very significant in maintaining a peaceful coexistence in society. The guidance left by the Prophet (PBUH) in the form of his speech and actions is sufficient for Muslims as well as non-Muslims all over the world to achieve true success in integrating society and peacefully living together.

What would the Prophet (PBUH) do? Would he have protested the construction of a Hindu temple because it was relocating into a Muslim-majority housing estate? Would he have attacked and burnt the churches? Would he have demolished that prayer room?

Religious intolerance has no place in our world. Muslims and others should know that it has no place in Islam, either.

29 August 2013