Dialogue

  • Issue 50 / April - June 2005



    Interactions between Prophet Muhammad and Christians

    Ismail Acar



    The first interaction between Prophet Muhammad and Christians took place when he was traveling to Syria with his uncle Abu Talib. Later, the Prophet had meetings and dealings with several Christians and Christian groups, including Waraqa ibn Nawfal and the Najran Christians. The agreement on the part of the Abyssinian king, Negus, to accept Muslims as immigrants in his land during the Makkan period was also a significant interaction between a Christian king and the Prophet. Prior to the start of his mission, Prophet Muhammad had encounters with some Christians on a personal basis in his daily life as a pious merchant of Makka. However, these interactions consisted of occasional meetings and talks for the most part; they did not include any serious discussions or long-lasting communications.

    Meeting with the Monk Bahira

    The Prophet’s first meeting with a Christian occurred when he, as a young boy aged between nine or twelve, joined his uncle’s merchant caravan for a trip to Syria.1 The Christian whom the Prophet Muhammad encountered was the monk, Bahira,2 who was living in Bostra, a Roman colonial city.3 Monk Bahira was known for his belief that a prophet was soon to appear among the Arabs. Bahira had studied old manuscripts, where he had learned of the coming of a final prophet, and he was convinced that this prophet would appear in his own lifetime. He was particularly interested in the Arab merchants who visited Syria, to see if his conviction would come true.

    Bahira’s attention was struck in particular by a caravan from Makka, which to his amazement, was shaded by a cloud that hovered closely above them. The cloud moved as the caravan moved, and did not go any further when they stopped; it was as if it were providing shade for a person or people in the group. When he also noticed that a tree lowered its branches over the caravan to provide further shade, he immediately realized that this caravan must contain an extraordinary person or persons. He invited all of the individuals in the caravan to a meal at his place, but none of their faces revealed the capacity of the expected Prophet. He inquired if there was anyone who had not joined the meal; the answer he received was that Muhammad had been left behind to watch the caravan. He was keen to see Muhammad; and when he actually saw him he realized that he carried all the signs that the awaited Prophet was to have, as describ-ed in his books.4 He told Muhammad’s uncle to take him back to Makka as soon as possible in order to guard him against potential enemies.5

    This incident is used by some Western scholars as a basis to claim that Muhammad learned about the Judeo-Christian tradition from this monk, and that he later converted this knowl-edge into a new religion, i.e. Islam.6 However, it would not be logical or reasonable to adopt such an idea; Prophet Muhammad was far too young to acquire such an immense knowledge and the conversation between the monk and Muhammad was not a protracted one.

    Waraqa ibn Nawfal

    Prophet Muhammad also had some encounters with one of the known Arab Christians in Makka, Waraqa ibn Nawfal. Waraqa was a respected man of his time and a well-known Christian scholar. When the Prophet received his first Qur’anic revelation on Mount Hira, it had a great impact on him. Following this unusual experience, he went home, feeling ill. His wife Khadija took the Prophet to Waraqa and told him about the revelation.7 After listening to Prophet Muhammad, Waraqa said that it was Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation, who had come to him, just as he had come to Moses, and he added, “I wish I were young.”8

    Waraqa was an open-minded man; he converted from paganism to Christianity and also understood the features of the revelation that had been given to Muhammad. He sincerely supported Muhammad as a Christian believer when he understood that he was the awaited prophet, after Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them. Waraqa encouraged Muhammad to continue his call, without any doubt that God would protect him. This is a fine example of cooperation between a well known Christian scholar and the would-be Prophet.

    The Abyssinian King (Negus) and The First Immigrants

    When the Messenger of God began to declare his message openly, the Makkan pagans started to severely oppose him and the new Muslims, making many problems for them. Several Muslims died, with even more being humiliated and alienated. The Prophet realized that Makka was becoming a difficult place for Muslims to live in. He had his uncle as his protector; but there were many Muslims who had no protection from the aggressions of the Makkan pagans. He decided to send some of them to Abyssinia, especially those who had no effective protection; Abyssinia at the time was ruled by a Christian ruler. The Prophet told the group that King (Negus) of Abyssinia was a Christian, so they would be safe there.9 It is likely that Prophet Muhammad had some knowledge that the King was a peaceful and lenient ruler.

    At the outset, eleven Muslims immigrated to Abyssinia. Later, they were joined by about 83 adult Muslims, women and men.10 Abyssinia was the Prophet’s choice; he felt that Christians were closer to Muslims than the Makkan pagans. When the first Muslim guests arrived there, they met with the King. Ja’far, as leader of the immigrants, gave the Prophet’s letter to the King, which read: “I have sent my cousin Ja’far to you, accompanied by a small number of Muslims; if he comes to you, receive them in hospitality . . .” The King welcomed them and promised to protect them from their enemies. In the royal presence a question was put to them: “What do you say concerning Jesus?” The spokesman for the group replied, “concerning Jesus we can only say what our Prophet has taught us: Jesus is the servant and messenger of God, the spirit and word of God, whom God entrusted to the Virgin Mary.” When the King Negus heard this testimony, he picked up a twig from the ground and said, “I swear, the difference between what we believe about Jesus, the Son of Mary, and what you have said is not greater than the width of this twig.”11

    When the Makkans heard that the Muslims had begun to live within the Christian community peacefully, they sent a delegation of learn-ed people to the King to persuade him to deport the Muslims from Abyssinia. There was a debate in front of the King between the Muslims and the Makkan delegation about what and how the Muslims believed. After the end of the debate, the King rejected the requests of the Makkans along with their gifts.12 This was the first helping hand for the young but frail Muslim community from a Christian ruler.

    The Delegation of Najran Christians

    No doubt the most important interaction between the Christians and the Prophet was the visit of the Najran delegation to Madina. Makka and Madina had a very small Christian population (Waraqa ibn Nawfal was one of them). The majority of Christian residents lived in Najran. The Prophet’s first important encounter with Christian clergies was in the 9th year of Hijra (AD 631), one or two years before his death.

    Prophet Muhammad had been sending official letters to different countries and their rulers, inviting them to Islam. Among these were two different invitations that had been sent to Najran with Khaled ibn al-Walid and Ali ibn Abi Talib.13 At that time the Najran Christians had a highly organized religious life. Before Islam, foreign teachers had even visited the town, such as the Italian priest Gregentius, which had deepen-ed their religious knowledge.14 Few of the Najran Christians converted to Islam; the majority of them did not change their religion after these invitations. Prophet Muhammad sent a representative to them, Mughira ibn Shu’ba, who was sent to explain the invitations and the religion of Islam. After discussions with Mughira, the Christians of Najran decided to send a group of people to visit the Prophet. The delegation was made up of about 60 well-educated Christians: A bishop, his 45 scholars, and 15 men. Their intention was to learn the nature of the revelations Prophet Muhammad was receiving.15

    When the Najran delegation reached Madina, they debated with the Prophet in an investigatory dialogue for two or three days in the mosque (Masjid) of Madina. Prophet Muhammad allow-ed them to pray in the mosque (Masjid al-Nabawi) where the Muslims prayed. The whole incident was the first occurrence of peaceful dialogue between Christians and Muslims; it was the first time that Christians prayed in a mosque.16

    Prophet Muhammad warmly welcomed the Najran delegation and provided them with a place to stay in Madina, in a secure place close to his mosque. He even ordered that their tent be pitched for them by the Muslims. However, the Najran delegation and Prophet Muhammad were not able to reach a solution in theological terms. At the end of these exchanges, the Najran Christians told the Prophet: “O, Abu al-Qasim, we decided to leave you as you are and you leave us as we are. But send with us a man who can adjudicate things on our properties, because we accept you.” The delegation was granted their request and a written assurance was provided by the Prophet that their lives, property, and religion would be protected. He made witnesses sign this undertaking.17 The Najran Christians were the first Christian community with whom the Prophet had a jizyah 18 agreement. At the beginning of the meeting, they had disagreements with the Prophet about the concept of the Trinity, but later on they were able to make a social pact.19 This contract was an initial step that would lead to further developments.

    Conclusion

    As Muhammad Hamidullah states “of all the religions, the Prophet found Christianity the most sympathetic, although with certain serious reservations.”20 Accepting differences to be “as they are” was the first step in establishing peaceful relations between the Christians and Prophet Muhammad some fourteen hundred years ago.

    It is apparent that Christians and Muslims believe in and pray to the same God, the Creator of the universe. Both Muslims and Christians ask for help and forgiveness from the same God. Both of them declare the importance of “peace”; so, it is only natural to expect that the followers of the two traditions would be able to establish peace together all around the world.

    Local problems do not stay local any longer. Today’s local issue will be tomorrow’s global problem. Struggles, wars, clashes, hunger, ecological crises, the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the colonization of humanity are not just a particular religion’s problem; they are worldwide problems that affect all believers. “There is no local situation that is not impinged upon by the wider cultural-political situation.”21 Understanding each other well, respecting others, and accepting others as they are would be a great step toward solving the global problems of the different religious communities. The more believers share and understand the global crisis the more suitable a habitat for human kind this world will become.

    Footnotes

    1 Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Allen & Unwin, U.K., 1983, p. 29.
    2 In some sources the name of the monk is mentioned “Sergius.” See: Mustafa Fayda, “Bahira” TDV Islam Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul 1991, IV, 486.
    3 Under Alexander Severus (222-235) Bostra became a Roman colony. See: S. Vailhé, “Bostra,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II, Online Edition, 1999 by Kevin Knight.
    4 For details P.S: Ibn Hisham, Abd al-Malik, al-Sirat al Nabaviyyah, Egypt 1955, I, 180-183.
    5 M. Lings, Muhammad, p. 29-30.
    6 Mustafa Fayda, “Bahira” TDV Islam Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul 1991; Daniel, Islam and the West, p.101,105,109.
    7 Ibn Hisham, I, 236-238.
    8 Al-Bukhari, Muhammad ibn Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari, Dar al-Fikr, (Arabic-English Edition), I, 2-3
    9 Ibn Hisham, I, 217-221.
    10 Ibn Hisham, I, 221-230
    11 R. Marston Speight, God Is One: The Way of Islam (New York: Friendship Press, 1989), pp. 1-2.
    12 Ibn Hisham, I, 233-238
    13 Name of a valley in North Yemen, where there was a Christian population inhabiting the highest range in the Arabian Peninsula at that time.
    14 Hamidullah, Muhammad Rasulullah, p. 103.
    15 Ibn Hisham, I, 575.
    16 Ibn Hisham, I, 575-577.
    17 http://www.dehai.org/archives/dehai_news_archive/ oct02/0640.html, (12/11/2004)
    18 Jizyah: A tax paid by non-Muslims living in a Muslim state. Since the non-Muslims are exempt from military service and taxes imposed on Muslims, they must pay this tax in compensation. It guarantees them security and protection. If the state cannot protect those who paid jizyah, then the amount they paid is returned to them.
    19 Ahmet Bostanci, Hz Peygamber’in Gayri Muslimlerle Iliskileri, Ragbet Yayinlari, Istanbul 2001, p. 60, 167
    20 Hamidullah, Muhammad Rasulullah, p. 76.
    21 David Tracy, “Practical Theology in the Situation of Global Pluralism,” in (ed.) L. Mudge -J. Poling, The Promise of Practical Theology, Fortress Press 1983, p. 140.

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