Making Sense of the God Question
With Malaysia embroiled in racial tension over the use of the word "Allah" in a Catholic publication, there are few voices on either side breaking through the static. The following is by Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It appeared on her blog, "Rantings by MM." (http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com/) We reproduce it here in the hope that a moderate voice will be heard by a few.
I found by chance this article the other day: "Prophet Muhammad’s promise to Christians". The document is not a modern human rights treaty but even though it was penned in 628 AD it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of the person, says Muqtedar Khan.
Muslims and Christians together constitute over 50 per cent of the world and if they lived in peace, we will be half way to world peace. One small step that we can take towards fostering Muslim-Christian harmony is to tell and retell positive stories and abstain from mutual demonization.
In this article I propose to remind both Muslims and Christians about a promise that Prophet Muhammad made to Christians. The knowledge of this promise can have enormous impact on Muslim conduct towards Christians.
Muslims generally respect the precedent of their Prophet and try to practice it in their lives.
In 628 AD, a delegation from St Catherine’s Monastery came to Prophet Muhammad and requested his protection. He responded by granting them a charter of rights, which I reproduce below in its entirety. St Catherine’s Monastery is located at the foot of Mt Sinai and is the world’s oldest monastery. It possesses a huge collection of Christian manuscripts, second only to the Vatican, and is a world heritage site. It also boasts the oldest collection of Christian icons. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1,400 years under Muslim protection.
The Promise to St Catherine:
"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 God! 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)."
The first and the final sentence of the charter are critical. They make the promise eternal and universal. Muhammed asserts that Muslims are with Christians near and far, straight away rejecting any future attempts to limit the promise to St Catherine alone. By ordering Muslims to obey it until the Day of Judgment the charter again undermines any future attempts to revoke the privileges. These rights are inalienable. Muhammed declared Christians, all of them, as his allies and he equated ill treatment of Christians with violating God’s covenant.
A remarkable aspect of the charter is that it imposes no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges. It is enough that they are Christians. They are not required to alter their beliefs, they do not have to make any payments and they do not have any obligations. This is a charter of rights without any duties!
The document is not a modern human rights treaty but even though it was penned in 628 AD it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of the person. I know most readers must be thinking so what? Well the answer is simple. Those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasize areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad’s promise to Christians are invoked and highlighted it builds bridges. It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders goodwill in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.
When I look at Islamic sources, I find in them unprecedented examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. They make me want to become a better person. I think the capacity to seek good and do good inheres in all of us.
When we subdue this predisposition towards the good, we deny our fundamental humanity. In this holiday season, I hope all of us can find time to look for something positive and worthy of appreciation in the values, cultures and histories of other peoples.
(Dr Muqtedar Khan is director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.)
Now, when that delegation from St Catherine's monastery came to meet with Prophet Mohamad (pbuh), I suppose it's fair to assume that they spoke Arabic to one another. And when they were conversing, surely the word "God" must have come up. As in "May God Be With You" and such like. What word did the Prophet use for "God" I wonder? And what did the St Catherinians use in return? For monotheists like them, was there a "your God" and "my God" type of situation, or did they understand that they were both talking about the same One?
While some idiots are mourning over the "loss" of the word "Allah" and therefore basically telling the world that they are people easily confused by nomenclature, and others are predicting riots over what is basically a "copyright" issue, let me define what I think a confident Muslim should be:
1. A confident Muslim is unfazed by the issue of God's name. God speaks to all of humankind in the Quran and never said that only Muslims could call him by the name Allah.
2. A confident Muslim has 99 names to choose from to describe that One God. My favourites are Ar-Rahman (The All-Compassionate) and Ar-Rahim (The All-Merciful).
3. A confident Muslim never gets confused over which is his/her religion and which is other people's. For instance, a confident Muslim knows exactly what the first chapter of the Quran is. And it's not the Lord's Prayer.
4. A confident Muslim will not walk into a church, hear a liturgy in Malay or Arabic where they use the word "Allah" and then think that he or she is in a mosque. A confident Muslim knows the difference.
5. A confident Muslim is generous, inclusive and doesn't think that his or her brethren is made exclusive through the use of a single language. The confident Muslim is well aware that in the Middle East, all services of ANY religion are in Arabic because that's what they all speak.
6. A confident Muslim knows the basis of his/her faith are the five pillars of Islam and will not be shaken just because other people call God by the same name.
7. A Muslim believes in only One God. Therefore it makes sense that other people should call God by the same name because there is no other God.
ART THOU NOT aware that it is God whose limitless glory all [creatures] that are in the heavens and on earth extol, even the birds as they spread out their wings? Each [of them] knows indeed how to pray unto Him and to glorify Him; and God has full knowledge of all that they do: (Surah Nour, Verse 41) (Asad).
So I would ask those people demonstrating against the court decision, have you no pride? Are you saying you're easily confused?
And before anyone says I have no qualifications to say these things, read what Dr Asri Zainal Abidin (who does have qualifications no matter what JAIS says) has written about this very subject here.
And here's something interesting. In 2007, the Majlis Agama Negeri Perlis, which is a large majlis filled with people very learned in Islamic religious knowledge, discussed the question of the use of "Allah" by non-Muslims. Their unanimous decision? They issued a fatwa to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with non-Muslims using the word at all. (This was told to me by Asri but I cannot find the fatwa anywhere online because all the religious departments' websites are so useless.)
Are we now going to excommunicate the whole of Perlis?