Love Thy Neighbor…or Fall:The Inseparable Link Between a Civilization’s Success and It’s Ability to Coexist

Thanks to Imam Webb for letting me repost

By Shibli Zaman


I am tired of the pictures forwarded to me in email and of the videos posted on Facebook, Youtube, and numerous other mediums of internet media displaying a gross cornucopia of atrocities against Muslims across the globe. There’s the visibly overwhelmed Muslim woman getting her hijab (headscarf) yanked off, the Muslim being malevolently run over by a car repeatedly, and the countless dead Muslim babies buried in rubble. I loathe it all. It has become a sickness amongst Muslims to find some perverted sense of satisfaction in displaying to the world, “Look! I am the victim!” It is as if our era of glory was an opiate, and now we use self-victimization to ease the withdrawal. Some have identified that self-empowerment, rather than self-victimization, is more constructive. Yet, they still just don’t get it.

Peruse any variety of Muslim media sources and one will find no shortage of laudatory narratives on how the Muslims pioneered modern technology while Europe languished in the “Dark Ages.” Hearing that, a 16 year old European Muslim drop-out can beam with pride and feel that he, himself, bested the magnificence of the monolithic “West.” The Frenchman is no better than he, for his ancestors gave the world Algebra… albeit 1,250 years ago.

137817077_d682ca71d7_oThis leads to the oft-posited, and often frustrating, question: How do we get those glory days back? While patting themselves on the back for those long dead laurels, many Muslim proselytes and those inebriated by their opiates often miss is that this era of Muslim ingenuity was not founded at the hands of those who thirsted for the blood of their enemies. It was founded by a people who would be more concerned with the scientific study of apes and pigs, than calling their non-Muslim enemies the “descendents of apes and pigs.” It was founded by men of loftier priorities and ideals.

How do we get those days back? Perhaps, we should first identify how we lost them in the first place. We should rather ask: Where did we go wrong? My hypothesis is that we have gone backwards in how we view and treat our non-Muslim neighbors. We have regressed far behind the noble principles of coexistence dictated to us by the Qur’an, which were conveyed and displayed to us by our exemplary Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم). All cases of greatness in Islamic history will also yield remarkable examples of compassion and benevolence towards the Muslims’ non-Muslim neighbors.

Articles about the Muslim world’s contributions to science will be rife with names like al-Khwarizmi and al-Biruni. Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi and Abu Rayhan al-Biruni were both Persians of ancient Khwarezm who are iconic of the Muslim world’s contributions to science. The Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) had foretold that great knowledge was to come from the Persians [1] to whom the baton of Islamic learning quickly passed. Yet, aside from the facts that both were devout and learned Sunni Muslims and polymaths, excelling in a jaw-dropping variety of scientific disciplines, they also strove to achieve a better understanding of the non-Muslims they encountered.

Abu `Abdillah Muhammad bin Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780-850 CE) penned his Treatise on the Extraction of the Jewish History, [2] which became the reference point for the later Jewish scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, popularly known as Maimonides, in formulating the Hebrew Calendar which Jews all over the world use to this day. His work in this regard, and influence from al-Khwarizmi, is contained in his book Sefr Mishneh Torah. [3] It is also worthy to note that Maimonides’ name is remembered today because of the freedom and liberty he enjoyed living under his Spanish and African Muslim rulers. Another famous Jewish scholar who used the works of al-Khwarizmi to codify the Hebrew calendar as it is known today was Abraham ibn Ezra[4], who in the process went as far as to fully translate Ibn al-Muthanna’s commentary of al-Khwarizmi’s Tables of Astronomy into Hebrew.

Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad bin Ahmad Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) was another great Muslim genius, who lived one hundred years after al-Khwarizmi and was also a tremendous influence on Jewish scholars such as Maimonides and countless others from various non-Muslim demographics. Al-Biruni became a patron of the medieval Turkic Sultan of Khorasan, Mahmud bin Sebuktekin of Ghazni, and accompanied him during his exploits into India. Rather than immersing himself in all the glory, valor and riches, al-Biruni immersed himself into the non-Muslim population’s culture, language and tradition. He learned Sanskrit to such a high level that the Hindu clergy bequeathed him with the title Vidyasagar meaning “Ocean of Learning.” [5] Al-Biruni did not limit his studies to their culture, but also became versed to a scholarly degree in Hinduism. He is, to this day, known as the de facto founder of religious anthropology. He contributed not only to the Jewish calendars but also to a greater understanding of the calendar systems of all religions and civilizations in his work The Surviving Monuments of Past Centuries. [6]

Some historians have sought to remove credit from Islam for the magnanimity and tolerance of these two scholars and many others like them and attribute it instead to the inherent tolerance of the Persians. However, a glance into the tolerance mandated by God in the Qur’an, embodied in the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), and carried on in the manners of his closest Companions (رضي الله عنهم) may hold some answers.

The Qur’an

Though Muslims are commanded in the Qur’an to call towards the worship of One God without partner, they are also instructed to come to common terms with their non-Muslim neighbors and to refrain from slighting their religious sensibilities in the process. God instructs the Muslims to address the People of the Book: “Say, ‘O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you – that we will not worship except Allāh and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allāh.’ But if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him].’” [7] The objective is to come to a mutual understanding. At the end of the day, we have to live with each other much to the chagrin of the extremists on all sides.

Furthermore, God instructs the Muslim believers in the Qur’an, “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allāh, lest they insult Allāh in enmity without knowledge.” [8] Regarding this verse, the reputable Qur’anic exegete of Basra, Qatadah bin Di`amah, said, “The Muslims used to mock the idols of the non-Muslims, and the non-Muslims would, in turn, mock God. So God revealed the verse, ‘Do not mock those whom they call upon besides Allah…’” [9] An atmosphere of mockery and derision is not something which God wants to foster between His devotees and those not privileged with a proper understanding of Him. Because the cycle is difficult to break, the Muslims are commanded to never initiate it. The late 13th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiya, says about this verse, “It is known that the polytheists (of pre-Islamic Arabia) loved their pantheon of deities just as they loved Allah (as a part of it). Perhaps, they even loved their deities even more than they loved Allah and this is why they had no problem mocking Allah whenever their pantheon of deities was mocked. Hence, did Allah command, ‘Do not mock the ones they call upon besides Allah, for they will be driven in contempt to mock Allah in return out of ignorance.’” [10]

There is much in common between the three great Abrahamic religions . The Jews and the Christians know full well that “Allah” is the very same name of God, with slight variations, that they find in their sacred texts. The first verse of the first chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, calls God by a direct etymon of this sacred name. [11] When Christ was on the cross, he called out to God in the Aramaic etymon, “Allaha!” This was even evidenced in the film The Passion of the Christ (2004). These are not facts unknown to our Jewish and Christian friends, yet none of it will matter when the cycle of derision has been initiated. We must obey God’s command in the Qur’an and not start such divisive conflicts. If we are subjected to it we must respond with what is better as God also instructs in the Qur’an: “And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.” [12] God really does know His creation as he also says in the Qur’an, “Does He who created not know?” [13]

The Prophetic Traditions

Zaid bin Sa`nah was a leading Jewish Rabbi who was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم). His story has been authentically documented in the collections of Prophetic traditions, and it is a fine example of how Muslims should live with their non-Muslim neighbors. Rabbi Zaid related his own story to `Abdullah bin Salam, another Rabbi who had embraced Islam, who relates:

Two or three days before the appointed time, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) went out for a funeral prayer of a man from the Ansar. With him were Abu Bakr, `Umar and `Uthman and some of his other Companions (رضي الله عنهم). When he completed the prayer, he sought to recline against a wall upon which I grabbed a hold of him and gave him a mean-faced stare and held him by shirt and cloak. I said to him, ‘Repay me what is due, O Muhammad! By God, I have not known you folk from the clan of `Abdul Mutalib to be such procrastinators! Perhaps, my impression of you all has been wrong!’ So I looked at `Umar and his two eyes were beset wide on his face like planets! He then struck me with his stare and said, ‘O you enemy of God! Dare you speak to the Messenger of God (صلى الله عليه وسلم) as I have heard and behave as I have seen?! By the One Who has raised him up with the Truth, if I were less God-fearing I would have struck off your head with my sword!’ The Messenger of God was looking at `Umar (رضي الله عنه) with serenity and an amiable smile and said, ‘O `Umar, he and I required something other than this from you. You should have instructed me to repay him in a better manner and you should have instructed him to follow up in a better manner. Go to him, O `Umar, and repay him what is due to him and exceed that by 20 extra measure of dates.’

The narration in al-Bayhaqi’s Sunan ends here, but the narration in al-Tabarani’s Mu`jam goes on to detail the interaction that transpired when `Umar caught up with Rabbi Zaid. As it turned out the Rabbi had been following the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) and was testing his behavior in the face of insolence. When the angry `Umar returned to him sober and friendly, he marveled at how the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) could change this angry man into the docile character he was now dealing with. Rabbi Zaid embraced Islam and dedicated the rest of his life to its cause until he ultimately met his end at the Battle of Tabuk. He went from a widely reputed Jewish Rabbi to a hero of Islam, not because of any theological debates or polemics, but because of the goodness displayed by the Messenger of God (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

The Prophet’s Companions and Successors

This tradition of good conduct towards the non-Muslims carried on into the era of the Caliphs who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) after his passing. The Fourth Caliph of Islam, `Ali bin Abi Talib, lived in a time when the Persian Empire fell before the feet of the Muslims. He was reported to have actually met with the father of the earliest of the four great Sunni Imams, al-Nu`man bin Thabit, popularly known as Abu Hanifa. Imam Abu Hanifa was from Kabul, Afghanistan, [14] which was largely Zoroastrian prior to the Muslim conquests. Though they had become Muslims, the traditions and cultural practices remained. Imam al-Dhahabi, a highly regarded student of Ibn Taymiyyah, states about Imam Abu Hanifa in his voluminous work on the notables of Islamic history, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’:

والنعمان بن المرزبان والد ثابت هو الذي أهدى لعلي الفالوذج في يوم النيروز فقال علي نورزونا كل يوم وقيل كان ذلك في المهرجان فقال مهرجونا كل يوم

“Nu`man bin Marzban, [15] the father of Thabit, [16] was the one who gifted `Ali [17] with Faluda [18] on the day of Nawruz. [19] `Ali said, ‘May every day be like Nawruz!’ It was also said, ‘This is done as part of Mehregan. [20] So he replied, ‘May every day be as Mehregan!” [21]

`Ali did not belittle their cultural practices, so he took the gift, but subtly hinted that, according to Islam, this day was like any other day. He did not endorse the significance of the day, but he did not revile their cultural practice either. He exercised wisdom. Similarly, the other Companions behaved the same towards the Zoroastrians they encountered. The Prophet’s (صلى الله عليه وسلم) wife `A’isha (رضي الله عنها) instructed the Muslims to avoid meats offered to them as gifts on Nawruz but to feel free to eat from the fruits and vegetables. [22] Yet, was this mostly due to the general ruling regarding the meat of the Zoroastrians and not so much having to do with Nawruz? Mujahid said that in general only fruits and vegetables of the Zoroastrians should be consumed, but nothing else from them. [23] Their slaughtered meat was largely viewed as unsuitable for consumption by the Muslims.

A Dirham for Thought

It is said that a picture can equal a thousand words and, in this case, hard archaeological evidence can speak volumes. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), the two great mighty empires whom the Muslims encountered were the Persian Sassanids and the Greco-Roman Byzantines. The Sassanids, at their height, ruled everything between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. They reigned from 205 CE until they finally met their end when defeated by the Muslims under the 2nd Caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab. After the era of the Four Pious Caliphs had passed, parts of the newly conquered Persian domains fell under the rule of the Umayyads, the loyalists of `Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, and others. Yet, in spite of the turf wars that occurred between the various Muslim factions, one thing remained strikingly in common between them: the respect they showed to their newly conquered subjects. It was a time when all the splendor of the Persian Empire literally fell at the feet of the Muslims. This, like many of the events that transpired immediately after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), was foretold by him. He warned the Muslims that, though they will have the power to do what they want over the Persians, they should not plunder them nor get tangled up in the priceless spoils they would acquire. Fortunately, the Companions listened, and those Persian lands are still Muslim today. It might have been different had the Muslims reveled in the riches and pounded the population into serfdom. The harrowing empty mosques of Romania, a land ruled by the Ottomans for hundreds of years yet yielding only a 0.3% of Muslim population today, bear a painful testimony to this.

So how did the Muslims treat their newly conquered Zoroastrian subjects? The story of `Ali ibn Abi Talib’s interaction with the Persian family of Abu Hanifa has already been told. Yet, there is more to be discovered when analyzing the archaeological evidence from the time period in question. One may be shocked to find that there are numerous extant Arab-Sassanid coins throughout the reigns of Uthman ibn `Affan, `Ali bin Abi Talib and Mu`awiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan with busts of Khosrow and the Zoroastrian fire altar.


Similarly, coins were minted during the reign of `Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, a close Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), in the regions of Persia loyal to him (Sistan) with a bust of Khosrow and Zoroastrian symbols.


There are also instances of Arab-Byzantine coins from the newly conquered Roman territories where the crosses were very slowly and subtly removed from the coinage possibly over the period of a decade.


The horizontal bar would gradually be removed from the crosses on all mintage leaving just a vertical pole, and the Muslim declaration of faith was added to the obverse margins. So the coins would go from the original Byzantine coin:


To the coin following the Muslim conquests:

IMG5To, ultimately:


These coins [24] are not great rarities. They are so abundantly available that if you look hard enough you can buy them yourself over the internet. So let there be no doubt about this. The early Muslims went through such great pains not to offend the local non-Muslim populations whom they had quite thoroughly conquered. They could have done whatever they wanted to them. Yet, out of the fear of their Lord, they refrained from offending their non-Muslim subjects.” Compare that to how Muslims today, many of whom can barely even rule their own households, and treat those around them with respect – Muslim and non-Muslim alike.


Albert Einstein supposedly said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

With all the apocalyptic clamor about ruling by Shari`ah and re-establishing a Caliphate in our times, what is sorely missing in these Muslim revolutionaries is an insight into the hearts of those who set the standards for establishing a successful society that was truly Islamic. As the answer to where we went wrong becomes increasingly clear, we can then go back to the question, “How do we get those glory days back?” Much work is to be done to achieve that, but it won’t be by strength of arms. It must be in the classrooms, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, mentoring programs and other social and civic means by which Muslims can forge a better society wherein all mankind, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can flourish. Only then will we have exemplified God’s description of the role we play in this world:

كُنتُمۡ خَيۡرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخۡرِجَتۡ لِلنَّاسِ تَأۡمُرُونَ بِٱلۡمَعۡرُوفِ وَتَنۡهَوۡنَ عَنِ ٱلۡمُنڪَرِ وَتُؤۡمِنُونَ بِٱللَّهِ‌ۗ

“You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allāh.” [25]

References and Notes

  1. “If religious knowledge were to be found at Pleiades, even so would a person from Persia seize it, as would one of Persian descent have, likewise, seized it.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
  2. Title, Ar. رسالة في استخراج تاريخ اليهود ويليه اليهود في تاريخ الحضارات الأولى واليهود في التاريخ إلى عهد السيد المسيح
  3. Title, Heb. ספר משנה תורה  הוא היד החזקה
  4. Abraham ibn Ezra, Heb. אברהם אבן עזרא
  5. Outlines of Islamic Culture – Volume I: Historical and Cultural Aspects, A. M. A Shushtery
  6. Religion, Learning and Science in the `Abbasid Period, M. J. L. Young, J. D. Latham, R. B. Serjeant, pp. 408-411.
  7. قُلْ يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْاْ إِلَى كَلَمَةٍ سَوَاء بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ أَلاَّ نَعْبُدَ إِلاَّ اللّهَ وَلاَ نُشْرِكَ بِهِ شَيْئاً وَلاَ يَتَّخِذَ بَعْضُنَا بَعْضاً أَرْبَاباً مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْاْ فَقُولُواْ اشْهَدُواْ بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُونَ
    [The Holy Qur’an, Aal `Imran, 3:64]
  8. وَلاَ تَسُبُّواْ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ فَيَسُبُّواْ اللّهَ عَدْواً بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ
    [The Holy Qur’an, al-An`am, 6:108]
  9. كان المسلمون يسبون أصنام الكفار، فيسب الكفار الله، فأنزل الله {ولا تسبوا الذين يدعون من دون الله}‏
    Narrated by Qatadah bin Di`amah as recorded by `Abd al-Razzaq, `Abd bin Humayd, Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn Abi Hatim, and others.
  10. فمعلوم أن المشركين قد يحبون آلهتهم كما يحبون الله، أو تزيد محبتهم لهم على محبتهم لله؛ ولهذا يشتمون الله إذا شتمت آلهتهم، كما قال تعالى‏:‏‏{‏وَلاَ تَسُبُّواْ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ فَيَسُبُّواْ اللّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ‏}‏ ‏[‏الأنعام‏:‏108‏]‏‏.‏ Majmu` Fatawa, Ibn Taymiyyah
  11. בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” [Genesis 1:1] This verse uses the name “Eloh” in pluralis majestatis.
  12. وَلَا تَسْتَوِي الْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ادْفَعْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا الَّذِي بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُ عَدَاوَةٌ كَأَنَّهُ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيمٌ [The Holy Qur’an, al-Fussilat, 41:34]
  13. أَلَا يَعْلَمُ مَنْ خَلَقَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ [The Holy Qur’an, al-Mulk, 64:14]
  14. Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’, al-Dhahabi
  15. The Persian name Marzban was used for a military commander in charge of a Sassanid border land. Afghanistan was such a land in the 7th Century CE. Scholars have suggested that Abu Hanifa came from a royal lineage.
  16. Thabit was Abu Hanifa’s father.
  17. `Ali bin Abi Talib (رضي الله عنه)
  18. Called al-Faludhaj (الفالوذج) in Arabic, but Faluda in Persian.
  19. Nawruz. The Persian New Year. Arabiczed into Nayruz in Islamic literature.
  20. Mehregan. A Persian harvest festival with origins possibly pre-dating Iranian culture.
  21. Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’, al-Dhahabi
  22. Musannaf, Ibn Abi Shaybah
  23. Ibid.
  24. More on these widely circulated and documented coins can be found at The Islamic Coins From 1-100 AH / 622-719 CE.
  25. The Holy Qur’an. Aal `Imran, 3:110

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