By Craig Considine
Last week I gave a presentation in front of
a group of undergraduate and postgraduate students at Rice University in
Houston, Texas. The title of my lecture was "Religious Pluralism in Islam:
Analyzing Prophet Muhammad's Covenants with Christians". The Prezi is
available here. As is the case with academic presentations, there was a short
question and answers session towards the end of our time slot. One member of
the audience pushed back on my assertion that Prophet Muhammad's Covenants with
the Christians of his time promoted religious pluralism. This particular person
argued that the Covenants foster mere tolerance, which is distinct from
To frame my argument early in the
presentation, I turned to Harvard scholar Diana Eck who notes that religious
pluralism has four ingredients. The first is an energetic engagement with
diversity. To be clear, religious pluralism is not simply
"diversity". Reaching a pluralist "state" or
"mindset" requires genuine social interactions and the building of
authentic relationships. Tolerance, however, is more "stand-offish"
and allows people and groups to stay in their isolated bubbles with little
The second part of religious pluralism
according to Eck is seeking to understand across religious lines. Religious
pluralism is active in the sense that it encourages exposure and dialogue;
tolerance, however, reproduces old patterns of division due to distance among
social groups. As such, Eck argues that tolerance "is too thin a
foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity". Her third
element of religious pluralism is encounter of commitments that requires things
like formal and informal agreements, formal contracts, trust, and principles.
Lastly, religious pluralism requires give and take, criticism and
self-criticism. This last component demands inter-religious dialogue and
involves finding common understandings and recognizing/understanding real
differences between faith groups.
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with
the Christians of his time are an excellent starting point to discuss pluralism
in the Islamic tradition. The point of my presentation - as well as my recently
published paper in Religions - was to distinguish between tolerance and
pluralism and to highlight Muhammad's egalitarian vision for the Ummah, or
"Muslim nation". Instead of reiterating the claims laid out in the
presentation and paper, my aim in this piece is to turn to the delegation of
the Najran Christians to shed light upon Muhammad's preference for pluralism
The visit of the Christians of Narjan to
the city of Medina in 631CE is perhaps the most important noted interfaith
interaction between Christians and Prophet Muhammad. At this time Muhammad had
sent letters to different communities and their leaders, encouraging them to
embrace Islam. In the case of the Narjans, who lived near Yemen, about 450
miles south of Medina, the Prophet sent Khaled ibn al-Walid and Ali ibn Abi
Talib to deliver the letter.
At the time of this diplomatic endeavour,
Najran Christians had a highly organized religious system. As such, after
considering Muhammad's letter, it is unsurprising that few Christians embraced
Islam. In reaction to this "failed attempt" of conversion, Prophet
Muhammad sent another representative to Najran, Mughira Ibn Shu'ba, who was
meant to elaborate on this new religion called Islam. Intrigued by Ibn Shu'ba's
message, the Najran Christians sent a delegation of sixty people to visit the
Prophet in Medina. The delegation consisted of about forty-five scholars and
When the Christians of Najran arrived to
Medina, Muhammad allowed them to pray in Nabawi mosque where the Muslims also
prayed. This invitation was not only the first example of Christian-Muslim
dialogue, but it was the first time that Christians prayed in a mosque. While
Prophet Muhammad and the Najrans were not able to reach common ground on all
theological issues, he nonetheless gave them a place to stay near his home, and
even ordered Muslims to pitch their tent.
Upon leaving Medina, the Najran Christian
leaders told Muhammad: "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 Christians left
Medina with a written guarantee that Prophet Muhammad would protect their
lives, property, and freedom to practice Christianity.
The visit of Najran Christians to Medina is
one of the first examples of religious pluralism in Islam. Recalling Eck,
religious pluralism embodies 1) energetic engagement with diversity; 2)
understanding across religious traditions; 3) encounter of commitments; and 4)
interfaith dialogue. Each characteristic is on display during the meeting
between the Najrans and Medinans. The Prophet engaged with these Christians in
a theological conversation about the nature of Islam and Christianity. Both
groups sought to understand the perspectives and narratives of the other side.
Muhammad opened the doors of his mosque to give Christians a safe space to
pray, an unprecedented example of engaging with religious diversity. And when
they left Medina, the Najran Christians had an agreement with Prophet Muhammad
that protected their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
The story of the Najran Christian
delegation that visited Medina reminds us of an important lesson - it is an
understatement to argue that the Prophet simply tolerated Christians.
Toleration is only the absence of religious persecution. Muhammad, it should be
made clear, embraced the otherness of Christians. That is religious pluralism.