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 Social Justice in Islam    by Professor A. R. Momin

Social justice and non-Muslims

The concept of social justice in Islam is inclusive rather than exclusive, in the sense that it does not exclude the non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic state from its purview.

The attitude and behaviour of Prophet Muhamamd towards the beliefs and traditions of the followers of other religions exhibited exemplary tolerance, understanding and magnanimity. When he set up a city-state at Madina, he drew up its constitution, which was committed to writing at his instance. This constitution included two significant passages: first, Muslims would have their religion and the Jews would be entitled to their religion; secondly, Muslims and Jews would together constitute a community. This covenant was extended, at a later date, to the Christians of Najran and the pagan Arabs. Thus the Pax Islamica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and the pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. The charter of rights and assurances issued to the Christian population of Najran by the Prophet included the following passage:

An assurance is hereby extended, on behalf of God and the Prophet, to the people of Najran, that their lives, religion, lands and wealth will be protected. No change in their existing conditions will be effected. Their rights will not be violated. Their commercial caravans and delegations will be protected. No cardinal will be dismissed from his position, nor will an ascetic be denied the right to his way of life. The custodians of churches will face no interference in respect of their functions.

The protection of minority rights under the Islamic dispensation has no parallel in the annals of history. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state).

The attitude of tolerance and sympathy was continued by the four caliphs and the Companions. It is remarkable that the occupation of Syria by the Muslim army during the caliphate of Abu Bakr met with no resistance from the local Christian population who welcomed the Muslim soldiers not as invaders but as liberators. During the caliphate of Umar, some Muslims usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph got to know about it he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew. During the caliphate of Ali, the Muslim-occupied territories of the Byzantine Empire faced internal strife. Emperor Constantine II sent a secret message to the Christian population in the Islamic state, urging them to rise in revolt against Islamic rule and assuring them of his military support. The Christians, however, spurned the offer, saying: 'These enemies of our religion are preferable to you.'

Islam does not favour the forced assimilation or conversion of non-Muslims (Quran 2:256; 109:6). The Islamic state guaranteed not only the protection of the lives and honour of the dhimmis but also of their religious beliefs and rituals, personal laws and endowments. When Amr ibn al-As, a distinguished companion of the Prophet, conquered Egypt in 640 AD, he left the Christian population in undisturbed possession of their churches and guaranteed to them independence and autonomy in all ecclesiastical matters. He allowed the properties and endowments attached to Christian churches to remain with the Christian custodians.

After the conquest of Jerusalem, Caliph Umar gave the following assurance, in writing, to the Christian population of the town: "This is the assurance which Umar, the servant ofGod, the commander of the faithful, grants to the people of Aelia. He grants to all security for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses, and for all that concerns their religion. Their churches shall not be converted into dwelling places, nor destroyed, nor shall any constraint be put upon them in the matter of their faith." During his caliphate, some Muslims usurped a piece of land belonging to a Jew and constructed a mosque on the site. When the Caliph got to know about the incident, he ordered the demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the land to the Jew.

Under the Islamic dispensation, non-Muslims were entitled to preserve and maintain their places of worship and to construct new ones. In some cases, the expenses for the maintenance and repair of their places of worship were met from the state treasury. Similarly, the salaries of Jewish rabbis and Christian priests were often paid from the state treasury.

During the caliphate of Uthman, Jeserjah, the bishop of Merv, wrote a letter to the Patriarch of Persia, saying that the Arabs, whom God has given dominion over the world, do not attack Christianity. On the contrary, they help our religion, respect our priests and shrines, and offer donations to our churches and monasteries.

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