Pluralism and the Najran Christians: How Prophet Muhammad Went Beyond Tolerance

The visit of the Christians of Narjan to the city of Medina in 631 CE is perhaps the most important noted interfaith interaction between Christians and Prophet Muhammad.
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A view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
A view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

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 religious pluralism.

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 cross-cultural interaction.

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 over toleration.

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 endeavor, 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 fifteen assistants.

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.

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