Department: Orientation and Facilitation Centre
Course: Comparative religion (مقارنة الادیان)
Date: August 1st 2020
Lesson: Christian-Muslim Interfaith, in the time of the Prophet
It was the Taliban time in Afghanistan. Along with a couple of guests from Europe, I happened to pass by the Mehtarlam shrine in Laghman. We called in to have a look. I sat down with the shrine-keeper – the manjawar. If it was just me, he would probably have taken me for a Pashtoon Muslim, but seeing my two European guests, and noting also my refined Pashto and knowledge of Islam, he took me – mistakenly of course: I am of course a convert of 50 years to Islam! – to be a Christian who was well versed in Islam. As such, he paid me a great compliment by saying to me:
‘You are just like the qisiseen – a word that refers to Christian priests – mentioned in the Quran.’
وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُمْ مَوَدَّةً لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا الَّذِينَ قَالُوا إِنَّا نَصَارَىٰ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ مِنْهُمْ قِسِّيسِينَ وَرُهْبَانًا وَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ
You will find the nearest in affection to (the believers) to be those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because there are priests (qisiseen) and monks among them, and because they are free from pride.
That’s where the story starts, really, with qisiseen, not me, but with the qisiseen that Allah mentions in this verse of the Quran. They were the priests, who prevailed upon the ruler of Abyssinia – the Negus or نجاشي – to be so sympathetic towards Islam, when a group of Muslims fled to Abyssinia from Mecca in what is known as the First Hijrah.
The relations between the Muslims at the time of the Holy Prophet, and the Christians of Abyssinia, were really an example of perfect, more than cordial – positively warm – interfaith relations.
You may read more about the First Hijrah of Muslims, from Mecca to Abyssinia, in books of Seerat. To summarise, a few Muslims, under the leadership of Jafar ibn Ali Talib, fled to Abyssinia when persecution of the Muslims became dire in Mecca. It was not long before a delegation of the Quraysh came to Abyssinia, to wrest the Muslims from the refuge they had been granted by the Negus – نجاشي – of Abyssinia.
The whole episode can be read up in books of Seerat*. The Negus was a just king. He would not countenance giving the Muslim refugees up to the Quraysh without allowing the Muslims a hearing. It was Jafar ibn Abu Talib, the cousin of the Holy Prophet, who spoke up on behalf of the Muslims. Not only did he give the most eloquent summary of Islamic teachings, and the beliefs the Muslims had forsaken in favour of Islam, but he also recited to the Negus, and those present in his court, the opening verses of Surah Maryam – the verses dealing with the Immaculate Conception and birth of Jesus, the son of Mary.
The Negus and those present were visibly moved by what they heard. The Negus then asked exactly what the Quran said about Jesus, the son of Mary. Jafar put it in a nutshell:
هو عبد الله، و رسوله، و روحه، و کلمته، ألقاها إلى مريم العذراء البتول
He was a servant of Allah, His Messenger, the very Word and Spirit of Allah that He breathed into the pure Virgin womb of Mary.
The reaction of the Negus was emphatic:
فضرب النجاشي بیده إلى الأرض فأخذ منها عوداً، ثمّ قال: والله ما زاد عيسى بن مريم على ما قلت مقداد هذه العود.
The Negus put his hand on the ground and picked up a twig. By God, he said, what you say is exactly what Jesus the son of Mary said – nothing more and nothing less.
As one can imagine, the Negus refused to give the Muslim refugees up to the Quraysh, who went away empty-handed.
Across the Red Sea from Abyssinia, south-east of Mecca, lay the Christian enclave of Najran. One of the many delegations that arrived in Medina in the tenth year after the Hijra, was one from Najran. However, while most of the delegations that came to Medina in that year, sought to make pacts with the Holy Prophet, the aim of this delegation, which included high level theologians – real qisiseen! – was somewhat different. It was to debate the respective positions of Christians and Muslims on key points of dogma.
Najran and Al-Ukhdud, south-east of Mecca, from where the delegation from Najran came to Medina (photo courtesy Richard Wilding www.richardwilding.com)
So was the reception accorded to this delegation different, to the reception accorded to other delegations:
قدم علی رسول الله صلّی الله علیه و سلّم وفد نصاری من النجران ستّون راکبًا، فیهم أربعة عشر رجلاً من أشرافهم يؤول امرهم إليهم فدخلوا عليه مسجده حين صلّى العصر، عليهم ثياب الحبرات جبب و أرديّة في جمال رجال بني الحارث بن كعب – يقول من رآهم من اصحاب النبيّ صلّى الله عليه و سلّم ما رأينا بعدهم وفداً مثلهم.
The delegation consisted of sixty mounted persons, fourteen of them were from the nobility – they were the ones in charge. They entered upon the Holy Prophet in his mosque, just after he had prayed the late afternoon prayer. They were dressed in the gowns worn by the priestly class, their robes resembling in beauty those worn by the Banu Harith bin Ka’ab. Every one of the Prophet’s companions who saw them, mentioned that they had not seen any delegation like them.
(Seerat Ibn Ishaq)
It was the time of their prayer:
فقاموا في مسجد رسول الله صلّى الله عليه و سلّم فقال رسول الله صلّی الله علیه و سلّم: «دعوهم». فصلّوا الی المشرق.
They stood in prayer in the Prophet’s Mosque. The Holy Prophet told his Companions to allow them to complete their prayer. They prayed towards the east.
Previous to this, in the month of Rajab, in the year after the conquest of Mecca (8AH), news came to Medina of the death of the Muslims’ friend and benefactor, the Negus of Abyssinia:
عن عمران بن حصین قال قال لنا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إن أخاكم النجاشي قدمات فقوموا فصلوا عليه قال فقمنا فصففنا كما يصف على الميت وصلينا عليه كما يصلى على الميت
(تحفة الاحوذي، کتاب الجنایز عن رسول الله صلّی الله علیه و سلّم، باب ما جاء في صلاة النبي صلّی الله علیه و سلّم علی النجاشي)
Imran bin Haseen reports that the Holy Prophet told them about the death of their brother, the Negus. ‘So stand up and offer prayers for him.’ So we rose to our feet stood in lines, just as we would to pray funeral prayers, and we offered prayers, just as we would offer prayers for someone who has died (and who is present).
This seems to have been the only instance of the Holy Prophet offering prayers for a dead soul in absentia. It not only shows the high regard in which the Negus was held by the Muslims, but also the warm relations that existed between Muslims and Christians at the time of the Holy Prophet.
There is enough there to take in for one lesson, I believe, so I will leave it at that for now. In our next dars, Inshallah, we will look at the substance of what was discussed between the Christians and the Muslims, when the delegation from Najran visited Medina. Then, all being well, after that we will go into how the good relations between Christians and Muslims continued into the reign of the second Caliph Umar, with an allusion to what might have gone wrong in the present day.
*I have taken pertinent details from السّیرة النّبويّة of Sayyid Abu’l-Hasan Ali Nadwi, pp.115-118. You may also find the account of the Hijra to Abyssinia related fully in Martin Lings’ Muhammad: His life based on the earliest sources, Chapter 28, pp. 81-84