In February, a video of Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel reciting a prayer in Arabic that said “God help us against Jews and Christians”, among other things, was circulated online.
He was charged in court and pleaded guilty last week to promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, and committing an act prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.
He also apologised to Christian and Jewish religious leaders for his remarks. He was fined $4,000 and has been repatriated back to India.
The issue has come to a closure in a “uniquely Singapore” way. It judiciously combined the application of law via the courts, lots of community engagement efforts by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim’s dialogue, and with religious leaders of different faiths. Mr Shanmugam also met the imam for a cordial breakfast.
Few countries in the world have the opportunity to adopt this balanced approach to resolve a sensitive issue, because it needs the existence of social peace and religious harmony, which Singapore works very hard to preserve.
With this closure, it is useful now to deal with the “elephant in the room”, which is Islam’s doctrinal position on the “religious other”.
This discussion is important to make clear to non-Muslim Singaporeans that enmity towards non-Muslims was never a part of Islamic doctrine.
ISLAM AND NON-MUSLIMS: A HISTORY
Islam’s position on non-Muslims was first shaped by historical conditions. This early position evolved over time so that it remained appropriate to the context of the day as the dynamics in the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims changed.
The Quran spoke warmly of Christians because they were more receptive to the message of monotheism, compared with local idol-worshipping tribes in Mecca, when Islam first came.
Furthermore, it was the Christians of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) who gave refuge to Muslims who fled Mecca to escape persecution.
Similarly, Muslim-Jewish relations in the early Islamic era were positive as they were shaped by an agreement that manifested the congenial dynamics between the two faith communities.
More importantly, early Muslims conceptualised the community of believers to be originally independent of confessional identities.
They regarded Christians and Jews to be members of their community.
It was only later that membership in the community of believers came to be seen as a confessional identity in itself, and this had a lot to do with the prophethood of Muhammad.
Tensions, therefore, occurred in Muslim-Christian as well as Muslim-Jewish relations and due to sharp differences in a number of other doctrinal matters.
Notwithstanding these fundamental differences, the special relationship among the three religions as part of the Abrahamic family of religions was preserved.
The divisive issue of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood was played down and, instead, the focus was on what bound the three faith communities together.
These are the belief in monotheism, the Last Day and the importance of doing good deeds on this earth.
The attitude of early Muslims was to preserve unity of the community of believers so that they could be assured of Jewish and Christian support to defend their city, Medina, against the common enemy in Mecca, who were not monotheists.
This explained why Muslims did not force Jews and Christians to accept the status of Prophet Muhammad as their prophet, too, but chose instead to focus on teachings that could be accepted by all three faith communities.
But the bigger cause of conflict and division was less religious and more political. It was the violations of parties of the agreement to honour it and fulfil their obligations. These violations were seen as tantamount to treason.
Violators were severely dealt with as traitors and put to death – a punishment that was the norm during wartime.
Despite challenges in keeping alliances and violations of the agreement, Jews and Christians were not regarded by Muslims as enemies.
Who, then, were singled out by early Muslims in their supplication?
THE REAL ENEMY
The supplication by Muslims was for divine help in their war against the disbelievers in Mecca, who were superior both in numbers and strength.
They were the enemies of the early Muslims only because they wanted to kill the Prophet, annihilate Muslims and extinguish Islam from the face of Arabia. It was, therefore, a matter of life and death for the Muslims.
The Prophet’s mission spanned over 23 years, out of which 16 years were spent in a state of heightened tension and war with the disbelievers of Mecca.
Twenty such wars were fought and the Prophet was pained when about 1,000 of his companions were martyred.
The Prophet supplicated to seek God’s help against disbelievers using verses from the Quran that specifically mention them (kafirun and mushrikun).
There is an important qualification, though.
The supplication was not targeted at all disbelievers. It was specifically aimed at disbelievers whose plan was to kill Muslims, drive them out of their homes and destroy Islam.
Disbelieving people who were not engaged in such sinister plans were not the ones Muslims supplicated against.
Another pertinent fact is that, besides Christians and Jews who occupy a special relationship with Muslims as People of the Book, there are also a number of other religious communities who enjoy this special status in the eyes of Muslims.
The Quran has categorised Sabians as People of the Book, while there are scholars who also included Zoroastrians.
There are other less known facts.
For example, there was a religious ruling issued in AD710 by Islamic scholars in Kufa, Iraq, to accord Buddhists the same status as monotheists.
This ruling was in response to a query by a young general of the Muslim army, Muhammad Qasim, who upon conquering Sindh province in India was petitioned by the local Buddhist community to allow them to continue to practise Buddhism and preserve their temples. The ruling accorded the Buddhists in question the same status as monotheists (like Jews and Christians) and provided privileges to them, considering them People of the Book, but they were obliged to pay taxes.
Similarly, from an early period, when Muslims arrived in India, Hindus were designated People of the Book, a practical solution that allowed Muslim rulers to permit Hindus to live in peace within the Muslim empire as long as they paid taxes. This also explained why some Muslim mystics consider the Hindu scripture, the Vedas, as a revealed Book and believed that Lords Rama and Krishna could be prophets of God.
As for Taoism, the former grand mufti of Egypt (Sheikh Ali Gomaa) was asked at an inter-faith dinner during his visit to Singapore in June 2014 whether Taoists are People of the Book. He turned to Taoist leaders and asked if their teachings were based on a sacred text, to which an affirmative reply was given. The former Egyptian mufti stated his position that Taoists are People of the Book.
A word of caution is needed here.
It is never claimed that all religions are the same and that religious pluralism is advocated here. All religions are different, although they share the same roots. Religions are like the Banyan tree – they have shared roots, appear to have many trunks (although there is only one trunk) and have many branches that sprawl in different directions as they reach for the sky.
The Prophet of Islam respected all religions; he never denigrated any religion or prayed for the destruction of any religious community. Muslims supplicate for divine help against those, regardless of religion, who wish to harm them in any way.