[ by Charles Cameron — two early, positive Muslim-Christian interactions ]
Somewhat rose-tinted picture of the time of Muhammad from Harun Yahya, Islam Denounces Terrorism
In his khutba in the National Cathedral, Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool cited two specific instances of the courtesies of prayer, as practiced by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and Umar, second of the Rashidun caliphs:
Today we have accepted the offer of fellow believers in God, who share the heritage of Abraham and who, as Christians, have invited us to explore in their Cathedral the omnipresent face of God. They remind us of a time during the life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad—on whom be peace—when he received a delegation of 60 Christians of Najran. Not only did he meet with them in his mosque in Medina, but when it was time for their prayers he invited them to pray in the mosque, allowing them to turn their faces to the east as they supplicated to God.
And even as we accept this invitation, we do so with the humility of the Caliph Umar—may God be pleased with him — who accepted the offer to pray in a Christian church but was careful not to do so in the main church, lest subsequent generations of Muslims interpreted that as a licence to appropriate the church for Islam.
Here I should like to present background documentation for those two assertions.
The Seerah of Ibn Hisham is among the very earliest records we have of the life of Muhammad. Section 117, A Deputation from the Christians of Najran, reads in part as follows:
A deputation from the Christians of Najran came to the apostle. There were sixty riders, fourteen of them from their nobles of whom three were in control of affairs, namely (a) the ‘Aqib the leader of the people, a man of affairs, and their chief adviser whose opinion governed their policy,’Abdu’-Masih by name; (b) the sayyid, their administrator who saw to transport and general engagement, whose name was al-Ayham; and (c) their Bishop, scholar, and religious leader who controlled their schools, Abu Haritha ‘Alqama, one of B. Bakr b. Waih.
Abu Haritha occupied a position of honour among them, and was a great student, so that he had an excellent knowledge of their religion, and the Christian kings of Byzantium had honoured him and paid him a subsidy and gave him servants, built churches for him and lavished honours on him, because of his knowledge and zeal for their religion.
[ .. ]
Muhammad b. Ja’far b. al-Zubayr told me that when they came to Medina they came into the apostle’s mosque as he prayed the afternoon prayer clad in Yamani garments, cloaks, and mantles, with the elegance of men of B. al-Harith b. Ka’b. The prophet’s companions who saw them that day said that they never saw their like in any deputation that came afterwards. The time of their prayers having come they stood and prayed in the apostle’s mosque, and he said that they were to be left to do so. They prayed towards the east.
It is worth noting the context here: as the surrounding text indicates, this meeting between Muhammad and the Christians of Najran also included a debate on such theological topics as the incarnation — as an article in The Fountain magazine (which FWIW I believe is a vehicle for the Turkish writer, Fethullah Gulen) puts it:
When the Najran delegation reached Madina, they debated with the Prophet in an investigatory dialogue for two or three days in the mosque (Masjid) of Madina. Prophet Muhammad allow-ed them to pray in the mosque (Masjid al-Nabawi) where the Muslims prayed. The whole incident was the first occurrence of peaceful dialogue between Christians and Muslims; it was the first time that Christians prayed in a mosque.
Prophet Muhammad warmly welcomed the Najran delegation and provided them with a place to stay in Madina, in a secure place close to his mosque. He even ordered that their tent be pitched for them by the Muslims. However, the Najran delegation and Prophet Muhammad were not able to reach a solution in theological terms. At the end of these exchanges, the Najran Christians told the Prophet: “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.”
This style of debate is called Mubahala, in which each side not only presents their case, but also invokes the curse of God on whoever is lying: in other words the basic idea here is that of trial by miracle. For a comparative example, see for instance I kings 18.25-38, in which Elijah challenges the propets of Baal to call on their God to vindicate them by seeting fire to a sacrifice — a feat which Baal cannot manage, but HaShem accomplishes on behalf of Elijah.
In the case of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the end result was the slaughter of 400 prophets from the losing side. In the case of Muhammad and the Christians, the result was an agreement by the Christians to pay the jizya tax, accompanied by the grant of free passage home by Muhammad.
As for the tale of Umar, Mother Nectaria McLees writes, in her Marvelous Life of Patriarch Sophronius I, His Company of Saints, and the Fall of Byzantine Jerusalem:
Umar encamped at the Mount of Olives, where he met the patriarch; in one account of the encounter, Sophronius offered him a clean gown while his travel-worn cloak was cleaned, a custom that continues today as a sign of Middle Eastern hospitality. Immediately after signing the capitulation, the two descended the Mount of Olives and entered Jerusalem, where Caliph Umar was ceremoniously shown over the Christian holy places by Patriarch Sophronius. In an account three centuries later by the educated Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria, Eutychius Sa’id Ibn Batriq (935-40), when the gate of the city was opened, the caliph entered with his entourage, and went first to the Church of the Resurrection. As the time of Moslem prayer approached, the caliph expressed a desire to pray, and the patriarch, to whom the request was neither strange nor problematic, responded, “…pray in the place you are now.” The caliph replied that he did not want to, nor would he pray at their next stop, the Church of St. Constantine. Instead he went out to the eastern gate and prayed alone on the steps, telling the patriarch that if he had prayed inside, the Christians would have lost the church after his death, “because the Moslems would say, ‘Umar prayed here.’” The commander then composed an edict forbidding Muslims to gather in the churches of Jerusalem or in Bethlehem for communal prayers, nor could they be called there to prayer by a muezzin. They could only pray in a church as individuals.
This account is also accepted by Muslims, as exemplified both by the Ambassador quoting it in his khutba and by this tourist guide to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which adds a nice detail about a stone’s throw:
Muslims peacefully took control over the city of Jerusalem from the Byzantines in February 638 CE. Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) accepted the city’s surrender from Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He was shown around the church during which the time for salat occurred. The Patriarch offered a place for him to pray in the church and laid out a straw mat but Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) refused, explaining to the Patriarch, “Had I prayed inside the church, the Muslims coming after me would take possession of it, saying that I had prayed in it.” Tradition has it that he picked up a stone, threw it outside and prayed at the spot it landed. The present Mosque of Umar was built over this place by Salahuddin Ayyubi’s son Afdhal Ali in 1193 CE.
One might wish that all stones thrown in Jerusalem resulted in inter-religious harmony.