On September 11, 2022, Dr. Hadia Mubarak joined other religious scholars for a panel discussion during the Sacred Threads: The Complex Tapestry of Interreligious Dilogue Conference. We are happy to share Dr. Mubarak’s responses to several questions posed by discussion facilitator, Dr. Alessadro Rovati.
Dr. Rovati: Islam’s reflections on interfaith pluralism reach back centuries. Would you give us a sense of the pivotal moments and documents in such a history? In what way are these historic milestones still crucial for today’s interfaith dialogue?
Dr. Mubarak: First, it’s an honor to be invited to speak at this interfaith conference on this significant day of 9/11. Before I answer your important question about interfaith dialogue, I think it’s worth pointing out the particular challenges that have emerged for Muslim Americans since 9/11. I was a sophomore in college at the time and those days after the horrific terrorist attacks on 9/11 were some of the most difficult in my life. On one hand, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could weaponize my religion Islam, my source of refuge and peace in the world, to inflict such evil. There is absolutely nothing Godly about killing innocent human beings. There is no question that anyone who kills or murders innocent, defenseless people is violating explicit Quranic principles and Islamic legal rulings.
On the other hand, many Muslim Americans began to feel a sense of displacement in our country; even though we were born and raised in this country and had no other place to call home, we began to realize that some Americans did not perceive us as fully American, but rather viewed Muslims, collectively, as a threat to our own nation’s security.
I recall one particular day when a 41-year-old man, Charles Franklin, drove his truck into the entrance of our mosque – just a few minutes after I walked out there. He later told police he wanted Muslims to know they weren’t safe in this country. But the most significant memory I took away from that incident wasn’t hatred, but the love that followed. You see, when people found out what happened at the local mosque in Tallahassee, FL, scores of people – Jews, Christians, and people of many faiths – showed up at our mosque and began helping us pick up the debris and rubble with their bare hands. I recall sweeping the mosque floor alongside a Jewish couple who had come to demonstrate their support. It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt at that moment; it reminded of the intrinsic goodness of human beings, that despite the hatred and violence that had shaken our nation, the human spirit of compassion, love, and altruism would triumph.
Islam embraces and recognizes its historical connection to Judaism and Christianity. In fact, to be a Muslim, one must believe in the divine origins of Judaism and Christianity, as the Quran affirms over and over again.
To return to Alesandro’s original question, Islam’s relationship with the Abrahamic faiths begins at the moment of its conception in 610 CE. According to Muslim historical sources, when Prophet Muhammad was around the age of 40, he would retreat to a Cave called Hira on the outskirts of Meccan and spend long periods of time in solitude, reflecting on God and the meaning of life. It was during one of those moments in the 9th lunar month in the year 610 that Prophet Muhammad experiences his first encounter with the divine (or unseen realm of existence) when the archangel Gabriel reveals to him the first 5 verses of the Qur’an. In the interests of time, I will skip over some important details of that encounter, but simply point out that the Prophet’s reaction was to run with fear and terror to his wife, Khadija. His wife takes him to her paternal cousin, a Christian monk by the name of Waraqa ibn Nawfal who states the following: “It is the same spirit that God sent down to Prophet Moses” and he forewarns him that his people will exile him.
From the onset of its conception, therefore, Islam embraced and recognized its historical connection to Judaism and Christianity. In fact, to be a Muslim, one must believe in the divine origins of Judaism and Christianity, as the Quran affirms over and over again. Muslims do not believe that the Qur’an is the first revelation from God to humanity, although they believe it is the last. The Quran mentions four other scriptures, including the scrolls to Abraham, the Torah to Moses, the Psalms (known as Zabbur) to David, the Injil or Gospels to Jesus and then the Qur’an.
Accordingly, throughout Muslim history, Muslim political authorities were legally obliged to uphold the right of religious groups to retain their faiths and follow their own legal code.
There are two significant events in the history of the early Muslim community in seventh-century Arabia that further demonstrates the Prophet’s stance on interfaith pluralism, harmony and inclusion. The first significant event happens in the year 615 when the first converts to Islam were being severely persecuted by the Meccan polytheists. Those who had no protection of clan, such as immigrants and enslaved people, were the most severely persecuted. The Prophet advises those who could not withstand the persecution to migrate to Abyssinia (current-day Ethiopia). Now some of you may ask or wonder, why Abyssinia? What was so unique or significant about current-day Ethiopia that the first Muslim converts would migrate there? According to Prophet Muhammad, it was ruled by a just Christian King, Negus, and he believed that this Christian would be sympathetic to the monotheism of Muslims. According to historical sources, King Negus plays a critical role in the survival of Islam by granting asylum to that fledgling Muslim community.
The second significant event in Islam’s early history is the Constitution of Medina, whereby the Prophet establishes an alliance between three distinct groups in Madina, the Muslim immigrants from Mecca, the indigenous Muslim Arabs, and the indigenous Jewish Arabs. In this important historical document in the year 622, the Prophet establishes the Jewish and Muslim tribes as one community; each group would defend the other against enemy incursions and each group would have the right to practice their own religion. In fact, I must point out that the Quran expressly forbids the Prophet from applying Islamic legal rulings upon the Jewish minority community. Several verses of the Qur’an (5:44; 5:66; 5:68, among others) make it clear that the Jewish community will be judged by God by the standards of the Torah while the Christian community will be judged by the standards of the revelation sent to Jesus.
The Vatican’s declaration ended with the important statement that “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.”
Accordingly, throughout Muslim history, Muslim political authorities were legally obliged to uphold the right of religious groups to retain their faiths and follow their own legal code. This is supported by both the Quran (there shall be no compulsion in religion) and prophetic precedent. In fact, historical records from the earliest Muslim conquests in Egypt, Syria, and Roman Palestine/Israel demonstrate that Muslim Army commanders went at length to preserve the religious rights of the indigenous inhabitants of those lands. For example, Umar the second caliph, who ruled the Muslim empire between 634-644 CE stated the following upon entering Jerusalem in 636 CE:
“This is the assurance of safety which the servant of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful [an honorific title] grants to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and the heathy of the city and for all the rituals that belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited [by Muslims] and will not be destroyed… They will not be forcibly converted” (Dakake, “The Myth of a Militant Islam,” 18).
One incident worth pointing out is that when Umar, the caliph, entered Jerusalem, he was invited to pray in Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holy sites, deemed to be the place where Jesus was resurrected. Umar declined to pray there because he feared that his followers would later convert the church into a mosque. Starting from the 7th century until this day, Muslims have protected this church and a Muslim family is entrusted with its key.
This enshrined right to religious freedom for minorities became known as the Umar pact, which several succeeding dynasties upheld, up to the Ottoman period.
In fact, when the Catholic Spanish monarchs expelled both Muslims and Jews during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Ottoman empire welcomed them with open arms. Ottoman Jews were free to practice their faith and some reached high levels of political office. The Ottoman sultan is said to have remarked that the Spanish King had impoverished his own nation with the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain and had enriched his own.
Dr. Rovati: How did your tradition react, reflect on, and relate to Nostra Aetate’s teachings? What are the points of overlap and agreement between your perspective and the Catholic Church’s teachings? Are there elements in Nostra Aetate or what the Catholic Church teaches that you find in need of further exploration?
Dr. Mubarak: There are three aspects of Nostra Aetate that stood out to me because they intersect with Islam in significant ways.
The Vatican’s declaration ended with the important statement that “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.” This statement reminded me of an important hadith, which is a prophetic tradition, which states, “No one truly believes in God unless he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Of course, this hadith is non-gendered as it applies to both men and women. Our belief in God and the Day of Judgment is contingent upon how we treat others. Because if we truly believe in a day of recompense in which each person will be given their fair due, then we’d pay attention to the way we treat one another.
In a similar tradition, Prophet Muhammad states: “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while his neighbor goes hungry.”
The second aspect of Nostra Aetate that stood out to me was this concept that truth transcends religious identities and could be find in other religions outside the catholic church. More specifically, it states, The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.”
The Qur’an has always acknowledged that Muslims do not have a monopoly on sincerity and devotion to God. For example, the Quran states:
Some of the People of the Book believe in God, in what has been sent down to you and in what was sent down to them: humbling themselves before God, they would never sell God’s revelation for a small price. These people will have their rewards with their Lord: God is swift in reckoning (Q. 3:199).
In another verse, 2:62, the Quran states:
The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians- all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good works- will have their rewards with their Lord. There will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.
Third, I found the Nostra Aetate’s depiction of Muslims’ regard for Jesus and his mother to be quite accurate. Say a few things about Mary.
Chapter 19 (Surat Maryam) is the only chapter of the Quran that is titled after a woman’s name, Maryam/Mary (peace be upon her). In fact, she is the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Quran, a name given to her by her own mother.
“I have named her Maryam and seek your protection for her and her progeny from the accursed devil” (Q. 3: 36).
We are introduced to the story of Mary and Jesus in the Quran through the prayer of Jesus’ maternal grandmother, known as Anna in Christian sources and Hanna in Muslim sources, who promises to consecrate her child to the service of the temple.
The Qur’an describes Mary as the purest woman who ever walked on this earth, so this reverence for Mary is clearly shared by both Islam and Catholicism. The Qur’an states,
The angels said to Mary: ‘Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women” (Q. 3:42)
Medieval Quranic commentators reflected on why the term “chosen” was repeated twice. They argued that this was because Mary was “chosen” twice. She was first chosen by God when she was in her mother’s womb to be ordained to serve in the temple, a position that was reserved for males at that time. She was chosen a second time in her adulthood to be the woman who would experience the miracle of conceiving Jesus Christ and giving birth to him without a man ever touching her.
At the end of chapter 66, the Qur’an describes Mary (along with Asiya, known as Moses’ foster mother) as an example for all believers, men and women alike.
and Mary, daughter of Imran. She guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her from Our spirit. She accepted the truth of her Lord’s words and Scriptures: she was truly devout (Q. 66:12).
If you would like more information about interfaith dialogues in and around Charlotte or bring a speaker to your group, please email email@example.com.