Islam is a religion of mercy to all  mankind.  The Prophet is thus described in the Quran as follows:

“And We have not sent you but as a mercy to all the worlds.” (Quran – 21:107)

One of the aspects constituting an epitome of this Mercy is the way  Islam deals with the people of other faiths.  The tolerant attitude of Islam towards non-Muslims, whether they be those residing in their own countries or within the Muslim lands, can be clearly seen through a study of history.  This fact is not only purported by Muslims, but many non-Muslim historians also accept it.

Patriarch Ghaytho says:

‘The Arabs, to whom the Lord has given control over the world, treat us as you know; they are not the enemies of Christians.  Indeed, they praise our community, and treat our priests and saints with dignity, and offer aid to churches and monasteries.

Durant wrote:

‘At the time of the Umayyad caliphate, the people of the covenant, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Sabians, all enjoyed degree of tolerance that we do not find even today in Christian countries.  They were free to practice the rituals of their religion and their churches and temples were preserved.  They enjoyed autonomy in that they were subject to the religious laws of the scholars and judges.’(Durant, Will: ‘The Story Of Civilization.’ vol. 13. p. 131-132.)

These relationships were a direct result of the teachings of the religion of Islam, one which preaches that people of other religions be free to practice their own faith, only accepting the guidance offered by Islam by their own choice.  God says in the Quran:

“There is no compulsion in religion…” (Quran 2:256)

Not only does Islam demand their freedom to practice religion, but also that they be treated justly as any other fellow human.  Warning against any abuse to non-Muslims in an Islamic society, the Prophet stated:

“Beware!  Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, curtails their rights, burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

There is much talk these days about Islamic tolerance towards other religions of the world. Some critics opine that Islam orders Muslims to fight the world until everyone becomes Muslim, creating ill feelings without actually knowing what Islam says in this regard.

In Islam, non Muslims are classified into three types:

1.     Permanent Residents:

Muslim jurists use the term ‘ People of the Covenant ’ (Arabic ‘dhimmi’  or ‘Ahl ul-Dhimma’ ) to refer to non-Muslim residents.  It is not a derogatory term, as some have made it seem.  In Arabic language the word ‘dhimma’ means a treaty of protection for non-Muslims living in Muslim territory. Non-Muslims are guaranteed protection in the Muslim society as long as they pay a head tax and abide by the specific legislation mentioned in Islamic Law.  This covenant of protection is not limited to a specific duration; rather, stays in effect as long as those with whom the covenant is made abide by its conditions. (Zaydan, Dr. Abd al-Karim, ‘Ahkam al-Dhimmiyin wal-Musta’minin,’ p. 35)

The good intent behind the term ‘dhimmi’ can be seen in the letter written by the Caliph Abu Bakr as-Siddiq[3] to the non-Muslims of Najran:

‘In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.  This is the written statement of God’s slave Abu Bakr, the successor of Muhammad, the Prophet and Messenger of God.  He affirms for you the rights of a protected neighbor, in yourselves, your lands, your religious community, your wealth, retainers, and servants, those of you who are present or abroad, your bishops and monks, and monasteries, and all that you own, be it great or small.  You shall not be deprived of any of it, and shall have full control over it…’(Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj, p. 79)

2.     Temporary Residents:

This category includes two types:

1)               The residents of non-Muslim countries who are at peace with Muslims through specific peace agreements, international treaties, or other mechanisms, who temporarily come to Muslim countries for work, education, business, diplomatic missions, and so forth.  Muslim jurists refer to them in Arabic as mu’aahadoon, which means, “those with whom there is a pact”.

2)               The residents of non-Muslims countries with whom Muslims do not have a pact of peace, or who may be at war with Muslims, who temporarily come to Muslim countries for work, education, business, diplomatic missions, and so forth.  Muslim jurists refer to them in Arabic as musta’minoon, which means, “seekers of protection”

The General Rights of Non-Muslims

The expression “human rights” is relatively new, having come into everyday usage only since World War II, the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.(“Human Rights.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2006.)  Although its emergence in international law is a relatively recent development, the idea of human rights itself is not new.  If one were to study and compare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  granted by Islamic Shariah 1400 years ago, one can clearly see the level of high moral ground achieved by Islam before the Universal Declaration. This moral standard did not come as a result of human intellectual endeavor.  The source of Islamic morality is the divine standard provided true comprehensiveness and depth in human needs. As a matter of fact, the general principle is that non-Muslims have the same rights and obligations as Muslims.(Zaydan, Dr. Abd al-Karim, ‘Ahkam al-Dhimmiyin wal- Musta’minin,’ p. 62)  This aspect of religion is unique to Islam, and perhaps has not been attained by any other world religion.  If we look at Christianity, for example, Professor Joseph Heath of the University of Toronto, says, ‘It should go without saying that you can scour the Bible and not find one single mention of “rights.”  You can also pick through the following 1500 years of Christian thought without finding any rights.  That’s because the idea is entirely absent.’(Heath, Joseph, ‘Human rights have nothing to do with Christianity,’ Montreal Gazette, March 18, 2003)

Right to Preservation on Dignity as Human Beings

Shariah has forbidden Muslims from speaking ill of the gods and deities worshipped by non-Muslims so that they in turn do not speak ill of the One, True God.  Such a scenario is against human dignity of both sides and would lead to mutual rejection and hatred.  God says in the Quran:

“Do not revile those whom they call upon besides God, lest they revile God out of spite in their ignorance.  Thus, We have made alluring to each people its own doings.  In the end will they return to their Lord and He shall then tell them the truth of what they did.” (Quran 6:108)

The Right to Freedom of Belief

Islam gives complete freedom to non Muslims to retain their own faith and not to be forced to embrace Islam.  This freedom is documented in both the Quran and the prophetic teachings known as Sunnah.  God addresses Prophet Muhammad in the Quran:

“If it had been your Lord’s will, they would all have believed – all of who are on earth!  Will you then compel humankind, against their will, to believe?” (Quran 10:99)

And at another place the Holy Qur’an says:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion; truth stands clear from error: whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks.  And God hears and knows all things.” (Quran 2:256)

Edwin Calgary, an American scholar, wrote about this verse, ‘There is a verse in the Quran that is filled with truth and wisdom, and it is known to all Muslims.  Everyone else should know it as well; it is the one that says there is no compulsion in religion.’(Quoted in Young, Quailar, ‘The Near East: Society & Culture,’ p. 163-164)

An example of how Shariah offers Right to Freedom of Belief is the treaty of Umar ibn al-Khattab with the people of Iliya of Jerusalem:

“This is the security given by the slave of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, to the people of Iliya: they are guaranteed the security if their persons, possessions, churches, crucifixes, and everyone within, whether sick or in good health, as well as everyone in their community.  Their churches will not be occupied or demolished, nor will anything be taken from them: neither furnishings nor crucifixes or money.  They will not be forced away from their religion, or harmed because of it.  They will not be occupied by the Jewish settlers in Iliya.” (Tabari, Tarirk al-Tabari, vol 3, p. 159)

The Right to follow their Religious Laws

Islam does not compel non-Muslims citizens living in Muslim lands to be ruled by Islamic Laws.  They are exempted from paying the zakah(Zakah: one of the pillars of Islam.  It is an obligatory charity paid on certain forms of wealth.). Also, Islamic Law requires military duty from able Muslims, but non-Muslims are exempted from it, even though it is of benefit to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In return for these two exemptions, non-Muslim citizens pay a nominal tax known as jizya.  Sir Thomas Arnold wrote, ‘The jizya was so light that it did not constitute a burden on them, especially when we observe that it exempted them from compulsory military service that was an obligation for their fellow citizens, the Muslims.’(Arnold, Thomas, ‘Invitation to Islam,’ p. 77)

Islam also permits non-Muslims to observe their civil law in matters such as marriage and divorce.  Regarding criminal justice, Muslim jurists would pass sentences on non-Muslims in issues considered sinful in their religion such as theft, but exempted them from issues they held to be permissible such as drinking wine and eating pork.(Maududi, Abul ‘Ala, ‘The Rights of The People of Covenant In The Islamic State,’ p. 20-21)

The People of the Covenant had their own courts to settle their disputes, but if they wished, they could resort to Islamic courts.  God commanded His Prophet:

“So if they come to you, (O Muhammad), judge between them or turn away from them.  And if you turn away from them never will they harm you at all.  And if you judge, judge between them with justice.  Indeed, God loves those who act justly.” (Quran 5:42)

Security of Life, Property and Honour

Islamic Law protects basic human rights like the preservation of life, property, and honor for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. God says:

“Say, ‘Come, I will recite what your Lord has prohibited to you.  (He commands) that you not associate anything with Him, and to parents, good treatment, and do not kill your children out of poverty;  We will provide for you and them.  And do not approach immoralities – what is apparent of them and what is concealed.  And do not kill the soul which God has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right.  This has He instructed you that you may use reason.’” (Quran 6:151)

The Prophet says: “You must know that it is not lawful for you to take the property of the People of the Covenant unless it is (in payment) for something.”(Musnad Ahmad)

Non-Muslims have the right that their honor be protected.  This right is extended not only to non-Muslim residents, but also to visitors.  They all have the right to be secure and protected.  God says:

“And if any one of the polytheists seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the words of God (the Quran).  Then deliver him to his place of safety.  That is because they are a people who do not know.” (Quran 9:6)

The right to asylum makes it a duty on every Muslim to respect and uphold the asylum granted by another Muslim according to the Prophet’s statement:

“The obligation imposed by the covenant is communal, and the nearest Muslim must try hard to fulfill it.  Anyone who violates the protection granted by a Muslim will be under the curse of God, the angels, and all people, and on Judgment Day no intercession will be accepted on his behalf.”(Saheeh Al-Bukhari, Ibn Majah)

The Right to Justice

God requires Muslims to be just in all their affairs and to act equitably towards everyone.  Muslims are divinely ordained to act with justice, even if it means acting against themselves or those close to them, as the Quran states:

“O you who have believed, persistently stand firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives.  Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both.  So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just.  And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is Ever-Acquainted with what you do.” (Quran 4:135)

Good Treatment

The Quran instructs Muslims to treat non-Muslims courteously in a spirit of kindness and generosity, given they are not hostile towards Muslims.  God says:

“God does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from dealing kindly and justly with them.  Indeed, God loves those who act justly.  God only forbids you from those who fight you because of religion and expel you from your homes and aid in your expulsion – (forbids) that you make allies of them.  And whoever makes allies of them, then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (Quran 60:8-9)

Protection from Foreign Aggression

Non-Muslim citizens have a similar right to be protected from external enemies just as a Muslim fellow citizen does.  The payment of jizya ensures protection against outside aggression, defense against enemies, and ransom to be paid on their behalf if they are taken captive by an enemy.

Writing a few centuries ago, Ibn Hazm, a classical scholar of Islam, said:

‘If we are attacked by an enemy nation who is targeting the People of the Covenant living among us, it is our duty to come fully armed and ready to die in battle for them, to protect those people who are protected by the covenant of God and His Messenger.  Doing any less and surrendering them will be blameworthy neglect of a sacred promise.’