Sanctity of Places of Worship under Islam

  • | Thursday, 25 July, 2019
Sanctity of Places of Worship under Islam

     Churches, mosques and synagogues have recently been targeted in a series of shootings and bombings all over the world. On 21 April 2019, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the commercial capital, Colombo, were targeted in a coordinated terrorist suicide bombings, leaving 258 people dead. Just days earlier, dozens were killed in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, resulting in the death of 51 people. The attacks against places of worship are a pernicious and persistent threat that has long targeted various faiths. It has become clear that the prime motive behind such terrorist attacks is not just to kill people, but rather to create a state of division and ethnic/religious strife.

A place of worship may be defined as a specially-designed structure where individuals or a group of people comes to perform acts of devotion, veneration, worship or religious study. Temples, churches, synagogues and mosques are examples of structures created for worship.[1] According to the International Humanitarian Law, religious buildings are given special protection similar to the protection given to hospitals.

Islam has, indeed, given non-Muslims the right to practice their acts of worship and to protect the places where they observe their rites. It clearly enjoins that it is prohibited to commit an assault of any kind against the places of worship whether in times of peace or war. This is clearly manifested by the very existence of the historical places of worship for Jews and Christians in most Muslim countries. Furthermore, Muslim jurists held that it is permissible to build churches, synagogues and other temples in Islamic countries. According to this ruling, non-Muslims living in Muslim lands shall face no restrictions as to practicing their rites or acts of worship. There are many examples showing how Islam protected non-Muslims’ places of worship.

During the era of the Prophet (PBUH), he concluded a treaty with the People of Najran, which provided that they have the protection of God and the pledges of Muhammad, the Prophet, to protect their lives, faith, land, and property. They need not change anything of their past customs. No right of theirs or their religion shall be altered. No bishop, monk or church guard shall be removed from his position.

Following the Prophet’s footsteps, Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) commanded Usamah Ibn Zaid’s army saying: “You will soon pass by people who have devoted themselves to monasteries, so leave them to what they have devoted themselves to”. Thus, when 'Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) entered Jerusalem, the time of prayer was due while he was inside a church. Wishing to perform prayers, he asked the bishop for a place to pray in and the latter suggested that he could pray inside the church. Umar refused and, instead, observed his prayers at the entrance of the church. After finishing his prayer, he said to the bishop, "If I pray inside the church, Muslims may one day make this an excuse for taking the church from you, saying: 'Umar prayed here'."[2]

In addition, Abu Ubaidah Ibn al-Jarrah concluded a covenant with the people of Damascus, stipulating that churches and synagogues should not be violated. All sincere Muslim rulers have adhered to the fundamental principles of this treaty in managing the affairs of the non-Muslim subjects throughout centuries.

Respecting religions and sacred places is one of the main components of the Islamic creed as Muslims believe in all Messengers and the sanctity of the Heavenly Religions. Allah (Glory be to Him) says, “That [is so]. And whoever honors the symbols of Allah - indeed, it is from the piety of hearts”.[3] In addition, we, Muslims, firmly believe that difference of color, religion, language, etc. is a Divine Ordinance.

Islam has not only protected non-Muslims’ temples and the sanctity of their rituals, but also, according to the Holy Qur’an, made a quest for such protection a ground for combat. Allah (Glory be to Him) says: “Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. [They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right - only because they say, “Our Lord is Allah." And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might”.[4]

On the inauguration of the Nativity of Christ Cathedral in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Prof. Ahmad al-Tayyeb, voiced in clear words the position of Islam on defending churches, affirming that such a stance is conclusively acknowledged under Islam, "Just as Islam obliges Muslims to protect mosques, it obliges them to protect the churches of their fellow Christians. I am not saying this by way of courtesy, for this fact is based on a Qur'anic verse that we all know by heart, though its essence may unfortunately be ignored even by some specialists. This verse is the one that requires, or otherwise permits, Muslims to engage in fighting in defense of places of worship belonging to the Jews, Muslims and Christians. It reads, "Were it not that Allah repelled [the aggression of] some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the Name of Allah is much mentioned would have been demolished". [5]

Furthermore, His Eminence the Grand Imam warned against recalling legal rulings (Fatwas) as to the impermissibility of constructing churches in Muslim lands, explaining that such rulings were given at specific times in the past to address certain circumstances that are irrelevant at our present time, confirming meanwhile that such an approach is erroneous and has nothing to do with genuine knowledge. He also invited people to consult the historical accounts which clearly state that most churches in Egypt were built under the reign of Muslims.




[2] See Muhammad Abu Zahra, al-'Alaqat al-Dawliyah fi al-Islam, p 32

[3] The Qur’an, 22: 32

[4] The Qur’an, 22: 39-40

[5] The Qur᾿ān, 22:40

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