Some time ago, the theory of the Clash of Civilizations surfaced. In response, sane voices called for dialogue between civilizations through interreligious rapprochement first (Ibrahim, 2010), as it has wrongly been deemed that religion is one of the most conflict-causing factors. So, while coexistence was a mere demand over some previous times, it has turned into a necessity as the current world’s all-time high crises, which are mainly human-caused though seemingly natural, have increasingly revealed the urgent need for peaceful coexistence that is meant to be achieved through dialogue at all levels, particularly the interreligious one. The sane calls culminated in the Saudi Initiative launched by late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2008 and the Human Fraternity Document (HFD) co-signed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayyib, and Head of the Catholic Church, His Eminence Pope Francis, in 2019.
If it is not easy to judge some controversial issue, one might - among other viable possibilities - track back some human endeavors so that one can be informed of how man dealt previously with its likes. Coexisting peacefully and recognizing difference as a positive tool of diversity and richness within human experience - as opposed to intolerance, violence, exclusion and conflict - are not easily probed. Concurrently, we notice lively examples of concrete coexistence, such as New Zealand’s official and popular reactions following Christchurch attacks in 2019. They were so positive that the UN Secretary-General praised Ex-New Zealand’s PM effort (operationalsupport.un.org. 2019). Another example is Egypt’s Muslim-Coptic tolerance that has existed for over a thousand years (Al-Dahabi, 1998). In contrast, the Israeli occupation’s atrocities, Myanmar’s brutal violence against the Rohingya and far-right and supremacist practices are dire examples of discriminatory and intolerant ideologies.
Now, a question arises; are there periods in history that saw enough peaceful coexistence nationally or internationally, based on the presence coexistence-fostering factors, so we can call them successful periods, or has it been just a matter of a ruler/nation-based tendency? To provide an answer, let us first examine what peaceful coexistence is.
Peaceful coexistence was admitted into international law with the Sono-Indian Pancha Shila agreement that took place in 1954. The agreement included some general principles of ‘good neighboring,’ which were later known internationally as peaceful coexistence principles. They were also included in many international acts and constituted a part of the UN Charter viz., “mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual advantage and peaceful coexistence itself” (McWhinney, n. d., p. 1). So, peaceful coexistence founding concepts include, among others, human dignity and fraternity; full citizenship; East-West good relations; mutual values and aims of religion; equality; mercy-based justice; peace; safety; rights of women, children and the vulnerable; freedom of expression, freedom of belief and the right to free thinking.
On the other hand, coexistence could be hindered by the lack of knowledge of the religious other; lack of deep understanding of the international reality; racism and discrimination; xenophobia; far rightist and supremacists ideologies that disdain Muslims particularly; hatred; occupation; religious or violent extremism and terrorism; non-conciliated issues such as inherited religious conflicts or colonialism; religious views that do not help establish coexistence, etc.
One of the main causes of interreligious conflict is lack of knowledge about the religious other. This inevitably leads to adopting an intolerant stance towards the religious other because “no reasonable person would contest the premise that mutual respect and understanding among adherents of religions are necessary conditions for a better world,” whereas lacking this “has spawned conflicts that have had disastrous consequences” (Habib, 2010 p. 110). This lack can be addressed through the following points:
- resorting to fair research can be a means of overcoming absence of knowledge;
- knowledge gained is flawed; the problem with this issue is that misconceptions are already adopted, spread and normalized in the public domain. Knowledge here is deeply instilled as a collective belief or general knowledge, which requires great efforts to replace it properly, as some manipulative politicians or public figures who adopt negative stances on coexistence - along with biased media and unfair cinema production – fuel and take advantage of this attitude.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, American as well as Europeans repeatedly asked: why do they (Arabs) hate us? The West had to deal with Muslims and Islam, but they were unprepared because much of what they knew came from Hollywood and negative stereotypes. Mostly, Arab men were portrayed in Hollywood production as “untrustworthy, sword wielding villains.” However, some effect of 9/11 was unexpected; namely “arousing interest among Americans in learning about Islam and to some extent about Judaism” (Habib, 2010, pp. 114-5).
The other problematic perspective is the negative stances adopted by some public figures, writers or politicians who have some ideological standpoints of Islam and Arabs in general. Habib (2010, p. 114) adds that Hollywood’s casting “is only a small reflection of a long history of anti-Arab literature that can be traced to European writers from the dawn of Islamic era…[for example,] Alexis de Tocqueville and Winston Churchill … brought the full weight of their credibility in degrading Muslims and Arabs.” But, how were non-Muslims looked at by the Islamic civilization?
Going back to previous human experience of peaceful coexistence, there are some historical milestones that could be mentioned as cases of actual coexistence attempts. Referring to one of these, Lecker (2004, p. ix) states that the Constitution of Medina (Sahifat Al-Madinah), adopted by Prophet Muhammad (bpuh) in 622 A.D. (Hijri 1), is “the most significant document surviving from the time of Prophet Muhammad” because, according to online Britannica, “it regulated the relations of the Muslims with the Jews [and non-believers] of Medina.” That guaranteed real diversity and pluralism. The Constitution reads, “The Jewish have their own religion and the Muslims have their own religion.” Thus, both sources here assert the fundamental importance of the Constitution of Medina as a guarantee of coexistence among residents (citizens) of Medina, making it a multireligious and multicultural society.
The Constitution was followed by some other similar documents or accords, especially when new districts were added to the Islamic state. These accords, which also attempted to organize the relation of Muslims with non-Muslims, include the Covenant of ‘Umar Ibn Al- Khattab (Al-‘Uhdah Al-‘Umaryyah) to the people of Aelia Capitolina (now Jerusalem) in 15 Hijri (636 A.D.), Amr Ibn Al-‘Aas’ Peace Accord with the Copts of Egypt in 20 Hijri (641 A.D.), Treaty of Ramla signed by Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in 1192 A.D. after the Battle of Arsuf, that ended the third Crusade (Al-Aqiqi, 1964). In line with these Islamic tolerant treaties, Al-Azhar Announcement for Citizenship and Coexistence declared in 2017 and the HFD signed in 2019 can also be referred to.
These treaties and similar accords are implementation of the message of Islam that, according to the Qur’an, serves as guidance and light for Muslims and the whole world. Muslims and others should share values, principles and ethics that conform to humanity as Allah the Almighty says, “O, people! We created you from a male and a female, and We made into you races and tribes, so that you may come to know one another…” (Qur’an, 49:13) and “Say: O People of the Book! come to a common word between us and you…” (Qur’an, 3:64).
Germanic orientalist Adam Metz, among others, states in his book Islamic Civilization In The Fourth Century that there was nothing in the Islamic legislation that prevented non-Muslims from embarking on business, and their feet were firmly established in the industries that generate abundant profits, so they were money changers, merchants, physicians and owners of estates. Further, most of the scribes were Christians, and John Ibn Masawiyah al-Nasrani was the special physician for the Abbasid Caliphs at the peak of the empire’s power and authority. Moreover, although he is one of the most critical Western orientalists of Islam and Muslims, Bernard Lewis states in What Went Wrong (2002) the following:
For most of the Middle Ages it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress but the world of Islam. There old sciences were recovered and developed and new sciences were created; there new industries were born and manufactures and commerce were expanded to a level without precedent. There, too, governments and societies achieved a freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee Christendom for refuge in Islam.
Similarly, Habib (2010, pp. 114-5) states:
Tri-faith dialogue is nothing new. It began and flourished in the courts of Muslims Caliphs and sultans from the first centuries of the Islamic era down through the Middle Ages and beyond. For centuries, Jewish, Christians and Muslim scholars, most notably in the legendary courts and schools of Muslim Spain debated the merits of their respective doctrines and the uniqueness of their own book of divine revelations, based purely on exegesis or thought pure reason and logic. This tradition of dialogue thrives at universities and institutions throughout the world.
Speaking of freedom of belief; the Jewish did not believe in Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Christians’ Trinity does not concur with the Oneness of Allah in Islam. However, Islam calls them (the People of the Book) and Muslims are ordered to “argue the case [of belief] with them in the most dignified manner” (Qur’an, 16:125). That is why the Islamic civilization allowed the Jewish and Christians to live protected and governed by their religious authorities, allowing many of them to hold higher positions and excel in many fields to become prominent scholars. A few examples can be mentioned as follows:
- Ibn ‘Athal, the special physician of the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiyah (662 - 682);
- Mansour Ibn Sarjun, the scribe of Muawiyah and his successors;
- Nasr Ibn Haroun, minister during the Abbasid Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid (766 - 809);
- John Ibn Masawiyah al-Nasrani, the special physician for the Abbasid Caliphs and Baitu el-Hekma warden;
- Bahram the Armenian, (prime) minister of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hafez Lideen Allah (1130 -1149);
- Zar’a Ibn Nastouras, the (prime) minister of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakem Bi’Amr Allah (985 - 1021);
- Moses Maimonides, the private physician of Saladin, the Ayyubid Caliph (1138 - 1193).
As for the current extremist religious groups, they try to recall concepts like, Jizya, woman captivity, Dhimmis, abode of Islam and abode of disbelief, etc. that have already been replaced with other concepts that are closely related to the emergence of modern state and human international law such as, national state, full citizenship, freedom of religious belief, etc. Although Muslim intellectuals of moderate platforms - e.g., Al-Azhar - have never stopped spreading and clarifying proper thoughts through media outlets, national or international meetings and conferences, these twisted concepts and the like still existed. Thus, Al-Azhar has not stopped its efforts to foster dialogue at all levels, nationally and internationally. To mention a few examples, at the national level, it has been cooperating with the Orthodox Church in Egypt for more than ten years through an initiative introduced by the Grand Imam to establish a joint entity called the Egyptian Family House. Internationally, Al-Azhar has held several meetings, symposiums and conferences regarding peaceful coexistence and interreligious dialogue, such as Al-Azhar Conference for Combating Extremism and Terrorism in 2017, Al-Quds Conference in 2017, Freedom and Citizenship in 2017 and Islam and the West: Diversity and Integrity in 2018. Moreover, these efforts culminated in several summit meetings between the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Catholic Church held in Rome, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain where relations saw extraordinary rapprochement. The meeting of Abu Dhabi in 2019 witnessed signing the HFD that represents an unprecedented guide for current and future generations in the field of interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence.
Al-Dhahabi, Edward Ghali (1998). Al-Namodhag Al-Mesry lel-Wehada Al-Watanyyah. Dar Qiba'.
Ezzedine, Ibrahim. (2010). Dialogue and Co-existence between Followers of Religions and Cultures. In (Eds.), International Dialogue ross-Cultural Views. Pp. 50-73. Ghainaa Publications.
Habib, John. (2010). Lack of Knowledge about The Other. In (Eds.), International Dialogue ross-Cultural Views. Pp. 110-131. Ghainaa Publications.