Lessons for Malays from the Prophet’s engagements with Christians

In the first three decades after Merdeka, Malays had an uneasy relationship with Christians. Later, in the 80s and 90s, their ties were marked with suspicion. Today, it is direct animosity.

Why must this be so?

More than 30 years ago, I attended a convention in the US organised by the Malaysian Islamic Study Group. At one of the stalls, I came across a thick green book called “The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah” by A Guillaume, published by Oxford University Press. The book is a translation of a 1,400-year old manuscript outlining the life of Prophet Muhammad.

I wish to cite anecdotes from the Prophet’s life story to sooth relations between Malay Muslims and Christians.

Ibn Ishaq recorded the first encounter of the Prophet with a Christian during the Prophet’s young adulthood before his marriage to Khadija.

The orphaned Muhammad, who used to accompany trade caravans from Mecca to Syria, was then under the care of his uncle Abu Talib.

A monk by the name of Bahira never paid much attention to the caravans that came to Syria until one day, he dreamt of a caravan from Mecca that would bring a young man that Christian and Jewish texts predicted would be the Messiah.

When Abu Talib’s caravan stopped near his monastic cell, Bahira inquired about Muhammad’s background from the people. He asked Muhammad many questions.

Convinced that he was the promised Messiah in the books of old, Bahira told Abu Talib to take good care of the young man. He said there would be those who wanted him put to death.

Another encounter between Muhammad and a Christian was during the time when he first received revelation.

After Muhammad’s experience in the cave of Hira, Khadija comforted her husband who was in a state of shock and anxiety. She refused to believe the theory that her husband was influenced by evil spirits.

She went to see her uncle, Waraqah, a Christian and a reader of the Scripture.

When Khadija recited what the Prophet had experienced that something had hugged him and commanded him to read some verses, Waraqah immediately exclaimed that Muhammad must have encountered the Namus or the angel Gabriel that sent messages to those chosen as God’s prophets.

When Muhammad regained his composure many days after the incident, Waraqah met him at the Ka’bah and questioned him about his experience in the cave. Waraqah warned him that the Meccan tribes would try kill him because of his future mission.

Yet another account of the Prophet with a Christian was during the first hijrah, or the flight from Mecca. When the first batch of Muslims were persecuted, the Prophet advised more than a hundred of his followers to flee to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) to seek shelter under the Christian king, the Negus.

Eighty-three men and their wives, children and relatives left to traverse the desert and arrived in Abyssinia where the king protected them as his subjects.

The Meccan elders sent two men to meet the Negus and to try and persuade him to give up his guardianship of the Muslims. When they tried to bribe the Christian generals to influence the king to return the “trouble makers”, he decided to hear out the Muslim refugees. The king heard both representations and decided in favour of the Muslims.

The next day, the Meccan envoys accused Muslims of blasphemy against the Christian faith. Once again, the Negus summoned his bishops and scholars and asked a spokesman from among the Muslims to explain.

The Muslim read some verses of the Quran. The king was moved to tears and declared that both the Quran and Bible came from a similar spiritual source. He ordered the Meccans to leave his kingdom and let the Muslims live in peace.

It was also recorded that the king’s generals attempted to usurp power because they felt he was protecting the “infidel” Muslims. Before thwarting the plan, the king prepared a ship and told Muslims to flee the country in the event that he was killed.

Later, when the Prophet heard news of the Negus’ death due to natural causes, he performed the funeral prayers from afar. It was never recorded that the king had embraced the new religion.

Before the migration to Medina, some Christians from Abyssinia heard about the Prophet and decided to approach him. It was recorded that the Christians heard him recite the verses of the Quran and accepted his prophethood.

When he set up his base in Medina, 60 Christian riders from Najran came to the Prophet’s mosque which was also his home. After he finished his prayers, he welcomed the Christians into the mosque and allowed them to perform their own prayers there. They later conversed with the Prophet about Christ and Islam. It was not recorded if the group became Muslims, but my reading was that they left the place as Christians.

The accounts above offer lessons for Malay-Christian relationships today.

First, the Prophet had a cordial relationship with Christians and always welcomed dialogues with them. He showed them respect and treated them with dignity. Can the Malays say the same?

Second, the Prophet sought the help of a Christian king to protect his followers. He trusted the Negus. How is it that today, some Malay Muslims cannot learn from the Prophet about trusting good Christians?

In the Quran, Muslims were told to believe in the Books before the Quran, the Injil or the Bible. Muslims are also permitted to marry the “people of the Book” without them converting to Islam.

In Sabah and Sarawak, many Muslims and Christians are in the same families and this has not led to any serious conflict.

Sabah and Sarawak can teach Malays in the peninsula a thing or two about Muslim-Christian relationships, spirituality and nation-building.

If Malays understand Islam better, they will realise that their “teachers of Islam” are doing a highly questionable job of explaining the Prophet’s Islam.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.