Islam Prohibits Attacking Houses of Worship

Past and present, extremists have fallen into grave errors concerning the theory and implementation of the rights, responsibilities, and places of worship of non-Muslims living in Muslim lands. Here are just a few:

1. Mixing between scenarios of peace, war, and attempts at overthrowing governments, about which Islam has strict rulings, even with Muslims who might attempt to do so, because the tumult and chaos resulting therefrom.

2. Another source of such errors is the misconception that poor treatment of non-Muslims will force them to abandon their faiths and embrace Islam. Such behavior is immoral and un-Islamic; scriptural teachings, as well as the implementation our Pious Predecessors thereof, are far removed from such notions.

The Prophet (pbuh) himself was hospitable toward the prisoners of war from the tribe of Ṭay because of how very generous one of their tribesmen, named Ḥātim aṭ-Ṭā’iy, who belonged to one of the Christian sects, was known for having been. He (pbuh) is also authentically reported to have said, “I have been sent solely to perfect peoples’ character.”

The story of how Jewish rabbi Zayd Ibn Sa‘nah became a Muslim disproves the mistaken methodology of using harshness with non-Muslims residing in Muslim lands. Omar Ibn ‘Abdul-‘Azīz said about people employing such methodologies, “Muhammad (pbuh) was sent to guide people, not to collect taxes.” He said this because they were preoccupied with levying taxes, amassing wealth, ordaining popes and clerics, and other practices not sanctioned by Allah’s Religion.

Zayd Ibn Sa‘nah embraced Islam after seeing the forbearance of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) precede his anger and realizing that this was the final sign of his prophethood. His reaction to the treachery of the tribe of Bani Qurayẓah and others should serve as a clear lesson of how morals and ethics should be implemented and how war should be waged against those guilty of treachery and inciting civil strife.

‘Abdullah Ibn Salām narrated the story of how Zayd Ibn Sa‘nah accepted Islam, saying: Once Allah wanted the guidance of Zayd Ibn Sa‘nah, he said, “There were only two from amongst the signs of prophethood which I had not seen from Muhammad so I used to treat him kindly, interacting with him in order to see if either of them applied to him; they were: kindness preceding meanness, and answering meanness with kindness. Once I sold him some fruit on credit and when it came time for him to pay me, I came to him and found him and his Companions at a funeral. I grabbed him by the shirt, giving him a stern look, and said: ‘O Muhammad, will you not pay me what you owe me? By Allah, I have never known you all, the family of ‘Abdul-Muṭṭalib, to delay paying debts.’ So Omar looked at me with his eyes circling in his head like a round planet. He then said, ‘O enemy of Allah, are you actually saying to Allah’s Messenger what I hear and doing to him what I see? I swear by He who sent him with the truth, were it not for fear of him criticizing me, I would strike your head with my sword.’ Allah’s Messenger smiled, kindly looking at Omar and said, ‘He and I were both in need of other than this from you, Omar. We needed for you to tell me to pay on time and to tell him to be kind when selling. Take him and give him his due wages, and give him an additional amount of dates.’ So Zayd Ibn Sa‘nah embraced Islam and took part in all the other battles with Allah’s Messenger.” Thus was how Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) looked after the rights of others. This is the religion of Islam.
Ibn Mas‘ūd narrated that once Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) saw some of his Companions take a small bird from its nest. When its mother returned, she began to frantically search for the young bird. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “Why do you distress this bird? Return her offspring to her.”

Another authentic narration states that, “A prostitute from the Children of Israel saw a dog dying of thirst, so she tied her shoe to her head scarf and lowered it down into a well to fill it with water, then gave the dog water to drink. Because of this, she was forgiven of her sins.”

Bukhari and Muslim narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “A woman was tortured in hellfire because she kept her cat locked up until it died. Neither did she give it food and water, nor did she allow it to go outside to hunt for its own food.”

Thus is the significance Islam lends to animals: no living thing may be harmed. So what do you think Islam’s stance is toward Jews and Christians, who are closer to Muslims than pagans and idol-worshippers? In the Qur’an, glad tidings are given about the Christians conquering the Magians: “Alif lām mīm.(1) The Romans have been defeated in a nearby land. But, only a few years after their defeat, they will prevail. The decision of the matter, before and after (these events) is only with Allah, (before the defeat of Romans by the Persians, and after, i.e. the defeat of the Persians by the Romans). And on that Day, the believers (i.e. Muslims) will rejoice (at the victory given by Allah to the Romans against the Persians).”(2) When the pagans of Quraysh rejoiced at the Christian Romans being defeated by the Magian Persians, Allah gave His Prophet (pbuh) glad tidings of the Christian victory to come; He also advised the Muslims not to argue with Jews and Christians unless it be in a respectful and courteous manner. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said, “I am the closest of people to Jesus, the son of Mary.” And one of the chapters of the Qur’an is entitled “Surah Maryam.”

When giving directions to the army led by Usāmah, Abu Bakr said, “O you people, stand up. I shall give you ten injunctions so mind them well: do not betray; do not steal the spoils of war; do not deceive; do not mutilate the bodies of dead enemies; do not kill children, elderly, or women; do not burn trees; do not cut down any fruit bearing trees; do not slaughter a sheep, cow, or camel except to eat; you will encounter people who have devoted themselves to worship in temples, so leave them to that which they are devoted.” This is Islam’s stance on other faiths’ houses of worship and it is thus that Islam has prohibited killing innocent civilians and women, as well as destruction and treachery.

When Muslims first entered Egypt, the orthodox patriarch had fled to a remote desert area out of fear of being attacked by the Romans, due to ideological differences. The Muslim leader ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Āṣ sent an envoy to inform him that he was safe and extended an invitation to him, receiving him hospitably upon arrival. This is a fact Christian historians past and present admit to in their writings; amongst them Sir Thomas Arnold in his book “The Preaching of Islam, a History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith.” The official history of the Egyptian Church confirms this fact; in fact, the Orthodox Church’s Committee of Coptic History cited that “During the papacy of Pope Benjamin I of Alexandria, Heraclius re-conquered Egypt from the Persians and appointed a Greek authority named Jurayj Ibn Mīnā to levy taxes. He also appointed a royal patriarch, known as al-Muqawqas. Heraclius also appointed royal bishops over all the parishes in Egypt. Then Pope Benjamin I and the other Orthodox bishops went into hiding for thirteen years, during which the land was afflicted by much trial and tribulation, as the royal bishops forced people to adopt the creed that Christ was both divine and human in nature, and some of them actually adopted it.” The aforementioned history book also mentioned the Islamic tolerance and wisdom personified by the Noble Companion ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Āṣ when he re-built the churches destroyed by the Persians; he was also planning to re-build the Church of Alexandria, which was destroyed during the city’s conquest. Additionally, he gave Pope Benjamin I a large amount of wealth to honor him after coming out of hiding. The aforesaid church history mentioned in this regard: “‘Amr Ibn al-‘Āṣ led the Arab conquest against Egypt and he wrote a peace treaty granting Pope Benjamin I amnesty and inviting him to return to his position as Pope. The Pope appeared and ‘Amr kindly and hospitably received him, respectfully returning him to his position and the Pope began working to re-gain the orthodox parishes that had been won over by the Catholics. He was successful in his endeavor and re-built the churches destroyed by the Persians in Wadi al-Watrun, returning to them the remaining monks who had been scattered about. Towards the end of his life he wanted to re-build the Church of St. Mark, which had been destroyed during the conquest of Alexandria, but he did not live long enough to do so.”

Pope Benjamin I was known for having sound judgment, so much so that he was nicknamed “The Wise.” This was one of the reasons why ‘Amr was so comfortable with him and used to consult him in national affairs. Once the head of the statue of St. Mark, who spread Christianity in Egypt, was stolen by a Christian and ‘Amr returned it. Pope Shenouda III of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria acknowledged this in one of his books.

In spite of the consensus of historical records showing that Christian churches and other houses of worship remained after the Muslims conquering their respective lands, no evidence proves that they were ever intentionally made targets.

3. The third in the sources of Muslims’ improper treatment of non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic communities is accusations made of them of working with the West and the United States in fighting against Islam; this is what is meant by confusing outside enemies with inside enemies. For the most part, throughout history, such minorities have always felt a sense of attachment to the Islamic State, defended it, and considered it their homeland. Additionally, such minorities feel a sense of safety and justice under Islamic Law that they feel under the law of no other faith. In spite of their differences of faith, Jews and Christians have always been closer to Muslims than occupying forces. This is why the Jews and Muslims mutually fled from Spain in fear of Gothic and Catholic attacks led by Fredrick and Isabel. Jewish rabbi Ibn Maymūn migrated with the Muslims to Egypt and enjoyed the protection of Sulṭān Ṣalāḥuddīn al-Ayyubi and was a neighbor of the distinguished Islamic judge Ibn Nabātah. Whoever studies history will find that many Christian Arabs fought alongside Muslims against occupying and colonial powers.

The questions that extremists should answer in this regard are: is it permissible to kill a non-Muslim living under the protection of the Islamic State when there is some misconception involved which might lead one to believe this is lawful? If so, why did all the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) mutually agree that ‘Obaidullah Ibn Omar was mistaken in killing Hurmuzān and why did they continually request that Uthman avenge his death? There was an element of doubt present in this incident but it was not sufficient to overcome their certainty about the impermissibility of killing an innocent non-Muslim living in the Islamic State.

4. The fourth source of Muslims’ improper treatment of non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic lands is the most critical of the sources: persecution of all Christians, which all extremist Islamic groups use as proof, giving a bad name to Jihād. They consider targeting religious minorities and their property and houses of worship a means of putting pressure on governments to make changes in policy as well as a means of dragging all people into an all-out holy war. Al-Qā‘idah considers the West’s war on Islam a Zionist Crusade so they target all Westerners, striking fear in their hearts and blowing up their property.

There are several examples of this: the Egyptian Jamā‘ah Islāmiyyah, before seeking to make amends, and the Egyptian Jamā‘ah al-Jihād, before joining al-Qā‘idah, targeted Coptic religious icons as part of their war with the government and in attempts to spark a social explosion, in which they were not successful.

Al-Qā‘idah has repeatedly targeted Christians in Iraq. The last operation they carried out was taking hostages in a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad last November. They justified the operation, in which 58 were killed and dozens injured, saying that they were demanding the freedom of two Egyptian women who had accepted Islam then were held hostage by the Orthodox Church. They requested that the Church release the women and say they gave it ample time to do so, and then followed up by issuing a threat to target any and every Copt and/or Christian if they were not released. Al-Qā‘idah was simply targeting the Church as a publicity stunt to put pressure on Iraqi politicians and in attempts to spark the holy war between Muslims and non-Muslims for which they are hoping. They killed the priest and the congregation, who were in no way soldiers. They could not have possibly been farther from Islam’s teachings, which prohibit targeting and destroying houses of worship.

Allah the Most High says:

“If it were not for Allah repelling some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where Allah’s name is oft-mentioned, would have been destroyed. Verily, Allah will help those who help His (Cause). Truly, Allah is All-Strong, All-Mighty.” (3)

Commenting on this verse, Aṭ-Ṭabari mentioned the statement of aḍ-Ḍaḥḥāk explaining that the term “mosques” here refers to every house of worship where Allah’s name is oft-mentioned. Some Arabic linguists cited this as proof that no place of worship should be destroyed. Others held that the “monasteries” refer to Jewish synagogues. The most correct of these opinions is that the “monasteries” in the verse refer to the places where monks worship, “churches” refer to Christian houses of worship, “synagogues” refer to Jewish houses of worship, and “mosques” refer to Muslim houses of worship. We maintain that this opinion is more correct because it enjoys the most linguist support in traditional Arabic literature. When Allah said, “Verily, Allah will help those who help His (Cause)” He meant that He will aid those who fight in His Path in order to make His Word prevail over that of His enemies. Allah helping His Servant means aiding him. The servant helping Allah means fighting in His Path to make His Word prevail. When Allah said, “Truly, Allah is All-Strong, All-Mighty” He was referring to His Strength and Ability to grant victory to His Righteous Servants who fight in His Path, and His Might, as He is Invincible.

Many extremists flee from such Islamic principles despite their crystal-clear evidence in the history of the Prophet (pbuh), his Companions, and the early generations of Islamic scholars, as they all preserved and protected the rights of Jews and Christians residing in the Islamic State. One example is what transpired between Abu ‘Obaidah Ibn al-Jarrāḥ and the people of Hums: once the Islamic government was unable to protect the non-Muslims residing there from the Romans, he returned the money they had paid as jizyah.(4) Another example is the treaty the second Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, made with the head of a church, as he treated him with the utmost respect, although declining the priests offer to perform a prayer inside the church.

Islam’s Reality vs. al-Qā‘idah’s Ideology

There is a wealth of scriptural evidence delineating the rights of non-Muslims in the Islamic State, and they do not stop with respect and assistance; rather, they entail protection from every enemy as well as every offensive statement. Al-Qarāfi said, “Allowing non-Muslims to live in the Islamic State entails giving them rights because they are under our protection; Allah the Most High, His Messenger (pbuh), and the religion of Islam have granted them protection. Whoever maltreats non-Muslims living in the Islamic State, even if it is by speaking ill of them or back-biting them, has violated the protection granted to them by Allah, His Messenger (pbuh), and the religion of Islam.”

Ibn Zanjeway reported that Omar Ibn al-Khaṭṭāb saw an old non-Muslim man begging for money and said to him, “If we were to take your youth then take the jizyah from you, we would not be just.” He then instructed his employees not to take the jizyah from the elderly.

Caliph Omar Ibn Abdul-‘Aziz wrote to ‘Adiy Ibn Arṭa’ah, who he had made governor over Basrah, saying, “Look after the non-Muslims who are weak, elderly, and have no income. Give them enough money to live on from the Islamic Public Treasury.”

In his book “Al-Kharāj,(5)” Abu Yūsuf mentioned that treaty the Prophet (pbuh) made with the people of Najrān stipulated, “Allah covenants the people of Najrān and the surrounding areas that His Messenger shall protect their wealth, their faith, their houses of worship, and all their possessions, no matter how little or how much they may be worth.”

Omar wrote to Abu ‘Obaidah Ibn al-Jarrāḥ saying, “Prevent the Muslims from oppressing them, harming them, or wrongfully taking their wealth.” Abu Yūsuf narrated in his book “Al-Kharāj,” which he wrote for the Caliph Hārūn ar-Rashīd, that Khālid Ibn al-Walīd wrote to Christians of al-Ḥīrah about their treaty of protection from the Islamic State: “Any old man too weak to work, afflicted by disease or disaster, or suddenly impoverished and receiving charity from the followers of his faith, shall pay no jizyah; rather, he and his dependants shall receive living expenses from the Islamic Public Treasury.”

Islam regards the sanctity of the wealth of non-Muslims residing in Muslim lands. Muslim jurists affirm that thieves, whether stealing the money of Muslims or non-Muslims, receive the same prescribed punishment either of getting the right hand chopped off or some lesser punishment depending on the circumstances, in addition to having to return the money to its owner. Anyone to borrow money from a non-Muslim must repay it. If the borrower is able to repay the loan and refuses, the Muslim judge will imprison him until he pays it; there is no difference in this between the Muslim and non-Muslim.

Islam’s regard for the sanctity of the wealth and property of non-Muslims is such that it respects what their faith considers valuable property even if Muslims do not consider it as such. Muslim jurists differentiate between “valuable wealth” and “worthless wealth.” “Valuable wealth,” according to the Ḥanafi School of jurisprudence, is any wealth which the faith of the owner considers valuable. So, for example, it is not permissible for a Muslim to kill a pig belonging to a Christian because he considers the pig permissible to eat. However, if a pig belonged to a Muslim, it would not be considered “valuable wealth” because the Islamic faith does not allow eating pork.

It is obligatory upon Muslims to make sure Christians receive the rights Islam has guaranteed them, and not to be negligent even of Christian prisoners of war. This was enacted by Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah when the Tatars invaded Damascus at the beginning of the eighth century of the Islamic calendar and took many Muslims, Christians, and Jews as prisoners. Accompanied by a group of other scholars, Ibn Taymiyyah went to the Tatar leader requesting that the prisoners be set free. Only the Muslim prisoners were set free so Ibn Taymiyyah said, “All the prisoners you have taken, the Jews and Christians, must be set free because they are under our protection. We will not allow one prisoner to remain with you, whether they are followers of our religion or not, because they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as we do.” So the Tatar leader set all the prisoners free.

Islam views the wealth and property of non-Muslims as inviolable, gives them freedom of religion, and respects and protects their houses of worship. Historically, Muslim jurists have differed concerning the permissibility of building houses of worship for followers of faiths other than Islam; however, they have never disagreed about the fact Islam does not permit targeting these houses of worship. Perhaps the continuous attacks by the deviant group al-Qā‘idah on churches and synagogues, and for that matter mosques in Somalia and Pakistan, is clear proof that the organization does not adhere to Islamic Law. In fact, their use of violence and threats is only matched by the Khawārij and some of its first-century branches.

True Islam is the message contained in the authentic scripture, including the prohibition of harming, taking the wealth of, and violating the sanctities of non-Muslims residing in Islamic lands. Jews and Christians living harmoniously in Islamic lands throughout history remains a source of pride which proves the greatness of Islam and its respect for followers of other faiths.

Islam is filled with teachings of tolerance toward, and mutual progress with, followers of other faiths, especially Jews and Christians. The harsh and violent measures al-Qā‘idah has taken against those who are guaranteed protection by Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and his followers until the Day of Judgment brings about repercussions for the religion and its followers which only the ignorant who do not know the essence of the religion would dream of causing. Al- Qā‘idah members follow nothing but the ways of assassination and treachery known to the barbarous tribes of old.

Just for the record, what we have mentioned here is nothing spiteful directed at the dialogue of civilizations; we state this so that no accusations are made against us by those who suspect every new statement to be a conspiracy against Islam; we are merely giving a reminder we hope will benefit the believers who are fearful of Allah, as we are ordered to do in the Qur’an. Extremists refuse to pay attention to anything they suspect may be civilized, unknowingly insisting on savagery and barbarism, and masking the real goals of war and chaos toward which they are working.

An Egyptian Salafi activist recently issued a challenge for anyone to produce scriptural evidence supporting the permissibility of targeting Christians in Egypt, Iraq, or anywhere else around the world. We reiterate this challenge to al-Qā‘idah and invite them to respond objectively, not using emotionally charged claims of Christian women embracing Islam or not; even if these claims were accurate, it would not make targeting churches or monasteries permissible as Islam has clearly prohibited this. Should not al-Qā‘idah and its supporters return from the dust of war and the haziness of misconstruing scripture to the clarity of tolerance, which is the essence of Islam, before a dialogue of civilizations or faiths, which they reject, can take place?

Al-Zawahiri, in the fourteenth chapter of his book “At-Tabri’ah,”(6) described the Christians of Egypt as “national neighbors who are here to stay,” and distanced himself from anyone who might attack them, deeming so prohibited and sinful. Why, then, did he not distance himself from al-Qā‘idah’s actions in Iraq?

Our final question to these extremists is: are not the churches and monasteries which remained after the Islamic conquests of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Indian subcontinent clear proof of the Islamic principle which Muslims implemented: that destroying the houses of worship of followers of other faiths is prohibited?! No one has ever dared to violate this principle except al-Qā‘idah and Ṭāliban!

The Statements of Al-Zawahiri and Al-Maqdasi in Light of the Attacks on the Church of Salvation

One of the clearest indications of the incongruity in the views of al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdasi is that they have denounced targeting Christians in Islamic countries yet they support al-Qā‘idah operations in Iraq and elsewhere.

One extremist cited the following argument to al-Zawahiri justifying targeting Christians in Egypt:

“The Christian Copts in Egypt have gone too far in their oppression, and have attained a voice by relying upon America and the West, who put pressure on [Mubārak’s] government and give the Christians, not the Muslim majority, special privileges. For example, the governor of the city of Qena is a Christian Copt named Magdi Ayyub Iskandar who is well-known for publicizing grievances.”

Although this argument is similar to the arguments cited by those who carry out the attacks al-Zawahari supports, he refuted it in his book “At-Tabri’ah,” saying:

“When we were members of Jama‘ah al-Jihād, we never attacked Christians; we made it a point not to do so for two main reasons: firstly, in spite of their leadership’s animosity toward Muslims, they are weak when compared to Western Crusaders and their local agents, who are a much greater threat. It is sufficient to keep the Christians under surveillance and not provoke them or get caught up in side battles with them, which will hinder us from our principal effort. I do not know if the Christians understand this or intentionally refuse to understand. The second reason [why we never attacked Christians] is that [they] are our national neighbors, and the Jewish Crusader Occupation is bound to disappear with Allah’s permission. They will remain in our country and Allah orders us to treat them well so long as they treat us well.”

Here al-Zawahiri is speaking about his nation, in spite of the fact that he has written other letters rejecting the concept of nationalism!
Al-Zawahiri also opposed all forms of prejudice and bigotry toward Christians, saying:
“Whoever studies history will find that Muslims never adopted the Western concept of bigotry toward followers of other faiths, especially Christians. Although we were able to, we never set up courts to identify and persecute the Christians of Egypt, as the Christians did with Muslims in al-Andalus.”

He also cited al-Maqdasi, when speaking about the Christians of the East accepting to be governed by the Islamic state in his book “At-Tuḥfah al-Maqdasiyyah fī Mukhtaṣar Tārīkh an-Naṣrāniyyah” as saying:

“They enjoyed safety and security they had never dreamed of, let alone experienced, before living under Islamic rule, not even under Constantine, who was the first to practice their religion and make it a state religion, enforcing its blasphemous scripture and creed with his power. He was one of the most powerful priests and used his power to pass laws legalizing the torturing and killing of all his dissidents. Christians were never subjected to such treatment under Islamic rule, which allows them to maintain their faith so long as they pay the jizyah and abide by the laws of the land.”

The question that remains for al-Zawahiri and al-Maqdasi is: why did they not dissociate themselves from al-Qā‘idah’s attack on the Church of Salvation in Iraq? Is it due to the gap between the authentic Islamic rulings and al-Qā‘idah practices or the pragmatism of the action they are justifying with evidences like those used by al-Qā‘idah to justify their heinous actions?

1 These letters are one of the miracles of the Qur’ân, and none but Allâh (Alone) knows their meanings.

2 The Qur’an, Surah ar-Rūm [30]:1-4.

3 The Qur’an, Surah al-Hajj [22]:40.

4 Jizyah: the poll-tax non-Muslims pay to live under an Islamic government in exchange for protection from outside military forces.

5 Kharāj: land tax.

6 At-Tabri’ah: acquittal, exoneration.