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Why are Churches not Allowed to be Built in Muslim Countries?
There are many Churches and other places of worship in present day Muslim countries e.g. Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia. However some have rightly noted that some Muslim majority countries have prohibited collective worship by non-Muslims. Why is that and is it Islamic?
The Quran on Churches, Synagogues and Temples
Never did the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) forbid the building of a church, nor did he order the demolition of a church. In fact the Holy Qur’an mentions that Muslims are to defend Churches, Synagogues and Temples, if they are under attack:
“Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft-commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.”Holy Quran 22:41
Commenting on this verse the World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Fifth Khalifa (Caliph), His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (May Allah be his Helper) stated in his Berlin address in 2019:
“In chapter 22, verses 40-41, the Holy Quran very clearly states that if the aggressors were not stopped, all churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other places of worship would be under grave threat, as the underlying intention of the disbelievers of Makkah was to destroy all traces of religion from the face of the earth. This proves that Islam protects all religions.”Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, 22 October 2019, historic address Berlin, ‘Islam and Europe: A Clash of Civilisations
On another occasion, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (May Allah be his Helper) stated in an address in Copenhagen, Denmark:
“These verses make it categorically clear that when the Muslims were permitted to engage in a defensive war, it was granted in order to defend all religions and all beliefs, rather than for the sake of conquering lands or to spread cruelty.“Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, 9 May 2016, address in Copenhagen, Denmark
Of note, the verse of the Holy Qur’an quoted places Mosques last in the list of worship places to be protected by Muslims, with the worship places of those religions most different to Islam, mentioned first. Temples of such religions as Hinduism are mentioned first, followed by the cloisters of Christians, then the synagogues of Jews are mentioned before mosques, just as Hinduism is the least of the monotheistic faiths of the three, and Judaism the most, from the Islamic perspective. The message of the Holy Qur’an is to emphasise that regardless of Islamic agreement on theology, the defense of other places of worship is for the principle of freedom of religion and conscience for all. In this verse, the Quranic sentiment predates that attributed to Voltaire by over a millennium:
“I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
How the Prophet Muhammad Defended Freedom of Conscience
In light of the above Quranic verse, the World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community makes the following insightful point:
“If, as is often alleged, Islam permitted Muslims to spread its teachings violently, to conquer lands, and to try to eliminate other religions, then why would the Holy Quran explicitly state that it was the religious duty of Muslims to protect all religions and to safeguard the rights of their followers?”Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, 5 October 2019, address on the second day of the 27th Jalsa Salana (Annual Convention) of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in France
“The reality is that the early Muslims gave their lives in order to establish and enshrine, once and for all, the principles of individual liberty, freedom of religion and freedom of belief.”
“These freedoms are the cornerstones of the Islamic faith and have been preserved eternally in the Holy Quran, which has categorically declared in chapter 2, verse 257 that ‘there should be no compulsion in religion.”
What a clear and unequivocal statement in defence of freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience!
During the time of the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his four rightly guided Caliphs, the rights of non-Muslims were never usurped and nor were they pressured into accepting Islam or abandoning their traditions and beliefs.
For example, after migrating to Madinah, he formed a treaty with the Jewish community and together they formed a system of government in which the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was mutually chosen as the head of state. The treaty guaranteed the right of every individual to practice their religion and customs without fear of persecution or sanction. Most certainly, during that era, Madinah was a model of pluralism, tolerance and a shining example of a thriving, multi-cultural society. Never once did the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) deviate from the terms of the covenant. He did not differentiate by saying that Muslims should be sympathetic and kind to Muslims alone, rather he made it clear that they must protect and care for all members of society, irrespective of their differences of belief.
The Covenant, known as the Constitution of Medina, stated:
“No Jew will be wronged for being a Jew…
“The enemies of the Jews who follow us, will not be helped…
“Those Jews who follow the Believers will be helped and treated with equality…
“The Jews of Bani Awf will be treated as one community with the Believers. The Jews have their religion. This will also apply to their freedmen. The exception will be those who act unjustly and sinfully. By doing so they wrong themselves and their families…
“The same applies to Jews of Bani Al-Najjar, Bani Al Harith, Bani Saeeda, Bani Jusham, Bani Al Aws, Thaalba, and the Jaffna, (a clan of the Bani Thaalba) and the Bani Al Shutayba.
“Loyalty gives protection against treachery…
“The freedmen of Thaalba will be afforded the same status as Thaalba themselves. This status is for fair dealings and full justice as a right and equal responsibility for military service…
“Those in alliance with the Jews will be given the same treatment as the Jews.”
These are just some of the extensive principles of mutual respect and civil rights that the Prophet of Islam bound Muslims to when dealing with the Jewish tribes in and around Medina. They predate modern notions of nation states by many centuries, and express freedom of conscience and mutual cooperation between different ethnicities in a manner that is and was unprecedented. The like of it in the West or elsewhere, would not be seen for millennia.
How the Caliphs of Early Islam Protected all Places of Worship
Now let us turn to the era of the rightly guided Caliphs.
When after an attack by the Byzantines, the Muslims took Jerusalem, the Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) was at pains to secure the rights of the subjected Christian inhabitants . There were no forced conversions, no expropriations and religious places were to be left untouched. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) went so far as to pray by the side of the road, in order to prevent Muslims from erroneously turning the church where he visited into a mosque, out of sentiment for their Caliph.
On this point, Sir William Muir, a nineteenth century British historian of early Muslim history, writes:
“Mahometan (Muslim) tradition gives no further detail respecting this memorable visit (to Jerusalem). But Christian writers say that Omar accompanied the Patriarch over the city, visited the various places of pilgrimage, and graciously inquired into their history. At the appointed hour, the Patriarch bade the Caliph perform his orisons in the church of the Resurrection, where they chanced to be. But he declined to pray either there, or in the church of Constantine where a carpet had been spread for him, saying kindly that if he did so his followers would take possession of the church for ever, as a place where Moslem prayer had once been offered up. Umar also visited Bethlehem; and having prayed in the church of the Nativity, left a rescript with the Patriarch, who accompanied him on the pious errand, securing the Christians in possession of the building, with the condition that not more than one Mussulman (Muslim) should ever enter at a time.”Sir William Muir. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall from original sources. The Religious Tract Society, 1891. Page 145.
The Byzantines had many years before expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. Some time after taking the city, Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) invited Jewish families to live in the city once again. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) himself took the initiative in the restoration of the ancient site of the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Romans and had been used by the Christians as a dump ever since. The new legislation of the Muslims caused an upsurge in the building of churches and synagogues by different communities, which had heretofore been persecuted under Byzantine rule .
- For the account of Umar’s rule here summarised, see Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996; pp. 228-232
- Abdul Haq Compier ‘Let the Muslim be my Master in Outward Things’ Al-Islam eGazette, January 2010