Reflections on Islamic Teachings on Coexistence Between Muslims and Non-Muslims

Love, compassion, and mercy are crosscutting core values of Islam which are shared by most other faiths including, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, among others. These values form a foundation for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, especially in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-religious society such as Kenya. In Islam, numerous teachings provide a basis for mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

In nurturing cohesion and coexistence, Islam appreciates diversity in the society and thus the need for respect and tolerance among Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims. The verse “If your Lord had willed, surely He could have made mankind one community” (11:118) aptly captures the spirit of diversity. Allah says, “O Mankind, indeed we have created you from male and  female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may know one another, indeed the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous. Indeed Allah is  Knowing  and Acquainted” (Quran 49: 13). In this verse, Islam not only accepts but rather embraces diversity. The use of the word “mankind” portrays the element of inclusivity towards all humans – Muslims or non-Muslims. Kenya is a classic example of a society that bears the hallmarks of diversity. Muslims in Kenya are therefore obligated to embrace diversity but within the bounds of the teachings of the Qur’an.

The Prophet (SAW), as narrated by Abu Hurairah, said “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe, and the believer is the one from whom the people’s lives and wealth are safe.” This hadith contextualizes the traits of a true believer – one who does not do any harm with his tongue or hand. While an individual cannot do good all the time, it is possible for them not to commit any harm; and this is the virtue that the Qur’an encourages all Muslims to embrace. Further, in the year 622, the Prophet and the believers moved to Yathrib which was later known as Madinatu Rasulillah (the city of the Prophet of Allah) or in short Madinah, after facing persecution from very aggressive polytheists of Makkah. Even when Muslims were later permitted to defend themselves, peace remained an overarching goal. The Qur’an forbade aggressive warfare: “And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors” (Qur’an 2:190). The foregoing verses underscore the importance of peaceful existence, showing that it is the pinnacle of the ideals of Islam and that Allah is peace.

From a historical lens, Muslims and non-Muslims co-existed peacefully in Madina and the subsequent Muslim states. The Constitution of Madina, declared by the Prophet (SAW) in 622 A.D. presents a perfect illustration of establishing the communal coexistence of different faiths. The Prophet (SAW) received various delegations who he welcomed in his mosque. Among them were the Christian priests of Najran who he allowed to worship in his mosque. This example signifies Islam’s utmost respect of other people’s faiths and beliefs. Elsewhere, Allah asks Muslims to keep their doors of peace wide open: “… If they incline to peace, incline you as well to it, and trust in Allah…”(Qur’an 8:61).  This verse demonstrates that peaceful coexistence among Muslims and between non-Muslims is one of the core values of Islam and this is an invitation to Muslims to coexist peacefully with other religions.

Coexistence is also underscored when the Prophet (SAW) ordered Asma bint Abibakr to host her mother who was still in her ancestors religion when she visited. Moreover, she was asked to assist her when she asked for her support. The Qur’an commands Muslims to be good to their parents whether Muslims or non-Muslims so long as they have not asked them to associate Allah with other deities: “But if they pressure you to associate with Me what you have no knowledge of,1 do not obey them. Still keep their company in this world courteously, and follow the way of those who turn to Me ˹in devotion˺. Then to Me you will ˹all˺ return, and then I will inform you of what you used to do” (Qur’an 35:15).

Suffice it to say, there are more than a dozen hadiths and verses in the Qur’an that encourage mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. Islam came to unite people and not divide them.

Sheikh Ramadhan Aula is the Director, Center for Sustainable Conflict Resolution (CSCR), and Program Manager, Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism (BRAVE)        

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