This is a translation of a hadith that is being circulated that requires closer attention:
Beware! Whoever is cruel and harsh to a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.
What should sound the alarm bells when you read this is the term “non-Muslim minority.” Is this a concept that exists in Islam and in the language of the Prophet ?? Perhaps, but let’s come back to that.
What is the original Arabic?
أَلاَ مَنْ ظَلَمَ مُعَاهِدًا أَوِ انْتَقَصَهُ أَوْ كَلَّفَهُ فَوْقَ طَاقَتِهِ أَوْ أَخَذَ مِنْهُ شَيْئًا بِغَيْرِ طِيبِ نَفْسٍ فَأَنَا حَجِيجُهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ
This narration is collected by Abu Dawud and a similar narration is in Bayhaqi and is considered sahih.
The term in question is mu`ahid, which has been rendered as “non-Muslim minority” in the translation.
The problem with the translation is not so much that it lacks precision (which it does) but that it is misleading given our current political context where certain liberal values surrounding “religious freedom” and “minorities” are dominant.
Does Islam respect religious freedom and minority rights? The honest, inescapable answer is: yes in some respects and no in others. More accurately, Islamic law’s conception of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands has important divergences from and misalignments with modern human rights conventions regarding “religious minorities,” though there are some areas of overlap.
My point is not to go into these divergences and misalignments in a social media post. My point is that we have to be cognizant that these divergences and misalignments exist and not use language or translations that obscure, conflate, smooth over, or otherwise obfuscate those distinctions.
There is obviously a huge amount of pressure to actively ignore such distinctions simply because it would be politically and socially convenient if Islamic law and Islamic ethics were to perfectly coincide with the dominant political and moral ideology of our age, i.e., liberal secularism. But we need to resist this for two reasons. First and foremost, it results in a distortion of the truth and of Islam, which is a disaster in and of itself. Secondly, it creates further problems down the line.
For example, if your average American Muslim college student reads the “non-Muslim minority” translation of the hadith, he might wonder what Islam has to say about, for example, “LGBT rights” or the treatment of Zoroastrians in Persia during the conquests of Caliph Umar, or how about the actions of the Prophet Muhammad or the other prophets as described in the Quran. Did Muhammad or
Ibrahim (peace be upon them) respect the rights of “religious minorities” when they broke the idols? Did Lut respect the rights of the “non-Muslim majority” of his society? Did God himself respect those “minorities” or was He cruel and harsh with them?
What will quickly become apparent is that the prophets and the rightly guided caliphs and perhaps even God Himself all violated modern liberal human rights norms in major ways. This will cause a crisis of faith for the modern average Muslim who is mistakenly under the impression and expects that Islam and God Almighty endorse liberalism.
So, we need to be extremely cautious about not furthering this misunderstanding and not reinforcing it with careless translations. People’s very iman is at stake, not to mention the future of Islam in people’s hearts and minds. This is not something that can be played with based on suppositions and personal anecdotes and impressions we might have.
To go back to that hadith, mu`ahid has been discussed in the commentaries as referring to either a dhimmi or a musta’man, which is a non-Muslim who has been given permission to travel through Muslim controlled territories and is afforded a protected status like dhimmis. The rights of ahlul-dhimma is an extended topic, but again, the point is that, while there are some overlaps between what Islamic law and ethics affords ahlul-dhimma and what the liberal human rights regime affords “religious minorities,” there are also significant differences that have a whole host of theological and moral implications.
By the way, I didn’t have this in mind when I wrote the post, but the current event of Church bombings in Egypt is relevant to the discussion. As far as Islamic law is concerned, bombing Churches and synagogues is a horrible crime.