History suggests Marrakesh Declaration no guarantee of religious freedom (COMMENTARY)

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Ayman S. Ibrahim is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.  Photo courtesy Emil Handke, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Ayman S. Ibrahim is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy Emil Handke, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

(RNS) In the Arab world, where I was born, we have many self-critical sayings. One of them goes like this: We, Arabs, are all talk and no action. We are swift to issue statements of denunciation and condemnation, less good at taking concrete action.

As a Coptic Christian who lived for decades in an Arab majority-Muslim country, I remembered this saying when I read about the Marrakesh Declaration to protect non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority communities.

For three days in Marrakesh, hundreds of religious clerics and scholars met to create a declaration to preserve and protect religious minorities in the Muslim world. Photo by Aida Alami

For three days in Marrakesh, hundreds of religious clerics and scholars met to create a declaration to preserve and protect religious minorities in the Muslim world. Photo by Aida Alami

At a Morocco-sponsored summit last week (Jan. 25-27) led by Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, more than 200 Muslim and Christian religious leaders examined a 1,400-year-old Muslim document allegedly issued by Muhammad himself: the Charter of Medina, also known as the Constitution of Medina. This document, according to the summit, provides details for treating non-Muslims and calls for accepting a plural religious  state.

The summit called on predominantly Muslim-majority communities to apply Muhammad’s Charter of Medina and grant non-Muslim minorities “freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense.”


RELATED STORY: Morocco summit pushes Muslim clerics to improve the lot of religious minorities


There is no doubt the declaration the summit produced is remarkable. The significant question is: Will it lead to real action? One can only hope it brings real fruits and that religious freedom for minorities will become a reality.

But I am not optimistic.

Can we hope the Moroccan underground church will  be recognized? The country recognizes only Muslims and Jews. Despite all the facts, the government claims that there are no Moroccan Christians.

Will Mauritania, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya recognize Christians and allow anyone to convert?

Will the governments of these countries allow Christians to build churches and freely worship in their faith and tradition?

Will Christianity be recognized in Saudi Arabia? Will churches be built in Mecca, like mosques are being built in the West?

Unofficial numbers tell of hundreds of thousands of Saudi converts to Christianity who cannot declare their convictions. Forget about building churches in Mecca; can Christians be allowed to enter Mecca?

What about Northern Sudan? Can we expect a new era when Muslims are free to convert to any other religion?

Minorities in Muslim-majority lands are tired of talking about religious equality. They are in desperate need of action.

The bad news is that this very Charter of Medina, upon which the Marrakesh Declaration is based, did not actually help religious minorities, particularly Jews, during Muhammad’s time. Religious minorities during Muhammad’s time were seized, expelled from their homes and often massacred.

According to Muslim histories, one year after this charter was issued, Muhammad approached a Jewish tribe called Banu Qaynuqa and called for its members to convert to Islam. They refused.

Muhammad then ordered a siege of the tribe, and 15 days later, they surrendered and he expelled them from their home in Medina. Almost two years later, according to the renowned Muslim historian al-Tabari, the prophet expelled another Jewish tribe, named Banu al-Nadir.

Was the charter in effect? What about the pluralistic community?

Three years after the charter was signed, Muslim historians say, a third Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayẓa, was massacred. Muhammad and his companions seized the tribe for nearly 25 days, until its people surrendered. By decree, the men were killed, the property was divided, and the women and children were taken captive. It appears this earliest Muslim community struggled with religious pluralism.

Ayman S. Ibrahim is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy Emil Handke, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Ayman S. Ibrahim, a native of Egypt, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy Emil Handke, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

We should hope, and keep hoping for a better day.

This declaration can do miracles if we, Arabs, do less talking, and begin to really apply religious freedom: no harassment, expulsion or executions of non-Muslim minorities, and freedom to choose one’s faith.

This, I pray, will be more than talk.

(Ayman S. Ibrahim, a native of Egypt, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and senior fellow of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

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  • Sam

    Like Prof. Ibrahim, I too hope that action is taken to treat religious minorities as equals in Muslim majority societies, but he does a disservice in describing the conflict between the early Muslim community and the Medinan Jewish tribes in the way he does. His portrayal would have you think that the conflict between these communities stemmed from religious differences alone, but, as is usual, there was more to it than that. For example, during the Battle of the Trench, the Banu Qurayza allied themselves with the Quraysh tribe of Mecca who were laying siege to the Medinan Muslim community. The actions against the Banu Qurayza following the battle, as contrary as they are to our sensibilities today, were taken according to Arab tribal custom. To be sure, there were tensions between these communities, but to reduce them to that of a religious nature alone is inaccurate and irresponsible.

  • samuel johnston

    Hi Sam,
    In a society that makes no destinction between the religious and the secular, public and private actions, and has not the slightest notion of intrensic human rights, I do not buy your argument. Totalitarianism may use History or tradition, but it is never bound by it.

  • Taylor

    So let’s ignore the actions against Banu Qurayza and the capture of women and children. But you did not say a word about the two other tribes? Why only the Jews were kicked out of Medina? Can you ignore their religious identity precisely in their treatment by the prophet? How about Muhammad murdering Ka’b ibn al’Ashraf? How about Muhammad;s raids against the Jews of Tabuk? Khaybar? Let alone the insanity of the early Muslim conquest against non-Muslims offering them Islam, sword, or conversion? Were there religious freedom? Well, Sam, well, I do not this author, but I think he made a good case in a very civilized/polite way. Not only he understands the culture and language, he is also clearly NOT anti-Islam. He simply hopes for REAL change.
    Oh wait! I just read that after beheading the men in Bany Qurayza, Muhammad selected one of the women, Rayhana, for himself and took her as part of his booty. I hope this also is part of what you called “Arab tribal custom.” Salamu alyakum,…

  • karima

    I am Karima from Oran Algeria. True article and correct ideas. I was Muslim until I was 26 years old. Isa (Yeshua) al-massih made a miracle and changed my life when he appeared to me and healed me my cancer. I cannot say i believe in him or my family murdered by police. So I do not worry about this author and article, but the stories from history and stories from these days country are correct. these arabs all talk talk talk is true. make big show only. sorry my englesh is bad.

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