This article was first published on November 20, 2018.
The Message of Madinah
As I sit in yet another restaurant waiting for my main course, I dip pieces of the freshly baked gourmet bread into a mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This Italian tradition from one of my favorite countries reminds me of the Qur’anic verse encouraging travel around the world.
Wandering through the Doges Palace some years ago, I came across a Muslim flag which was on display from the last major historic naval battle with rowing boats only, in 1571, a campaign between the Holy League – a Christian coalition – and the Ottoman Empire. The Battle of Lepanto.
Deborah Howard, author of ‘Venice and the East’ points out that the Doges Palace itself was designed with Islamic architectural influences: the arch styles heightened domes, relief works on walls, staircase patterns, all taken directly from the Muslim world, which Venice would trade with.
How is it then that businessmen, friends, partners, and traders, could move from mutually beneficial relationships, such that even architectural designs were shared, to a situation where doubt, uncertainty, fear, and lack of trust became the norm, eventually leading to war?
Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, was born in Arabia over 1,400 years ago. A predominantly pagan-idol worshiping community, leading tribes held sway over local economics and politics.
As the historian Ibn Ishaq observed, the tribes kept a fragile peace in the area, enriching themselves as pilgrims made their way to worship the idols.
First as a shepherd, then a trader, Prophet Muhammad’s life revolved around the company of non-Muslims, and even after Islam, he lived amongst and engaged with non-Muslims.
For example, sometimes he would buy his animals from a pagan, he would eat food from Christians and Jews, his abusive neighbors with whom he was patient with were non-Muslims, he even had to chastise Muslims when they behaved immorally towards non-Muslims.
Eventually, as hostilities arose, Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr escaped Makkah with the help of a pagan guide from the tribe of Bani al-Dayl. Despite being a pagan, he was a man they both trusted with their life. Together they made their way to the city of Yathrib.
At first, the city was home to the Yemeni tribes of Aus and Khazraj, and later, as Bernard Lewis observed, it became a Jewish settlement whose tribes included the Kunaika, Quraiza, and Nadir; accounting for half the settlements of the area.
With time, Yathrib was renamed Madinah, meaning, the City of the Prophet. A rich, multi-faith environment in which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said that if anyone harms a non-Muslim unjustly, then he will defend the non-Muslim, setting the foundations of a unique city where tribal allegiances were replaced by rights and justice for all.