Three Letters, One Humanity

Three Letters, One Humanity
In this article, I am presenting three remarkable letters for the reader to ponder. They were written in three different times in history and the intention is not to compare one with the other. My aim is to present them as historical documents for the reader to draw lessons. At the core of each letter is the message of universal humanity. That is the thread that connects the letters.

Our first letter was written by the holy Prophet of Islam, peace and blessings upon him.

The Prophet’s letter to St Catherine’s Monastery

At the height of his success in bringing Islam to his people, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sent an extraordinary letter to the Christian community living in Muslim areas. One of these letters, addressed to St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai and dated 628 AD, has been preserved carefully and with honour. It is a unique document which gives us an extraordinary insight into Islam and its relationship with non-Islamic communities. Here is the letter:

“This is a message from Muhammad bin Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily, the servants, the helpers, my followers, and I defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they [the Christians] are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation [Muslims] is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day [end of the world].”

The letter has survived due to the dry conditions in the location where the monastery is situated. It clearly and unequivocally establishes the nature and character of Islam. It also refutes the propaganda against Islam that it was spread by the sword. But most importantly, and for our purposes of greatest relevance, is the fact that it confirms the message of universal inclusion and goodwill. Contemporary presidents and prime ministers during our own time would do well to emulate the spirit of compassion and the principles of governance contained in the letter.
Muslims need to understand the core message of these letters, especially that of the holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH), in order to better understand their own faith

Babur’s letter to his son Humayun

Our second letter was written not by a religious leader but a great warrior who founded the celebrated Mughal Dynasty of India. The Emperor Babur’s letter to his son and successor, the future emperor Humayun, is also instructive to our contemporary rulers and leaders. It was written on Babur’s death bed and contains excellent advice on how to be an inclusive and compassionate ruler embracing all his subjects which respect and dignity. Babur’s personal letter is dated 11 January 1529. This is what he wrote:

Emperor Babur and his successor Humayun

“Oh, my son! The realm of Hindustan is full of diverse creeds. Praise be to God, the Righteous, the Glorious, the Highest, that He hath granted unto thee the empire of it. It is but proper that you, with a heart cleansed of all religious bigotry, should dispense justice according to the tenets of each community. And in particular refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan; and the subjects of the realm will, through royal favour, be devoted to thee. And the temples and abodes of worship of every community under Imperial sway, you should not damage. Dispense justice so that the sovereign may be happy with the subjects and likewise the subjects with their sovereign. The progress of Islam is better by the sword of kindness, not by the sword of oppression. Ignore the disputations of Shias and Sunnis, for therein is the weakness of Islam. And bring together the subjects with different beliefs in the manner of the Four Elements, so that the body politic may be immune from the various ailments. And remember the deeds of Hazrat Taimur Sahib Qiran so that you may become mature in matters of Government. And on us is but the duty to advise.”

(Source: Simon Sebag Montefiore, Written in History: Letters That Changed the World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2018), pp. 208-209.)

Shivaji’s letter to Aurangzeb

Our third letter was written by the great Maratha ruler Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to the Emperor Aurangzeb. In it, the great Maratha ruler argues cooly and calmly against the imposition of the hated Jizya tax imposed on Hindus by Emperor Aurangzeb after it was removed by Akbar the Great. It reflects Shivaji Maharaj’s character as much as his relationship with the Muslim Mughal dynasty. Although it is a protest against the reimposition of the Jizya tax by the then Emperor Aurangzeb, note the careful protocol in which the letter is framed. Shivaji Maharaj does not address the emperor by name but by his title, “The World Conqueror.” The clear logic of the arguments and the appeal to Emperor Aurangzeb’s own tradition and history are apparent. Indeed, Shivaji Maharaj gives a reference to Aurangzeb’s ancestors, especially Akbar the Great, arguing that they did not find it necessary to impose the Jizya on non-Muslims.

Portrait of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj at the British Museum, London

Shivaji Maharaj cites Akbar as an ideal ruler and informs us that Akbar was considered “Jagat Guru” or the Guru to the World. Shivaji Maharaj himself ruled with compassion and wisdom —he had Muslim officers in his army, advisors in court and religious scholars on hand.

Shivaji Maharaj’s letter addressed to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was drafted by Lila Prabhu in eloquent Persian, then the lingua franca of India. It illustrates the lofty principles of kingship and reflects the compassionate and inclusive nature of Shivaji Maharaj himself. We owe the letter to Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s monumental work, History of Aurangzib.

“To the Emperor Alamgir:

This firm and constant well-wisher Shivaji, after rendering thanks for the grace of God and the favours of the Emperor, which are clearer than the Sun, begs to inform your Majesty that, although this well-wisher was led by his adverse Fate to come away from your august presence without taking leave, yet he is ever ready to perform, to the fullest extent possible and proper, everything that duty as a servant and gratitude demand of him […] It has recently come to my ears that on the ground of the war with me having exhausted your wealth and emptied your treasury, your Majesty has ordered that money under the name of jaziya should be collected from the Hindus and the imperial needs supplied with it. May it please your Majesty!

That architect of the fabric of empire, [Jalal-ud-din] Akbar Padishah, reigned with full power for 52 (lunar) years. He adopted the admirable policy of universal harmony (sulh-i-kul) in relation to all the various sects, such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Dadu’s followers, sky-worshippers (falakia), malakia, heathens (ansaria), atheists (daharia), Brahmans and Jain priests. The aim of his liberal heart was to cherish and protect all the people. So, he became famous under the title of Jagat Guru, ‘the World’s spiritual guide.’”

(Sarkar, Jadunath (1920), History of Aurangzib: Based on Original Sources. Longmans, Green and Company).

Muslims need to understand the core message of these letters, especially that of the holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH), in order to better understand their own faith.

Likewise, Islamophobes would do well to read these letters. The content of the letters is the most powerful argument against the disinformation and misunderstanding that the Islamophobes so malevolently spread about Islam.

Similarly, these letters should be essential reading for all rulers and leaders. While the letter of the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, must be obligatory reading for Muslims it is also a lesson to non-Muslims in compassion and good governance. Whether Muslims or non-Muslims the material in these three letters gives us extraordinary insights into history and the principles of governance. By learning lessons, contemporary leaders would avoid mistakes and blunders.

In the ugly environment where members of minorities are persecuted, especially in Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Egypt, the words of the holy prophet (PBUH) of Islam come as a clarion call of compassion: “I defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them.”

These words are equally relevant where Muslims are a minority and face persecution, including destruction of their mosques and homes.

History thus speaks to us from the past, and shames us for the violent actions we read in the newspapers and see on television. With reference to our letters, it is well to heed two other figures from the past, Winston Churchill and the Chinese sage Confucius. Those, Churchill said, that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If we learn from the past, Confucius had said, we can divine the future.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland