By Tarek Heggy
I found it emotionally and intellectually disturbing to see the King of Saudi Arabia present the Pope with a sword on his visit to the Vatican when there has never been a greater need to distance the name of Islam and the image of Muslims from the violent connotations and symbolism of the sword. The Saudi monarch's unfortunate choice of a gift prompted me to sit down and write the address I thought he should have delivered if his advisors had been familiar with Western culture and mentality.
"Your Holiness … Your Eminences … in the name of Saudi Arabia that I am honoured to represent and in the name of Islam to which I am honoured to belong I bring you greetings of peace. Actually, the word "Islam" in Arabic is an anagram of the word "peace".
I speak in my own name and in the name of those I represent when I say let us embark on a new era based on mutual respect, an era in which neither party hurts the feelings of the other and both refrain from aggression, moral or material, direct or indirect, against one another. I call on you and on the side I represent to pledge that the followers of any religion, while entitled to invite others into their faith, may not resort to violence, coercion or the sword but only to persuasion and reasoning to convince them of the merits of the faith to which they belong. I hereby declare that from this day forth "Jihad" means only self-defense and resistance of aggression but never the initiation of conflict or the attempt to convert others to our religion by means of violence or the sword.
There is nothing more pathetic than a religion that cannot win the hearts and minds of people except through the use of the sword. I also urge all parties to concern themselves more with the quality of the followers of each religion than with their quantity. In this connection, there is much we need to do to improve the quality of the adherents to our great religion.
I call on you and on the side I represent to refrain from mocking or insulting the other, from belittling its beliefs or disparaging its sacred texts. I call on you and on the side I represent to usher in a new era in which all shall enjoy freedom of belief, freedom of worship and the freedom to build houses of worship in any place at any time. As the Prophet of Islam welcomed the Christians of Najran when they came to pray in his mosque, which is now known as the Prophet's Mosque in the holy city of Medina, I declare before you that we shall begin a new chapter of dealing with non-Muslims as our brothers in humanity.
I shall call on all Muslims in the world to consider such terms as Dar al-Harb [Land of War], Dar al-Salam [Land of Peace] and Ahl al-Themma [non-Muslim monotheists] to be products of historical conditions of a bygone age that are no longer applicable today and that we now aspire to a world that is not divided into camps of war and camps of peace. Our mosques shall welcome all who step through their doors and our religion is a solid religion that does not force anyone to remain a prisoner of its precepts.
Your Holiness, I have chosen two gifts to present to you today. One is a golden palm tree that symbolizes our history and environment, the other an ancient manuscript of the Bible dating back many centuries. I turned down a proposal that I present you with a sword because first, the sword is not one of your historical symbols and, second, we do not want the message it carries to cloud our future relationship.
My country will make every effort to ensure that in future foreigners in our land will be made to feel welcome, that they will enjoy warm hospitality and tolerance in every sense of the word, including the right to pray and worship God in churches or temples according to their faith. The sight of church spires or temples domes rising against our skyline will not hurt our feelings, exactly as seeing the minarets of mosques in Europe, America, Canada and Australia does not hurt the feelings of non-Muslims in those places.
I also vow before you that we shall very shortly look into not applying laws derived from our religion to the followers of other faiths. Let us begin a new era of accepting the other, of tolerance and of fostering the concept of "relativism" in the area of religious beliefs, that is, let no person on the face of the earth behave as though his religion is the absolute truth while all other religious are absolutely false. Let God decide matters we are neither required nor equipped to concern ourselves with. I call on you and on all those I represent to enter a new era of tolerance, acceptance of the other and mutual respect in which all desist from demeaning the faiths of others.
I would like to take the opportunity of this meeting to propose the formation of a committee made up of the best religious scholars from all faiths, not only of the three great religious, but all of other faiths as well, to review educational curricula throughout the world in order to achieve the following aims:
- Remove from the curricula any material offensive or prejudicial to the faith of others.
- Remove from the curricula any material that sows the seeds of religious chauvinism and feelings of superiority over other faiths.
- Remove from the curricula any material that discourages tolerance and acceptance of the other replace it with material that promotes admiration for diversity and variety as the most important features of life and the main sources of its richness and beauty.
Let me now present Your Holiness with the golden palm tree and the manuscript of the New Testament that dates back to the spread of Christianity in the region of Najran, today one of the governorates making up the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
This then is the speech the king did not make and which I believe could have helped usher in a new era of harmony and understanding between peoples of all faiths.
Tarek Heggy, is an Egyptian Thinker and scholar, He is a member of the Advisory Board of Aafaq