Foreign Nationals' Rights in Islamic Countries

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This paper was originally presented at the seminar Religious Minorities: Circumstances and Practices with the title: "The Rights of Foreign Nationals in Islamic Countries". 

I have divided the paper into two parts:

[1] The principle that the lives and property of non-Muslims are sacred
[2] The rights of foreign nationals in Islamic countries

Before proceeding to talk about the first topic, it is necessary to stress that God has honoured the human race and blessed human being above other creatures. God says in the Qur’an: “We have certainly honoured the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things, and preferred them over much of what We have created with marked preference.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 70] 

Prophet Muhammad put this principle into practice. When people asked him why he stood for the funeral procession of a Jewish man, he replied: “Does he not have a human soul?” 

God has exhorted people, in turn, to show compassion and kindness to one another. He says in the Qur’an: “Do good. Indeed, God loves those who do good.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 195] This verse is a general command to treat all people well. 

We also have where the Qur’an says: “Indeed, God commands justice and good conduct.” [Sūrah al-Nahl: 90] 

The Qur’an exhorts children to show kindness and good conduct to their parents, even if those parents are polytheists who strive to get their children to accept polytheism. However, those children must continue to show their parents love and kindness, as their parents took care of them when they were small. 

The Prophet’s Sunnah is full of examples of showing kindness to all people, and even to animals. Even when slaughtering animals for food, the utmost care should be taken to make it as painless as possible. The Prophet said: “If you slaughter an animal, then do it well. You should make sure your blade is sharp and alleviate the animal’s suffering.” 

Islamic Law stress the values of mercy and compassion, and does not take violence lightly, like we see sectarian extremist groups doing these days. 

God says in the Qur’an: “We only sent you (O Muhammad) as a mercy to all people.” [Sūrah al-Anbiyā’: 107] 

Prophet Muhammad said: “If you show mercy to those on Earth, the One in Heaven will show mercy to you.” He also said: “Those who do not show mercy to others will not receive mercy.” and: “Those who are merciful receive mercy from the Most Merciful Lord.” 

He also said: “Kindness beautifies everything it touches, and its absence makes things ugly.” 

The Prophet confirmed that charity is for everyone who needs it when he said: “There is a reward for giving charity to any creature possessing a living heart.” 

He confirmed that we should let no excuse prevent us from doing works that are beneficial to others when he said: “If the last hour arrives while you are about to plant a sapling, then you should finish planting that sapling if you can.” 

Islamic Law teaches the humane treatment of animals and categorically prohibits abusing them. It even prevents the owners of livestock from separating children from their mothers. We should then consider how much more human beings are entitled to mercy and kindness. 

The Prophet’s Companion, `Abd Allah b. Mas`ūd, gives the following account:

We were with Allah’s Messenger on a journey. He went off to relieve himself. While he was gone, we saw a bird with two chicks and we took away her chicks. The bird started flapping her wings. The Prophet came back and said: “Who has upset this bird by taking away her children? Give her children back to her.”

On another occasion, Prophet Muhammad saw an ants nest that had been burned. He said: “Who burned this?” When the people admitted they had done so, the Prophet said: “No one but God should punish with fire.” 

These, and many other accounts like them, demonstrate the principle that a Muslim is to show justice, kindness, and mercy to all people. 

This brings us to our first topic of discussion: 

[1] The principle that the lives and property of non-Muslims are sacred Foreign Nationals' Rights in Islamic Countries

Unfortunately, many people around the world today would be incredulous to hear that the lives and property of non-Muslims are sacred in Islam. There are reasons for this incredulity. The clearest reason is that people grossly misunderstand the Islamic concept of disassociation with unbelief. There are those who understand this principle to mean that the lives of unbelievers are not protected, even if those unbelievers have not perpetrated any injustice or violence against the Muslims. Others misunderstand it to mean that unbelief is a sufficient reason to de-value the lives and property of non-Muslims. Then there are those who think that it means when misfortune befalls a non-Muslim, the Muslims take it as an occasion for joy. All of this is wrong. 

Therefore, it is important to stress the general principle in Islamic Law that the lives of all people, Muslims and non-Muslims, are sacred and inviolable. This is clearly indicated by the sacred texts of Islam, and it needs to be shown to the people that those who try to argue otherwise are deliberately misinterpreting the scriptures and taking things out of context. 

For example, the Qur’an says: “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God does not love transgressors.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 190] 

This verse is clear proof that it is forbidden to kill any non-Muslims who are not actively fighting the Muslims in battle. 

This is further emphasized by the verse of the Qur’an that reads: “Whoever has attacked you, then respond to their attack in the same way that they have attacked you, and fear God and know that God is with those who restrain themselves.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 194] 

This verse shows that the general principle is non-aggression, since fighting is only allowed in response to a direct attack from an enemy. The Muslims cannot initiate aggression; they can only fight in response to aggression, with the condition of not using excessive force in their response, by only responding with what is appropriate and commensurate with the attack. 

Indeed, Islam exhorts us to keep people alive and to save people’s lives whenever the chance arises. God says in the Qur’an: “On that account, We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever kills a human being for other than punishment for murder or corruption in the Earth, it shall be as if he had killed all humanity, and whoso saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the lives of all humanity.” [Sūrah al-Mā’idah: 32] 

Even on the battlefield in the midst of war, Islam does not permit killing people indiscriminately. There are many restrictions. Among the people who cannot be killed are monks, the clergy, the elderly, women, children, and any other non-combatants. 

Nāfi` b. `Umar relates that Prophet Muhammad saw a woman among those slain on the battlefield. and he condemned that and prohibited the killing of women and children. [Musnad Ahmad

During a battle, the Prophet saw people gathered together. He dispatched a man to find out why they were gathered. The man returned and said: “They are gathered around a slain woman.” So the Prophet said: “She should not have been attacked!” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd

The sanctity of non-Muslims’ property follows from the sanctity of their lives. If their lives are inviolable, then their property is inviolable as well. It can neither be confiscated nor destroyed. It cannot be misappropriated through fraud or deception. The wealth of all non-Muslims is inviolable except that of those actively engaged in war against the Muslims. 

When Prophet Muhammad said: “Whoever commits fraud is not one of us,” he was speaking generally about every act of fraud, regardless of whether the victim is a Muslim or a non-Muslim. 

Those who try to interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah to argue that Islam permits transgression against the lives and wealth of non-Muslims selectively quote passages from the Qur’an and Sunnah out of context. They present texts with specific relevance as if they were general when the context clearly shows this to be otherwise. 

[2] The rights of foreign nationals in Islamic countries 

In this context, the word “foreigner” is to be understood as a modern legal term. It refers to those who reside in a country other than the country of their legal nationality. In order to address this issue, I will explain the Islamic legal term of “people under a covenant” and show that it applies to non-Muslims who enter a Muslim country as ambassadors, workers, businesspeople, tourists, and visitors. 

In Islamic Law, the people under a covenant are defined as: the subjects of a non-Muslim country who enter a Muslim country within the context of a treaty or international agreement that implies peace or mutual interest. 

In other words, anyone who has permission to enter a Muslim country falls under the legal rulings of one who is under a covenant, regardless of their purpose for doing so. This ruling entails the following: 

1. If a Muslim country admits foreigners within its borders, that country is responsible to protect them and guarantee their safety. It must prohibit anyone to harm them or transgress against their persons or their wealth. Whoever transgresses against them is a lawbreaker deserving of the criminal punishments elaborated in the legal texts for that crime, and the state is obligated to carry out the punishment against the perpetrator. 

Regardless of the reason why the person entered the country, the murder of a person under a covenant is a major sin in Islam. It is enough that Prophet Muhammad said: “Whoever kills one with whom we have a covenant will not smell the scent of Paradise, though its fragrance can be detected from the distance of a journey of forty years.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī

It should be emphasised that in the event a person under a covenant commits a crime, it is not up to the people, but the state, to punish them. The state has exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute the criminal through the proper procedures of the judicial system. Guilt must be established in a court of law and then sentencing must take place in accordance with the law. 

It is a crime to transgress against people under a covenant in any way, whether the transgression is murder, assault, robbery, or slander. The Prophet said: “God will deny paradise to any person who murders someone with whom we have a covenant, and he will not even smell its fragrance.” [Musnad Ahmad

He also said: “It is not permissible to receive the wealth of those with whom we have a covenant except through a lawful transaction.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd

2. Foreign residents of a Muslim country have the right to practice their own religion and teach their faith to their children, with the condition that they do not proselytise to the Muslims or try to spread their faith throughout the Muslim society. 

3. As long as those under a covenant abide by the law, they cannot be publicly disgraced in any way or insulted because of their religion. They cannot be slandered. 

4. They have the right to travel, the right to assembly, the right to avail themselves of all public services, and the right to reside where they wish. The only exceptions to the right to residence are the sacred precincts within the cities of Mecca and Madinah. They can associate with anyone they like, and they have equal rights to all public amenities like water, public parks, public transportation, and the marketplace. 

5. Islam permits foreign residents to remain upon their own religious beliefs as long as they do not make their religious practices overtly conspicuous to the Muslim population or proselytise to them. They cannot be compelled to accept Islam. They have the right to learn their religion and teach it to their co-religionists. They are allowed to establish religious schools for themselves so they can teach their children. 

6. They have the right to own property, to earn an income, and to engage in commerce in the Muslim country. However, they may not sell anything that is unlawful in Islam, even if it is permitted in their own faith. They are permitted to avail themselves of all public resources, like firewood, pastureland, and wild game, according to the laws of the land.

Sheikh Sâmî al-Mâjid, professor at al-Imâm Islamic University, Riyadh

Source: (Mar. 12, 2015)