There are many striking special qualities regarding the Prophet Muhammad's attitude and behavior towards non-Muslims in both Makka and Madina. The Prophet never took a uniform approach that put everyone in the same category, but instead was rather careful to distinguish among people in his attitude towards non-Muslims. His sending a group of Muslims under the oppression of the idolaters during the Makkan period to Abyssinia – a country whose Christian ruler was known for his justice – and his saying, "That is truly a country of justice. Stay there until God grants you ease," is remarkable. On the other hand, it is known that non-Muslims, both idolaters and People of the Book, followed policies of violence against the Prophet and Muslims from time to time and behaved with hatred and enmity or jealousy and envy. The Qur’an considers the attitude and behavior of the People of the Book, or the Christians and the Jews, towards Muslims in a very striking manner. In relation to the stance that the Prophet and the Muslims should take toward them, verses revealed in Makka (for example, 29:46-47) ask that the People of the Book be treated with courtesy and that certain common points be stressed in dialogue with them. (1) It is emphasized that some Arab polytheists in addition to some People of the Book believed in the book (revelation) given to the Prophet Muhammad. Again, in some statements in relation to this period (16:43; 21:7) it is asked that in order to remove any doubts regarding those who received revelation before, the People of the Book (People of ‘Remembrance’) should be appealed to. When all these statements regarding the Makkan period are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that there was strong expectation for the People of the Book, who had a tradition of revelation, to accept the book that was revealed to Muhammad.
This expectation in the Makka period continued for some time after Muslims migrated to Madina. In fact, one of the first things the Prophet Muhammad did in Madina after the Migration was to establish the Constitution of Madina which guaranteed respect for the existence and beliefs of different groups living together in Madina; it included Jews living in Madina and those who had agreements with them. (2) The 16th article of this agreement guaranteed that Jews, who were subject to the Muslims via this agreement, could continue their lives "without being oppressed and without aid to their enemies." The responsibilities of parties to the agreement on the matters of common defense and common expenditures are delineated in the 18th, 24th, 37th and 45th articles of the agreement; the 23rd, 36th and 42nd articles emphasize that the Prophet Muhammad is the agent of authority to be referred to regarding the text of the agreement and every kind of dispute. However, this agreement did not last long and the Jewish tribes who were parties to it began to violate the agreement one by one. (3)
The powerful opposition against Muslims in Makka represented by the Arab polytheists thus included the Jews among the People of the Book in Madina and, just as most of the Jews did not accept the revelation conveyed by Prophet Muhammad, they did not hesitate to cooperate with the Arab polytheists at every opportunity and make plans against the Muslims.
The Qur’an mentions that due to the excessiveness and jealousy amongst themselves, the People of the Book had long since fallen into dispute among one another regarding essential matters and reveals that God, as a result, guided those who believe to the truth about that on which they were differing. (2:213; 3:19). Again, the Qur’an emphasizes that Prophet Muhammad came to explain things that they had hidden, that he had brought them a light and clear book from God, and that he was calling them to God’s book in order that it may judge between them. (3:23; 5:15, 18). He invites the People of the Book to accept the common doctrine of Unity (Tawhid) saying, “…worship none but God, and associate none as partner with Him…”(3:64). However, the People of the Book generally respond negatively to this call; due to their fundamental jealousy and spite, they oppose Islam and try to lead Muslims astray (2:105,109; 5:59). The Qur’an states that they actually know the Qur’an has been revealed by God (6:114) and that they recognize it as they recognize their own sons (6:20), but even despite this they deliberately hide the truth (Baqara 146). On top of that, the People of the Book claim that they are the "sons and beloved of God" (5:18) and that only they can enter Paradise (2:111), and as a result assert that it is necessary to be Jewish or Christian in order to attain salvation (2:135). Moreover, advancing a dispute that has long since existed between them, the Jews say the Christians are without grounds and the Christians say the Jews are without grounds (2:113). Again, each claiming that Abraham belongs to them, they quarrel over the Prophet Abraham (3:65-66). Contrary to these claims, the Qur’an states that as long as they do not put into practice the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an which their Lord revealed to them, they are without any foundation or grounds to stand on (5:68).
Due to these attitudes towards the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims, some non-Muslims did not hesitate to seize every opportunity to develop various arguments against the Prophet and Muslims and even insult them by playing with words. For example, when encountering Muslims, instead of saying assalamu alaykum (peace be upon you), they would say samun alaykum (fire be upon you). In response, the Prophet recommended that Muslims reply with the phrase, "wa alaykum" (and upon you, too) (See Bukhari, “Salam,” 7; “Asking Permission,” 22; “Murtaddin,” 4).
Naturally there were some disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims from time to time. Even when these disputes turned into clashes and combat, the Prophet always wanted the innocent to be protected. For example, those who were not directly involved in battle – the elderly, women, children and those taking refuge in places of worship – were protected from harm.
Regarding human relations, in addition to living together with non-Muslims by taking into consideration their basic rights and laws, the Prophet was always careful to remain different from them in regard to culture and tradition. From the manner of dress and the style of hair and beards, to customs and traditions, he emphasized that Muslims should be careful not to resemble non-Muslims. With regards to this he cautioned the Muslims in many of his narrations. For example, "Jews and Christians never dye their hair. Do not do as they do" (Buhari, Anbiya 50, Libas 67). Again, on the subject of how Muslims should be called to prayer, he did not favor the suggestions of horn-blowing or bell-ringing because they would resemble the customs of Jews and Christians.
1) “Do not argue with those who were given the Book save in the best way, unless it be those of them who are given to wrongdoing (and, therefore, not accessible to courteous argument). Say (to them): "We believe in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you, and your God and our God is one and the same. We are Muslims wholly submitted to Him.” (29:46)
2) Articles 16, 24-47 of the Constitution especially concern the Jews. For more information, see Hamidullah, Islam Peygamberi (Prophet of Islam), v.1, 224-228.
3) See Hamidullah, Islam Peygamberi (Prophet of Islam), v.1, 620-629.