There are several traditions of the Prophet ﷺ in which he mentions “Muslims” or “believers” as worthy of protection or good behavior. Some Muslims might mistake his words as limiting the scope of his instructions, but a deeper analysis of his discourse reveals that his use of exclusive language often implied inclusive meanings. After all, the Prophet ﷺ spent much of his time preaching to an entirely Muslim audience, so his wording often reflected their specific needs.
The most obvious and widely-accepted examples of implied inclusiveness are texts that mention “men” or that use plurals in a grammatically male form. These texts also apply to women by default, unless there is evidence to the contrary.
In one tradition, ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (rḍa
) reports that the Prophet ﷺ said, “A Muslim man does not perform ablution in an excellent manner and then performs prayer, but that Allah will forgive him for what occurred between his prayer and the next.”
Through a different chain of narrators, ‘Uthmān reports a similar tradition with this wording, “Whoever performs ablution like this ablution of mine and offers two cycles of prayer, without allowing his thoughts to stray, his previous sins will be forgiven.”
Although the first narration states the reward is for a “Muslim man,” the second says it applies to “whoever” does it. It is possible that, in the first instance, the Prophet ﷺ was speaking exclusively to a group of men and tailored his language accordingly. Nevertheless, scholars understood that when the Prophet ﷺ spoke about men, it usually included women. Ḥamd ibn Muḥammad al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 998) comments, “If the address is conveyed in the male grammatical form, it is also addressed to women, except for specific topics whose specification is established by evidence.”
In other words, when the Prophet ﷺ is speaking about men, it always includes women unless there is evidence that it does not apply to them. A similar dynamic can be detected when analyzing texts that appear exclusive to Muslims but that actually imply protected categories of non-Muslims are included as well.
As a comprehensive ethical principle, Muslims should love good for non-Muslims the same as they love it for themselves; that is, Muslims should have goodwill in general towards non-Muslims. The Prophet ﷺ said, “None of you have faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
While this tradition uses the word “brother,” commonly interpreted as a Muslim brother or sister, other versions use broader language, “None of you have faith until he loves for people what he loves for himself, and until he loves a person only for the sake of Allah Almighty.”
Another narration uses the word “neighbor,” which includes Muslims and non-Muslims.
The word “brother” could be a stand-in for “neighbor” or “people” in general, or even the brotherhood of humanity, since every person has a common bond to every other person in the world by virtue of Adam and Eve. Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (d. 1566) put forward this interpretation, writing, “It is apparent that the expression ‘brother’ here is used in a general sense, as every Muslim should love for unbelievers to receive Islam and the virtues derived from it.”
There is more evidence that the Prophet ﷺ used “brother” and “people” synonymously. On one occasion, the Prophet ﷺ was asked, “Whose practice of Islam is best?” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “One from whose tongue and hand Muslims are safe.”
Another companion recalls that the Prophet ﷺ answered the same question, saying, “One from whose tongue and hand people are safe.”
As we can see, the word “Muslims” is used in the first tradition with the implication that it applies to people in general; i.e., neighbors of Muslims and people with whom Muslims peacefully interact. The Prophet ﷺ likely varied his discourse based on the situation, sometimes speaking exclusively to a group of Muslims and other times speaking publicly in front of a mixed group. In fact, the Prophet ﷺ was asked the same question many times for which he gave slightly different answers. One scholarly explanation for this phenomenon, as recorded by al-Nawawī, is that “the answers were given as appropriate according to the variety of circumstances and individuals.”
Keeping this in mind, when we read expressions like “Muslims” and “believers” and “brothers” being used in prophetic discourse, it is possible that he only happened to be speaking to a group of Muslims at the time; even so, the general moral lesson contained in these traditions often applies similarly to non-Muslims who are peacefully living with Muslims as neighbors.
One issue for which the scholars explicitly included protected non-Muslims is the prohibition of backbiting. Allah said, “Do not spy on each other or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it, so fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Relenting and Merciful.”
The verse says “brother” but the principle extended beyond Muslim circles. If a non-Muslim had peaceful relations with Muslims, their lives, property, and reputations were considered as sacred as those of Muslims. Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī writes, “As for the Dhimmī
, he is like the Muslim in regards to the prohibition of harm, as the divine law has made his reputation, life, and property inviolable… The correct opinion is that it is forbidden to backbite a Dhimmī
Instead of backbiting such non-Muslims, Zakarīyā al-Anṣārī (d. 1520) considered it an obligation to show them goodwill, “Backbiting an unbeliever is forbidden if he is under protection… Rather, it is an obligation to offer sincere advice to others and to warn them from evil.”
Ibn al-Humām (d. 1457) even chastises troublemakers among the Muslims who, in his time, would break these rules, “It is established in the rulings of a Dhimmī
and his rights… that it is obligatory to refrain from harming him and it is forbidden to backbite him, just as it is forbidden to backbite a Muslim, unlike what is done by fools who unjustly and with hostility slap him or insult him in the marketplace.”
Ibn ʿĀbidīn (d. 1836), commenting on the words of al-Ḥaṣkafī, likewise affirms this principle:
If one becomes a Dhimmī… it is obligatory to refrain from harming him and it is forbidden to backbite him, as it is for a Muslim, because of the covenant of protection. He is entitled to our wealth [in charity or welfare] and if it is forbidden to backbite a Muslim, it is also forbidden to backbite him. Rather, some scholars said that wronging a Dhimmī is even worse.
Cursing a protected non-Muslim is also considered a sin, even liable for punishment by authorities. Al-Buhūtī (d. 1051) writes, “Whoever curses a Dhimmī
by name should be disciplined, as his reputation is inviolable and forbidden (to harm).”
According to a legal opinion recorded by al-Ḥaṣkafī, addressing non-Muslims with names they find insulting is unwarranted and could be punishable as well, “A Muslim who insults a Dhimmī
is given discretionary punishment, as he has committed a sin.”
Berating non-Muslims, even when apparently justified, may turn them away from guidance and prove counterproductive. Rather, Allah commanded us to share Islam with non-Muslims in the best manner, “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching.”
Another important point of consideration is that violating the Muslims’ peace with non-Muslims is actually an indirect attack on Muslims, since it invites reciprocation, as Allah said, “Do not insult those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.”
Some scholars extended the protection of non-Muslims to their economic activity, such that it is impermissible to undercut them as it is for Muslims. The Prophet ﷺ said, “A man may not undermine the transactions of his brother.”
Again, the word “brother” here is used as a stand-in for neighbors as well as protected non-Muslims. The Azharī scholar Sulaymān ibn ʿUmar al-Jamal (d. 1790) commented on this tradition, writing, “The non-Muslim citizen (dhimmī
), the non-Muslim in a peace treaty (mu’āhid
), and the non-Muslim granted immunity (musta’min
) are all like the Muslim in this regard, excluding the combatant and renegade apostate.”
Only dangerous groups of non-Muslims, like enemy soldiers or traitorous rebels, are not entitled to this basic protection on account of their violent activities.
The covenant of protection for a non-Muslim was not simply a negative right to be unharmed, but also included a positive right to welfare. The Prophet ﷺ said, “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry.”
Al-Ghazālī asserts that it is a duty upon us to help our non-Muslim neighbors who are in need, “One must be gentle, charitable, and behave with good conduct… al-Ḥasan saw no harm in feeding Jewish and Christian neighbors from your slaughtered animals.”
As implied by al-Kharāʾiṭī, who recorded the original statement of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 728), seeing nothing wrong with giving to non-Muslim neighbors indicates a positive command to adhere to good neighborliness (ḥusn al-mujāwaratihi
In one incident to illustrate this point, the second righteous Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (rḍa
) found an elderly Jewish man begging for charity so that he could pay his taxes. ʿUmar said, “By Allah, we have not been fair to him that we have eaten ourselves and then abandoned him in old age! ‘Verily, charity is only for the poor and the needy.’
The poor are the Muslims and this man is among the needy from the people of the Book.” ʿUmar then exempted the man from paying taxes and gave him charity out of the public treasury.
This story demonstrates that Muslims should have basic compassion and empathy with non-Muslims on a human level, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, as the Prophet ﷺ commanded us, “Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”