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Religious freedom and tolerance in Islam

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By: Ashraf Amin

When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) proclaimed his religion as Islam, he never spoke in exclusive terms. He felt proud to be among the descendants of Abraham (PBUH), who stood for the purity of religion. In one of his comprehensive sayings, Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said as: “The similitude of mine and that of the Prophets (before me) is that of a person who constructed a building and he built it fine and well and the people went round it saying: Never have we seen a building more imposing than this, but for one brick, and I am that brick (with which you give the finishing touch to the building).” (Sahih Muslim).

In her famous book, ‘The Battle for God’, Karen Armstrong writes, “The Quran is adamantly opposed to the use of force in religious matters, its vision is inclusive, it recognises the validity of all rightly guided religions, and praises all the great prophets of the past. The last time Muhammad preached to the community before his death, he urged Muslims to use their religion to reach out to others in understanding, since all human beings were brothers.”

Islam lays great emphasis on the Unity of God (Tawhid). It no way seems to compromise on the lofty monotheistic ideals. However, it also secures the freedom of choice of religion. After presenting the testimonials, arguments and rationale for its truth and universality, Islam leaves the choice up to the people who may espouse or shun it. No religious coercion or imposition is allowed either by Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH).

Islam exhorts Muslims to display tolerance and understanding towards other faiths and their followers. Prof. Hashim Kamili maintains: “Islamic religious pluralism does not simply aim at tolerance of the other but entails an active effort to gain an understanding of the other. One can tolerate a neighbour about whom one remains thoroughly ignorant. That may well be preferable to conflict, yet it still falls short of active pluralism − which means acknowledging and engaging differences without any attempt to impose hegemony.”

Nevertheless the first important verse of the Quran that immediately catches our attention reads as, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong…” (2:256).

Muslims are prohibited from using any harsh or abusive words against the deities or objects of worship of other religions.  The Qur’an instructs Muslims as, “Do not revile those whom they invoke other than Allah, lest they should revile Allah in transgression without having knowledge…”(06:108). The consequence will be the religious violence that Islam rejects out rightly.

Syed Qutb, a noted Muslim scholar of the 20th century says, “Islam looks at religious faith as a matter of conviction, once the basic facts are provided and explained. Faith is never a matter of coercion or compulsion. To achieve this conviction, Islam addresses the human-being in totality. It addresses the human mind and intellect, human common sense, emotions and feelings, the innermost human nature, and the whole human conscious being. It resorts to no coercive means or physical miracles that confound the mind or that are beyond human ability to rationalise and comprehend. By the same token, Islam never seeks converts through compulsion or threats or pressure of any kind. It deploys facts, reasoning, explanation and persuasion…This reflects the honour God has reserved for man and the high regard in which man’s will, thought and emotions are held, and the freedom he is granted to choose his beliefs, and the responsible position he is afforded to be judge of his own actions.”

The above stated verse (2:256) was revealed and put to practice in the period when the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions enjoyed authority after long and dreadful atrocities inflicted on them by the Makkan chieftains.

To quote Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, a famous British orientalist,” The verse [2:256] is a Madinan one, when Muslims lived in their period of political ascendance.” The Prophet (PBUH) conveyed the message of the Quran in the best of his ways. He would often grieve, detrimental to his health when people turned away from his teachings. Many a times Allah would console him through Quran as not to worry at the cost of his health for the guidance lies in His (Allah’s) hands and that the Prophet is supposed to convey only what He commands him to pass on.

The Quran reveals the restlessness of Prophet as, “Perhaps, [O Muhammad], you would kill yourself with grief that they will not be believers.” (26:03). At another place Quran expresses the concern of the Prophet (PBUH) for his people in the following words: “Surely a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves; grievous to him is that you should fall into trouble; he is ardently desirous of your welfare, and to the believers he is compassionate and merciful.” (09:128).

To minimise the anxiety of the Prophet (PBUH), Allah sends forth the words, “Therefore do remind, for you are only a reminder. You are not a watcher over them.” (88:22). “Say, the truth is from your Lord: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it).” (18:29).

In all such verses of the Quran, the Prophet (PBUH) and the community of believers are instructed not to compel others as the guidance and righteousness must be grasped through conviction, not compulsion. All they are supposed to do is to present the truth from their Lord in the most unambiguous terms through gentle preaching: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided. ” (16:125).

In the annals of Islamic/Muslim history we have ample evidences that authenticate the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions lived up to the spirit of Allah’s commands in the Quran.

It may not be possible to incorporate all the examples laid down by the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions establishing freedom and tolerance in religious matters while encountering people of diverse religious denominations; however few may be reproduced to serve the purpose.

The first important gesture of religious tolerance is reflected when the Prophet (PBUH) was commanded to declare to the stubborn Quraysh of the Makkah: “To you your religion and to me mine” (109:06). It was Allah saying, “And if they reject you, then say: ‘To me my deeds and to you your deeds and you are innocent of my accounts and I am innocent of yours’.” (10:41).

At Madinah the Prophet (PBUH) inaugurated the historical Mithaq-i-Madinah (The Charter of Madinah) wherein religious freedom to all communities was granted with no animosity in the heart of the Prophet (PBUH) or his followers. Likewise the  “Charter of Privileges”(628 C.E.) was granted to the monks of Saint Catherine Monastery in Mount Sinai guaranteeing freedom of worship and freedom to appoint their own judges, etc. The Treaty of Hudaybiah (628) may be cited as one more landmark in the display of tolerance where the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers held restrain and complied with the humiliating terms of the treaty.

One of the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) is: “Whoever kills a person (non-Muslim) having treaty with the Muslims, shall not smell the fragrance of paradise though its aroma is perceived from a distance of forty years.”(Bukhari: 3166).

The conquest of Makkah (630) makes an excellent example of religious tolerance and freedom. No forceful conversion is recorded by historians though the Prophet (PBUH) and his loyal had both the authority and the pretext.

The spirit of religious toleration left by the Prophet (PBUH) was carried with the same fervour by his companions. The historical treaty (637) signed by Umar, the second Caliph of Islam (634-644) with the patriarch Sophronius in Jerusalem after it came under Umar’s domain presents a glaring example of tolerance and outlook on the part of Muslims. The Caliph gave the inhabitants of the land an assurance of safety for their property, their churches, their crosses, rituals that belonged to their religion, etc. It has been recorded in the annals of Muslim chronicles, that at the time of ‘Zuhr’ [afternoon] prayers, Sophronius invited Umar to pray in the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Umar declined, fearing that accepting the invitation might endanger the Church’s status as a Christian temple, and that Muslims might break the treaty and turn the temple into a mosque.

We find another example of Umar during his Caliphate wherein he extended the approach towards Ahl-i-Kitab (People of the Book- Jews and Christians) to other religious communities. It is related that some Muslims told Umar Ibn Khattab about some people who worshipped fire and they were neither Jews, nor Christians nor people of the Holy Books. This caused a problem for Umar. Then Abdur Rahman Ibn Auf said: “I was witness to the Messenger of God when he said, “Deal with them as you deal with the People of the Holy Books.”

The same policy was adopted by Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam (656-661) during his Caliphate. The people other than the Ahl-i-Kitab are termed as Shibhe Ahl-i-Kitab (those who do not have any of the scriptures mentioned in the Quran, but they are understood to have been the recipients of some scripture at some point of time. Iranian Parsis are taken as such. According to many Ulamas, Hindus, etc. are also in the same category.

Moving forward we see the age of Abbasid Caliphate employing people of all faiths at Dar-ul-Hikmah for the dissemination of beneficial knowledge for the general good of the mankind. The restrain displayed by Salah-ud-Din Ayyubi while encountering notorious Crusades of the Christendom sets another example of religious tolerance.

The Umayyad Caliphate of Spain presents one more picture of religious tolerance on the part of Muslims. Making a further voyage we witness the Ottoman Caliphate displaying the acts of tolerance at a time when their existence was threatened from multiple sides.

The current wave of Islamophobia is unfortunate and the world should understand Islam properly. May religious harmony and mutual-coexistence prevail!

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Islamic Studies, Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University and can be reached at ashrafamin121@gmail.com

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