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Islam and Religious Freedom: The Way Forward

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 13, 2011

Did you know that many Muslim scholars are convinced that Islam calls for freedom of religion? Abdullah Saeed, who is the Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, has done a considerable study of this question. If Saeed is correct, this suggests a way forward as persecution of Christians grows worse in many Islamic countries, and as relationships with the West worsen.

Saeed acknowledges that some passages in the Qur’an justify harsh measures against non-believers and apostates, including the death penalty, but he argues that many of these are political in nature, referring to situations in which someone would leave Islam to join with enemies and even take up arms against Islam and its adherents. In such cases, as in the Christian middle ages, apostasy could be viewed as treason, or at least as gravely undermining the social order. But most passages in the Qur’an, as well as a important evidence from Islamic history, actually argue for tolerance, according to Saeed.

For example, he cites a number of passages which show an understanding that man was created free and that devotion to God, to be of value, must be voluntary. Thus: “The truth [has now come] from your Sustainer: Let, then, him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it” (Q 18:29). And “Whoever chooses to follow the right path follows it but for his own good; and whoever goes astray goes but astray to his own hurt” (Q 17:15). And finally “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith” (Q 2:256). Moreover, the Qur’an reminded even Mohammed: “Your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them” (Q 88:21).

Saeed finds further evidence in Islamic history. For example, the Caliph Umar was so concerned that a Christian woman who visited him might have felt pressured to embrace Islam (even though she refused to do so), that he prayed: “O my Lord, I have not intended to compel her, as I know that there must be no compulsion in religion…. [R]ighteousness has been explained and distinguished from misguidance.” And it is a matter of historical record that the attitude of Muslims to Christians over the centuries has sometimes been tolerant and even cordial, though it has also often been threatening and warlike.

But, of course, this tolerant aspect of Islam is not what is experienced—with some notable exceptions—by Christians living in Islamic regions today. Saeed understands this perfectly, and laments it:

Unfortunately, many Muslim-majority countries have failed to follow the Prophet’s example. Muslims in these states face penalties for blasphemy, heresy, and, most famously, apostasy. Non-Muslims are barred from proselytizing and possessing or importing unsanctioned religious items, including Bibles. They face restrictions on the public practice of religion and strict limits on the building or renovation of places of worship. The government monitors their religious activities, raids private services, and sometimes harasses or imprisons non-Muslim believers simply for practicing their faith.

To this honest litany, we might add that governments, or Muslim groups acting on the advice of religious leaders and with tacit government support, sometimes even execute non-Muslim believers for blasphemy; in other words the blasphemy laws are not only enforced against Muslims believers and apostates, but sometimes also against everyone else.

Nonetheless, Professor Saeed is not the first to point out that the Qur’an cannot only bear, but very possibly demands, an interpretation in favor of religious liberty, not unlike that enunciated most clearly at the Second Vatican Council. Nor is he the first to notice that those who share this interpretation are most often found among the scholars, while those who reject it are most often found among the politicians. We recall the groups of Islamic scholars who have engaged in dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI (see, for example, Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and A Common Word between Us and You).

Though not all share this interpretation, we can still find in it a powerful argument in favor of three strategic points in both our political and personal relations with Muslims:

  • Religion Must be Taken Seriously: We must all learn to take religion seriously, to understand religious motivations, and to recognize their historical and cultural impact. The very logic of monotheistic religion leads to concepts like creation, gift, love and, therefore, freedom. Not everybody gets that logic, but it is something to work on.
  • Religion is a Better Basis for Progress than Secularism: Core religious concepts provide a much stronger and more logical basis for mutual respect than does secularism, in which human rights pass in and out of fashion like so many hats and gloves. Anyone with any sense in another culture will distrust arguments based on secularism, which so often are generated by egoism and selfishness.
  • Religion and Reason Must Be Kept in Constant Dialogue: This was the challenge of Pope Benedict XVI in his famous Regensburg address, when he insisted that Muslims must enrich and refine their religious sensibilities through human reason; and his repeated challenge to Europe, in which he insists that Christianity is absolutely critical to correct the excesses and errors of reason unmoored from its source in God.

A commitment to these principles is the best way to bring out the best on both sides, and to make progress through our commonalities despite our differences.

There are of course two grave problems which afflict the world of Islam, and these problems in some ways mirror our own here in the West. First, Islam lacks a coherent system of authority, and so nobody can claim to have the definitive understanding of its doctrine. This mirrors both Protestantism and Modernism, which do not grasp the authority principle in religion, and so leave everybody with less to work with than would be the case if key ideas could be traced infallibly, and therefore universally, to their Source.

Second, Islamic states tend very strongly to be theocratic. Either religious leaders hold political power or what is believed to be revelation is used to establish the norms of the public order. It is not clear that this is worse than the unbridled secularist totalitarianisms of recent history in the West, but it is very dangerous. More to the point, the Islamic tradition has little or no familiarity with the distinction—traditionally critical in the Christian West—between the civil order and the Church. In addition, the Islamic natural law tradition is virtually non-existent, which mirrors the decline of attention to natural law in the once-Christian West.

Clearly, then, we have our work cut out for us. But the arguments of Abdullah Saeed, and others like him, suggest that—if we can all learn to temper our geopolitical lusts—there is considerable hope for the gradual establishment of common ground. Hatred, persecution and war are not the only way.

[Note: Among other places, Abdullah Saeed has presented his arguments in a lecture in the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and in the November 2011 issue of First Things.]

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Salome - Oct. 17, 2011 6:46 AM ET USA

    Hmmm. Now, where do I find the authentic Islam? In a Muslim-majority country, or in an Australian university?

  • Posted by: joecober6835 - Oct. 17, 2011 1:18 AM ET USA

    Freedom of religion. It is never allowed to kill a person solely because he has a different religion than yours.

  • Posted by: tonydecker513018861 - Oct. 15, 2011 6:40 AM ET USA

    At the core of the problem with dialogue with Islam is many of their insistence that God is above human reason, and therefore you must not try to use your reason to understand God, because that would be offensive to God. Trying to break through that wall of anti-reason is very difficult when they refuse to even try. I also doubt seriously that just believing in Monotheism leads one to freedom. In Islam you are a slave to God... that doesn't sound like freedom.

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