How Tolerant Is Islam?

Reuel S. Amdur November/December 2016
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Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is not of one mind about religious liberty and the rights of minorities. The history of European Christianity is replete with ghastly tales of horror, with Christians persecuting Christians and Christians persecuting Jews. While Jews have been more on the receiving end, they also have shown their intolerance, both within their community and toward the outsider. Consider the expulsion of Spinoza from the Jewish community as an example. Currently there are extremist rabbis in Israel advocating the killing of Palestinians, including infants.

Going back to a far earlier time, Saint Augustine argued that various types of Christians must be tolerated because they preach the truth. Other views, he argued, need not be tolerated, because falsehood has no rights.

Tolerance in Europe came about at least in part because of exhaustion. Christian countries were tired of spending their wealth and the lives of their young men in continuing strife over trivial theological niceties.

So what of Islam? Historically, once an established political and religious community, Islam was comparatively tolerant. There was never a Muslim Inquisition. During the Ottoman Empire, persecuted religious minorities and heretics of various sorts often took refuge in the Empire. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Spain lived together in comparative harmony, with lively intellectual exchange, till intolerant Berber Muslims came to power.

All that still leaves us with a couple questions. What does the religion itself say about toleration, and what is the practice today? We begin with the first question.

As with just about all religions, pinning down specific principles can be a daunting task, no less with Islam. There are those, such as Australian Muslim academic Abdullah Saeed, who argue forcefully for a tolerant interpretation of the religion, pointing out that Muhammad gave favorable recognition to Christians and Jews, the “people of the Book.” He viewed Christianity and Judaism as revealed religions, legitimate in the sight of God. While he gave no such favorable assessment to idol worship, polytheism, and unbelief, the Koran nevertheless says, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and “Your religion for you and mine for me.”

In looking at tolerance for the other in Scripture, Jews are apt to distinguish between the bloody chapters early on in the Old Testament narrative and the later prophetic writings. Christians cite the New Testament as distinct from the Old: “You have heard it said . . . But I say unto you . . .”

With the Koran, the more tolerant verses are often from the earlier time, when Muhammad was in Mecca and was not in power. The more aggressive ones appear from when he was head of government in Medina, faced with forces threatening the fledgling Muslim government. It is not always easy to determine which verse applies to which period, as they are placed in the Koran simply according to size.

Muslim theologians who favor a harder line often say that an earlier verse is abrogated by a later one. You have heard it said, but no more.

Saeed cites Muhammad’s cooperation with non-Muslim communities. In Medina, Jews and other non-Muslims had internal self-government. They were protected minorities who paid a tax for protection, for which they were given exemption from military service. Muhammad even made treaties with pagans on occasion.

While, Saeed explains, the abrogators try to exclude this or that, it is something of a challenge, as he claims that there are many verses supporting freedom of belief. And while some of them declare that certain beliefs and expressions such as apostasy and blasphemy will result in punishment after death, Saeed acknowledges none that call for punishment in the here and now. Those who read the Koran might disagree, as it seems that many passages indicate death for apostasy. Part of the dissembling from Saeed and others is the apparent Koranic suggestion that the faithful are under no obligation to speak truth to infidels.

Saeed acknowledges, however, that there are hadith supposed sayings of Muhammad and various works of history and theology that do call for punishment of other religious expression, but he explains that hadith are not all given the same weight of authenticity. They may or may not be the actual words of Muhammad, which is curious since authority in Islam derives from the claim that the actual words of the Koran were dictated by the angel Gabriel. Muhammad functioned as the mouthpiece in principle; but in practice his every utterance and actions, such as marrying a young Aisha, have become models of perfect Islam.

Khaled Abou El Fadl, writing in The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), a Festschrift for him, goes to some length defending a tolerant interpretation of Islam. He cites a well-known verse: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”

Arguing that, while the Koran and other sacred writings can be interpreted to promote intolerance, Fadl maintains that “the text does not command such intolerant readings.” And Islamic history has shown a significant degree of toleration at key times. He identifies intolerant Islam with Wahhabism, a primitive puritanical movement dating to the eighteenth century, and with Salafism, which began as a reforming movement but eventually became entwined with Wahhabism. In the early years of the past century the Saudis allied themselves with Wahhabism and are using their oil wealth to promote this austere form of Islam around the globe.

This leads us, then, to the intolerant interpretations of Islam. While we have seen the contention that various verses about apostates and blasphemers place punishment in the next world, surah 3:56 says something different: “As to those who reject the faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.” Although the verse does not say that others should give Allah a hand in the punishment, it is not a great leap of reasoning to think that they should. One can also argue that scriptures that foresee punishment in the next world for belief in this one provide a justification for brutal persecution. Just so, the Christian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church justified horrible tortures inflicted on heretics, witches, and unbelievers in order to get them to change their beliefs to save their souls from eternal damnation.

Patricia Crone, the late distinguished Orientalist, lectured at the University of Freiburg in the late 2007s on the subject of the place of religious freedom in Islam. An article based on her lecture appears online in Open Democracy (“No pressure, then: religious freedom in Islam”). She outlines the interpretations by Muslim theologians to limit the force of the pronouncement that there is no compulsion in religion. To begin, she points out that Islam is a religion that created a state, and that deviation from the religion presents a problem to the community so established.

One approach to dealing with such a verse is simply to abrogate it. Some have claimed that the verse referred to the situation in Medina where Jewish and Christian parents converted to Islam and wanted to compel their adult children to do so. Such interpreters say that the verse forbade this. Still another commentator says that the verse referred to dhimmis (protected people who paid the poll tax for non-Muslims).

Then Patricia Crone cites an argument that the verse is simply a statement of fact. You can’t force belief. But that does not necessarily constrain what is done to the person in the effort. And still another reading is that it is unlawful to force a Muslim to renounce the faith.

The question of religious freedom in Islam is most salient when we come to questions of apostasy and blasphemy. We know what Islam has to say about these things in the next life. All this having been said, the hadith include many verses providing justification for religious deviance, subject as these hadith are to questioning of their authenticity.

We have seen something of the conflict within Islamic thought on the subject of tolerance. In a Festschrift, the anthropologist Stanley Kurtz places the issue in a sociocultural context. Referring to Abou El Fadl’s stance, he says, “That sort of approach may be popular in liberal divinity schools and departments of religion in American universities, but I wonder how much appeal it would hold for Middle Eastern Muslims.” As for the contemporary Muslim narrative, Milton Viorst, another contributor to that volume, blames the state of current Islamic thought to the suppression of the Mutazilite school of thought, which took Greek cultural influences into Islam. Their movement influenced European thought and led to the Renaissance. Meanwhile, Islamic thought stagnated. (Abou El Fadl does not agree with Viorst about the stagnation.)

In the West, blasphemy is still on the books in some jurisdictions, but such laws are no longer taken seriously. In many Muslim countries it is a different story. Then there is the matter of apostasy. In 2010 the Pew organization conducted a survey of Muslims in several countries, asking if the respondents believed in the death penalty for apostates.

Turkey, with a moderate Islamic government in power, came in with 5 percent in favor, and Lebanon had 6 percent. On the other end of the scale, Jordan had 86 percent in favor and Egypt 84 percent. Other countries were in between. The stark discrepancy among the countries illustrates clearly that there is not just a single answer to the question of what Muslims say about tolerance. Cultural and historical differences play a role. With Kurtz’ remarks in mind, it is noteworthy that both Abou El Fadl and Saeed write in the West, in the United States and Australia respectively. Egypt and Jordan—much less Saudi Arabia—would hardly be receptive to such open interpretations.

Yet let’s leave the last word for Janice Stein, a University of Toronto political scientist with expertise on the Middle East. She told an audience brought together by the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada’s Parliament Buildings on April 19, 2016, that “human rights and Islam can go together.” It is an optimism we must explore. 

Editor’s note: This is a topic sure to receive even more attention in the days ahead. A good discussion must involve knowledgeable parties from all faiths and positions. I have read the Koran twice and discussed it with imams and Middle Easterners (Saudis in particular) on a number of occasions. It has opened my eyes to how much of the public discussion is uninformed. I wish all who enter into discussion on this had read their own holy book and the other. Bible texts or Koranic verses plucked out at random prove little. And some knowledge of history and theology goes a long way.

Article Author: Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.