FRIDAY KHUTBAH (SERMON)
23 April 2004
Today we look at the rigid theological intolerance and ideological conformity in contemporary Islam. If we do not act in accordance with the original teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah, Muslims permit this dangerous and devastating cancer to grow within the body-politic of the Muslim community. We only make this preventable disease, this self-inflicted sickness and lethal affliction bigger and worse.
The subject under discussion concerns two primary inter-related aspects of Islam, In Arabic, these are called tassamuh wal takfir(tolerance and excommunication). In other words, what does the Holy Qu’ran advocate about social harmony, mutual co-existence and communal pluralism. What is the Holy Book’s guidance regarding expulsion or excommunication from the faith? Too frequently, Muslims do not follow what the Qur’an teaches about philosophical pluralism and intellectual freedom, and instead follow misguided theological rulings which infringes upon the fundamental principles of the faith.
Any profound systematic study of Islam will lead us to the inescapable conclusion that Islam advocates tolerance (tassamuh) on all levels, individual, communal, groups and states. In Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), it is a political and legal requirement. Tolerance is the mechanism that upholds human rights, cultural pluralism and the rule of Law. The corpus of Islamic law, the shari’ah recognises the right of all people to life, property, family, basic human dignity and freedom of conscious. These are all God-given gifts and no human being or collection of people is entitled to abrogate or deny them to any one else.
From the very outset of Islam, the right to personal liberty, whether to accept faith or not to believe, have been integral to the religion of Islam. It has been enshrined in both the Holy Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah. Islam, unlike other religions, have made it explicitly clear that there can be no forced belief, no coercive allegiance in matters of faith. This is stated openly in Surah al-Baqqarah (2:256). The Lord of the Universe decrees:
THERE IS NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION. TRUTH STANDS OUT CLEAR FROM ERROR, WHOEVER REJECTS EVIL AND BELIEVES IN GOD HAS INDEED GRASPED THE MOST TRUSTWORTHY HAND-HOLD THAT NEVER BREAKS. AND GOD IS ALL-HEARING AND ALL-KNOWING.
Islam alone among the major faiths, permitted this unrestrained freedom of belief and religious liberty from its inception. No other major religion or ideology gives such freedom of conscious to any individual or groups. This Qur’anic verse is the Magna Carta of religious freedom, a landmark declaration showing Islam to be ahead and in advance of other civilisations. The Qur’an’s unambiguous statement therefore legitimises full freedom of belief and religion and preceded by over 1300 years what the West belated holds up as its crowning glory.
What this specific ayah (verse) makes explicit, is that there cannot be forced belief of any kind. The Creator has endowed us all with free will and personal choice. We are free to choose, but with this liberty comes individual responsibility and personal consequences.
We see the application of this now modern and futuristic concept of ‘no compulsion in religion’ in the exemplary Sirah (Life) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad himself. Immediately after the Hijrah in 622, the Prophet signed the Charter or Constitution of Madinah. This historic document between the Ansar and Muhajirun (Muslims) on the one side and the Christian, Jews (Banu Qainuqa, Banu Nadhir, and Banu Quraydha) and Pagans (Aus and Khasraj) of Yathrib (Madinah) on the other side, established a key principle and precedent. In return for collective loyalty and mutual self-defence, all particpants to this trail-blazing constitutional arrangement were granted complete freedom of religion and worship. Clearly, this pioneering Islamic constitution paved the way for philosophical diversity and religious pluralism. It allowed unprecedented personal liberty and religious freedom to everyone. This is something which contemporary Muslims should emulate.
For those critics of Islam who say Islam was spread by the sword, there is no better response than pointing to the presence of non-Muslim peoples in Muslim-majority lands to the present day, especially in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. Muslim rulers permitteddhimmis (non-Muslims Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, etc) freedom of worship provided they paid a special tax, called thejizyah. In return for collective security and exemption from military service, these non Muslims dhimmis were a protected minority and granted total religious freedom. However, no jizyah was to be paid if the state could not protect them. What is important here is that this seminal principle of religious pluralism, of philosophical tolerance became an integrated component of the shari’ah.
Ideological pluralism was not confined to the Prophet’s era, but was also evident at many different times of Islamic history. To take just two instances. During the heyday of Muslim Spain which lasted for more than 700 years, places like Granada and Cordoba in Andalusia became the model for peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance. Under Muslim leadership, Christians and Jews were attracted to the intellectual achievements and religious pluralism of Muslim Spain. In fact, such was the flowering of this great Muslim civilization that the University at Cordoba was the Oxford and Harvard of the age. Scholars like the Jewish Moses Maimonides, the Christian St Thomas Aquinas and the Muslim Ibn Rushd excelled in an open and tolerant society. This intellectual legacy was an exceptional example of religious tolerance, cultural coexistence and philosophical pluralism precisely when Europe was mired in intolerance, repression and the ruthless Christian Inquisition.
The other famous illustration where Muslims set the pattern for peaceful interaction between people of different faiths as well as tolerance of divergent Muslim schools of thought was the Ottoman Empire. From its beginnings in 1451 until its eclipse in 1924, the Ottomans established a system of government which enshrined religious pluralism and inter-denomination peace. Under the influence of Sultans like Mahmud Fathi (1451-1481) and Sultan Sulayman Kununi (the Magnificent) 1520-1566), the Turkish Empire became a world power that was both tolerant in ideology and accomodating of divergent philosophical trends.
Although the Turkish ruling class owed its allegiance to the Hanafi madzhab, they were governing Malikis in the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), Shafi’is in Egypt and the Nile Valley, Hanbalis in the Arabian peninsula, and Shi’ahs in Mesopotamia. What is striking of this heterogeneous empire was the latitude given by the Sultans to their differing and different subjects. Not only did the Ottomans have a tolerant attitude to variant Islamic schools of thought but under the Millet system they also afforded religious liberty and cultural pluralism to their thriving non-Muslim minorities. When the West speaks about mutual co-existence, they have a lot to learn from the Ottoman empire.
The early fuqaha (jurists) and ulama (scholars) of Islam affirm that there are over a hundred verses (ayaat) in the Holy Qur’an which supports the notion of tolerance in Islam for divergent views and dissident voices. The Sacred Scripture is replete with general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice, kindness or goodness. Cultural pluralism, philosophical divergences and variant opinions are therefore part and parcel of Islam and should not be interpreted as weakness but as a sign of strength, maturity and sophistication. According to the Holy Prophet, these disagreements should be seen as a blessing from the Creator.
In this connection, the Holy Qur’an in Surah Yunus (10:99) makes it quite plain:
IF IT HAD BEEN YOUR LORD’S WILL, THEY WOULD ALL HAVE BELIEVED, ALL WHO ARE ON EARTH. WILL YOU THEN COMPEL PEOPLE AGAINST THEIR WILL TO BELIEVE?
Here, the Almighty makes it perfectly clear that humanity has free will, that each individual must make up his or her mind according to their own free choice. But with freedom comes individual responsibility and personal consequences.
We also have very explicit directions from the Holy Qur’an reinforcing the verses from Surah al-Baqarrah and Surah Yunus. In Surah al-Kafirun 109:1-6, which is recited daily be millions of Muslims, we read:
SAY: O YOU WHO REJECT FAITH, I WORSHIP NOT THAT WHICH YOU WORSHIP, NOR WILL YOU WORSHIP THAT WHICH I WORSHIP. AND I WILL NOT WORSHIP THAT YOU WORSHIP, NOR WILL YOU WORSHIP WHAT I WORSHIP. TO YOU. TO YOU YOUR WAY AND TO ME MY WAY. TO ME YOUR RELIGION AND UNTO ME MINE.
And in Surah al-Khaf 18:29 we read:
AND SAY: THE TRUTH IS FROM YOUR LORD, SO WHOEVER WANTS LET HIM BELIEVE AND WHOSOEVER WANTS LET HIM DENY
Not surprsingly, this idea of personal freedom and individual responsibility is repeatedly emphasised in the Holy Qur’an. Another important ayah is found in Surah al-Nisa’i (4:137) which asserts that even multiple renunciations of faith is not a jurisdiction for earthly powers but will be dealt by Almighty God alone:
SURELY THOSE WHO BELIEVE, THEN REJECT FAITH, THEN BELIEVE AGAIN AND THEN REJECT FAITH AND PLUNGE DEEPER INTO DISBELIEF, GOD WILL NOT FORGIVE THEM NOR GUIDE THEM IN ANY WAY
This same theme of reinforcing inate human freedom and exclusive divine judgement is emphasised again and again throughout the Qur’an. This time in Surah al-Ma’idah (5:54):
O YOU WHO BELIEVE, IF ANY OF YOU TURN BACK FROM HIS FAITH, GOD WILL PRODUCE A PEOPLE WHOM HE LOVES AS THEY WILL LOVE HIM
The message is loud and clear to all. We see this doctrine of divine retribution and God’s sole judgement of people again in Surah al-Imran (3:90):
SURELY THOSE WHO REJECT FAITH AFTER THEY HAVE ACCEPTED IT AND THEN GO ON ADDING TO THE DEFIANCE OF FAITH, NEVER WILL THEIR REPENTANCE BE ACCEPTED FOR THEY ARE THOSE WHO HAVE GONE ASTRAY
Here again there is no mention whatsoever that humans can punish others for disbelieving or having dissident views. In fact, we see the opposite that no earthly force can deal with those who reject faith, do not believe properly or those who have different interpretations. This is the exclusive preserve of God alone. Any human who usurps this sole divine prerogative violates the bedrock of Islamic jurisprudence – that in matters of faith and belief, only God is the ultimate judge and no worldly authority can pronounce on this matter.
To confirm the nature of divine chatisement either in this life on in the Hereafter for those who delilberately renounce faith in God, the Qur’an is emphatic in Surah al-Baqqarah (2:217):
AND IF ANY OF YOU TURN BACK FROM THEIR FAITH AND DIE IN UNBELIEF, THEIR WORKS WILL BEAR NO FRUIT IN THIS LIFE, THEY WILL BE COMPANIONS OF THE FIRE AND WILL ABIDE THEREIN
This is re-confirmed in Surah al-Bara’at (9:74):
GOD WILL PUNISH THEM WITH A GRIEVOUS PENALTY IN THIS LIFE AND IN THE HEREAFTER. THEY SHALL HAVE NONE ON EARTH TO PROTECT OR HELP THEM
In Islam therefore iman, faith is a personal issue, it is a private matter between the Creator and the created, between the individual and God. It is a divine prerogative which no one else can come between. No clergy or ulama can or should enunciate upon these matters. There can be no ijma (clerical consensus) making pronouncements regarding one’s own belief or allegiance to Islam. When one fully understands the true spirit of the Qur’an and the practices of the Holy Prophet, there is no other conclusion to be drawn except that Islam endorses personal liberty and religious freedom.
No Muslim or for that matter a group of scholars or jurists are permitted to judge the individual faith and spiritual destiny of another Muslim. When anyone makes judgments regarding these serious concerns, he is committing shirk, (the associating of others with God) which is the ultimate sin in Islam. SInce there is only one Master of the Day of Requital, only the Lord can rule on the sincerity of His servants. Other human beings cannot do so and do not have the power or knowledge to do. And when they do, they are usurping the sovereignty of Allah. Does the Qur’an not say who is the Master of the Day of Judgment? Do we not declare this on a daily basis in Surah al-Fatiha (1:3)?
So, if the historical and scriptural roots of Islamic pluralism and religious liberty is deeply imbedded in the Holy Qur’an, why has the faith become such a misnomer for religious oppression, ideological conformity and philosophical unanimity? In other words, why have so many Muslims seen fit to deny other Muslims freedom of thought and practice? Why have the anti-Islamic notions of takfir(excommunication and expulsion from Islam) taken root in so many parts of the Muslim world? Do those who enunciate and defend the right to dismiss self-professed Muslims as disbelievers have any theological backing? Any unequivocal Qur’anic support? Do they have any religious rationale or spiritual justification for their high-handed actions? Most certainly not from the Holy Qur’an or from the authentic Sunnah. The Sacred Book is quite specific that individual conscious and personal free will are inalienable rights bestowed on humanity by a gracious God and no one can impinge on these Divine gifts.
So where does the doctrine of heresy and takfir, the idea of expulsion and excommunication orginate from? When and where did this un-Islamic practice stem from? Who were the first culprits to bring this destructive campaign to Islam? While Christianity rigidly enforced and popularised its infamous Inquisition, there was no similar persecution in Islamic history. Today, however, the situation is deteriorating when groups such as the Wahhabi, Salafi, Ikhwan and Deobandi routinely denounce others Muslims as heretics.
The first Muslims to brand and label other Muslims as disbelieving heretics were the Khawarij or the Kharijites. They were the initial dissidents in Islam who were the early supporters of Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth Khalifah and cousin of the Holy Prophet. The Khawarij assassinated Ali in 661, just 30 years after the Prophet’s death because they viewed him as untrue to the precepts of Islam. For those self-proclaimed ultra Muslims, the profession of faith, the kalimah shahadah was not enough to make a person a Muslim. The Khawarij’s extreme interpretation of Islam led them to divide the world narrowly into the realm of true believers and the realm of renegade unbelievers. Anyone who voiced different views was guilty of kufr (unbelief) and bid’ah (innovation) and opened themselves to excommunication or even execution.
While their rigid opinions were to be defeated in the long run, the Khawarij set a very dangerous and damaging precedent for the Muslimummah. Later ulama would feel justified to designate anyone whom they did not agree with as either kufaar (unbelievers), munafiqun(hypocrites), fasiqun (iniquitous) and murtaddin (apostates) and liable to total social boycott and capital punishment.
Here under the Khawarij we therefore we have the very first case of takfir making an impact on Islam. This, as it hs been shown, was in complete defiance of both the Qur’an and the authentic Sunnah. The Khawarij branded mainstream Muslims who did not agree with their extremist ideological interpretations as heretics, and this practice unfortunately has only grown in Islam. Today it is spreading like an ever expanding virus throughout the Muslim ummah. It is especially evident in places where Islam is on the defensive. There theulama diverts the attention of the public from the more important external enemy to focus on irrelevant internal issues by attacking minority sects and denominations. This is a classic strategy of those who have no answers to the real challenges facing the community.
As we have already seen, this practice of takfir is in direct violation of the Holy Qur’an and authentic Sunnah. In Surah al-Nisa’i (4:94) this is confirmed once again:
O YOU WHO BELIEVE WHEN YOU GO FORTH IN THE PATH OF GOD BE SURE IN ALL THAT YOU DO AND SAY NOT TO ANYONE WHO OFFERS YOU PEACE AND SALUTATION, YOU ARE NOT A BELIEVER
In this connection there are a plethora of authentic ahadith which also rejects the practice of takfir in no uncertain terms. For the sake of brevity, only three shall be mentioned now. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said:
WHOEVER OFFERS PRAYERS AS WE DO AND TURNS HIS FACE TO OUR QIBLAH AND EATS THE ANIMAL SLAUGHTERED BY US, HIS IS A MUSLIM FOR WHOM IS THE COVENANT OF ALLAH AND HIS MESSENGER, SO DO NOT VIOLATE ALLAH’S COVENANT. (Sahih Bukhari 8:28)
WHOEVER CALLS THE PEOPLE OF LA ILLAHA ILLALLAH UNBELIEVERS (KUFAAR) IS HIMSELF NEARER TO UNBELIEF (KUFR) narrated by Ibn Umar
Another authentic hadith quoted by Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim and Ibn Hanbal related on the authority of Asma bint Abi Bakri (the daughter of Abu Bakr): ‘DURING THE COVENANT WITH THE QURAYSH, MY POLYTHEISTIC (MUSHRIKIN) MOTHER CAME TO SEE ME. I ASKED THE PROPHET : O MESSENGER OF ALLAH, IF MY MOTHER CAME TO ME WISHING TO SEE ME, SHOULD I MAINTAIN GOOD RELATIONS WITH HER? HE REPLIED: YES, YOU SHOULD TREAT HER KINDLY.
We can also learn much from the celebrated founder of the Hanafi madzhab. Abu Hanifa (d. 241/855) who says in his aqida (creed):
We do not testify that anyone who prays in the direction of Mecca will be in heaven or hell because of his actions. We do hope however for his welfare and we pray for him.
So by what right do contemporary Muslims, the ulama and politicians declare other Muslims to be kufar? Who gives them the authority to access the faith of others? How can they take it upon themselves to pontificate on who has diverged from what they consider to be mainstream Islam? These theologians come up with pretty pathetic excuses. Those who practice takfir claim they are defending the faith, that they are keeping it pure and pristine. But is that not the duty of Allah? Is that not the preserve of Almighty God alone? How can humans see inside the heads and hearts of people who profess to be Muslims. Surely, this is the exclusive responsibility and unique prerogative of the Creator alone.
In fact, the Holy Qur’an declares this much in no uncertain terms. In Surah al-Muddabbir (74:11) we read:
LEAVE ME ALONE TO DEAL WITH THE CREATURE WHOM I CREATED
In other words, God alone will punish apostates, heretics, unbelievers etc. No person or set of scholars, whether in the Indian sub-continent or the Middle East can pronounce on the spiritual destiny of individuals. That is shirk pure and simple.
Today we have the sorry phenomenon in the Islamic world where everyone is having a field day in branding each other as kufar. From the Alawiya to the Zaydi, from the Brelvi to the Bataniya, from the Sunni to the Shi’ah, from the Ahl-Kitab to the Ahl-Sunnah, from the Wahhabi to the Sufi, from the Ahmadiya to the Salafi, from the Nation of Islam to the Sufis, and a host of others. These multiple groups and denominations all believe that they alone have the truth with them, and like the Khawarij before them, they commit shirk by labelling those who recite the kalimah shahadah as kufar and infidels, as murtaddun or apostates. This is the cancer that is toxic to the moral health and future progress of Islam. Like we have seen, there no scriptural authority or any authentic prophetic justification for the practice of takfir and excommunication in Islam.
Therefore, all God-conscious Muslims must do all they can to stop the spreading of this debilitating disease of takfir by rejecting false theological rulings. God alone will ensure that His message and messenger will prevail in the end. In the meantime, should live up to their obligations as Muslims by promoting good and shunning evil, and leave the judgement of individual belief to the Creator alone. That is what we are commanded to do in the Holy Qur’an.