28th June 2005
This week’s khutbah (sermon) deals with a neglected but very topical subject. Sadly, most Muslims do not think or reflect about this critical matter, but its proper interpretation and application is vital to the future of Islam and Muslims, especially in the UK. What is this inner disease within the Muslim community that is harmful to the personal upliftment of each believer and the social progress of the community?
The subject under discussion today deals with the key notions of freedom and tolerance. What does the Holy Qu’ran teach us about mutual co-existence and ideological pluralism? Far too often Muslims have not heeded the clarion call what their Sacred Scripture teaches them about philosophical diversity and intellectual freedom.
In the linguistic context the word tolerance means ‘to bear’. As a concept, it means respect, co-existence, acceptance and appreciation of the rich mosaic of global cultures, forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance does not mean condescension or indulgence. Since Islam emphasizes the establishment of justice, peace and equality regardless of race, colour, language or ethnic background, it therefore vigorously promotes these sublime and timeless principles. These objectives however, cannot be implemented without a real degree of tolerance. Islam uniquely among the major world religious accepted this (now fashionable) tenet of freedom of belief and religious liberty from its inception.
Any systematic study of Islam reveals that tolerance on all levels be it individual, communal, groups or states is deeply ingrained into the body-politic of the faith. In fact, tolerance within Islamic jurisprudence is a political imperative and legal necessity. Tolerance is the mechanism that upholds human rights, cultural pluralism and the rule of Law. From the beginning, Islamic law recognised 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 is entitled to abrogate or deny them to any one else.
From the very outset of Islam, the notion of personal liberty –whether to believe or not to believe – has been integral to the faith. It has been enshrined in both the Holy Qur’an and in the Prophet Muhammad’s pronouncements and practices. Islam, unlike many other creeds, has made it clear that there can be no forced belief, no coerced allegiance in matters of faith. We read in the Holy Qur’an (2:256) that: 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.
This unprecedented announcement was made over 1400 years ago. No other major faith or ideology gives this kind of latitude of belief – of acceptance or rejection – to individuals. This indeed is the Magna Carta of religious freedom, a landmark declaration showing Islam to be way ahead of its time. The Holy Qur’an’s unambiguous declaration legitimises freedom of belief and religion. It preceded by over 1300 years what the West has belated come to adopt.
This specific Qur’anic verse makes it 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. The implementation of this (now) contemporary concept of ‘no compulsion in religion’ is illustrated in the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad himself when he signed the Charter of Madinah in 622. This historic document between the Muslims on the one side and the Christian, Jews and Pagans on the other side, inaugurated a very important principle and precedent. In return for collective loyalty and mutual self-defence, all signatories to and participants in this trail-blazing constitutional arrangement were granted complete freedom of religion and worship. Clearly, this pioneering constitution paved the way for philosophical diversity and religious pluralism in Islam. It allowed (an unheard of up to then) personal liberty and religious freedom, which Muslims could emulate and should duplicate, especially in the present time.
The Holy Qur’an devotes a great deal of attention to human freedom and religious liberty. There are over 120 verses in this connection. Freedom of religion is emphasized and repeated over and over again. In 2:62 and again in 5:69 we read: Those who believe and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with their Lord and they shall not grieve.
All-embracing and inclusive salvation is therefore offered to anyone who admits the sovereignty of the Divine, pursues justice and goodness, and realizes that they will be held accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. This revolutionary and non-exclusivist concept is re-affirmed throughout Islam’s scripture. The Holy Qur’an declares (10:99): If it had been thy Lord’s will, humanity would all have believed, all who are on earth. Will you then compel people against their will to believe?
Perhaps the most emphatic enunciation from the Holy Qur’an that serves to reinforce the Islamic injunction of religious pluralism and philosophical diversity is found in 109:1-6: 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 your way and to me my way, to you your religion and to me mine.
From these inspirational Qur’anic directives cited here and from the perfect role model that the Prophet Muhammad has been for Muslims throughout the centuries, there is no denying that Islam has long been in the forefront of tolerance and diversity.
Unfortunately, under the influence of a bigoted and incompetent theological fraternity, many Muslims have been diverted from the true and tolerant path that is the hallmark of their faith. They have been conditioned to embrace a distorted ideology of intolerance and exclusivity as their new doctrine, at complete variance from the original precepts of Islam. Nothing can be further from the transcendent message of the Holy Qur’an and it is time that Muslims today return to the text of their Sacred Scripture and the teachings of Muhammad by rejecting the warped theology of misguided clerics bent on fostering hatred and violence, instead of love and tolerance.