Freedom of Religion in Christian, Buddhist, Sunni, and Shi’a Jurisprudence

Freedom of Religion in Christian, Buddhist, Sunni, and Shi’a Jurisprudence: The Role of ‘Ilm al ‘Adl

by Dr. Robert D. Crane


Part One:

Defining Religion in Christian and Buddhist Thought


The ancient philosopher, Cicero, who has been called the original Father of the American Revolution, once said, “Before one begins the discussion of anything whatsoever, one should first define one’s terms.” 

Haqq al din in classical Islamic jurisprudence is the duty to respect religion.  The great Shaykh al Islam Ibn Ashur from Tunisia in his monumental book, Maqasid al Shari’ah al Islamiyya, wrote in 1946 that this means “freedom of religion.”  Haqq is a wonderful word that means variously God, truth, and human right.  But what does the Qur’anic term “din” mean, translated into English as “religion.”  And what do Muslims understand by “freedom of religion”? 

Of equal importance are the two questions, what do Christians and Buddhists generally mean by the term “religion,” and how does it correspond to the Islamic jurisprudential term “din” as used throughout the Qur’an?


  This article was prepared and condensed for presentation at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Buffalo, New York, on February 25th, 2007, as part of the Sixth Annual Understanding Islam Series for the Islamic cable network, Bridges TV.

Perhaps the best discussion of religion by Christian theologians relevant to Islamic jurisprudence may be found in the treatise by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in his 479-page magnum opus entitled Christian Perfection and Contemplation According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, Tan Books, Rockford, Illinois, 2003, translated and reprinted from the original French Perfection chretienne et contemplation, 1937. 

Of all the most eminent Christian scholars of the past two millennia, these two, writing respectively seven hundred and four hundred years ago, were probably most familiar with Islam.  St. Thomas wrote that the master of masters in philosophy and moral theology was Avicenna (Ibn Sina), through whom he absorbed Aristotelian methodology. 

According to Miguel Asin Palacios in his book Saint John of the Cross and Islam, translated by Douglas and Yoder, Vantage Press, 1981, the Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, borrowed his entire methodology and terminology from Shaykh Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili, who was a contemporary of St. Thomas.  Shaykh Shadhili of North Africa founded what came to be known as the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order, which is the only great tariqa to originate outside of Central and Southwest Asia and is ancestral to many of the modern Sufi paths in Europe and America.

St. Thomas and St. John of the Cross are usually considered to be opposites in that St. Thomas emphasized the rational basis of faith, whereas St. John of the Cross emphasized the higher level of infused wisdom.  Like all the Muslim theologians, theosophists, and jurisprudents, both St. Thomas and St. John agreed that there could not possibly be any contradiction between faith and reason, and that if one saw an appearance of such then one’s understanding of at least one of the two must be wrong. 

All of these wise thinkers, however, went far beyond the negative belief that there could be no contradiction between the truth that God reveals though nature and the truth that he reveals through human intermediaries, known as prophets.  They also believed that each of these two sources of truth is designed to reveal and enrich the other and that they both have a common purpose.

Father Garrigou-Lagrange compellingly demonstrates that St. Thomas and Saint John of the Cross agreed on everything and that only the materialist mind could fail to understand Saint Thomas’s insistence that the purpose of every person and of moral theology is a closer “union with god,” which Muslims call wahdat al wujjud. 

This would cast doubt on the supposition that three months before he died St. Thomas became a Muslim when a gift of contemplation from the Holy Spirit (ruh al quddus in Islamic terms) caused him to terminate his multi-volume Summa Theologica in mid sentence and refer to all he had ever written as “only straw” in comparison with what he now beheld.  He was ordered to appear before the Pope in the Vatican and supposedly was murdered along the way.  This is sheer speculation designed to undermine appreciation of the common essences of the Christian and Islamic religions.

Like classical Islamic jurisprudents, St. Thomas taught that “dogmatic theology,” which deals with what one can know only by revelation from Ultimate Being, i.e. God, such as life after death, must be considered together with moral theology as a single science.  Moral theology, on the other hand, deals with ethics and the virtues in human action and interactions in the world of Existence, as distinct from the higher level of Being.  The virtues can be known by human reason based on observation in the material order of reality, but Revelation has enlightened and ordained them to a supernatural end. 

These two methods, the deductive or analytical from the higher world of Being and the inductive or synthetical from the lower world of Existence must be combined, because they have the same end.  This end is based on the mystery of God, known best through infused contemplative prayer in the realization that God is closer to the soul than it is to itself.  This is expressed in the Qur’an by the statement, Wa nahnu aqrabu ‘alayhi min habil al warid, “We are closer to him [the human person] than is his own jugular vein.”

The theme and purpose of Father LaGrange’s major life work was to revive St. Thomas’s teaching that ascetical and mystical theology is nothing but the application of broad moral theology to the direction of souls toward ever closer union with God.  This, in fact, might be considered to be the Christian definition of religion.

How about Buddhism.  How do most Buddhists define religion?  In “Eastern” religions, it may be explained by reference to the difference between Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantrayana Buddhism.  In 1982, when I was introduced by the Aspen Institute as knowledgeable about Native American religions to monks who had just arrived from the Dalai Lama to start a monastery in Baca, Colorado, I asked them to describe Buddhism in five minutes.  They laughed and said that one minute would be more than enough. 

To begin with, they explained, we have Hinayana Buddhism, which consists in distancing oneself from the world of existence (known in Roman Catholic theology as the via negativa or apophatic spirituality).  Once one has accomplished this essential first task, we have Mayayana Buddhism, which consists of union with nirvana, which is “nothing” in the sense of “no thing,” namely, what is beyond existence (this equates in some ways with the Catholic concept of cataphatic spirituality, the “yes” path of the seeker who has been infused with knowledge of his own essence by God).  And then, finally, we have Tantrayana Buddhism, at which level one returns to the world of existence in order to carry out the manifestation of ultimate Being in the search for compassionate justice.  I replied, “You have just summarized Islam in thirty seconds.” 

Such definitions of “religion” are important because one’s concept of religion determines what one means by “freedom of.”  If one’s personal relation of loving submission to God, which Muslims call taqwa, is the essence of higher religion, then freedom of religion is axiomatic.  The ultimate freedom is when one’s only desire, as Thomas Merton once put it, is to become the person that one is, in other words, to become the person that God created one to be.  This includes the freedom not to do so.

This concept of freedom of religion also necessarily means that to raise an ideology of power to the practical level of an ultimate end, despite protestations that one is pursuing freedom and democracy, and to reject justice even as a concept in foreign policy, inevitably will lead from cosmos to chaos. 


Part Two

Defining Religion in Islam

The bedrock principle of Islam concerning freedom of religion is immortalized in the five words, la ikraha fi al din, “there shall be no coercion in matters of faith.”  This is found in the second surah of the Qur’an, Al Baqara, verse 256.  Its meaning comes in part from its location immediately after the “throne verse,” ayah al kursi, 2:255, which describes the object of faith as follows:

“God – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being.  Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep.  His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth.  Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave?  He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain].  His eternal power (kursi) overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not.  And He alone is truly exalted, tremendous.”

The second basic principle and element of faith in Islam is love of God, though it is often translated as submission.  It is perhaps best shown in one of the favorite prayers of the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, in which he uses the common word for love, hubb:

Allahhumma, asaluka hubbaka, wa hubba man yuhibbuka, wa hubba quli ‘amali yuqaribuni ille hubbika, “Oh Allah, I ask you for Your love, and for the love of those who love You, and for the love of everything and action that will bring me closer to Your love.”

Perhaps the best annotator of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad, in his magisterial work, The Message of the Qur’an, points out that the word din includes both the worship of God and the practice of justice as the purpose and result of such worship.  This is the same teaching as that of Saint Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, who envisioned the unified coherence of diversity in the material world of existence as a guide to the Oneness of Being in its Creator.  The Qur’anic word for this coherent unity, tawhid, functions almost as a synonym in Islam for religion. 

In his comment on the freedom-of-religion verse following the Ayah al Kursi, Muhammad Asad writes, “The term din connotes both the contents of and the compliance with a morally binding law; consequently, it signifies ‘religion’ in the widest sense of the term, extending over all that pertains to its doctrinal contents and their practical applications, as well as man’s attitude toward the object of worship, thus comprising also the object of ‘faith.’  The rendering of din as ‘religion,’ faith,’ ‘religious law,’ or ‘moral law’ depends on the context in which the term is used.  On the strength of the above categorical prohibition of coercion (ikrah) in anything that pertains to faith or religion, all Islamic jurists (fuquha), without any exception, hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void, and that any attempt at coercing a non-believer to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin.”

    This explains why even centuries after the spread of Islam the majority of the inhabitants of what is modern-day Syria and Iraq were still Christians, whereas the inhabitants of North Africa rapidly embraced Islam because their Arian understanding of Christian theology was nearly identical with that of classical Islam.

Although there are as many perversions of Islam as there are of Christianity in reversing the major tenets of the two faiths, the major attraction of Islam is the experience of many people all over the world, and perhaps especially in America, that it best meets three of our basic human needs.  First, those who embrace Islam believe that it emphasizes more than any other world religion the personal and direct relationship of love between every person and God.  Second, it teaches respect for the nuclear family and for human community as naturally derivative from the sacredness of the human person; and, third, it teaches the primary role of justice as the source of order and freedom, without which no civilization can long exist. 

The traditionalist thought of Christianity and every other world religion teach the same thing, but Islam as taught by its classical scholars places the greatest emphasis on the combination of these three elements of a common faith.

The second-most cited verses in the Qur’an concerning the meaning of din are in one of the shortest chapters or surahs at the end of the Qur’an, which are easily memorized for use in canonical prayer.  The key verses in this 109th surah, Al Kafirun, read, la a’budu ma ta’budun … lakum dinukum, wa liya din, which can be translated as “I do not worship what you worship, [but] unto you your religion and unto me, mine.”

    The Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia add under their breaths immediately afterwards something to the effect of “which is why you are going to hell.”

Other Muslims tend to understand it as “live and let live.”  Muhammad Asad interprets this verse, together with a number of other similar verses in the Qur’an (42:21, 95:7, 98:5, and 107:1) as referring both to the positive concepts and ethical values of justice as well as to the false values of those who believe in their own self-sufficiency (96:6-6) or their overriding, almost compulsive ‘greed for more and more” (Surah 102:1).  Like many of the Qur’anic injunctions, this universal Islamic wisdom applies to everyone, including, and perhaps even especially, to Muslims.


Part Three

Defining Justice in Islam

Justice is perhaps the most universal value in all civilizations, which is why there is so much negative reaction to the failure of American policy-makers to include freedom and democracy within the concept of justice as a higher paradigm of thought.

Both Sunnis and Shi’a have a common foundation in their classical reliance on justice as central to their Islamic faith, and they have a common need to re-emphasize this in order to apply Islam as a constructive force in the world.

Justice assumes the existence of a truth higher than man-made positivist law.  In fact, justice is merely an expression of this truth.  The recognition of a source of truth that transcends the material of the here and now raises the question of linkage between the immanent and the transcendent, between the lower and the higher levels of reality, between “contingent existence” and “Absolute Being.” 

The major purpose of religion and of prophets as intermediaries between God and man is to raise our natural awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of reality.  Jesus the Christ, ‘alayhi as-salam, as the Prophet of Love, taught that as a manifestation of the divine he was an essential link.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  This statement of ultimate reality and of the means to access it is just as true today as it was when Jesus spoke it 2,000 years ago and is perhaps even more needed, now that we have entered the most militantly polytheistic period of human history. 

The study of justice in Islam is a distinct discipline.  Although it has never had a distinct name, just as many Islamic disciplines did not have a name until centuries after they existed in fact, the best term for the Islamic study of justice might be ‘Ilm al ‘Adl.  The direct English translation is simply “knowledge of justice,” which might connote a finished product with all the challenges in the past.  In fact, the classical study of justice is heuristic in the sense that it seeks knowledge about the sources, nature, and praxis of justice, with the challenges lying more in the present as a means to build on the best of the past in search of a better future.

The simplest definition of ‘ilm al ‘adl is the search for transcendent justice as a source of wisdom to be manifested or embodied in a set of essential principles for a universal code of human responsibilities and rights.  Among these is the responsibility to respect freedom of religion.  Only when people observe their moral responsibilities can any rights become real. 

In classical Islamic thought, ‘adl is an essential element of all higher religion.  The purpose of all religion is to empower the truth, which exists independently of human beings but requires religion in order to be translated into principles of compassionate justice.  The search for truth at the higher esoteric level is known in Jafari jurisprudence as ‘ilm al taqwa (knowledge of the One through love).  The search to make it manifest at the exoteric or outward level, in the sense of balance through the coherence of diversity known as tawhid, may be identified as the major object of ‘ilm al ‘adl.

These two pursuits, the esoteric and the exoteric, as both the classical Islamic thinkers and their counterparts, Saint Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, defined them, have ultimate meaning only as they fulfill each other.  This is the essence of Islamic thought and of every world religion, as well as of the classical thought of the Founders that gave rise to the Great American Experiment.

Justice is a normative phenomenon in that its applications must derive from higher norms or purposes.  Rules and regulations applied without guidance from their higher purposes can produce injustice.  In Islamic jurisprudence the guiding norms are known as the maqasid or purposes of Islamic law, or as the dururiyat or essentials, or as the kulliyat or universal principles. 

Justice itself is nothing more than the Will of God, as indicated in the Qur’anic ayah from Surah al An’am, 6:115, tama’at kalimatu Rabbika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The word of Your Lord is perfected and completed in truth and justice.”  Its nature and substance, however, must be sought out through deduction from the three sources of knowledge, namely, 1) haqq al yaqin, known as Revelation; 2) ‘ain al yaqin, known as natural law or the sunnatu Allahi; and some jurists would say also from 3) ‘ilm al yaqin, which is the human intellectual processing of the first two sources.

In highly simplified explanation, the architectonics of justice in the Islamic shari’ah consist of a hierarchy of levels proceeding from the general to the specific, the highest known as maqasid; the intermediate or secondary level known as the hajiyat; and the tertiary level known as tahsiniyat, which might be compared to the specific courses of action in program planning.

The number and even the meaning of the maqasid are flexible, ranging from a generally accepted five a thousand years ago to seven or more in later centuries.  Differences in interpretation depend in part on whether one is referring to the maqasid narrowly as law or more broadly as functional guidelines for public policy.  The strictest definitions are called maslaha al mu’tabara, the broader as istislah, and the broadest as istihsan.

We may identify at least seven irreducibly highest principles.  In highest priority, these start with haqq al din, which for six hundred years until the present third millennium was ossified in the Sunni portion of the Muslim world to mean “protection of true belief,” but in recent decades has been expanded by the greatest modern scholars, following the lead of Shaykh Ibn Ashur in the first half of the twentieth century, to mean “freedom of religion.”

Next come three sets of pairs.  The first pair consists of haqq al haya and haqq al nasl, which mean the duties, respectively, to respect the human person and life itself and to respect the nuclear family and communities at every level that derive from the sacredness of the human person.  The first one, haqq al haya, includes the elaborate set of principles that define the limitations of just war.  The second one includes the principle of subsidiarity, which recognizes that legitimacy expands upwards from community or nation to state, and not the reverse.

The second set consists of three responsibilities that deal with institutionalizing economic and political justice.  These are, respectively, haqq al mal and haqq al hurriya. Political justice is based on the principles of freedom through both subsidiarity and self-determination.  It must be said that, more often than not, this second pair of responsibilities throughout much of Islamdom has been observed in the breech.  And even when the principles are acknowledged, the derivative lower levels of institutionalized implementation have been ignored.

The third pair of maqasid consists of haqq al karama, which is the duty to respect human dignity, especially in freedom of religion and gender equity, and the duty to respect knowledge, including the secondary level of implementation known as freedom of thought, publication, and assembly.


Part Four

The Contributions of Shi’a Islam

Although the very concept of justice died out in much of the Sunni world, it survived among the Shi’i scholars over the centuries because justice, ‘adl, as a normative framework of thought among the Shi’a had always been the second of the five statements in the Islamic creed, second only to awareness and love of Allah, and immediately prior to the acceptance of prophecy as a means of divine communication by the Creator to sentient beings in the Created world. 

In the Shi’a school of thought, what might be known as ‘ilm al ‘adl encompasses all three of these highest purposes.  Within its purview are not merely what Ibn Ashur introduced as ‘Ilm Maqasid al Shari’ah but the still prior role of intermediation between the level of existence, within which the jurisprudential maqasid function, and the still higher level of intermediation between this and the Being of Allah.  In this intermediation, prophecy is one form of the more generic phenomenon known as walaya.

Since Shi’a scholars over the centuries have focused equally on both fields of normative thought, the jurisprudential and the ontological cum epistemological, they have a responsibility to make their wisdom known.  Their challenge therefore now is to emphasize ‘ilm al ‘adl as it was developed in fact though not in form by Imam Jafar al Siddiq, ‘alayhi as-salam, into a distinct set of what one might call the primary maqasid (purposes), or kulliyat (universals), or dururiyat (essentials) in the Shi’a statement of Islamic belief, namely, taqwa, ‘adl, and walaya.

The Shi’a concept of walaya or intermediation between the divine and the human through the spiritual successors of the Prophet Muhammad was first developed as a jurisprudential principle by the sixth Shi’a imam, Jafar al Sadiq, ‘alayhi as-salam, who founded the first of the six currently recognized schools of Islamic law.  Although it is rejected by the Sunni Muslims, walaya is directly related to the concept and role of justice because it emphasizes the higher awareness of the transcendent, which is basic to ‘ilm al ‘adl. 

Since all spiritually attuned persons in all religions experience God as light, it is natural to conceive that ultimate reality becomes manifest only like rays of light emanating outward from the One and diminishing in intensity as it moves outward from the center.  Most people live on the periphery or circumference of the circle, not near its center, which is God, and will continue to do so until they come into the presence of God at the end of this life.  In his Being as Al Rahman and his manifestation as Al Rahim, Allah has always provided guidance to the many through the few, which is what one may call intermediary guidance as expressed in the term walaya, of which prophecy or nubuwiya is one form.

The two levels of guidance are not explained merely by the difference between Revelation or wahy and inspiration or ilham.  The latter is accessible to every person regardless of one’s “closeness” to Allah, but is not binding in any way on anyone else.  Revelation, which is the primary source of haqq al yaqin as one of the three sources of knowledge, is guidance that comes only through prophets, for which all Muslims believe there has been no further need since the final revelation in the Qur’an.

The Shi’a believe that the Qur’an exists at two levels, one the exoteric in what one might call the ‘ulum al shari’ah, and the other in the batin through ta’wil or knowledge of the higher meanings that form the inner mystery of the shari’ah or Islamic jurisprudence as a tariqa or path to knowledge.  In His mercy, Allah provides an infallible guide to the inner meanings of the Qur’an in order to protect this Uncreated Truth for future generations.  The Shi’a believe that this intermediary guidance, which is just as essential as the revelation itself, has been provided by the spiritual successors of the last prophet.

While rejecting the Shi’a credal principle of the Imamate, which is the fourth of the five in the Shi’a creed, the fifth being recognizing qadir or the absolute power and authority of God, the Sunnis would do well to learn the science of ‘ilm al ‘adl from the Shi’a, regardless of their differences over accepted sources of authority.  Working together and with scholars from other religions, the Sunni and Shi’a scholars can best contribute the wisdom of Islam as the principal Islamic contribution to a new, pluralistic, and global civilization.


Part Five

Freedom of Religion in Classical American Thought

My current research project is to write five volumes with thousands of footnotes comparing classical American with classical Islamic thought.  The two issues to be explored are the extent to which they are identical and whether such classical thought can be revived in the centuries ahead. 

Freedom of religion, including freedom for religion in the public square, was absolutely basic to the Great American Experiment.  Thomas Jefferson wrote that no people can remain free unless they are properly educated, that education consists primarily in learning virtue, and that no people can remain virtuous unless both private and public life are informed by and infused with the wisdom of higher religion.  The ultimate purpose of politics is to develop a culture in which the people will be led by people who are led by God.

Where in the revisionist textbooks approved for public education today will one find any mention, much less emphasis, on the fact that George Washington arose early every morning all his life to spend an hour reading the Bible and in meditation and contemplative prayer?  Would one dare to mention nowadays that he reserved half an hour every afternoon to do the same, even if this required him to interrupt a cabinet meeting? 

The Founders of America recognized the transcendent level as the source of authority for Edmund Burke’s tripartite emphasis on the interdependent pursuit of order, justice, and freedom.  Their universally accepted mentor taught that there can be no order without justice, and no justice without freedom, just as there can be no freedom without justice and no justice without order.  The Founders immortalized their mentor’s system of thought in the Preamble to the American Constitution, which reflected the traditionalism of the minority Whig Party in the English Parliament.  This was based on the spiritually informed Scottish enlightenment, which was the absolute opposite of the secularist French revolution and its twentieth-century progeny.

The Preamble reads as follows: “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  First comes justice as a universal goal and highest priority, then order, then prosperity, and finally, as a product of the first purposes, liberty.

The founders of America felt a divine mission to build a community of free people dedicated to restore the spiritual core of Western civilization as the foundation for a just society.  Although many of them initially had great hopes for the French Revolution, they soon saw the madness of a populist movement that had substituted man for God as the creator of ultimate purpose and meaning in life and as the only criterion or judge for distinguishing right from wrong.  All believed that human rights are merely the result of recognizing and observing human obligations, and, with few exceptions, all believed that obligations of any kind can exist only when individuals in community recognize the divine source of all true authority.  This is why the framers of the American Constitution emphasized the transcendent source of truth and sought to protect awareness of this divine transcendence from the narrow bigotry and political divisiveness of sectarian religion in public life.

In conclusion, let me quote from the back jacket of my book, Shaping the Future: Challenge and Response, published a decade ago in 1987, which reads as follows:

“We may accept the basic thesis that civilizations as the highest form of human self-identity will be increasingly important in the ‘global village’ during the century ahead.  But we should shift to the opportunity mentality that can transcend the Cold-War psychosis and make possible a century of peaceful engagement designed to promote the interests of all civilizations, nations, and persons.

“All the revealed religions contain a universal paradigm of thought.  Muslims call this Islam.  It is based on affirmation that there is an ultimate reality of which man and the entire universe are merely an expression, that therefore every person is created with an innate awareness of absolute truth and love, and that persons in community can and should develop from the various sources of divine revelation, a framework of moral law to secure peace through justice.  Recognition of this paradigm is the essence of wisdom.

“The demise of Communism was merely the first step in a profound transformation of the world.  The demise of this atheistic movement reflected the rise of spiritual forces worldwide and the beginning of civilizational renewal in America so that the American people can provide the moral leadership in a new age, in cooperation with people of all religions everywhere in the world.

“In a generic sense, some Muslims call this renewal the Islamization of America.  This does not mean that all, or even most, or even necessarily a great many Americans, will accept a formal creed, but rather that in its metaphysical and moral essence America will be functionally Islamic by thinking and acting Islamically in promoting peace through justice in the world.  Regardless of the terminology, this has been the American destiny since we were founded as one nation under God.”


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