Islam and Religious Freedom

Asghar Ali Engineer

Posted Mar 26, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Asghar Ali Engineer

The question of religious freedom has assumed great significance in the modern world, particularly so in the post-modern period. During the medieval ages, and particularly before the period of renaissance the question of religious freedom did not arise. The religious authorities had either political; power to enforce their doctrines or dogmas or they had close collaboration with political authorities. Thus a person was not free to believe what one liked to believe. He had to conform or pay heavy price – often with his life – if he did not. We know of hundreds of cases of execution of religious dissidents during that period. One reason for this was that religion, during medieval ages, was closely associated with the state. Thus religious dissidence was construed as rebellion or sedition against the state.

However, things began to change with the renaissance and religious freedom acquired great importance as Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of church and the rulers became independent of papal authority. Secularism arose as a new political doctrine in the post-renaissance period. Also slowly kings were replaced by elected heads of the state and democratic polity came to be widely accepted. When religion was separated from politics, religious freedom acquired fundamental importance. Secularism was either thought to be atheistic or was interpreted as a philosophy, which assigned religion to personal domain. Thus religious conformism lost its significance and religious freedom came to be accepted as the most fundamental doctrine.

However, these developments were not uniformly reflected in all societies. In many countries religion is closely associated with the state even today. The state authorities issue the religious dictates. Any non-conformism in these socio-political set ups is considered as disobeying the state and hence severely punishable. This is not so particularly in Islamic societies as is often thought. It is found in all those societies where religion is closely associated with state. However, it so happens that in many Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, religion is an integral part of the state and any religious dissent is interpreted as sedition against the state. Even liberal interpretation of religion is considered as a cardinal sin. But it would be a grave mistake to think that this is inherent in Islam and that Islam does not tolerate religious freedom.

What is then position of religious freedom as far as Islam and Islamic jurisprudence is concerned? It is crystal clear to those who study Islam carefully that Islam upholds religious freedom as far as some basic frame-work of its teachings is not violated. But no religion, or any political ideology for that matter, can permit violation of its basic framework. If the very basic framework is violated the religion will cease to exist. In other words religion cannot be reformed out of existence. As we say a person cannot sign his own death warrant, a religion cannot allow itself to be done away with. However, one should be free to renounce his/her religion if it ceases to appeal to his/her conscience. A religion which does not appeal to ones conscience or does not form part of ones inner conviction can have no meaning for that person. But does Islam permit this freedom of conscience? In my considered opinion it does. But why then do some Islamic countries insist on a punishment of death for renouncing Islam (i.e. irtidad)? We will throw light on this a little later. However, such a punishment for renouncing Islam cannot be supported from the Qur’anic teachings. There is no verse directly supporting such punishment. Of course there are ahadith quoted in its support. But these ahadith need to be examined carefully. Not only their authenticity but also their context needs to be looked into.

The most important thing is that religion is an integral part of ones inner conviction and is a matter of ones conscience. Even according to a hadith mere confession by tongue (iqrar bi’ al-lisan) is not enough . It must be followed by an inner endorsement or ones conscience (tasdiq bi’ al-janan). Mere confession by ones tongue will not acquire the status of truly held conviction. The Qur’an clearly declares la ikrah fi’ al-din (2:256) i.e. there cannot be compulsion in religion. Some commentators maintain that this verse was aimed at early converts and that it was later abrogated. But there is absolutely no basis for such an assertion. It is a declaration of a universally valid principle rather than any contextual statement. It is valid until today and will remain valid in future also. It is also substantiated by the fact that Islam accepted validity of other contemporary religions like Judaism, Christianity etc. and even permitted marriages with them. They were not coerced into accepting Islam at all. Any coercion wold lead to acceptance by tongue, not endorsement by heart.

Here in the above verse the word used is din which is usually translated as religion. But it has wider meaning. The word din not only includes the moral law but also pertains to its doctrinal contents and their practical implications, as well as to man’s attitude towards the object of his worship, thus comprising also the concept of “faith”. Thus according to the Qur’an human being is absolutely free to pursue religion of his/her choice. And this freedom does not pertain to only acceptance or non-acceptance of Islam; it also pertains to renunciation of Islam. Many Muslim jurists may reject this outright and maintain that though one is free to accept or not accept Islam but having accepted it one is not free to renounce it. Thus according to them freedom is limited to only acceptance or non-acceptance of Islam but does not extend to its renunciation. This position does not appear to be logical. Freedom of conscience cannot be a one way traffic. Obviously the freedom of renunciation was curtailed for political and not religious reason.

If the Islamic jurists seek to circumscribe the freedom to renounce Islam the question is whether it is based on Qur’an or on hadith (i.e. the Prophet’s sayings). A careful study of the holy Qur’an shows that there is no basis whatsoever in it to sustain such a position i.e. qatl-e-murtad (i.e. slaying of one renouncing Islam). On the contrary there is a verse in the Holy Book which leaves one in no doubt that such a punishment has no basis and that it is based on the opinion of jurists and that these jurists took this position to protect interests of state rather than those of Islam. Thus we find in the verse 4:137 in the Qur’an “ Those who believe then disbelieve (kafaru), again believe and again disbelieve, then increase in disbelief, Allah will never forgive them or guide them in the (right) way.”

If the punishment for irtidad had been death this verse would have clearly mentioned it. The above verse (4:13), on the other hand, says that even those who believe and then disbelieve and again believe and then again disbelieve Allah will not pardon them and will not show them the right way. Had Allah wanted to punish murtad (i.e. renouncer) of Islam by death He would have clearly mentioned it. But He simply says He would not pardon them and would not show them the right path. The Qur’an firmly believes in the doctrine of the freedom of conscience and forcefully states it in the verse 18:29 thus: “And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and lt him who please disbelieve. This verse is clear proof that freedom of conscience cannot be made available one way only. It has to be both ways. If one renounces Islam it is for Allah to punish him or not but certainly not for human beings to do so. If some one feels strongly about renunciation of Islam by once friend, neighbour or relative, one may try to pursue him or her not to do so. But certainly he or she cannot e killed. Islam is quite modern in this respect. It upheld the doctrine of freedom of conscience many centuries before modernists and secularists did. It is unfortunate that what some jurists maintained primarily for political reasons is sought to be perpetuated.

The Qur’an repeats the doctrine of freedom of conscience so often that it cannot be ignored by any student of the holy scripture. It says in 6:105, “ Clear proofs have indeed come to you; from your Lord; so whoever sees, it is for his own good; and whoever is blind, it is to his own harm. And I am not a keeper over you.” Again in the same chapter verse 108 Allah says, “ And if Allah had pleased they would not have ascribed divinity to aught beside Him (ma ashraku); hence We have not made thee their keeper, and neither art thou responsible for their conduct.” And the next verse (109) goes on to say: “ But do not revile those (beings) whom they invoke instead of God, lest they revile God out of spite, and in ignorance…”

As pointed out above the word din (religion) includes not only moral law but also ways of worship and related matters. As the Qur’an believes in freedom of religion it also repeatedly says that let people worship the way they want; do not quarrel over it. However what is important is to excel each other in good deeds. Thus the Qur’an sas: “for every community faces direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works.” (2:148) Thus there is no compulsion in the ways of worshipping Him also. It is also a matter of ones conscience. However, what is most important is to excel each other in good deeds. Thus whatever way we look the Qur’an upholds the doctrine of freedom of conscience. The Qur’an’s approach is remarkably modern. One cannot doubt about its openness to other faiths and traditions. Its doctrine of da`wah (mission) is also not burdened with any doctrine of compulsion of any kind. It exhorts the faithfuls to “ Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner.” (16:125). Thus according to the Qur’an preaching also should not have any manner of compulsio. It should be done in a way which will appeal to the conscience of one to whom da`wah is directed. Thus da`wah should not encroach upon any ones freedom of conscience.. It is most fundamental right and is worthy of respect in all circumstances.

Then the question arises why the Islamic jurists prescribed punishment of death for irtidad (i.e. renunciation of Islam)? It was, as pointed out, more for political than religious reasons. This juristic opinion was not based on any religious injunctions but on political environment. The state always has its own reasons, its own considerations of security and stability. It was feared that a person renouncing Islam is likely to collude with the enemies of the state and thus pose a danger for it. Anyone renouncing Islam and adopting Christianity, for example, could collude with Christian rulers with whom the Islamic State of the time was at war and pose great danger. Thus in an Islamic state renunciation of Islam was equated with sedition against the state and sedition is often punished by death. Many juristic opinions of this nature like the concept of Dar al-Islam

Or Dar al-harb etc. need to be re-examined in this context. Today people live in secular democracies and equal rights, including the right to profess, practice and propagate ones own religion fully guaranteed by the constitutions. Such countries cannot be construed as what the Islamic jurists called dar al-harb.

Today in many Muslim countries, which are ruled by authoritarian dispensations, Muslims are not as free to follow their religion as in many secular democracies. In Saudi Arabia Muslims who do not subscribe to Wahabi brand of Islam are certainly not free to proclaim their deeply held religious convictions which clash with the Wahabi doctrines. The Shi`a Muslims in the southern part of the Saudi regime cannot take out Muharram procession in keeping with their religious convictions and Sunni Muslims cannot pray on the grave of the Holy Prophet as it is thought to be `un-Islamic’ practice. Could it then be construed as Dar al-Islam for non-Wahabi Muslims? In India, on the other hand, being a secular democracy, all Muslims, Shi`a, Sunni or Wahabi are free to purse their own religious convictions and practices. In medieval ages the concept of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb had some relevance but not in modern democracies.

Thus the punishment for irtidad or renunciation of Islam also has to be seen in this context. Today in democracy the concept of human rights is quite central to it. All citizens, irrespective of their religious persuasion are equal. Freedom of conscience is most fundamental to secular democracy. All citizens are free to pursue their own religious convictions or change them, if they please. Also, every citizen is free to renounce his or her religion and adopt any other or none, for that matter. There is no question of anyone being punished for this. Similarly in the Muslim countries if any citizen renounces Islam, he or she is not going to be for that reason enemy of that state. Today international law governs the relations between various countries and the United Nations play increasingly important role in governing international relationships. In medieval ages renunciation of Islam could very well be construed as sedition but it is no more valid in our own times. During that period Christians were also not free to renounce their religion. They were burnt at stake for this `crime’. Thus entire juris corpus needs to be revised in this respect.

Thus in the whole debate the inner conviction is most fundamental and any law which violates the doctrine of inner conviction cannot be accepted. The Qur’an also bases acceptance of religion on this doctrine and hence gives full freedom of religion. According to the Qur’an anything based on inner conviction leads to what it significantly calls sakinat al-qalb ( i.e. peace of heart). The word I’man (faith) also indicates this. The root meaning of this word is security and deep conviction. No one can be true Muslim without I’man (faith). Mere profession without inner conviction is not accepted even by the Qur’an as genuine faith. Thus the Qur’an says, “ The Bedouin say, `We have attained faith.’ Say (unto them O Muhammad): `You have not (yet) attained to faith; you should (rather) say, `We have (outwardly) surrendered (aslamu)’ – for (true) faith has not yet entered your hearts.” (49:14). From this verse it is very clear that genuine faith is based on deeper and inner conviction, not merely on surrender or verbal profession. The threat of death can merely make a person retain his her religion without any inner conviction. That is anything but genuine faith. But what the Qur’an aims at is genuine faith and genuine faith is possible only in a truly free society. Freedom of belief is very fundamental to genuine faith.

There are other aspects of religious freedom and we would like to throw some light on these aspects also. In Islam there is no concept of church. No central body is authorised to control religious doctrines. In fact there is no concept of priesthood in Islam. Every individual is free to, and responsible for, his or her own faith. Allah provides guidance (hidaya) to everyone through His prophets. It is for an individual to accept or reject the guidance. If he accepts, it is for his spiritual good and if he rejects, he will face the consequences thereof in this life and in the life to come (aakhirah). It is individual who will be held accountable before God on the Day of Judgement. His argument that the leader misled him would simply be rejected. This approach of the Qur’an, it will be seen, is also remarkably modern . The very concept of modern secular democracy is based on individual rights and responsibilities. This concept is very central to the Qur’an.

It will be seen that there is no single school of jurisprudence in Islam. There are eight surviving schools – Hanafi, Shafi`I, Hanbali, Maliki and Zahiri in the Sunni Islam and Ja`fari, Zaidi and Isma`ili in the Si`ah Islam. Besides these there were many more schools in early Islam – some think more than hundred. But these schools did nt survive. Every eminent `alim ( who had Islamic learning in Qur’an and Hadith) had his own interpretation of various juristic problems which arose from time to time. And other Muslims wee free to follow one `alim or the other or find his own solution based on Qur’an and hadith. But because Muslims followed these schools in large numbers mentioned above that they became well recognised ones in times to come. But even today a follower of one school of fiqh (jurisprudence) can renounce it and adopt another school without any constraints. Some people even take from one or the other school what suits them although the `Ulama (the learned theologian) do not approve of it. According to them one should follow one or the other school in its entirety. But that is also one opinion among others.

Thus not only that a Muslim is not bound by one school or the other he is not bound by fatwa (legal opinion) issued by any mufti (jurist). He is free to reject it and go to some one else, if he is not satisfied by the fatwa. He has full latitude in the matter. Also, no Muslim is bound even to ask a juriconsult about anything. He might find his/her own answer and be satisfied as long as it is based on authoritative sources and not merely on his convenience. The Qur’an, as pointed out above lays full responsibility on the individual, not on the community or the body of any juriconsults. This does not apply to mere legal questions but to all theological ones. For example there are no fixed dogmas about questions like freedom of will or determination or nature of the Qur’an. In the first century of Islam there were different schools of thought on these questions. One school led by the noted Sufi saint Hasan Basri believed in freedom of will whereas another school believed in determination. This question of freedom of will and determination had political rather than theological overtones. Those who supported the Umayyad rule believed in determination implying thereby that Umayyad rule is result of divine determination and any opposition to it amounts to challenge divine determination.

However, the opponents of the Umayyads thought they were usurpers and one must actively oppose their role and they subscribed to the doctrine of freedom of will. There was a third school called Murjia’who believed that one must postpone any action as Allah will decide who is right or wrong. All three schools existed side by side and people freely subscribed to one or the other. The M`utazila school was a rationalist school and for them reason was primary in deciding what is good and what is evil. They argued that Shari`ah held something to be good because reason held it to be good. The Asha`ira School, on the other held that something is good because Shari`ah held it to be good even if reason contradicted it. Similarly the M`utazila (the rationalists) held that the Qur’an was created by Allah and not co-eternal with Him. The orthodox believed, on the other hand, that it is the speech of Allah and hence co-eternal with Him. There was heated controversy about it in early Islam but there was no church to impose these dogmas on the entire body of Muslims. Different schools of thought contested with each other.

Similarly, there was no fixed meaning of the Qur’an universally accepted by all. There were literalists (ahl al-Zahir) who stuck to the literal meaning of the Qur’an. On the other hand there were ahl al-batin also known as batinis who believed in the hidden meaning of the scripture. The Batinis of course developed a church like structure with their own hierarchy. The Batinis also known as Isma`ilis developed church like structure because they constituted an underground movement centrally controlled by the leaders and the leadership was provided by a fixed hierarchy. However, the Batinis were themselves divided in several groups contesting each others positions. The Orthodox too did not have uniform position on important questions – be they theological, juristic or political. They themselves were divided in several schools.

Having stated all this in favour of freedom it must be stated that every school of thought gathered their own followers and over a period of time became rigid orthodoxy. No deviation was permitted. In all these schools the doctrine of taqlid (imitation) was enforced by the `Ulama of subsequent generations. Even the Batinis and Isma`ilis who were rational and generously borrowed from Greek philosophy, developed rigid orthodoxy and even in these schools the role of reason became suspect. Any new thinking was frowned upon. Freshness and creativity was lost. Each school of thought became a powerful establishment and every establishment developed its own vested interests. It is the vested interests who fear freedom and change. The people of inner conviction and commitment welcome it. One has conviction and commitment for values and principles, not dogmas.

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