Recovering Tolerance as Inherently Islamic

Note: This is the third in a series of posts prepared for an April 2019 workshop on “Religion, Reverence and Tolerance” organized by the Center for the Middle East and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, both at Rice University.


By Asma Afsaruddin
Professor, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University Bloomington


Given the current global emphasis on liberal values such as tolerance and inclusivity, Muslim scholars engaged in the study of Islamic intellectual history are critically reappraising the classical interpretive and juridical literature on these topics. There is a strong awareness, particularly among modernist and liberal Muslims, that the diversity of interpretations encountered in these primary sources on these issues were engendered by the different socio-historical and political circumstances in which these interpretations developed, and therefore are to be regarded as historically contingent. As Muslims face vastly changed circumstances today and different sets of concerns, the same kind of interpretive flexibility and creativity is called for.

It should be noted that the term “modernist and liberal Muslims” is being used here to refer to observant Muslims who, starting roughly in the 18th century, began to emphasize the inherent adaptability of Islamic principles and thought to modernity. Modernists typically argue that reinterpreted Islamic principles can reveal their congruence with modern liberal principles of democratic government, civil society, gender equality, etc., without necessarily being identical to their formulations in Western contexts (nor should they be).

With regard to a hierarchy of sources, for all Muslims, the Qur’an is the first and unassailable source for making ethical, moral and legal determinations, followed by the hadith, the transmitted sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Historically, such prophetic statements, with varying degrees of reliability, have been used to amplify the meanings of selected verses from the Qur’an and sometimes even to qualify drastically the applicability of specific Qur’anic passages. Today many liberal and modernist Muslims are insisting that this trend should be reversed so as to privilege the Qur’an over textual hadith. Such an approach, they argue, allows for tolerance to emerge as a basic human value within the Islamic context.

The question of who may authoritatively make these interpretive decisions is not an easy one to answer today. Historically, this authority was vested in the religious scholars and jurists, the ulama and the fuqaha, who came to form a distinctive professional class from the third century of Islam/the ninth century of the common era onward. Authority in the Islamic tradition is primarily epistemic: grounded in knowledge and not contingent on any process of ordination or claims to charismatic religious authority, at least in the majoritarian Sunni tradition. The Shi‘i tradition developed different and more charismatic conceptions of authority. The Qur’an (4:59) speaks about the uli ‘l-’amr, literally, “those who possess authority,” also called in the later Islamic tradition ahl al-hall wa-’l-’aqd, literally, “the people who bind and loosen.” These terms, as the vast exegetical literature makes clear, referred to a broad group of people who by virtue of their superior knowledge of matters, both religious and practical, and greater intelligence and insight were qualified to assume leadership in various spheres of life, whether that be religious, political, administrative, etc.  Through their interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith, the principal sources of the Sharia, and through reasoning, Muslim scholars were expected to arrive at consensual positions on key matters of doctrine and praxis.

In the premodern period, this system on the whole worked quite well. Scholars in general strove to uphold the objectives of the Sharia––above all, the creation of a just and ordered society which promotes the well-being of humans in this world and the next. As a result, they often took positions contrary to rulers and governors, speaking out against tyranny and moral and legal infractions. In the modern period, the general attrition in religious scholarship and the co-optation of many religious scholars by various governments have resulted in a dangerous vacuum in legitimate religious leadership, allowing extremist voices to gain center stage. This trend may be reversed by the revival of critical religious scholarship evident in the formative and classical periods of Islam that would thereby equip Muslims to challenge irresponsible and intolerant interpretations of Islamic doctrine and praxis in the contemporary period.

One should also keep in mind that questions of tolerance do not arise in a historical vacuum.  Issues of disparities in political power and resources inevitably color these questions. In general, the Western unilateral insistence on the universal adoption of its specific understanding of tolerance and the related concept of religious freedom that is the result of uniquely Western historical and religious experiences could be and has been counterproductive. As is generally acknowledged, the concept of tolerance was born in Europe after bitter religious wars, leading to the separation of church and state and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Western muscular promotion of toleration and freedom wedded primarily, if not solely, to secularism, is bound to make hackles rise among Muslims. On account of their different historical experiences, Muslims have not come to assume an adversarial relationship between religion and basic human rights and freedoms. Muslims have traditionally turned to religious scholars as allies against tyrannical rulers, and they often marshal religious texts in support of religious tolerance as a fundamental Islamic value, arguing that it has existed from the very beginning of Islam as a core value within the Qur’an. It is also evident in the practices of the Prophet Muhammad; for example, in the treaty that the Prophet concluded with the Christians of Najran which allowed them full freedom in the practice of their religion in exchange for a tribute. The principle of tolerance is also very evident in the Constitution of Medina drawn up by Muhammad in 622 which recognized Meccan Muslims, Medinan Muslims, and Jews as equal members of the Medinan polity, with reciprocal rights and obligations. The Qur’an’s decree of non-compulsion in religion (2:256) and its injunction to show kindness toward peaceful non-Muslims on the whole prevented the kind of persecution of religious minorities endemic in medieval Christian Europe.

Islam is not a monolith, and the various legal interpretations of the premodern scholars, the product of their very human reasoning, are not carved in stone. Pre-modern  “citizenship” in the Islamic polity (as elsewhere) was faith-based in the pre-modern period. Historically, this has meant that, in Muslim-majority societies, the non-Muslim dhimmi (the protected Jew, Christian, Zoroastrian, and others), who on the whole enjoyed religious autonomy to a considerable degree, was not accorded the same legal rights by classical Muslim jurists after the second century of Islam. As citizenship has become defined in modern polities in nonreligious terms, privileges accorded solely to Muslim citizens qua Muslims in the past are insupportable and no longer consonant with the idea of a just and lawfully ordered society, which is, after all, a prime objective of the Sharia. This is in fact how Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), the rector of al-Azhar University in the nineteenth century, argued when he affirmed that just modern Muslim nation-states should treat all their citizens, including non-Muslims and the nonreligious, equally without exception and that this was mandated by the Sharia.  For ‘Abduh, the Islamic nature of a given nation-state is established not through a consciously cultivated Islamic identity and Islamicizing rhetoric but through the enactment of recognized Islamic ethical principles, primary among which are justice and mercy. In the absence of adherence to such principles, no nation ––regardless of how strident it is in proclaiming its “Islamic” nature –– can be regarded as being in conformity with the Sharia.

Policy Implications: The internally diverse Islamic tradition has rich resources within it that can be drawn upon in order to foster tolerant and even pluralist societies in the Muslim-majority world today. Many of these societies historically have had considerable experience with tolerance. In the post-colonial period, some of this historical memory has been effaced due to the disruption created by European colonizers through their policy of “divide and rule.”  This historical amnesia and the loss of moral authority by religious scholars in the colonial and post-colonial periods due to their cooptation by governments has facilitated the spread of extremist rhetoric by contemporary militants who are skillful in exploiting this situation on the ground. A revival of religious scholarship and innovative decision-making among Muslims will allow them to confidently challenge such extremist narratives and assert the importance of tolerance as a moral value indigenous to the Islamic tradition.  Recent initiatives – such as the Common Word statement, the Amman and Marrakesh declarations – as well as the writings of many Muslim scholars challenging extremism are a positive augury of changes on the ground. Western non-interference in these internal processes is a sine qua non for these positive transformations to continue unabated. Extensive polls and surveys continue to document that the Muslim-majority world in general has a high regard for democratic, tolerant societies but are often thwarted in their aspirations due to global geopolitical strategic machinations over which they have little control.