By Engy Abdelkader
May 29, 2012
Islam is often viewed as an inherently
violent and intolerant world religion. This misconception is fuelled in part by
the miscreant deeds of some Muslims, particularly toward those of other faith
That conduct is then unfairly imputed to
Islamic doctrine and coreligionists globally.
The imputation is unfair because the
individual Muslim’s action may not in fact be supported by informed readings of
Islamic legal strictures, nor necessarily be representative of the 2.2 billion
Muslims in the world.
This is especially true of violence against
religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries, like Egypt or in any
Discrimination, oppression and/or violence
against an individual or group based upon religious affiliation — or no
affiliation — is fundamentally wrong no matter how you look at it.
This Is Particularly So from an Islamic
The Quran is Islam’s foundational text
regarded by Muslims as the literal word of God. It constitutes a primary source
informing Islamic law. And it articulates several significant principles
regarding inter-religious harmony, peaceful co-existence and religious
Several Of These Principles Bear
First, the Quran asserts that monotheistic
religions derive from the Divine: “The same religion He has established for you
is as that which He enjoined on Noah — and what We now reveal to you — and
enjoined on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, saying, ‘Establish the religion and do not
become divided therein’” (42:13).
The Quran further states, “Say, ‘We believe
in God and in that which He has revealed to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac,
Jacob, the descendants and that which was revealed to Moses, Jesus and that
which was revealed to the prophets from their Lord, We make no difference
between one and another and we bow in submission to Him’” (2:136).
Thus, the Quran makes the belief in all the
prophets — from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus — incumbent upon
Muslims. All those prophets should be respected, as should their followers.
Indeed, Islam prohibits oppression in all
of its ugly forms, irrespective of the faith, gender, race or economic status
of the victim or perpetrator. The Quran instructs, “Help one another in
benevolence and piety, and help not one another in sin and transgression”
As such, Muslims are spiritually prohibited
from oppressing the adherents of other faith groups. Thus, killings,
mutilation, burnings, discrimination and violence against minority religious
communities by Muslims is wrong.
Next, Islamic doctrine provides for
religious freedom. The Quran states, “Let there be no compulsion in religion”
(2:256) and “Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?”
In Islamic legal tradition, humankind has
free will to exercise choice, including religious decisions. God is believed to
be the sole arbiter of religious differences. This is true even in the case of
conversion from Islam. A number of Islamic scholars have found that Muslims are
free to leave the fold of Islam without suffering retribution for doing so.
Capital punishment, the penalty often meted out to such converts, is reserved
by Islamic law for the crime of treason and not conversion, they hold.
Finally, Islam mandates Muslim preservation
of all places of divine worship: “For had it not been for God’s checking some
men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein
the name of God is often mentioned, would have been destroyed” (22:40).
Hence the destruction, desecration or
vandalism by Muslims of other houses of worship here or abroad is a gross
violation of Islamic legal principles.
These Islamic principles derived from the
Quran make clear that all of humankind share the same sanctity of life and
honour. Moreover, their application has been in practice since Islam’s
During the advent of Islam, for instance,
the Prophet Muhammad negotiated a covenant between the Muslims and the Jews,
binding each community to respect each other’s beliefs and to provide mutual
In another instance during the Prophet
Muhammad’s life, a visiting Christian delegation stayed at the mosque where
they were permitted to conduct their religious services in one section of the
mosque while Muslims prayed in another.
During the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab,
the second caliph to assume Muslim rule following the death of the Prophet
Muhammad, a Christian woman lodged a complaint alleging that the Muslim
governor of Egypt annexed her house without consent in connection with a mosque
In response to Umar’s legal inquiries, the
Muslim governor explained that the number of worshiping Muslims exceeded mosque
capacity necessitating the expansion. He further explained that since the
complainant’s house was adjacent to the mosque, the state offered to compensate
her for the property. She declined this offer. Consequently, the state
demolished her home and placed its value with the treasury for her to retrieve.
Ultimately, Umar ruled in favour of the
woman, ordering the demolition of the portion of the mosque built on the site
of her house and providing her house be re-constructed as it had previously
During the Islamic rule of the Umayyids and
Abbasids, the most qualified people were entrusted significant posts without
regard to religious beliefs.
Harun al-Rashid, a famed Muslim ruler,
appointed a Christian man as the Director of Public Instruction and all the
schools and colleges were placed under his charge. In making such appointments,
he considered only excellence in one’s field.
These examples are in contradistinction to
the contemporary practice of religious discrimination against the members of
minority faith communities reportedly occurring in some Muslim majority
To be sure, religious intolerance,
discrimination and violence is not a Muslim problem - rather the disturbing
phenomenon transcends faith and geography.
Consider, for example, the status of civil
rights of American Muslims, a religious minority which constitutes 1 to 2
percent of the total U.S. population.
From Muslims who are indefinitely detained
to those who are sent to be tortured in conjunction with our “extraordinary
rendition” program; from unlawful police surveillance to the proliferation of
so-called “anti-sharia” legislation around the country and politically charged
anti-Muslim, anti-Islam rhetoric by those vying for elected office to record
high religious employment discrimination claims by Muslims; from physical
assaults and murders of those perceived to be Muslim to Islamophobic bullying
and destruction of mosque property to Quran burnings — religious intolerance,
discrimination and violence toward a religious minority is dangerously present
right here at home.
What message are we — the international
role model on religious freedom and human rights — then sending to other
governments and populations abroad?
Some of you may still be trying to
reconcile the apparent disconnect between the Islamic principles enunciated
above with disturbing contemporary practices.
To my mind, this disconnect speaks to the
absolute necessity of anti-discrimination laws in Muslim-majority countries
together with proper implementation and enforcement of such laws.
It also highlights the need for education,
particularly in Muslim societies and local communities where Islam enjoys
political, social and moral currency. Along these lines, one-word springs to
mind which seems instructive. According to Islamic tradition, it was the very
first word believed to have been revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad:
Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy