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Islam is a religion of compassion, it does not divide people based on their cast or color, and it advises all people should be treated as equals. This is something that the Prophet himself was standing up for during his time of spreading the message of Allah. Moreover, there are examples from Islamic history, as well as Qur’anic verses that substantiate the claim that the tolerant attitude of Islam is deeply rooted in its scriptures. Interestingly, some of the verses also raise questions and conflicts. Most classical interpreters of the Qur’an agree that there are inconsistencies in the Qur’anic script which deal with the unbelievers and how the Muslim community should treat them. A reason for that could be the changing circumstances during the period when the Qur’anic message was spread. Therefore, this paper will describe the Qur’anic concept of religious tolerance or intolerance, based on the Prophet’s teachings, Qur’anic verses, and historical events.
Islam, similarly to Judaism and Christianity was also spread by a messenger of God, in this case – Muhammad. The Prophet has a key role in understanding the Islamic view on freedom of religion, as well as conveying it to his followers. Furthermore, Muhammad was not ordered by God to impose his teaching upon the people using force. “(And as for My messenger,) there is no (obligation) on him except to deliver (the message). God knows what you expose and what conceal.” In addition to that, when the people of Mecca refused to accept Islam, another verse was revealed:
And those who associate others with Allah say, “If Allah had willed, we would not have worshipped anything other than Him, neither we nor our fathers, nor would we have forbidden anything through other than Him.” Thus did those do before them. So is there upon the messengers except (the duty of) clear notification?
In this sura (verse) it is conveyed to Muhammad that his duty is to guide and convince the people of Mecca to accept God with their own will. In addition to that, another verse also mentions that religion cannot be forced on anyone: “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion”. The revelation of these verses highlights that Islam should be accepted only if one wills it. Although, it is conspicuous that the Prophet was following the orders of God, and was spreading the message the way it was revealed to him, his role in advocating religious tolerance is significantly important. Muhammad was the one who had to interpret the message for all people and teach them to follow the message in the Qur’an, which in fact is to accept everyone’s choice, and let God decide for them when the time comes. However, even though no one is obligated to accept Islam, in other verses there is an underlying message that could actually advocate for a division of the Islamic community from the unbelievers.
Indeed, the Qur’an is rich in suras that advocate religious freedom, depending on the point of view of the person interpreting them. For example, there is a particular verse called Qul ya-ayyuhal-karifun (The Unbelievers) that can be interpreted in two ways:
I worship not that you worship. And nor you worship what I worship. And I shall not worship what you worshipped. And nor you shall worship what I worship. For you, your religion. And for me my religion.
That verse can be understood as very precise and straightforward in its role of guiding the Islamic community to accept and not judge the adherents of other religions. Nevertheless, this sura is considered problematic, because it does not refer to anyone in particular. It also raises the question if it is meant for the People of the Book or the Meccan idol worshippers. Another problem with this verse is that, according to Maududi, it can be read as a message from God that tells the Islamic community to avoid the unbelievers. In addition to that, there are extracts from hadith literature that mention this verse and the way the Prophet interprets it. Hadrat Anas says that Muhammad said to Hadrat Muadh bin Jabal: “Recite Qul ya-ayyuhal-karifun at the time you go to bed, for this is immunity from polytheism.” Subsequently, it appears that this verse advocates the opposite of what is sometimes claimed to be religious tolerance. As opposed to being a proclamation on freedom or recognition of religious pluralism, this sura forbids the inter-religious dialog. Not only that, but it also adheres an ‘us versus them’ mentality between the Muslim community and the unbelievers.
In historical aspect, Will Durant concludes that Muslims exhibited greater tolerance compared to the Christians. In the time of the Umayyad Dynasty, the tolerance exhibited and maintained by the Muslim rulers towards the non-Muslim community – Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sabians – is hard to find in the Christian world. During the period of the Qur’anic revelation, in the last 23 years of the life of the Prophet, the audience of the message developed and changed. The verses that were revealed in Medina were about Muhammad’s migration in 622 CE. They are about the emerging community of the adherents of Islam.
To you we sent the scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety; so judge between them by what God has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that has come to you. To each among you have We prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all the virtues. The goal of you all is to God: it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you differ.
This verse and hundreds of other verses relate directly or indirectly to the concept of tolerance of the system of belief, worship, and conduct, besides what it describes as a religion that follows God. It can also be read as the core of the problem, which is the Qur’an actually dealing with the presence of moral and religious diversity that exists between the people of different religious communities. Thus, most classical interpreters of the Qur’an and the majority of orientalists believe that the Qur’an is not consistent when it comes to the matters dealing with the unbelievers, “but rather, it is marked by internal contradictions reflecting changing circumstances as it unfolds”. During the Meccan period of the Qur’anic revelation, Muhammad was spreading the message without any violence. Hashmi also mentions that, because of Muhammad’s military weakness, he was limited to have to keep a sense of ethic tolerance that ranged from non-violent opposition to indifference. That was the kind of tolerance that dealt with the pagan Arabs and is the core message of the Qur’anic revelations from that period. However, there is a change in the Qur’an when the time of hijra (migration) arrived.
When the violence against Muhammad and his adherents escalated, there was also a realization that the Meccan Muslims could receive military support from the people who converted in Medina. Therefore, when the Meccans relocated to Medina Muhammad’s role of religious preacher transformed into one of a warrior and statesman. Accordingly, Jihad now is considered a violent component, as the Prophet was the one who attacked first, and he eliminated his Meccan opponents and the Jews of Medina. It is stressed, however, that they were a threat, religiously and military. Due to these events, the Qur’anic revelations of Medina lead to an ethic of hostility and intolerance that eventually led to these two verses, “the verse of the sword”:
When the inviolable months have passed away, kill the polytheists whenever you find them. Seize them, besiege them, and wait for them at every place of observation. If they repent, observe prayer, and pay the obligatory aims then let them go their way. Allah is forgiving and merciful.
This verse seems to have abrogated hundreds of other verses on the subject of tolerance. It should be noted, however, that this verse was revealed during the time when Muhammad chose to fight in order to protect his people, rather than doing it because their enemy was following a different religion. This does not solve the problem of the abrogation of the previously revealed suras. Moreover this is not the only verse that is considered to have annulled previously revealed suras. The “verse of the poll-tax” is also one of them.
Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messanger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – fight until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.
“These two verses were revealed shortly before the Prophet’s death, they are held authoritative for the community henceforth”. Overall, there are verses in the Qur’an that contradict with other verses that were previously revealed or cause confusion, such as the two suras mentioned above. ‘Taken as a whole, these exegetical exercises, polemics, and controversies may leave one utterly confused and concluding that no coherent Qur’anic view is possible” is what Hashmi states in his essay, and this can be considered correct. The firstly revealed verses and the ones that were revealed later are indeed confusing. Islamic scholars themselves seem to have an ongoing dispute about the actual message rooted in them.
In conclusion, it appears that Islam puts a great value on freedom of religion. There are also contradictory verses that can be read as an example of how the Muslim community should treat the non-Muslims and simultaneously be tolerant. In contrary to that, “the use of sword and force is strictly prohibited in matters of religions”. Furthermore, conflicts about the message of religious tolerance in the Qur’an emerge among the scholars. People such as Saeed Akhtar, Badshah Rahman et al. support the idea of the Qur’an being an advocate of religious freedom, but there are scholars who believe in the opposite. Even though the statement made by Saeed Akhtar et al. can be very convincing, there are verses that cause confusion and their misinterpretation is often times used to justify Jihad. Nevertheless, verses that point out that the difference between people in matters of their belief and the way they interpret the suras that discuss the subject of religious tolerance will always vary. It is something that used to happen during the time of Muhammad and it will continue to happen in the future. Therefore, anyone who attempts to discuss the matter should be able to make their own conclusions.
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