Issues Concerning Freedom of Belief, the Unity of Islamic Nations and the Backwardness of some Islamic nations.
- Is Islam opposed to the freedom of belief?
- Is the Muslims’ attitude towards Salman Rushdy a manifestation of Islam’s opposition to the freedom of thought?
- Is the Islamic code of punishment brutal?
- Why are Muslims disunited despite Islam’s call for unity?
- Is the Faith of Islam responsible for the backwardness of some Muslim nations?
(I) Is Islam opposed to the freedom of belief?
1-Islam guarantees the freedom of belief and this is verified in the following Quranic verse: "Let there be no compulsion in religion'' (2/256). Accordingly, no one is forced to renounce his religion in favour of another faith. One's freedom to adhere to the religion of one’s choice establishes the base of his belief. And this is emphasized in the following Quranic verse: "Let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject (it).” (18/29).
2-Declaring the freedom of belief means accepting that there is more than one religion. This was stressed by the prophet in the first Constitution of the Islamic state in Al Madina when he acknowledged Judaism and declared that the Jews and the Muslims in Al Madina formed one nation. An example of Islam's granting freedom of belief is Omar ben Al khattab’s treatment of the Christians of Jerusalem whom he guaranteed the safety of their lives. Their churches, and their crosses assuring them that none of them would be harmed on account of his religion.
3- Islam also grants freedom of thought and opinion provided that discussions on religion are of an objective nature and are not a pretext for abuse and ridicule. This is referred to in the following Quranic verse:“ Invite (all) to the way of your creator with wisdom and beautiful preaching ; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” [16/125] In the light of this tolerance, discussions may take place between Muslims and Non – Muslims. The Quran invites the Muslims to discuss matters with the people of the Book in the following Quranic verse: “O people of the Book, come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with him; that we elect not from among ourselves lords and patrons other than God, If they turn back say you:
”Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to the will of God ).” [3/64] This verifies that should the discussion between both parties fail to accomplish its aim, each person is entitled to adhere to the faith in which he believes. This is also what the following Quranic verse expressed concerning the prophet Muhammad’s final remarks to the pagans of Mecca namely: “You have your religion and I have mine.” [109/6].
4- Belief is based upon one’s conviction, and sincere belief is therefore based on indisputable conviction and is not the result of blind imitation or compulsion. Every individual is free to choose or adopt the faith in which he believes and to exercise his free thought even if he is an atheist. No one has the right to interfere with his beliefs provided that he keeps his beliefs to himself and does not spread them among the people in order to confuse them regarding their moral values. If he deliberately does so, and spreads his false beliefs which reject the beliefs of the people, he will have opposed the regime of the state in which he lives and will have stirred sedition in the hearts of the people. Any person who acts in such a manner will be accused of treason and condemned to death. The execution of a person who renounces his faith in Islam is not just due to the renouncing of his religion in which he had believed of his own free will, but also the punishment for inciting sedition against the established religious authority of the Islamic state.
If he should renounce his religion without spreading his views among the people and without shaking the peoples belief, he is immune against all harm. Some Muslim scholars are of the opinion that the person who renounces his faith does not meet his punishment in this world but would be punished in the Hereafter on the Day of Judgement. They also declared that the execution of those who renounced Islam according to the sayings of the prophet, was not for renouncing Islam, but for being enemies of Islam who had fought the Muslims on the battle ground. 1
(II) Is the Muslims’ attitude towards Salman Rushdy a manifestation of Islam’s opposition to the freedom of thought?
1- Freedom of thought and expression is one of the rights guaranteed by Islam, since the entire universe with the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them inspires thought and meditation as is expressed in the following Quranic verse:
"And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the Heavens and on earth: behold, in that are signs indeed for those who reflect” (45/13).
The Quran reproaches those who do not employ their mental and intellectual faculties and considers them to be of a level lower than that of animals. The Quran contains many verses urging people to acquire knowledge and to exercise their intellectual faculties and their powers of reasoning. The Quran also orders people to populate the earth and to do their utmost to let it prosper for the welfare of all mankind. People are religiously obliged to think and reflect and meditate upon the universe that surrounds them. Islam encourages freedom and expression of thought provided that it promotes the welfare of humanity.
2- Every nation has its own sacred values which it reveres and its inherent beliefs to which it adheres, all of which leave a decisive mark upon the nation’s culture. Ridiculing these values and beliefs is the same as ridiculing the whole nation and its regime. Every nation is entitled to protect its values and beliefs and to defend itself against any form of sacrilege. This explains the hostile attitude of Muslims towards Salman Rushdy, for they believe that he has trampled upon their sacred beliefs which they value and that he has insulted their prophet. Naturally their attitude towards Salman Rushed is fully justified.
3- It is therefore evident that the issue concerning Salman Rushdy has no bearing whatsoever upon principle of the freedom and expression of thought but that it is the manifestation of the freedom of slandering, abusing and insulting if we are to give it its true name, and no nation would accept such slander. We Muslims would be equally indignant if the prophets Moses, Jesus or any other prophets of God were slandered. This does not mean that we approve of or agree to the idea of executing Salman Rushdy or even trying him in court, for the simple reason that he does not live in a Muslim country.
4- The press and media of the western world have confused and are still confusing the issue by not differentiating between the freedom and expression of thought and the freedom to slander abuse and insult when it is essential to differentiate between them. The fact that Salman Rushdy chose to slander and abuse the sacred beliefs and the Islamic holy values is proof that he has run out of inspiration and it is a well known fact that when a writer lacks inspiration, he chooses a delicate issue that is related to sacred beliefs and values which attracts many readers in order to regain his previous fame. It would have been wiser for the Muslims to have ignored Salman Rushdy’s slander, for he is not the first person to attack the sacred values and beliefs of Islam, nor will he be the last. None of Salman Rushdy’s works or any body else’s works will have any effect upon the Faith of Islam, which has endured for over fourteen centuries and still endures the hostile and unjust attacks upon it.
(III) Is the Islamic code of punishment brutal?
1- Islam is not a religion that advocates brutality. On the contrary it calls for mercy, clemency and toleration. Nevertheless it insists on establishing law and order in the community so as to safeguard the freedom and the rights of its members, and to protect their lives, their belief, their wealth their possessions and their families. When Islam imposes a certain punishment for a specific sin, it takes into consideration two factors:
(a) Man is not infallible, but is constantly exposed to temptation. Thus the door of repentance is always open to those who regret having committed sins and repent and desire to atone.
(b) Every member of the community is entitled to live a life of safety and to feel that he, his family and his property are not exposed to any kind of danger. Thus the depraved or corrupted behaviour of criminals should be dealt with accordingly, so that the peace loving members of the community would not live in a state of fear and apprehension.
2- Although Islam has made laws to punish crimes, it calls for decisive proof of the guilt of the accused person before passing sentence on him and does not enforce the punishment if there is any possibility of doubt concerning his guilt. Also if any guilty person repents sincerely of his sin, the sentence can be suspended if the judge is convinced of the sincerity of the accused. The prophet said: “Try to prevent enforcing the penalty on Muslims whenever it is possible to do so, and should there be the slightest doubt as to the guilt of the accused person, set him free. It is far better that a judge errors in remitting the penalty than erring in enforcing it”.
Such an authentic saying from the Traditions of the prophet is the essence of mercy and tolerance.
3- The penalty for adultery in Islam depends on a certain condition that makes it almost impossible to enforce. The condition is that the act of adultery must be witnessed by four people who must swear that they saw the act committed. Accordingly the two incidents in the history of Islam when this penalty was enforced were the result of the confession of the guilty parties and not of the evidence of witnesses. The Prophet did his utmost to try and persuade the guilty persons to change their statements in which they confessed their guilt but they confirmed them and the prophet was accordingly compelled to order enforcing the penalty, in spite of his profound grief. In view of the condition stipulated and the extreme difficulty of fulfilling it, such a punishment never occurred again in the history of Islam.
4- Islam does not cut off the hand of a starving person who steals to feed himself or to feed his starving children. Islam punishes the thief who steals the money or possessions of hard working people who earn their living honestly. Such a thief spreads evil in the community and deserves no sympathy or mercy from any body for he himself had no mercy or sympathy for the people whom he robbed. In fact the victim might have been in dire need of the money stolen from him, and every community is entitled to have laws enforced that ensure its safety and stability. When this penalty was imposed in Islamic communities, the crime of theft occurred so infrequently that merchants left their goods unguarded and people did not lock the doors of their house. On the other hand, theft is widespread and rampant in communities where lenient measures are taken against it, with the result that theft has become a serious problem in many communities.2
5- The reason for imposing the penalty for theft is to ensure social justice and to abolish poverty, which would prevent people from resorting to theft. It is significant to note that the second Orthodox Caliph, Omar ben Al khattab, suspended the penalty incurred by theft in the year that famine struck the Islamic states. During the first years of Omar ben Al khattab’s reign, the penalty for theft was justly enforced with the result that the crime of theft and highway robber were so rare that the people who travelled from Mecca to Syria were perfectly safe and feared no one but God Almighty and the possibility that their sheep might be attacked by wolves. This state of stability existed because every thief knew what his punishment would be and thought a thousand times before committing the crime of theft or any other crime with the result that the punishment for theft was very rarely enforced. Which then is preferable? A law abiding community that lives in peace without fear even if a few criminals are punished, or a community that lives in fear while its prisons are crowded with criminals? With whom should we sympathize? The criminal or the members of the community?
(IV) Why are Muslims disunited despite Islam’s call for unity?
1- There is no denying that Muslim nations are currently disunited. However, this is a stage in the history of Muslim nations and this stage, which all nations have experienced in the course of their history, is not permanent by any means. The nations of Europe have been able to overcome the factors that led to the contention and disunity of Europe which resulted in two world wars during this century. The Muslim nations will similarly be able to overcome their problems and differences and create a system of fruitful cooperation for the welfare of all Muslim communities. Many continuous attempts have been made and are still being made in this respect, although their effectiveness is limited, such as in the Islamic conference Organization which includes all Muslim states. Nevertheless it is possible to promote the performance of this and other Islamic organizations in order to achieve an advanced stage in the cooperation of the various Islamic states. Islamic principles and teachings concerning unity, cooperation, affinity and solidarity are the greatest guarantee of the success of all these endeavours in the future.
2- The main sources of Islam, namely the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, call for unity, cooperation, compassion and sympathy for others and warn us against disunity and disputes. This is clearly expressed in the following Quranic verses:” And hold fast, all together, by the Rope which God (stretches out for you) and be not divided among yourselves.”(3/103) Also: “And obey God and His Apostle; and fall into no disputes lest you lose heart and your power depart.”(8/46)
Islam calls for sympathy for others and alleviating the pain of others and compares a nation to a human body, and the prophet Muhammad said that one part of the body suffered any pain or illness, the rest of the body would respond in sympathy by falling into a fever and being unable to sleep. Islam considers all Muslims to be brothers:“ The Believers are but a single Brotherhood.” (49/10).When the prophet emigrated from Mecca to Al Madina, he joined the Emigrants and the inhabitants of Al Madina, Al Ansaar into one brotherhood and they became sincere affectionate brothers who shared their hopes and their sorrows as they listened together to the verses of the Quran. The verses of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet present us with innumerable examples of their cooperation, affection and unity.
3- Many external factors, outside the boundaries of the contemporary Muslim nations have led to dispute and disunity between them. These factors originated during the era when the Muslim nations were dominated by the colonization enforced by the western world. Even after the occupation by these countries came to an end, numerous problems arose such as the problems of the borders between the various states. The policy adopted by the foreign power was based on the principle of “Disunite and dominate" and this created ethnic factions among the natives of the colonies. Furthermore, the foreign ruler exploited the country which led to its poverty and backwardness, the results of which still exist. In fact most of the Islamic nations, that were once colonies, are still suffering from the aftermath of colonization and foreign rule and the problems that have their roots firmly planted in the earth.
4- Muslims in the countries that had been colonized concentrated upon the problems created by foreign rule and neglected to follow the principles of Islam which advocate unity and cooperation. Nevertheless Islamic nations still yearn to unite their efforts to achieve the welfare of all Islamic nations. Any Muslim in any Islamic state feels for and sympathizes with any other Muslim who is exposed to any form of injustice or suffering wherever he may be for he is part of the large Islamic nation. This will lead to the establishing of a solid foundation which will encourage attempts to reinstate unity, coordination and cooperation between the Islamic states. United efforts in the field of culture, economy, politics and security and the exchange of expertise and of all that benefits the Muslim world may help these nations to be more efficient and effective in playing a positive and constructive role in establishing the principles of peace and security all over the world.
(V) Is the Faith of Islam responsible for the backwardness of some Muslim nations?
1- History verifies the fact that Islam was able to establish a great civilization in a very short period after its advent. This civilization was one of the most lasting civilizations in history. Proof of this can still be witnessed in the various branches of the Islamic heritage which is manifested in the arts and literature that exist up to this very day.Libraries all over the world exhibit thousands of Islamic manuscripts written in Arabic which illustrate the extent of the great civilization that was inspired by the Faith of Islam and which extended from the Eastern boundaries of Persia bordering on India in the East to Andalusia which is known as Spain in the West. The influence of the grandeur of the Islamic civilization in Spain can still be seen and cannot be denied in the twelfth and thirteenth century Europe initiated an organized movement of translating Islamic works in all subjects and these works which were the outcome of the Islamic civilization formed the foundation upon which Europe’s modern civilization was established.
2- The Quran contains many verses which express the greatest respect for knowledge and those who acquire knowledge. The Quranic verses urge Muslims to look at the universe and meditate upon creation and how the earth was prepared for habitation. The very first five verses inspired to the prophet emphasized the importance of knowledge, reading and meditation. This matter was understood by the Muslims to be of the greatest significance and they accordingly followed the Divine Command.
3- The backwardness of some Muslims today cannot be blamed on Islam, since Islam is against all forms of backwardness. When Muslims fail to understand the true spirit and teachings of Islam they will be unable to keep peace with the progress of the world that increases daily. The reason for this situation was explained by the famous Algerian intellectual, the late Malek ben Nabi who said that the backwardness that Muslims suffer today is not any way caused by Islam but that it is a penalty deservedly inflicted by Islam upon Muslims for forsaking its teachings and not for adhering to it, as is believed by many people who are ignorant of the truth of the matter. Thus there is absolutely no connection between Islam and the backwardness of some Muslims.
4- Islam keeps peace with every aspect of the development of civilization and will continue to do so for the benefit of mankind. When Muslims search for the real cause of their backwardness, they shall realize that no way Islam is to blame. There are many other factors, which date back to the aftermath of colonization which hindered the development and progress of the Islamic World. This factor, in addition to the internal problems of these lands, led the Muslims to neglect and forget the constructive elements that are essential for development and progress as advocated by Islam.
5- Under no circumstances should Islam be held responsible for the backward state of some Muslim countries in the world of today. This can be considered a stage in the history of these nations which will not continue for ever. Likewise Islam cannot be accused of being responsible for the backwardness of Latin America. Academic objectivity in judging Islam's attitude towards civilization should be based on a fair and unbiased study of the principles of Islam and not upon rumours, false allegations and preconceived opinions that have no bearing whatsoever on the truth of the matter.
1- Al Sa’eed, Sheikh Abdel Mun’im. Freedom of Religious Thought in Islam0, pages 3,88/77 and 73. Dar Al Fikr Al Araby, Second Edition .
2- Al Ghazali Muhammad. One Hundred Questions about Islam. vol. 2, page 41.