In the media, we often read news about violent extremists in certain parts of the world persecuting other communities with different religious convictions. Some examples are the ill-treatment of the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority in Iraq with ancient beliefs linked to pre-Zoroastrianism, the Ismaili and Alawi Shiite sects and non-Muslims such as the Christians.
ISIS claimed attack on a Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt. Image source https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/13/islamic-state-cairo-church-bombing
Is it true that Islam does not accept nor tolerate the religious other? How did the earlier generations of Muslims treat other religious minorities living in a Muslim land? Are there any Quranic verses that are often misunderstood and used to motivate extremist activities? What are the correct explanations behind these verses?
Let’s re-examine the concept of religious freedom in Islam by highlighting examples of the flourishing of non-Muslim communities under Muslim rule. The earlier generation of Muslims lived in a different time from the world we live in today. There was more distrust and conflict between expanding empires and later amongst states. This was the context upon which the discourse on Islamic leadership and political thought was built since the early 10th-11th century.
Now let’s look at some models of interaction with the religious other during the Prophet’s time and uncover some theological basis for the idea of Religious Freedom in Islam.
There is one verse which is almost always taken out of context to prove Islam’s intolerance of non-Muslims and other religious minorities, which reads:
فَإِذَا ٱنسَلَخَ ٱلْأَشْهُرُ ٱلْحُرُمُ فَٱقْتُلُوا۟ ٱلْمُشْرِكِينَ حَيْثُ وَجَدتُّمُوهُمْ وَخُذُوهُمْ وَٱحْصُرُوهُمْ وَٱقْعُدُوا۟ لَهُمْ كُلَّ مَرْصَدٍ ۚ فَإِن تَابُوا۟ وَأَقَامُوا۟ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَءَاتَوُا۟ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ فَخَلُّوا۟ سَبِيلَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“But once the Sacred Months have passed, kill the polytheists (who violated their treaties) wherever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them on every way. But if they repent, perform prayers, and pay alms-tax, then set them free. Indeed, Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 9:5)
It is important to know that some Quranic verses are meant to address general issues which can be relevant in all situations, such as matters pertaining to the core tenets of Islam and its moral ethics.
But there are also verses revealed to the Prophet s.a.w. that are meant for specific contexts, like addressing situations in times of war. This particular verse takes the form of the latter.
Verses like these are not blanket statements to wage war or fight with people who do not share the same faith. Rather, this specific verse was referring to a group of people during the Prophet’s time who committed treason by breaching the social pact (Al-Mu’ahadah).
The sacred months mentioned refers to the cease-fire and peace between the Muslims of Madinah and the Polytheists of Makkah. To attack and break the cease-fire would be treason. Hence, this verse declares the rights of military activities to defend against and respond to treason or betrayal, not against disbelief.
Reading the Quran requires one to examine the book of revelation holistically. Unfortunately, extremist groups like ISIS abuse and cherry-pick verses to support their narrative.
Islam does not advocate for a hostile relationship. Neither does it promote a triumphant-missionary mentality to dictate the lives of others. Instead, Islam invites and introduces others to the Islamic faith. It does not attempt to impose on others what they themselves choose not to. Forcing Islam onto religious minorities is prohibited, as Allah s.w.t. states clearly in Surah Al-Baqarah,
لَآ إِكْرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ
"There shall be no coercion in matters of religion…."
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:256)
Imam Muhammad Al-Tahir Ibn ‘Asyour explains from this verse that Ikrah (Compulsion) is to force a person to carry out something that is disliked, such that it may also involve threatening the person with something else that is even more undesirable - for example, the act of forcing a person to become Muslim by threatening his or her life. There is nothing Islamic about such an act. This verse serves as the basis for religious freedom in Islam.
Justice is one of the central themes of the Shariah - a broad set of directives and objectives forming constructive pathways to engage with modernity. Ibn al-Qayyim taught many centuries ago that the Shariah protects society from injustices, aggression and mischief, and aims to secure the common good for everyone.
The Quran teaches peaceful coexistence and dialogue, which defines the relationship Muslims must adopt towards religious minorities. The basis for such peaceful coexistence is justice and kindness. Surah Al-Mumtahanah depicts the ideals, stating:
لَّا يَنْهَىٰكُمُ ٱللَّهُ عَنِ ٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَـٰتِلُوكُمْ فِى ٱلدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَـٰرِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُقْسِطِينَ. إِنَّمَا يَنْهَىٰكُمُ ٱللَّهُ عَنِ ٱلَّذِينَ قَـٰتَلُوكُمْ فِى ٱلدِّينِ وَأَخْرَجُوكُم مِّن دِيَـٰرِكُمْ وَظَـٰهَرُوا۟ عَلَىٰٓ إِخْرَاجِكُمْ أَن تَوَلَّوْهُمْ ۚ وَمَن يَتَوَلَّهُمْ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمُونَ
“Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair. Allah only forbids you from befriending those who have fought you for (your) faith, driven you out of your homes, or supported (others) in doing so. And whoever takes them as friends, then it is they who are the (true) wrongdoers”.
(Surah Al-Mumtahanah, 60:8-9)
Hence, when non-Muslims do not persecute Muslims for their faith nor remove basic rights from a person, the Quran permits alliance and friendship with them, and encourages mutual kindness and justice between communities.
Furthermore, Surah Al-Ankabut instructs Muslims to engage in peaceful and constructive dialogues with non-Muslims. Allah s.w.t. says in the Quran:
وَلَا تُجَـٰدِلُوٓا۟ أَهْلَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ إِلَّا بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا۟ مِنْهُمْ ۖ وَقُولُوٓا۟ ءَامَنَّا بِٱلَّذِىٓ أُنزِلَ إِلَيْنَا وَأُنزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ وَإِلَـٰهُنَا وَإِلَـٰهُكُمْ وَٰحِدٌ وَنَحْنُ لَهُۥ مُسْلِمُونَ
“Do not argue with the People of the Book unless gracefully, except with those of them who act wrongfully. And say, “We believe in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to you. Our God and your God is (only) One. And to Him we (fully) submit.”
(Surah Al-Ankabut, 29:46)
Thus, we can see that Islam takes the treatment of religious minorities seriously, and encourages Muslims to uphold the spirit of peace, fairness and justice towards religious minorities as best as they can.
Throughout the history of Muslims, we can find many expressions of the Islamic teachings of tolerance and coexistence with other communities, especially religious minorities.
During the time of Sayyiduna Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a. as Caliph, Muslims began to expand exponentially to other lands. Because of this expansion, Muslims found themselves living with diverse communities. In order to uphold the spirit of peace and fairness, Sayyiduna Umar r.a. established a covenant with the diverse inhabitants of the land under his authority. This covenant is known today as The Pact of Umar.
Under the leadership of Sayyiduna Umar ibn Al-Khattab r.a., he ensured the preservation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rights of the non-Muslim population in the city of Jerusalem.
The Pact of Umar established the agreements which promoted self-governance and legal autonomy for Christians and Jews living under the Caliph’s rule. The pact became the bedrock of legal arguments by Islamic scholars about religious minorities such as Ibn Al-Qayyim’s Ahkam ahl al-dhimmah (Rulings of the Protected Peoples).
The Dhimmi (the Protected Peoples) would later be expanded to include all religious minorities living under Muslim rule. This protection included legal autonomy to practise their religion without interference in exchange for a poll-tax (Jizya) that would exempt military service.
However, the legitimacy of the Muslim state came from being able to provide the resource of security and justice to its population. When the state could not enforce these resources, it was ordered, in some cases, to return the Jizya it had collected from the Dhimmis.
One such example is the Arab general and Companion of the Prophet s.a.w, Ubaiydah ibn Al-Jarrah r.a, instructing the governors of Syria to return the Jizya to the Dhimmis when a Roman army threatened to invade the country.
Much later from the 15th to 20th century, the Ottoman Empire maintained the long-standing tradition of granting self-governance and autonomy to its non-Muslim population through the Millet system, which upheld the religious and cultural identities of its population.
Sultan Mehmet II and the Patriarch Gennadios II. Image source https://ec-patr.org/
The Millet was a term referring to communities of religious minorities within the Ottoman Empire. The Millet system ensured specific rights and responsibilities to state authorities in order to help define and ensure their legal autonomy.
It was first made to administer and organise the various religious and ethnic groups living under the Ottoman Empire. The Millet system ensured the preservation of the identity and culture of each respective community, and managed ethnic and religious differences to secure the unity of the Ottoman Empire.
Millets were also allowed the appointment of a religious community’s own official heads and patriarchs. These officials would report to an Ottoman Qadi (judge) and to the community, and were responsible for their community’s needs.
The socio-cultural and geo-political landscape changed greatly after the dissolution of the last Caliphate - the Ottoman empire. In fact, what classical scholars used as a dichotomy to determine the political governance or territories (Dar Al-Islam & Dar Al-Harb) may not at all be a suitable model for today’s globalised demographic and context. There are significantly more Muslims today living as minorities and non-Muslim minorities living in Muslim majority countries.
Ultimately, the classical systems of governance in Islam are the Ijtihad (scholarly independent reasoning) of the scholars of their time. Nonetheless, the life of the Prophet s.a.w. remains to be a relevant source of reference for Muslims that transcends all time and situations.
As such, the former Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Prof. Dr Ali Gomaa, introduced the concept of coexistence derived from various periods of the Prophet’s s.a.w. lifetime through four paradigms:
1. The Paradigm of Makkah represented the principles of perseverance and patience in a hostile society, in which coexistence was needed to introduce and invite people to Islam or mitigate the oppression against Muslims. This paradigm illustrates the guidance for Muslim minorities living in hostile situations.
2. The Abyssinian Paradigm saw the first migration of Muslims to non-Muslim lands where the idea of coexistence flourished, and the principles of loyalty and support of the Negus (King of Abyssinia) were established, with the protection and practice of Islam returned as a guarantee. This paradigm demonstrates the ideal context of Muslim minorities living harmoniously with the non-Muslim majority.
3. The Early Madinan Period provided Muslims with the principles of exposure to other religious communities and cooperation through the enactment of the constitution of Madinah, which guaranteed the rights of practice and protection of all communities in Madinah. Although the population of Muslims in Madinah were many, there were significant number of diverse non-Muslim communities as well. This period marks the early establishment of the Constitution of Madinah. which became the basis of citizenship for citizens of diverse religious communities in the Islamic Tradition.
4. The Paradigm of the Late Madinan Period institutes the principles of justice, fairness and understanding. With the Muslims now a majority, came a continued and solidified effort to protect the rights of religious minorities. Contrary to popular beliefs, Madinah, even towards the later days before the Prophet’s departure from this world, also had non-Muslims living peacefully with the Muslim majority. This paradigm displayed the guidance for the Muslim majority living with non-Muslim minorities in a peaceful condition and are socially binded by the Constitution of Madinah.
From these prophetic paradigms in coexistence, we are able to understand how Muslims flourished living with other religious communities. Wherever we are living in the world today, we’re able to refer our distinct realities back to these four paradigms and take guidance from it. Even the previous historical examples of ideal treatments of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim lands - the Pact of Umar and the Millet system of the Ottomans - ultimately derived the legal and ethical basis of their policies from the Prophet’s life.
Marrakesh Declaration Conference. Image source: https://binbayyah.net/
Presently in Morocco, for example, the Marrakesh Declaration seeks to reestablish religious liberties in accordance with the Constitution of Madinah through several of the following:
1. Developing of a jurisprudence of the concept of citizenship through Islamic traditions,
2. Reviewing educational curricula to address materials used to instigate aggression and extremism,
3. Establishing a constitutional, contractual relationship among its citizens while fortifying relations and understanding among various religious groups,
4. Founding a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities by intellectuals, creative and artistic societies,
5. Addressing the selective amnesia of religious groups of the past to rebuild the spirit of camaraderie and restore the shared trust eroded by extremists,
6. Condemning and confronting all forms of religious bigotry as well as speech that promote hatred and bigotry,
7. Affirming the condemnation of the unconscionable or excessive use of religion to transgress the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.
The history of Islam’s treatment of religious minorities is sometimes overlooked due to the misrepresentation of violent extremists and some rulers, or the ignorance of the Islamic traditions and civilisations’ rich history of tolerance and coexistence.
Nothing binds a multi-religious society more than the principle of tolerance. Sadly, it is sometimes forgotten that freedom of religion has always been the general rule of the Quran and a fundamental principle of Islam.
Thus, it is important for us to uphold what was revealed to us through the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet s.a.w. to promote justice, fairness and peace.
 Who Are The Yazidis and Why Is ISIS Attacking Them? https://abcnews.go.com/US/yazidis-isis-attacking/story?id=24901815
 Christians Flee ISIS Rule In Nothern Iraq Amid Persecutions. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/christians-flee-isis-rule-northern-iraq-amid-persecution-n200181
 Mona Hassan, Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History, Princeton University Press, 2018.
 Dr Tesneem Alkiek, (2017). Religious Minorities Under Muslim Rule. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/religious-minorities-under-muslim-rule
 Dr Tesneem Alkiek, (2018). Tolerance, Minorities, and Ideological Perspectives. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/tolerance-minorities-and-ideological-perspectives
 Dar Al-Ifta Al-Misriyyah. Paradigms of Coexistence: A Blueprint for Muslims Living in non-Muslim Countries. https://www.dar-alifta.org/foreign/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=501&CategoryID=6
 Marrakesh Declaration. https://www.marrakeshdeclaration.org/files/Bismilah-2-ENG.pdf
 Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). Advisory on Freedom of Religion and Apostasy in Islam. https://www.muis.gov.sg/officeofthemufti/Irsyad/Advisory-on-Freedom-of-Religion-and-Apostasy-in-Islam