Islam’s message of tolerance

I am often invited by religious authorities in the Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia to attend meetings that are held to urge people to follow Islamic faith and law, while avoiding any debate connected to politics or political rights. Political rights, my hosts insist, are maintained by the ruling regimes themselves, and these follow the teachings of the Quran.

But recently an invitation came from the Faisal Center for Islamic Research and Studies, which actually wanted me to talk about democracy, or “good governance,” as the participants called it.

Until recently, this topic was taboo in Saudi Arabia, where the regime doesn”t allow any margin for political debate, and commands people to listen, obey, and leave matters of government to their rulers. It was obvious that the conference organizers” goal was to revive religious and political speech in order to find a middle ground between Islamic faith and democracy.

I argued that, as many Islamic scholars have recognized, Islamic jurisprudence is compatible with democratic values. Every country that has chosen democracy has come closer to achieving Islam”s goals of equality and social justice.

Democracy suffers in the Islamic world due to skepticism about everything that comes from the West, especially the United States. Thus some leaders view democratization efforts as a new form of colonialism or imperialism in disguise. But this region”s hesitancy to embrace democracy goes beyond mere fear of Western hegemony.

There is a deep philosophical dispute about the nature of democracy. Some Islamic thinkers point to an inevitable contradiction between Islamic and democratic values. They argue that Islam requires submission to the will of God, while democracy implies submission to the will of people.

This notion was clear in the writings of Said Kotb, who saw parliaments as preventing people from submitting to the rule of God. Yet Kotb”s understanding contradicts with the established practices of the Prophet Muhammad, who created the first real state in the Arabian Peninsula by declaring the constitution of Medina, which stated: “Muhammad and the Jews of Bani-Aof [who were citizens of Medina at that time] are one nation.” Thus, social relations were to be based on equality and justice, not religious beliefs.

Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad”s most important political truce, the Hodibiah Agreement between his rising nation and the leaders of Quraish (the dominant tribe in Mecca at that time), stated clearly that “everybody is free to join the league of Muhammad or the league of Quraish.”

Many non-Muslim tribes, such as the Christians of Nagran, the Jews of Fadk and the pagans of Khozafa, joined Muhammad”s league and became part of the Islamic state. All Muslim and non-Muslim tribes had equal rights and freedoms, and enjoyed the protection of the state. Most importantly, Mecca was later opened to protect the pagan people of Khozafa against the attacks of Quraish.

So it was not Muhammad”s intent to build a theocratic or religious state under the rule of mullahs. He was establishing a democratic civil state where people were equal in rights and obligations.

Reconciling the true understanding of Islam and democracy will, I believe, lead to a full realization of the richness of the Islamic experiment. It could also add great vitality to the democratic experiment by bringing it closer to the Muslim street. But the Islamic mainstream must first realize the importance of democratic reform, which is possible only by clearly understanding the prophet”s message, which promises genuine solutions for every time and place.

Although the creation of study centers to debate the concept of Islamic democracy reflect the natural evolution of Islamic thinking, it will not go unopposed. Indeed, during one of the sessions I attended, Sheik Ahmad Rageh of Al-Imam University responded angrily to the Tunisian researcher Salah Edeen Al-Jorashi: “How do you expect us to accept freedom of faith in Islam? It is something that exists only in your illusions. We believe in a religion that doesn”t bargain with right, or hesitate in creed. We believe in a religion that orders us to kill the converts. There is no place in our nation for a malevolent or a renegade.”

I find it hard to understand how Sheik Rageh can miss (or ignore) the clear verses in the Quran that order us to do the very opposite:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion”;

“Thou art not one to manage their affairs”;

“We have not sent thee to be disposer of their affairs for them”; and

“Say, “The truth is from your Lord,” let him who will, believe, and let him who will, reject.”

There are many other verses in the Quran that bear a message of tolerance and freedom. The mine of Islamic jurisprudence is very rich, but the problem is in the way its treasures are used.

As the ancient Arabs used to say: “A man”s choice is a piece of his mind.” The struggle in the Islamic world nowadays is a struggle for a piece of the Muslim mind.

Mohammad Habash, a member of the Syrian Parliament, directs the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus.