Tolerance and coercion in Islam: interfaith relations in the Muslim tradition

  • Book Title:
 Tolerance And Coercion In Islam
  • Book Author:
Yohanan Friedmann
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Tolerance and Coercion in Islam – Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition

Since the beginning of its history, Islam has encountered other religious communities both in Arabia and in the territories conquered during its expansion. T

he most distinctive characteristic of these encounters was that Muslims faced other religions from the position of a ruling power. They were, therefore, able to determine the nature of that relationship in accordance with their world-view and beliefs.

 Yohanan Friedmann’s original and erudite study examines questions of religious tolerance and coercion as they appear in the Qur√ n and in the prophetic tradition, and analyses the principle that Islam is exalted above all religions, discussing the ways in which this principle was reflected in various legal pronouncements.

The book also considers the various interpretations of the Qur√ nic verse according to which ‘No compulsion is there in religion …’, noting that, despite the apparent meaning of this verse, Islamic law allowed religious coercion to be practiced against Manichaeans and Arab idolaters, as well as against women and children in certain circumstances.

YOHANAN FRIEDMANN is Max Schloessinger Professor of Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Member, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. His publications include Shaykh A˛mad Sirhindı: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity (1971, 2000), and Prophecy Continuous: Aspects of A˛madıht and its Medieval Background (1989, 2002).

Is there no compulsion in religion?

No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error. So whoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm handle, unbreaking; God is All-hearing, All-knowing. [01]Qurân 2:256

Muslim attitudes to adherents of other faiths is usually the context for discussing religious tolerance in Islam. The prominence given to this aspect of the issue is understandable: in most periods of medieval Islamic history, Muslims wielded political power and were in the position to accord (or deny) tolerance to others. In the early period of Islam, few Muslims lived under non-Muslim rule and could be treated tolerantly – or intolerantly – by rulers belonging to other religious com-munities.1

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 It is, however, significant to point out that the earliest manner in which religious intolerance manifested itself in Islamic history was the religious persecution endured by Muslims in Mecca before the hijra. In a certain sense, the twelve years between 610 and 622 in Islam can be compared to the first three centuries of Christian history.

Though the suffering of these early Muslims for their faith lasted only for a short period of time and gained only limited importance in the Islamic ethos, an analysis of the question of religious tolerance in Islam cannot be complete without some reference to this nascent period of Islamic history. In the next chapter of the present study, we shall survey and analyze cases in which early Meccan Muslims were compelled to renege on their newly acquired faith.

 We shall also discuss the question what is expected of a Muslim who is exposed to religious coercion.2 Here we shall therefore refrain from treating the religious situation of Muslims in Mecca before the hijra.

In the conclusion of the preceding chapter, we have referred, in general terms, to the Muslim attitudes to non-Muslims in the Arabian peninsula and to the trans- formation of these attitudes after the successful establishment of the Muslim polity in Medina, and after the great conquests of Islam. It is now appropriate to describe these attitudes and their development in greater detail.

Islamic attitudes with regard to non-Muslims who lived in the peninsula under- went speedy and rather dramatic change during the lifetime of the Prophet. Muslim tradition depicts the period of Mecca and the first two or three years after the hijra to Medina as very different from the subsequent one. The views that the Prophet held in those early years of his activity can be gauged from a number of passages reflecting his thought.

Qur√ n 109:6 (“To you your religion, and to me mine”), which is dated to the first Meccan period3 and should therefore be understood as addressing the poly- theists of that city, takes cognizance of the unbridgeable gap between Islam and the religion of the Meccans. It seems to suggest that the only sensible way of action open to the two groups is to keep their religious affairs separate.

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 Since the verse does not demand any action to suppress Meccan polytheism, it has sometimes been understood as reflecting an attitude of religious tolerance on the part of the Muslims;4 yet if we take into account the harsh tone of the first five verses of Süra 109 and the conditions prevailing in Mecca during the first years of Muhammad’s activity – when the Muslims were a small and persecuted minority in the city – it seems better to interpret this verse as a passionate plea to the Meccans to leave the Muslims alone, to refrain from practicing religious coercion against them.5

 In the earliest period of Mecca, the Muslims were not in a position to accord or deny tolerance to their non-Muslim compatriots.

Qur√ n 15:85 and 43:89, dated by Nöldeke to the slightly later “second” period of Mecca,6 are also relevant. In contradistinction to Qur√ n 109:6, these verses clearly address the Prophet and enjoin him to turn away from those who do not believe. Qur√ n 15:85 reads:

“Surely the Hour is coming; so pardon thou, with a gracious pardoning” ( fa-’ßfa˛ al-ßaf˛ al-jamıl); this injunction is related to the imminent approach of the Last Day. The connection between the two is not made clear in the text, yet the verse seems to mean that the Prophet may leave the unbelievers alone because God will soon sit in judgment and inflict on them the just punishment. In Qur√ n 43:88–89 we read: “And for his saying, ‘My Lord, surely there are people who believe not’ – yet pardon them ( fa-’ßfa˛ fianhum), and

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References / Footnotes

01Qurân 2:256