Understanding Islam

Published First: Feb 06, 2002

Challenges to Democracy and Diversity

The theme this panel is asked to address is both timely and thought provoking. For despite its geographical proximity and moral affinity with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is, evidently, the least understood religion in the West. There are many historical and geopolitical reasons for that, but I have neither the time nor the intention to delve into them. I would rather spend the limited time I have to argue that Islam is an essential partner in any effort to develop a more democratic and peaceful world.

Islam is essential for the development of a better future for human society because its adherents constitute one-fifth of world population. No democratic order can be achieved or maintained by discarding the aspirations and ethos of one-fifth of world population. Yet Islam is an essential partner for developing a democratic and peaceful world for more basic reason. Islam holds in high esteem the most fundamental values that make a democratic and pluralist society possible, namely equality, freedom, justice, and interracial and interreligious solidarity.

The emphasis Islam places on the values of equality, freedom, justice, and pluralism is manifested in the Islamic scripture—the Qur’an, in the practices of the Prophet of Islam and those of his companions, in the historical experience of Muslim society, and in ethos of the contemporary Islamic reform movements.


The first thing that strikes us when we study the Qur’anic texts is that the Qur’an neither confines faith and salvation to those who accept the Islamic revelation, nor deny faith and salvation to other religions.1 Indeed the Qur’an does not limit the attribution of faith and salvation to Muslims but extend it to believers of other faiths.2 The Qur’an states in no uncertain terms that all persons who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good, are assured of salvation: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteous deeds – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”  (Al-Ma’idah 69)  

Nor does the Qur’an consider all those who accepted Islam as true believers.  For some have accepted the new religion as a general mode of life but failed to internalize its worldview and ethical mission.3

 Others conform to Islamic teachings only in appearance, but continue to harbor suspicion and doubts, even ill-will toward Islam and its adherents and advocates.4  It follows that believers and disbelievers can belong to all religions.

Because believers and disbelievers cannot be distinguished on religious lines, as they run across all religions, the Qur’an urges Muslims to seek a political order based on peaceful cooperation and mutual respect, and warns them against placing religious solidarity over covenanted rights and the principles of justice.5    

The Qur’an, therefore, directs the Muslims to find a common ground with other religious communities. This common ground is expressed as a mutual respect of the freedom and autonomy of different religious communities.6 That none should appropriate to themselves the right to impose their way of life on other religious communities.7 The Qur’an is also clear that their can be no force in matter religious.8


Equipped with the above set of principles, the Prophet managed to establish in Medina a multi-religious political community, based on a set of universal principles that constituted the Compact of Medina (Sahifatul Medina).9  The various rules enunciated in the Compact were aimed at maintaining peace and cooperation, protecting the life and property of the inhabitants of Medina, fighting aggression and injustice regardless of tribal or religious affiliations, and ensuring freedom of religion and movement.  It is remarkable that the Medina Compact placed the rules of justice over and above religious solidarity, and affirmed the right of the victims of aggression and injustice to rectitude regardless of their tribal or religious affiliations.

The Compact of Medina formed the constitutional foundation of the political community established by the Prophet.10 It established a number of important political principles that, put together, formed the political constitution of the first Islamic state, and defined the political rights and duties of the members of the newly established political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and drew up the political structure of the nascent society.

The Islamic political system adopted the principle of religious tolerance based on freedom of belief for all the members of the society. It conceded to the Jews the right to act according to the principles and rulings in which they believed: “The Jews of Banu Auf are one community with the believers. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs.” The Compact emphasized the fundamentality of cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in establishing justice and defending of Medina against foreign aggression. “The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims theirs. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this Compact. They must seek mutual advice and consultation.” It prohibited the Muslims form doing injustice to the Jews or retaliating for their Muslim brothers against the followers of the Jewish religion without adhering to the principles of truth and goodness. “To the Jew who follows us belongs help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.”11

The Compact stipulated that the social and political activities in the new system must be subject to a set of universal values and standards that treat all people equally. Sovereignty in the society would not rest with the rulers, or any particular group, but with the law founded on the basis of justice and goodness, maintaining the dignity of all. The Compact emphasized repeatedly and frequently the fundamentality of justice, goodness, and righteousness, and condemned in different expressions injustice and tyranny. “They would redeem their prisoners with kindness and justice common among the believers,” the Compact stated. “The God-conscious believers shall be against the rebellious, and against those who seek to spread injustice, sin, enmity, or corruption among the believers, the hand of every person shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them,” it proclaimed.12

The Compact introduced a number of political rights to be enjoyed by the individuals of the Madigan State, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, including (1) the obligation to help the oppressed, (2) outlawing guilt by association which was commonly practiced by pre-Islamic Arab tribes: “A person is not liable for his ally’s misdeeds;” (3) freedom of belief: “The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs;” and (4) freedom of movement from and to Medina: “Whoever will go out is safe, and whoever will stay in Medina is safe except those who wronged (others), or committed offense.”13

The openness of Islam to other religions can be seen in the excellent relationship that was developed between the emerging Muslim community and the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia. Abyssinia had maintained its Christian identity long after Islam was established in Arabia and North Africa. Few Muslim families could be found in the fourth Hijri century.14 From the beginning, Abyssinians showed their good will to the early Muslims who, escaping the persecution of Quraysh, had sought refuge in Abyssinia. The Muslim émigrés were welcomed by the Abyssinians and were further protected from their persecutors who sent a delegation to bring the Muslim escapees back home. Good relations between Abyssinia and the Islamic state continued, the former being the only nation to acknowledge Islam at that time.15 


The death of the fourth caliph marked the end of participatory politics and the beginning of Muslim dynasties. The commitment of Muslim society to religious freedom and the rule of law remained, however, strong and firm. The early Muslim community was cognizant of the need to differentiate law to ensure moral autonomy, while working diligently to ensure equal protection of the law as far as fundamental human rights were concerned.

Thus early jurists recognized that non-Muslims who have entered into a peace covenant with Muslims are entitled to full religious freedom, and equal protection of the law as far as their rights to personal safety and property are concerned.  Muhammad bin al-Hasan al-Shaybani (9th Century) states in unequivocal terms that when non-Muslims enter into a peace covenant with Muslims, “Muslims should not appropriate any of the non-Muslims’ houses and land, nor should they intrude into any of their dwellings, because they have become party to a covenant of peace, and because on the day of the Peace of Khaybar, the prophet’s spokesman announced that none of the property of the covenanters is permitted to the Muslim.  Also because the non-Muslims have accepted the peace covenant so as they may enjoy their properties and rights on par with Muslims.”16 Similarly, early Muslim jurists recognized the right of non-Muslims to self-determination, and awarded them full moral and legal autonomy in the villages and towns under their control.  Therefore, al-Shaybani, the author of the most authoritative work on non-Muslim rights, insists that the Christians who have entered into a peace covenant have all the freedom to trade in wine and pork among themselves, even though such practice is considered unlawful by Muslims.17  

Likewise, early Muslim jurists recognized the right of non-Muslims to hold public office, including the office of a judge and minister.  However, because judges had to refer to laws sanctioned by the religious traditions of the various religious communities, non-Muslim judges could not administer law in Muslim communities, nor were Muslim judges permitted to enforce shari`ah laws on non-Muslims.  There was no disagreement among the various schools of jurisprudence on the right of non-Muslims to be ruled according to their laws; they only differed in whether the positions held by non-Muslim magistrates were judicial in nature, and hence the magistrates could be called judges, or whether they were purely political, and therefore the magistrates were indeed political leaders.18 


Since its inception in the middle of the nineteenth century, Islamic reform movement has rejected the traditionalist interpretations of Islam, and embarked on an ambitious reform project, aiming at relating Islamic beliefs and values to modern life.19  The works of Afghani, Abduh, and Reda? the founders of what has been termed the reform school — present us with an unmistakably egalitarian and liberal discourse, emphasizing openness and tolerance.  Early reformists rejected the anti-intellectual approach of traditionalist jurists, and advocated a rational and critical reading of the works of classical Muslims. They rejected, for instance, the restrictive role assigned by traditionalist jurists to women, emphasizing the importance of women’s education and social participation.  Indeed, as early as the 1930, Muhammed Rashid Rida not only did advocate the right of women to education and social participation, but also their right to political participation.20  Similarly, al-Kawakibi attributed cultural decline of Muslim society to denial to women the right to education, and stressed the importance of their public involvement for their ability to provide proper guidance and sound upbringing for children.21

While reformist scholars were, and continue even today to be, outnumbered by their traditionalist counterparts, they have exerted a profound and far-reaching influence on contemporary Muslim society.  Their impact can be seen in the increasingly more open views adopted by leading figures within the traditionalist schools.  Several influential and widely respected jurists within traditionalist circles are on record in supporting democracy, human rights, including the right of women to compete equally with men for public office.22 The views they express today, and teach in public, and in shari’a departments of traditional Islamic colleges, would have been sufficient for them to be branded as heretics just a century ago.  Leading scholars of the Azhar University, such as Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmoud Shaltoot, Muhammad al-Ghazali, and Yusuf al-Qardawi, have been emphasizing equality between men and women, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

More recently, enlightened Muslim scholars and political leaders have advanced more open and tolerant visions of modern Islam. Scholars such as Salem Awa, Tariq Bishri, Fahmi Huwaidi, and Rashid Ghanoushi have emphasized the values of democracy, freedom, and equal protection of the law. Similarly, American Muslims are undergoing a process of profound intellectual and community reform, as they are engaged in a fresh reading of Islamic texts and heritage as they enjoy their share of the American exceptionalism.    

The views of reformers continue to mature in the direction of recognizing human dignity and reciprocity in society.    Most recently, Fahmi Huwaydi, a leading journalist in the Arab World and respected Muslim reformers, addressed the question of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in a book entitled Muwatinun La Dhimiyun (citizens not dhimis).  Huwaydi rejected the dhimmi classification of non-Muslims as a historically bound concept, and demonstrated, by referring to Islamic sources, that non-Muslims in a Muslim political order enjoy full citizenship rights on par with Muslims.23  The views advanced by Huwaydi are supported by the views of the founder and leader of the main Islamic opposition in Tunisia who stresses that non-Muslims enjoy equal citizenship with Muslim majority.24


The question that preoccupies us this morning, as implied by the theme of this panel, is this: Can we find a common ground on which Muslims and non-Muslims stand comfortably in a democratic and pluralist society? My answer is a resounding yes.

Religious conflict, particularly between Islam and Christianity, more often than not rose out of human excesses and the desire to stir religious passion to support political goals. It is true that the two religions advance a slightly different conceptualization of God and of humanity’s relation to the divine, but doctrinal differences are not limited to inter-religious relationships. One can find more doctrinal diversity within each of the two religions that between them. Muslims and Christians, on the other hand, share similar core values of respect of human life and dignity, and profound commitment to charity and the common good. 

A Muslim who murders a non-Muslim for monetary gains deserves to receive a just punishment, and a non-Muslim who save life deserves a praise and admiration. Reaction of Christians and Jews to these acts would be no difference. One ought to condemn wrong doings and support good deeds, regardless of the identity of the actor. Hence, action rather than religious affiliation should determine the social worth of people.

The question of global peace in a multicultural, multi-religious world is ultimately a question of shifting the locus of social evaluation and order from doctrine to value. Since complete secularism has led to the erosion of morality and the rise of nihilism, religious commitment is becoming increasingly central to public life. Thus we all need to search for an alternative conceptualization of the relationship between religion and politics, a conceptualization that asserts the religious basis of moral action, but rejects religious intolerance and self-righteousness.



    1  “Not all of them are alike! Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (for the right); they rehearse the signs of God around the night, and they prostrate themselves in adoration.  “They believe in God and the last day; they enjoin the right and forbid the intolerable (munkar); and they hasten in (all) good works:  they are in the rank of the righteous.  Of the good that they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for God knows well those that do right.”   (3: 113-5)  “And there are certainly among the People of the Book those who believe in God, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to God.  They will not sell the signs of God for a miserable gain!  For them is a reward with their Lord, and God is swift in account.”  (3: 199)

    2 The Qur’an goes even further to make it abundantly clear that no religious community has the right to claim monopoly on righteousness or salvation:  “The Jews say:  The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: The Jews have naught (to stand) upon.  Yet they (Profess to) study the (same) book.  Like unto their work is what those say who know not; but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment.” (2: 113)  Indeed the Qur’an rebukes those of the People of the Book who justify the violation of their moral code when dealing with people who belong to another faith:  “Among the people of the book are some who, if entrusted with a hoard of gold, will (readily) pay it back; others, who, if entrusted with a single silver coin, will not repay it unless you constantly stood demanding, because they say: there is no call on us (to keep faith) with these ignorant (pagans).  But they tell a lie against god, and (well) they know it.” (3: 75)

    3 The desert Arabs say, “We believe.”  Say, “Ye have no faith; but you (only) say, ‘we have submitted our wills to God,’ for not yet has faith entered your hearts.  But if you obey God and His messenger, he will not belittle aught of your deeds: for God is oft-forgiving, most merciful. (49: 14)

    4 See for example (2:8-20) and (4:142-3).

    5 “Those who believed, and migrated, and fought for the faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of God, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid — these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another.  As to those who believed but chose not to migrate, you owe no duty of protection to them until they migrate; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom you have a treaty of mutual alliance.  And (remember) God sees all that you do.  The unbelievers are protectors, one of another: unless you do this (protect each other), there would be oppression and commotion on earth, and great mischief.” (8: 72)

    6 “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 virtues. The goal of you all is to God: It is He that will show you the truth of the maters in which you dispute.” (5:48)

    7 Say: “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 erect not, form among ourselves, lords and patrons other than God.” If then they turn back, say: “Bear witness that we submit to God’s will.”

    8 “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error.” (2: 256) and “If it had been theLord’s Will, they would all have believed—All who are on earth! Will you then compel mankind against their will to believe?” (10: 98)

    9 See Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyah, vol. 1, p. 500

    10 To review the full text of the Compact of Medina, please refer to Ibn Hisham, Al-Syrah al-Nabawiyah [The Biography of the Prophet], (Damascus, Syria: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyah, n.d.), vol. 1, pp. 501-2

     11 Ibn Hisham, Al- Syrah, p. 501.

    12 Ibid.

    13 Ibid.

    14 T. W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam (London: Constable and Company, 1913), p. 113.

    15 Ibid., pp. 113-4.

    16 Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Sarakhsi, Sharh Kitab al-Siyar al-Kabir (Pakistan: Nasrullah Mansur, 1405 A.H.), Vol. 4, p. 1530.

    17 Ibid.

    18 Ali bin Muhammad al-Mawardi, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr, 1983/1401), p.59

    19 See, for instance, Muhammad Abduh, “Islam, Reason, and Civilization”, in John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, Islam in Transition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 24-8.

    20 Muhammad Rashid Rida, Huquq al-Nisa’ fi al-Islam [women rights in Islam] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Hijra, 1987), pp. 12-4.

    21 Abdul-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Um al-Qura in Al-a’mal al-Kamila, ed. Muhammad ‘Imarah (Cairo, Egypt: al-Hay’ah al-Misriyah al-ammah, 1970), p. 261-4.  For discussion of the views of early contemporary Muslim reformists, see Louay M. Safi,  The Challenge of Modernity (Leham; Maryland: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 111-132.

    22 See for example, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, Huquq al-Insan fi al-Islam.

    23 Fahmi Huwaydi, Muwatunum La dhimiyun (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1985).




    Rashid al-Ghanoushi, al-Huriyyat al-Ammah fi al-Dawah al-Islamiyyah [Public Rights in the Islamic State (Beirut, Labenon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihdah al-Arabiyyah, 1993), p. 135

    The following paper was presented at the Journalism Conference, Regent University, Alexandria, VA, February 7, 2002.

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