Sample text for The place of tolerance in Islam / Khaled Abou El Fadl ; edited by Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague for Boston review.

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Counter Editor"s Preface

Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague

Since September 11, Western discussions of Islam have typically been
conducted through a contest of caricatures. Some analysts present Islamic
extremism as a product of a "clash of civilizations" that pits Eastern
despotism against Western individualism. Others see such extremism as a
grim "blowback" of America"s cold-war foreign policy. Engagement with
Muslim faith commonly takes the form of simplistic pronouncements
about "essence" of Islam: Osama bin Laden either represents the true
message of the Prophet or corrupts a "religion of peace."
As Khaled Abou El Fadl points out, these discussions are driven more by
Western concerns—"are Muslims dangerous or not?"—than by a serious
effort to understand Islam and the place of toleration and moral decency in its
conception of a proper human life. In his lead essay for this volume, Abou El
Fadl opens such a conversation. A professor at UCLA, theorist of Islamic
law, and prominent critic of Islamic puritanism, Abou El Fadl works to reclaim
the "moral trust" of Islam by recovering the Qur"an"s universal principles from
the historical and social context in which the text was received. He interprets
Qur"anic verses about the treatment of women and non-Muslims in light of
scriptural passages that call for mercy, kindness, and justice, and that
emphasize the essentially plural nature of the human community.
Abou El Fadl"s engagement with these theological issues is enriched by
a broad historical perspective. He points out that intolerant sects have
traditionally been marginalized by Islamic civilization. But Islam, he argues,
currently faces a crisis of religious authority owing to the political exploitation
of Islamic symbols and the stagnation of civic and economic life in Muslim
societies. That crisis has facilitated the rise of puritanical sects who interpret
the Qur"an literally and ahistorically. Abou El Fadl acknowledges that the
Qur"an itself, like other ancient religious texts, cannot forestall such
interpretations: interpretation is an act for which readers must take moral
responsibility. In the end, religious texts provide rich "possibilities for
meaning, not inevitabilities," so "the text will morally enrich the reader, but
only if the reader will morally enrich the text."
While a majority of respondents accept Abou El Fadl"s critique of Islamic
puritanism, they take issue with this general conception of the debate and
with his specific arguments. Some respondents contend that Abou El Fadl"s
brand of Islam will only appeal to Westerners and students in "liberal divinity
schools" and that religious dialogue in the Muslim world will be useless
unless it is accompanied by dramatic social and political reform. Other
respondents argue that theological debates are irrelevant and that the focus
should be on the Western sabotage of such reforms. A different group of
respondents criticizes these same policies as part of an exploitative program
of Western secularization, and argues that calls for Islamic "tolerance" betray
the Qur"anic injunction for Muslims to struggle against their oppressors.
These disagreements demonstrate that a discussion of tolerance in Islam
cannot take place in isolation from debates about the distribution of political
power and economic resources. But they also underscore the enduring
challenge posed by religious morality in a pluralistic age: how can we retain
the richness and intensity of conviction provided by a religious outlook while
participating in what Abou El Fadl calls "a collective enterprise of goodness"
that cuts across confessional differences?


The Place of Tolerance in Islam
Khaled Abou El Fadl

The terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon have focused public
attention on the state of Muslim theology. For most Americans, the utter
indifference to the value of human life and the unmitigated hostility to the
United States shown by some Muslims came as a great shock. Others were
confirmed in their belief that we face a great struggle between civilizations.
Islamic values, they say, are fundamentally at odds with Western liberal
values. The terrorist attacks are symptomatic of a clash between Judeo-
Christian civilization, with its values of individual freedom, pluralism, and
secularism, and an amoral, un-Westernized, so-called "authentic Islam."
Indeed, Islamic civilization is associated with the ideas of collective rights,
individual duties, legalism, despotism, and intolerance that we associated
with our former civilizational rival, the Soviet bloc. We seem to project onto
the other everything we like to think that we are not.
This intellectual trap is easy to fall into when we deal with the theology of
Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, and the Jihad
organization. The theologically based attitudes of these Muslim puritans are
fundamentally at odds not only with a Western way of life but also with the
very idea of an international society or the notion of universal human values.
They display an intolerant exclusiveness and a belligerent supremacy vis-à-
vis the other. According to their theologies, Islam is the only way of life, and
must be pursued regardless of its impact on the rights and well-being of
others. The straight path (al-sirat al-mustaqim) is fixed, they say, by a
system of divine laws (shari"a) that trump any moral considerations or ethical
values that are not fully codified in the law. God is manifested through a set
of determinate legal commands that specify the right way to act in virtually all
circumstances. The sole purpose of human life on earth is to realize the
divine manifestation by dutifully and faithfully implementing God"s law.
Morality itself begins and ends in the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic
law (though different schools of Islamic law understand the content of those
laws differently).
A life devoted to compliance with this legal code is considered inherently
superior to all others, and the followers of any other way are considered
either infidels (kuffar), hypocrites (munafiqun), or iniquitous (fasiqun).
Anchored in the security and assuredness of a determinable law, it becomes
fairly easy to differentiate between the rightly-guided and the misguided. The
rightly-guided obey the law; the misguided either deny, attempt to dilute, or
argue about the law. Naturally, the rightly-guided are superior because they
have God on their side. The Muslim puritans imagine that God"s perfection
and immutability are fully attainable on earth—as if God"s perfection had
been deposited in the divine law, and, by giving effect to this law, we could
create a social order that mirrors divine truth. By attaching themselves to the
Supreme Being, puritan groups are able to claim a self-righteous
perfectionism that easily slips into a pretense of supremacy.

Extremism in Islamic History

Perhaps all firmly held systems of belief, especially those founded on
religious conviction, are in some way supremacist: believers are understood
to have some special virtue that distinguishes them from adherents of other
faiths. But the supremacist creed of the puritan groups is distinctive and
uniquely dangerous. The supremacist thinking of Muslim puritans has a
powerful nationalist component, which is strongly oriented toward cultural and
political dominance. These groups are not satisfied with living according to
their own dictates, but are actively dissatisfied with all alternative ways of life.
They do not merely seek self-empowerment but aggressively seek to
disempower, dominate, or destroy others. The crux of the matter is that all
lives lived outside the law are considered an offense against God that must
be actively resisted and fought.
The existence of Muslim puritanism is hardly surprising. Most religious
systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist extremism, and
Islam is no exception. Within the first century of Islam, religious extremists
known as the Khawarij (literally, the secessionists) slaughtered a large
number of Muslims and non-Muslims, and were even responsible for the
assassination of the Prophet"s cousin and companion, the Caliph Ali b. Abi
Talib. The descendants of the Khawarij exist today in Oman and Algeria, but
after centuries of bloodshed, they became moderates if not pacifists.
Similarly, the Qaramites and Assassins, for whom terror became a raison
d"être, earned unmitigated infamy in the writings of Muslim historians,
theologians, and jurists. Again, after centuries of bloodshed, these two
groups learned moderation, and they continue to exist in small numbers in
North Africa and Iraq. The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that
extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are
marginalized, and eventually treated as heretical aberrations to the Islamic
But Islam is now living through a major shift, unlike any it has
experienced in the past. The Islamic civilization has crumbled, and the
traditional institutions that once sustained and propagated Islamic
orthodoxy—and marginalized Islamic extremism—have been dismantled.
Traditionally, Islamic epistemology tolerated and even celebrated divergent
opinions and schools of thought. The guardians of the Islamic tradition were
the jurists (fuqaha), whose legitimacy rested largely on their semi-
independence from a decentralized political system, and their dual function of
representing the interests of the state to the laity and the interests of the laity
to the state.
But in Muslim countries today, the state has grown extremely powerful
and meddlesome, and is centralized in ways that were inconceivable two
centuries ago. In the vast majority of Muslim countries, the state now
controls the private religious endowments (awqaf) that once sustained the
juristic class. Moreover, the state has co-opted the clergy, and transformed
them into its salaried employees. This transformation has reduced the
clergy"s legitimacy, and produced a profound vacuum in religious authority.
Hence, there is a state of virtual anarchy in modern Islam: it is not clear who
speaks with authority on religious issues. Such a state of virtual religious
anarchy is perhaps not problematic in secular societies where religion is
essentially reduced to a private matter. But where religion remains central to
the dynamics of public legitimacy and cultural meaning, the question of who
represents the voice of God is of central significance.

Puritanism and Modern Islam

It would be wrong to say that fanatic supremacist groups such as al-Qaeda
or al-Jihad organizations now fill the vacuum of authority in contemporary
Islam. Though they are obviously able to commit highly visible acts of
violence that command the public stage, fanatic groups remain sociologically
and intellectually marginal in Islam. Still, they are extreme manifestations of
more prevalent intellectual and theological currents in modern Islam.
Fanatic groups derive their theological premises from the intolerant
puritanism of the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds. Wahhabism was founded by
the eighteenth-century evangelist Muhammad ibn "Abd al-Wahhab in the
Arabian Peninsula. "Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of the corruptions that
he believed had crept into the religion. He advocated a strict literalism in
which the text became the sole source of legitimate authority, and displayed
an extreme hostility to intellectualism, mysticism, and any sectarian
divisions within Islam. According to the Wahhabi creed, it was imperative to
return to a presumed pristine, simple, straightforward Islam, which could be
entirely reclaimed by literal implementation of the commands of the Prophet,
and by strict adherence to correct ritual practice. Importantly, Wahhabism
rejected any attempt to interpret the divine law historically or contextually,
with attendant possibilities of reinterpretation under changed circumstances.
It treated the vast majority of Islamic history as a corruption of the true and
authentic Islam. Furthermore, Wahhabism narrowly defined orthodoxy, and
was extremely intolerant of any creed that contradicted its own.
In the late eighteenth century, the Al Sa"ud family united with the
Wahhabi movement and rebelled against Ottoman rule in Arabia. The
rebellions were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately
slaughtered and terrorized Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Interestingly,
mainstream jurists writing at the time, such as the Hanafi Ibn "Abidin and the
Maliki al-Sawi, branded the Wahhabis the modern day Khawarij of Islam, and
condemned their fanaticism and intolerance.In 1818, Egyptian forces under
the leadership of Muhammad Ali defeated this rebellion, and Wahhabism
seemed destined to become another fringe historical experience with no
lasting impact on Islamic theology. But the Wahhabi creed was resuscitated
in the early twentieth century under the leadership of "Abd al-"Aziz ibn Sa"ud,
who allied himself with Wahhabi militant rebels known as the Ikhwan, in the
beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia. Even with the formation of
the Saudi state, Wahhabism remained a creed of limited influence until the
mid-1970s when the sharp rise in oil prices, together with aggressive Saudi
proselytizing, dramatically contributed to its wide dissemination in the
Muslim world.
Wahhabism did not propagate itself as one school of thought or a
particular orientation within Islam. Rather, it asserted itself as the
orthodox "straight path" of Islam. By claiming literal fidelity to the Islamic
text, it was able to make a credible claim to authenticity at a time when
Islamic identity was contested. Moreover, the proponents of Wahhabism
refused to be labeled or categorized as the followers of any particular figure
including "Abd al-Wahhab himself. Its proponents insisted that they were
simply abiding by the dictates of al-salaf al-salih (the rightly-guided
predecessors, namely the Prophet and his companions), and in doing so,
Wahhabis were able to appropriate the symbolisms and categories of
Ironically, Salafism was founded in the early twentieth century by al-
Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida as a liberal theological
orientation. To respond to the demands of modernity, they argued, Muslims
needed to return to the original sources of the Qur"an and Sunnah (tradition of
the Prophet), and engage in de novo interpretations of the text. By the 1970s,
however, Wahhabism had succeeded in transforming Salafism from a liberal
modernist orientation to a literalist, puritan, and conservative theology. The
sharp rise in oil prices in 1975 enabled Saudi Arabia, the main proponent of
Wahhabism, to disseminate the Wahhabi creed under a Salafi guise, which
purported to revert back to the authentic fundamentals of religion uncorrupted
by the accretions of historical practice. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia
projected its own fairly conservative cultural practices onto the textual
sources of Islam and went on to proselytize these projections as the
embodiment of Islamic orthodoxy.
Despite its intolerance and rigidity, however, Wahhabism itself does not
bear primary responsibility for the existence of terrorist groups in Islam today.
To be sure, Wahhabism and its militant offshoots share both attitudinal and
ideological orientations. Both insist on a normative particularism that is
fundamentally text-centered; both reject the notion of universal human values;
and both deal with the other, however defined, in a functionalist and even
opportunistic fashion. But Wahhabism is distinctively inward-looking—
although focused on power, it primarily asserts power over other Muslims.
This is consistent with its obsession with orthodoxy and correct ritualistic
practice. Militant puritan groups, however, are both introverted and
extroverted—they attempt to assert power against both Muslims and non-
Muslims. As populist movements, they are a reaction to the
disempowerment most Muslims have suffered in the modern age at the
hands of harshly despotic governments, and at the hands of interventionist
foreign powers. These groups compensate for extreme feelings of
disempowerment by extreme and vulgar claims to power. Fueled by
supremacist and puritan theological creeds, their symbolic acts of power
become uncompromisingly fanatic and violent.

The Theology of Intolerance

Islamic puritans, whether of the Wahhabi or more militant varieties, offer a set
of textual references in support of their exclusionary and intolerant theological
orientation. For instance, they frequently cite the Qur"anic verse that
states: "O" you who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies.
They are allies of each other, and he amongst you who becomes their ally is
one of them. Verily, God does not guide the unjust." Wahhabi and militant
puritanism read this and similar Qur"anic verses literally and ahistorically, and
therefore reach highly exclusionary conclusions. For example, while Muslims
may elicit the support or aid of non-Muslims over particular issues when the
self-interests of Muslims so require, they may not befriend or share the
normative values of non-Muslims. This orientation often demands the
performance of symbolic acts, which aim to distinguish Muslims from non-
Muslims—for instance, dressing in a particular way or marking non-Muslims
with distinctive symbols.
Islamic puritanism also often invokes the Qur"anic verse asserting
that, "whomsoever follows a religion other than Islam this will not be accepted
from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers." This verse is
invoked in arguing that the theology and rituals of Islam are the exclusive
path to salvation. Moreover, a mere testament of faith or a general act of
submission to God is insufficient to attain salvation in the Hereafter; rather, a
person must comply with the particulars of the divine law in order to qualify
as a "true" believer. The puritan trend is thus uncompromising in its rejection
of all forms of belief and ritual that do not qualify as the "true" religion of God.
As to the principles that should guide the interaction between Muslims
and non-Muslims, the puritan trend cites the Qur"anic verse commanding
Muslims to fight the unbelievers, "until there is no more tumult or oppression,
and until faith and all judgment belongs to God." Moreover, justifying an
essentially supremacist view towards non-Muslims, proponents of puritanism
often quote the following Qur"anic injunction: "Fight those among the People
of the Book (Jews and Christians) who do not believe in God or the Hereafter,
who do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden, and who do not
acknowledge the religion of truth—fight them until they pay the poll tax
(jizyah) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued."
Relying on such textual evidence, Muslim puritans assert that Muslims
are the inheritors of an objectively ascertainable and realizable divine truth;
while Jews and Christians may be tolerated, they cannot be befriended.
Ultimately, however, they must be subdued and forced to acknowledge
Muslim supremacy by paying a poll tax. The puritan doctrine is not
necessarily or entirely dismissive of the rights of non-Muslims, and it does
not necessarily lead to the persecution of Jews and Christians. But it does
assert a hierarchy of importance, and the commitment to toleration is
correspondingly fragile and contingent. So it is conducive to an arrogance
that can easily descend into a lack of respect or concern for the well-being or
dignity of non-Muslims. When this arrogant orientation is coupled with textual
sources that exhort Muslims to fight against unbelievers (kuffar), it can
produce a radical belligerency.

The Case for Tolerance in Islam

The puritans construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading
Qur"anic verses in isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were
transparent—as if moral ideas and historical context were irrelevant to their
interpretation. In fact, however, it is impossible to analyze these and other
verses except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur"anic message. The
Qur"an itself refers to general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice,
kindness, or goodness. The Qur"an does not clearly define any of these
categories, but presumes a certain amount of moral probity on part of the
reader. For instance, the Qur"an persistently commands Muslims enjoin the
good. The word used for "the good" is ma"ruf, which means that which is
commonly known to be good. Goodness, in the Qur"anic discourse, is part of
what one may call a lived reality—it is the product of human experience, and
constructed normative understandings. Similarly, the Qur"anic term for
kindness is ihsan, which literally means to beautify and improve upon. But
beautification or improving upon can have meaning only in the context of a
certain sociological understanding and practice. In a further example, as to
justice, the Qur"an states: "O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, as
witnesses for God, even if it means testifying against yourselves, or your
parents, or your kin, and whether it is against the rich or poor, for God
prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if
you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do."6
The idea that Muslims must stand up for justice even against their own self-
interests is predicated on the notion that human beings are capable of
achieving a high level of moral agency. As agents, Muslims are expected to
achieve a level of moral conscientiousness, which they will bring to their
relationship with God. In regards to every ethical obligation, the Qur"anic text
assumes that readers will bring a preexisting, innate moral sense to the text.
Hence, the text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will
morally enrich the text. The meaning of the religious text is not fixed simply
by the literal meaning of its words, but depends, too, on the moral
construction given to it by the reader. So if the reader approaches the text
without moral commitments, it will almost inevitably yield nothing but
discrete, legalistic, technical insights.
Similarly, it is imperative to analyze the historical circumstances in which
specific Qur"anic ethical norms were negotiated. Many of the institutions
referenced in the Qur"an—such as the poll tax or the formation of alliances
with non-Muslims—can be understood only if the reader is aware of the
historical practices surrounding the revelation of the text. But by emptying
the Qur"an both of its historical and moral context, the puritan trend ends up
transforming the text into a long list of morally noncommittal legal
The Qur"anic discourse, for instance, can readily support an ethic of
diversity and tolerance. The Qur"an not only expects, but even accepts the
reality of difference and diversity within human society: "O humankind, God
has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations
and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily, the most
honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous."
Elsewhere, the Qur"an asserts that diversity is part of the divine intent and
purpose in creation: "If thy Lord had willed, He would have made humankind
into a single nation, but they will not cease to be diverse. . . . And, for this
God created them [humankind]." The classical commentators on the Qur"an
did not fully explore the implications of this sanctioning of diversity, or the
role of peaceful conflict resolution in perpetuating the type of social
interaction that would result in people "knowing each other." Nor does the
Qur"an provide specific rules or instructions about how "diverse nations and
tribes" are to acquire such knowledge. In fact, the existence of diversity as a
primary purpose of creation, as suggested by the verse above, remained
underdeveloped in Islamic theology. Pre-modern Muslim scholars did not
have a strong incentive to explore the meaning and implications of the
Qur"anic endorsement of diversity and cross-cultural intercourse. This is
partly because of the political dominance and superiority of the Islamic
civilization, which left Muslim scholars with a sense of self-sufficient
confidence. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Islamic civilization was
pluralistic and unusually tolerant of various social and religious
denominations. Working out the implications of a commitment to human
diversity and mutual knowledge under contemporary conditions requires
moral reflection and attention to historical circumstance—precisely what is
missing from puritan theology and doctrine.
Other than a general endorsement of human diversity, the Qur"an also
accepted the more specific notion of a plurality of religious beliefs and laws.
Although the Qur"an clearly claims that Islam is the divine truth, and
demands belief in Muhammad as the final messenger in a long line of
Abrahamic prophets, it does not completely exclude the possibility that there
might be other paths to salvation. The Qur"an insists on God"s unfettered
discretion to accept in His mercy whomever He wishes. In a rather
remarkable set of passages that, again, have not been adequately theorized
by Muslim theologians, the Qur"an recognizes the legitimate multiplicity of
religious convictions and laws. In one such passage, for example, the Qur"an
asserts: "To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would
have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God"s purpose is
to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue,
and know that you will all return to God [in the Hereafter], and He will resolve
all the matters in which you disagree." On this and other occasions the
Qur"an goes on to state that it is possible for non-Muslims to attain the
blessing of salvation.: "Those who believe, those who follow Jewish
scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the
Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they
will not come to fear or grief." Significantly, this passage occurs in the same
chapter that instructs Muslims not to take the Jews and Christians as allies.
How can these different verses be reconciled?
If we read the text with moral and historical guidance, we can see the
different passages as part of a complex and layered discourse about
reciprocity and its implications in the historical situation in Muhammad"s
Medina. In part, the chapter exhorts Muslims to support the newly
established Muslim community in Medina. But its point is not to issue a
blanket condemnation against Jews and Christians (who "shall have their
reward with their Lord"). Instead, it accepts the distinctiveness of the Jewish
and Christian communities and their laws, while also insisting that Muslims
are entitled to the same treatment as those other communities. Thus it sets
out an expectation of reciprocity for Muslims: while calling upon Muslims to
support the Prophet of Islam against his Jewish and Christian detractors, it
also recognizes the moral worth and rights of the non-Muslim "other."
The challenge most often invoked against an argument for tolerance in
Islam is the issue of jihad. Jihad, especially as portrayed in the Western
media, is often associated with the idea of a holy war that is propagated in
the name of God against the unbelievers. Therefore, jihad is often equated
with the most vulgar images of religious intolerance.
At the most rudimentary level, the Qur"an itself is explicit in prohibiting
any form of coerced conversions to Islam. It contends that truth and falsity
are clear and distinct, and so whomever wishes to believe may do so, but no
duress is permitted in religion: "There is no compulsion in matter of faith." Of
course, this response is incomplete—even if forced conversions to Islam are
prohibited, aggressive warfare to spread Islamic power over nonbelievers
might still be allowed. Does the Qur"an condone such expansionist wars?
Interestingly, Islamic tradition does not have a notion of holy war. Jihad
simply means to strive hard or struggle in pursuit of a just cause, and
according to the Prophet of Islam, the highest form of jihad is the struggle
waged to cleanse oneself from the vices of the heart. Holy war (in Arabic al-
harb al-muqaddasah) is not an expression used by the Qur"anic text or
Muslim theologians. In Islamic theology, war is never holy; it is either justified
or not, and if it is justified, those killed in battle are considered martyrs. The
Qur"anic text does not recognize the idea of unlimited warfare, and does not
consider the simple fact of the belligerent"s Muslim identity to be sufficient to
establish the justness of his cause. In other words, the Qur"an entertains the
possibility that the Muslim combatant might be the unjust party in a conflict.
Moreover, while the Qur"an emphasizes that Muslims may fight those who
fight them, it also insists that Muslims may not transgress. Transgression is
an ambiguous term, but on several occasions the Qur"an intimates that in
order not to transgress, Muslims must be constrained by a requirement of
proportionality, even when the cause is just. For instance, it
states, "Mandated is the law of equality, so that who transgresses against
you, respond in kind, and fear God, and know that God is with those who
exercise restraint."
Despite the prohibition against transgression and the condemnation of
unlimited warfare, many classical jurists adopted an imperialist orientation,
which divided the world into the abode of Islam and the abode of war, and
supported expansionist wars against unbelievers. But this view was not
unanimous. Classical Muslim jurists debated whether unbelief is a sufficient
justification for warfare, with a sizeable number of classical jurists arguing
that non-Muslims may not be fought unless they pose a physical threat to
Muslims. If non-Muslims seek peace, Muslims should make an effort to
achieve such a peace. This discourse was partly inspired by the Qur"anic
injunctions concerning peace. The Qur"an asserts that God does not prohibit
Muslims from making peace with those who do not fight Muslims, but God
does prohibit Muslims from making peace with those who have expelled
Muslims from their homes and continue to persecute them. Elsewhere, the
Qur"an pronounces a stronger mandate in favor of peace in stating: "If your
enemy inclines towards peace, then you should seek peace and trust in
God." Moreover, the Qur"an instructs Muslims not to haughtily turn away
unbelievers who seek to make peace with Muslims, and reminds Muslims, "If
God would have willed, He would have given the unbelievers power over you
[Muslims], and they would have fought you [Muslims]. Therefore, if they [the
unbelievers] withdraw from you and refuse to fight you, and instead send you
guarantees of peace, know that God has not given you a license [to fight
them]." These discussions of peace would not make sense if Muslims were
in a permanent state of war with nonbelievers, and if nonbelievers were a
permanent enemy and always a legitimate target.
The other major issue on the point of tolerance in Islam is that of the poll
tax (jizyah) imposed on the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who
live in Muslim territory. When the Qur"an was revealed, it was common inside
and outside of Arabia to levy poll taxes against alien groups. Building upon
the historical practice, classical Muslim jurists argued that the poll tax is
money collected by the Islamic polity from non-Muslims in return for the
protection of the Muslim state. If the Muslim state was incapable of
extending such protection to non-Muslims, it was not supposed to levy a poll
tax. In fact, "Umar (r. 13-23/634–44), the second Rightly-Guided Caliph and
close companion of the Prophet, returned the poll tax to an Arab Christian
tribe that he was incapable of protecting from Byzantine aggression.
Aside from the juristic theory justifying the poll tax, the Qur"an does not,
however, pronounce an absolute and unwavering rule in favor of such an
institution. Once more, attention to historical circumstance is essential. The
Qur"an endorsed a poll tax as a response to particular groups in Arabia who
were persistently hostile to the early Muslims. Importantly, the Prophet did
not collect a poll tax from every non-Muslim tribe that submitted to Muslim
sovereignty, and in fact, in the case of a large number of non-Muslim but non-
hostile tribes, he paid them a periodic sum of money or goods. These tribes
were known as "those whose hearts have been reconciled."
Furthermore, "Umar entered into a peace settlement with Arab Christian
tribes pursuant to which these tribes were obligated to pay the Islamic annual
tax known as the zakah (almsgiving), and not the poll tax. Reportedly,
although they refused to convert to Islam, the Christian tribes contended that
paying the jizyah (poll tax) was degrading, and instead, asked to the pay the
zakah, and "Umar accommodated their request. In short, there are various
indicators that the poll tax is not a theologically mandated practice, but a
functional solution that was adopted in response to a specific set of historical
circumstances. Only an entirely ahistorical reading of the text could conclude
that it is an essential element in a divinely sanctioned program of
subordinating the nonbeliever.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the Qur"an, or any text, speaks through its reader. This ability of
human beings to interpret texts is both a blessing and a burden. It is a
blessing because it provides us with the flexibility to adapt texts to changing
circumstances. It is a burden because the reader must take responsibility for
the normative values he or she brings to the text. Any text, including those
that are Islamic, provides possibilities for meaning, not inevitabilities. And
those possibilities are exploited, developed and ultimately determined by the
reader"s efforts—good faith efforts, we hope—at making sense of the text"s
complexities. Consequently, the meaning of the text is often only as moral
as its reader. If the reader is intolerant, hateful, or oppressive, so will be the
interpretation of the text.
It would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur"an and other Islamic
sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation. Clearly these
possibilities are exploited by the contemporary puritans and supremacists.
But the text does not command such intolerant readings. Historically, Islamic
civilization has displayed a remarkable ability to recognize possibilities of
tolerance, and to act upon these possibilities. Islamic civilization produced a
moral and humanistic tradition that preserved Greek philosophy, and
generated much science, art, and socially benevolent thought. Unfortunately,
however, the modern puritans are dissipating and wasting this inspiring moral
tradition. They are increasingly shutting off the possibilities for a tolerant
interpretation of the Islamic tradition.
If we assess the moral trajectory of a civilization in light of its past record,
then we have ample reason to be optimistic about the future. But the burden
and blessing of sustaining that moral trajectory—of accentuating the Qur"anic
message of tolerance and openness to the other—falls squarely on the
shoulders of contemporary Muslim interpreters of the tradition.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Religious tolerance Islam, Liberty of conscience (Islam)Islam Relations