On Religious Tolerance
POSTED: 25 ZUL-HIJJAH 1421, 21 MARCH 2001
While on his deathbed, Sayyidna Umar ibn al-Khattab, Radi-Allahu unhu, dictated a long
Will consisting of instructions for the next Khalifah. Here is the last sentence of that
historic document: I instruct you on behalf of the people who have been given
protection in the name of Allah and His Prophet . [That is the dhimmis or
the non-Muslim minorities within the Islamic state]. Our covenant to them must be
fulfilled, we must fight to protect them, and they must not be burdened beyond their
At that time Sayyidna Umar was lying in pain because of the wounds inflicted on him by
a non-Muslim who had stabbed him with a dagger soaked in poison while he was leading the
fajr prayer. It should also be remembered that he was the head of a vast empire ranging
from Egypt to Persia. From normal rulers of his time or ours, we could have expected
vengeance and swift reaction. (The enlightened rulers of today have sent bombers even on
suspicion of murder conspiracy). From a very forgiving head of state we could have
expected an attempt to forget and forgive --- and that would be considered noble. But a
command to protect the minorities and take care of them?
What is even more remarkable is that for Muslim historians the entire affair was just
natural. After all it was the Khalifah himself who had established the standards by
writing the guarantees for the protection of life, property and religion in decree after
decree as Muslims opened land after land during his rule. The pattern established here was
followed for centuries throughout the Muslim world.
Of course, Sayyidna Umar was simply following what he learnt from the Prophet Muhammad
himself. That the protection of life, property and religious freedom of minorities is the
religious duty of the Islamic state. That he personally would be demanding justice in the
hereafter on behalf of a dhimmi who had been wronged by a Muslim. That there is no
compulsion in religion and that Muslims must be just to friends and foe alike.
The result of these teachings was a Muslim rule that set the gold standard for
religious tolerance in a world that was not used to the idea. Not only that the Muslim
history is so remarkably free of the inquisitions, persecutions, witch hunts, and
holocausts that tarnish history of other civilizations, it protected its minorities from
persecution by others as well. It protected Jews from Christians and Eastern Christians
from Roman Catholics. In Spain under the Umayyads and in Baghdad under the Abbasid
Khalifahs, Christians and Jews enjoyed a freedom of religion that they did not allow each
other or anyone else.
This exemplary tolerance is built into Islamic teachings. The entire message of Islam
is that this life is a test and we have the option of choosing the path to hell or to
heaven. Messengers were sent to inform about the choices and to warn about the
consequences. They were not sent to forcibly put the people on the right path. The job of
the Muslims is the same. They must deliver the message of Islam to the humanity as they
have received it. They are neither to change it to make it attractive, nor to coerce
others to accept it. In addition, the results in the hereafter will depend upon faith. For
all good acts are meaningless in the absence of the proper faith. And faith is an affair
of the heart. It simply cannot be imposed.
It is not an idea that followers of other religions have shared with Islam. The result
is, Muslim experience in the area of tolerance has been exactly opposite of the rest of
the world. As Marmaduke Pickthall noted: It was not until the Western nations broke
away from their religious law that they became more tolerant, and it was only when the
Muslims fell away from their religious law that they declined in tolerance.
The path that the Western world took to provide harmony in society was to banish
religion from the public square. For this achievement, it thinks that it has earned
lecturing rights over the issue. So it may be good to remember that while it has indeed
made huge progress in the area of tolerance during the last century (which should be
appreciated), it has a long way to go before it can reach the standards established by
Islam. First, while Muslim Personal Law is not recognized in the West, the Personal Law of
non-Muslim minorities has always been recognized in the Muslim world. Second, while
throughout Europe and America, Muslims are not permitted to make the call to prayer
(Adhan) on loud speakers, church bells ring freely in the Muslim world. Third, the wide
spread anti-Islamic prejudice in the Western media is both a cause and a consequence of
the underlying intolerance. Fourth, hate crimes are a fact of life in the West. As just
one small indication, nearly two-dozen incidents of vandalism have taken place against
Mosques in the peaceful USA during the last seven years, not to mention hundreds of
attacks against individuals. Fifth, the will to admit this state of affairs is also not
sufficiently strong. Again here is just one indication: In 1999 two resolutions were
floated in the US Senate and House, titled A resolution supporting religious
tolerance toward Muslims. While the Senate resolution passed, the House resolution
was gutted under pressure from several Jewish and Christian groups.
The situation of the rest of the international community is not much
different. With this background, extortions to display tolerance become a vehicle for
imposing one's own intolerance.
Recently some people declared that the demolition of Buddhist statues in a country with
no Buddhist minority violated Islam's teachings on religious tolerance. They forgot that
religious tolerance means accommodation to religious minorities; it does not mean
undermining the majority. Here the issue of religious freedom had been turned on its head.
For the real question to ask was, why the Muslims in Afghanistan must endure the statues
For Muslims religious tolerance is not about political posturing. It is a serious
religious obligation. They must be a force against all intolerance, even that which is
promoted in the guise of tolerance.