Islam and religious freedom

Coercion leads to hypocrisy

Those who search the Koran for arguments in favour of intolerance and war will find what they are looking for – if they simply take the words literally and disregard their historical context. The Koran should not be read as a book, but as a discourse, says Halis Albayrak, head of the Institute for Koran Exegesis at the Islamic-Theological Faculty of the University of Ankara

In all discourse on the subject of Islam, the authoritative text is the Koran. Its context is essentially the experiences of Mohammed in the years from 610 to 632 AD, what happened during this period and which elements gave rise to Arab culture, whether they be geographical, political, historical, cultural, religious, moral or economic in nature. All these contexts play their part in the genesis of the verses of the Koran.

So when we talk about religious freedom, we are faced with the logical necessity of having to consider the historical context of these verses in our reading and interpretation. If we read every verse in this manner – in other words within its individual context and within its existential frame of reference – we can also appreciate the aim of the word.

But if we approach our reading of the Koran with a literal eye, appreciating its words only at face value, we begin to impose our own intentions on the text. As a consequence, we do an injustice to God, the originator of the word. This is why I believe that reading the Koran not as a book, but as a discourse, is the correct approach.

Unfortunately, this is not an approach that interests Muslim intellectuals. Nevertheless, I am arguing in favour of a paradigm shift, one that is not new to us in principle. There have been instances of it in Islamic tradition in the past: For example, Caliph Umar did not believe it was wise to apply Koran verses with socio-political or socioeconomic content directly to the context of the day. This approach was reflected in his reception of the Koran. We should follow on from this.

In the Koran, we encounter many subject areas that relate to people's lives in a varied and discursive manner: in a religious and moral, legal and economic, strategic and tactical, political and military, socio-psychological and cultural manner.

This means that religion, and therefore also religious freedom, is just one issue among the many covered by the Koran, and must also be regarded as such. The consequence of this is that one cannot treat a religious and a political fact as one category. They differ in character. If we did this, we would construct an identity from two different areas of reality, which would mean that we were mixing up these two subject areas.

Neither the goals of faith and politics nor the means that faith and politics employ can be considered identical. In the case of faith, the free will of the individual is to the fore; in politics, the essential driving force is the interests of the entities, for example society, the nation or the state. Accordingly, if we read a verse group with political content and try to read it as a verse group with religious content, then we are mixing up fundamental existential categories. 

Umar, the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, arriving in Jerusalem in 638 AD (source: picture-alliance/maxpp/picture-alliance/(c) Selva/Leemag)
Umar, the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, arriving in Jerusalem in 638 AD. "Caliph Umar did not believe it was wise to apply Koran verses with socio-political or socioeconomic content directly to the context of their time. This approach was reflected in his reception of the Koran. We should follow on from this," says Halis Albayrak

Six theses relating to religious freedom in the Koran

This understanding of the Koran gives rise to considerations regarding religious freedom in the Koran in the form of six theses.

Firstly, faith is a state of inner reflection. This basic principle is rationally and philosophically irrefutable. As a consequence, coercion in religion is not permissible. The internal decisions and resolutions of people cannot be changed through coercion.

People can be compelled to make some kind of profession of faith; but this does not substantiate any kind of faith, as the internal conviction is lacking. Coercion leads to hypocrisy. The Arabic word "munafiq" describes those who make verbal professions regarding the Islamic faith, but who in truth, namely inside, do not believe at all. "Munafiq", in other words being a religious hypocrite, is one of the behaviours most frequently criticised in the Koran.

Secondly, in addition to the above, coercion amounts to a disregard for human dignity, indeed to an attack upon it. The Koran cites the indispensable necessity that faith is an internal state. Accordingly, it instructs Mohammed not to force someone to believe if that person rejects the faith: "Surely We have sent down upon thee the Book for mankind with the truth. Whosoever is guided, is only guided to his own gain, and whosoever goes astray, it is only to his own loss; thou art not a guardian over them." (Sura 39:41) And: "If thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?" (Sura 10:99)

Finally: "No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error. So whosoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm handle, unbreaking; God is All-hearing, All-knowing." (Sura 2:256)

A verse that emphasises the invalidity of a forced abjuration of faith can be found in the Sura An-Nahl: "Whoso disbelieves in God, after he has believed – excepting him who has been compelled, and his heart is still at rest in his belief – but whosoever's breast is expanded in unbelief, upon them shall rest anger from God, and there awaits them a mighty chastisement." (Sura 16:106) So in the Koran, the responsibility to believe is considered to be a matter for the free will of the individual.

Those who want to, believe in the message of Mohammed; those who do not want to, do not believe in it or believe in a different religion. Two verses on this subject read as follows: "Say: 'The truth is from your Lord; so let whosoever will believe, and let whosoever will disbelieve.'" (Sura 18:29) and "Say: 'Obey God, and obey the Messenger; then, if you turn away, only upon him rests what is laid on him, and upon you rests what is laid on you. If you obey him, you will be guided. It is only for the Messenger to deliver the manifest Message.'" (Sura 24:54)

These verses imply that culture and tradition cannot be exploited as a way of freeing oneself from the individual responsibility to believe; this also includes the change of faith. Responsibility is expressed in the decisions of the individual.

Boys in a Koran school in Tripoli, Libya (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Boys in a Koran school in Tripoli, Libya. "The Koran highlights the fact that people on Earth do not form a homogenous society that believes in one single religion and that calls one single world view their own. Heterogeneity is willed by God! It originates from the person's very being, from his existential truth," says Albayrak

Thirdly, religious pluralism is the law of societal life or, more specifically, history. The Koran highlights the fact that people on Earth do not form a homogenous society that believes in one single religion and that calls one single world view their own. Heterogeneity is willed by God! It originates from the person's very being, from his existential truth: "If God had willed, He would have made you one nation; but that He may try you in what has come to you. So be you forward in good works; unto God shall you return, all together; and He will tell you of that whereon you were at variance." (Sura 5:48)

Fourthly, there is freedom in the choice of faith. The strongest verse in this respect is: "Surely We guided him upon the way whether he be thankful or unthankful." (Sura 76:3) Moreover: "Clear proofs have come to you from your Lord. Whoso sees clearly, it is to his own gain, and whoso is blind, it is to his own loss; I am not a watcher over you." (Sura 6:104)

Fifthly, we find no statement in the Koran that envisages legal measures against those who leave Islam, to adopt another faith or no faith at all. There is no indication that apostates should be killed or imprisoned. The various views in Sharia, the Islamic legal code, concerning the death penalty are not founded in verses of the Koran, but in the "hadith", the sayings of Mohammed handed down to us.

The Koran speaks only of a punishment of the apostate in the afterlife: "But whoso makes a breach with the Messenger after the guidance has become clear to him and follows a way other than the believers', him We shall turn over to what he has turned to and We shall roast him in Gehenna – an evil homecoming!" (Sura 4:115) And: "Those who believe, and then disbelieve, and then believe, and then disbelieve, and then increase in unbelief – God is not likely to forgive them, neither to guide them on any way." (Sura 4:137)

Sixthly: In the Koran, relations with other religious groups have a theological and socio-political aspect. The Koran takes a critical view of other religions and worldviews, because from a theological point of view, it lays an absolute claim to the truth. On the other hand, it completely agrees with those assumptions that are common to Muslims and followers of other religions, even those of a theological nature. At the same time, it calls upon the followers of other religions, in particular religions of the book such as Christianity and Judaism, to acknowledge its truth. Nevertheless, this theological stance towards other religious groups does not provide the justification for violent conflict. It is simply a matter of rationally conducted discussions on the basis of the claim to truth.

The Koran traces the existence of different religions back to laws created by God, and challenges the adherents of all faith traditions to a contest that will ultimately be useful and beneficial to humankind. So in addition to its claim to the truth, it also substantiates the sociologically and historically enduring religions' right to exist in the will of God and leaves, from a theological point of a view, a door open for the truth claims of other faith systems, with the exception of polytheism.

The symbols of Islam, Christianity and Judaism (photo: picture-alliance/Godong/Robert Harding)
In addition to the Koran's claim to the truth, says Halis Albayrak, "it also substantiates the sociologically and historically enduring religions' right to exist in the will of God and leaves, from a theological point of a view, a door open for the truth claims of other faith systems, with the exception of polytheism"

The political should not be confused with the religious

That being said, the Koran does contain verses that deal with the subject of conflicts with other faith communities. These are verses with a political content that tell us about the political conflicts going on at the time. The reason why these verses have become part of the Koran is down to Mohammed himself. In Medina, not only is he the Prophet of God, he is also the head of state. In an era ravaged by crises, these verses should be read as support sent down to him from God in the form of knowledge and strategy. This is where a shift from theology to politics take place. These verses were written at a time when religious groups clashed with others as political and social entities.

The fact that these groups bore names that made reference to their religions does not mean that these were purely religious communities. It is only logical that Koran verses conveyed in the midst of these conflicts are combative in character. The existence of political authorities obviously made combative disputes inevitable from time to time. This is a fact of life. Later, wars were waged between political groups and states, as is the case today. The reasons for this can be found in conflicts over interests and territorial rule.

Things were no different for Mohammed and his companions during the Medina period. The processual emergence of religion by humans brings with it the potential for all manner of controversies. The fledgling Muslim faith community, which fought for its existence at the time and strove for a life in security in the prevailing conditions there, had the right to conduct a political battle.

And excerpts from the Koran show us that Mohammed, while he availed himself of this right, was supported by God with wisdom and knowledge. These excerpts make reference to the conflict-rife history of the seventh century. To read these versus as verses with religious content would be fatal. This means there is no reason to read these verses, which were disclosed within the context of serious wars, as a command to attack religious freedom. There are no arguments in the Koran, a source of Muslim theology, to oppose religious freedom.

Halis Albayrak

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Halis Albayrak heads the Institute for Koran Exegesis at the Islamic-Theological Faculty of the University of Ankara and is co-publisher of the "Lexikon des Dialogs. Grundbegriffe aus Christentum und Islam" (Lexicon of Dialogue. Fundamental Concepts from Christianity and Islam, published by Herder in 2013). This article is the abridged version of a lecture recently delivered by Halis Albayrak in Tubingen entitled "Islam in Europe. Religious Freedom and Christian-Islamic Dialogue".

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