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An Islamic Perspective on Religious Pluralism

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Islam is often viewed as an inherently violent and intolerant world religion. This misconception is fueled in part by the miscreant deeds of some Muslims, particularly toward those of other faith beliefs.

That conduct is then unfairly imputed to Islamic doctrine and coreligionists globally.

The imputation is unfair because the individual Muslim's action may not in fact be supported by informed readings of Islamic legal strictures, nor necessarily be representative of the 2.2 billion Muslims in the world.

This is especially true of violence against religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries, like Egypt or in any country, period.

Discrimination, oppression and/or violence against an individual or group based upon religious affiliation -- or no affiliation -- is fundamentally wrong no matter how you look at it.

This is particularly so from an Islamic perspective.

The Quran is Islam's foundational text regarded by Muslims as the literal word of God. It constitutes a primary source informing Islamic law. And it articulates several significant principles regarding inter-religious harmony, peaceful co-existence and religious pluralistic success.

Several of these principles bear mentioning here.

First, the Quran asserts that monotheistic religions derive from the Divine: "The same religion He has established for you is as that which He enjoined on Noah -- and what We now reveal to you -- and enjoined on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, saying, 'Establish the religion and do not become divided therein'" (42:13).

The Quran further states, "Say, 'We believe in God and in that which He has revealed to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, the descendants and that which was revealed to Moses, Jesus and that which was revealed to the prophets from their Lord, We make no difference between one and another and we bow in submission to Him'" (2:136).

Thus, the Quran makes the belief in all the prophets -- from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus -- incumbent upon Muslims. All those prophets should be respected, as should their followers.

Indeed, Islam prohibits oppression in all of its ugly forms, irrespective of the faith, gender, race or economic status of the victim or perpetrator. The Quran instructs, "Help one another in benevolence and piety, and help not one another in sin and transgression" (5:2).

As such, Muslims are spiritually prohibited from oppressing the adherents of other faith groups. Thus, killings, mutilation, burnings, discrimination and violence against minority religious communities by Muslims is wrong.

Next, Islamic doctrine provides for religious freedom. The Quran states, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and "Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?" (10:99).

In Islamic legal tradition, humankind has free will to exercise choice, including religious decisions. God is believed to be the sole arbiter of religious differences. This is true even in the case of conversion from Islam. A number of Islamic scholars have found that Muslims are free to leave the fold of Islam without suffering retribution for doing so. Capital punishment, the penalty often meted out to such converts, is reserved by Islamic law for the crime of treason and not conversion, they hold.

Finally, Islam mandates Muslim preservation of all places of divine worship: "For had it not been for God's checking some men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, wherein the name of God is often mentioned, would have been destroyed" (22:40).

Hence the destruction, desecration or vandalism by Muslims of other houses of worship here or abroad is a gross violation of Islamic legal principles.

These Islamic principles derived from the Quran make clear that all of humankind share the same sanctity of life and honor. Moreover, their application has been in practice since Islam's inception.

During the advent of Islam, for instance, the Prophet Muhammad negotiated a covenant between the Muslims and the Jews, binding each community to respect each others beliefs and to provide mutual protection.

In another instance during the Prophet Muhammad's life, a visiting Christian delegation stayed at the mosque where they were permitted to conduct their religious services in one section of the mosque while Muslims prayed in another.

During the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph to assume Muslim rule following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, a Christian woman lodged a complaint alleging that the Muslim governor of Egypt annexed her house without consent in connection with a mosque expansion project.

In response to Umar's legal inquiries, the Muslim governor explained that the number of worshiping Muslims exceeded mosque capacity necessitating the expansion. He further explained that since the complainant's house was adjacent to the mosque, the state offered to compensate her for the property. She declined this offer. Consequently, the state demolished her home and placed its value with the treasury for her to retrieve.

Ultimately, Umar ruled in favor of the woman, ordering the demolition of the portion of the mosque built on the site of her house and providing her house be re-constructed as it had previously existed.

During the Islamic rule of the Umayyids and Abbasids, the most qualified people were entrusted significant posts without regard to religious beliefs.

Harun al-Rashid, a famed Muslim ruler, appointed a Christian man as the Director of Public Instruction and all the schools and colleges were placed under his charge. In making such appointments, he considered only excellence in one's field.

These examples are in contradistinction to the contemporary practice of religious discrimination against the members of minority faith communities reportedly occurring in some Muslim majority countries.

To be sure, religious intolerance, discrimination and violence is not a Muslim problem - rather the disturbing phenomenon transcends faith and geography.

Consider, for example, the status of civil rights of American Muslims, a religious minority which constitutes 1 to 2 percent of the total U.S. population.

From Muslims who are indefinitely detained to those who are sent to be tortured in conjunction with our "extraordinary rendition" program; from unlawful police surveillance to the proliferation of so-called "anti-sharia" legislation around the country and politically charged anti-Muslim, anti-Islam rhetoric by those vying for elected office to record high religious employment discrimination claims by Muslims; from physical assaults and murders of those perceived to be Muslim to Islamophobic bullying and destruction of mosque property to Quran burnings -- religious intolerance, discrimination and violence toward a religious minority is dangerously present right here at home.

What message are we -- the international role model on religious freedom and human rights -- then sending to other governments and populations abroad?

Some of you may still be trying to reconcile the apparent disconnect between the Islamic principles enunciated above with disturbing contemporary practices.

To my mind, this disconnect speaks to the absolute necessity of anti-discrimination laws in Muslim-majority countries together with proper implementation and enforcement of such laws.

It also highlights the need for education, particularly in Muslim societies and local communities where Islam enjoys political, social and moral currency. Along these lines, one word springs to mind which seems instructive. According to Islamic tradition, it was the very first word believed to have been revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad:

"Read."

Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.