11/20/2016 10:54 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2017

How to construct a liberal Islam

Radical Islam and Trump's Islamophobia make urgent the construction of a liberal Islam.

The major world's religions are products of the ancient times and, thus, do not and cannot represent liberal ideologies, as liberalism was developed in modern times. It is not difficult to identify verses in the Torah, the Bible or the Quran that are in complete conflict with liberalism.

But, given all the debates and negative propaganda about Islam's nature, a fundamental question that is worth studying is: Can we construct a liberal Islam? As I explain below, I believe we can because I believe Islam is a reformable religion, and completely compatible with secularism, i.e., separation of mosque from governance, and respect for human rights. In a previous article I explained why inventing a democratic Islam is an urgent issue. The reasons for inventing a democratic Islam also make it imperative to invent a liberal Islam.

Some people believe that the problem of "radical Islamic terrorism" has a military solution. But, this is false, because "Islamic terrorism" is only one interpretation of the Islamic teachings that several governments in the Middle East, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support directly or indirectly by providing the terrorists with arms of funds, believing that it serves their national interests. The Sunni Muftis, particularly among the Salafi/Wahhabi sect, together with some Shiite Ayatollahs, advocate a harsh and violent interpretation of the Quranic teachings. Over the course of their presidential campaigns, Donald Trump and Ben Carson illustrated Muslims as dangerous animals. The promises and slogans against "the radical Islam" and Muslims made by Trump throughout his campaign, if realized, could lead to the growth of radicalization among Muslims. The true solution is in demonstrating to the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate that there are also secular and liberal interpretations of the Islamic teachings that, in fact, are more compatible with the true spirit of the Quran. This is vital to worldwide peace, as well as the national interests of the nations that are hurt by Islamic terrorism.

Conceptual Illustration

Let us first illustrate the possibility of constructing a liberal Islam through some simple concepts. The facts are,

One, there is no unique Islam; rather there are multiple versions of Islam, such as Shiite Islam, Sunni Islam, philosophical Islam, fundamentalist Islam, modern Islam, post-modern Islam, and mystical Islam. Why, then, can we not have a liberal Islam?

Two, there is also no unique liberalism; rather there are many versions of it. Examples include Joel Feinberg's liberalism based on opposition to legal paternalism, Joseph Raz's perfectionist liberalism, and political liberalism of John Rawls that I discuss in detail in this article.

When there are so many interpretations of Islam, one can also think of socialist, nationalist, liberal, and communitarianism interpretations of the religion, and in fact they do exist. For example, to invent a "nationalist Islam" one can claim that Arabic is not only the Quran's language, but also its culture. Thus, a religion that was constructed by the people of the Arabian Peninsula cannot be non-Arab. And, if we are a bit careless, we can even consider Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, a university lecturer of philosophy and Islamic thought at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco as the defender of a "nationalist Islam."

Constructing a liberal Islam can be accomplished at two different levels. One is a liberal Islam that is compatible with Rawls' political liberalism. The second one is an Islamic form of what Rawls called comprehensive liberalism. In what follows I first explain briefly Rawls' political liberalism. I then describe his views about Islam. Finally, I discuss the evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah [the life and tradition of Prophet Muhammad] that supports constructing a liberal Islam based on Rawls' views.

Rawls' political liberalism

Rawls' political liberalism is based on three fundamental pillars:

First, the movement for reforming religions and its consequences are the historical source (p. xxiv) of political liberalism, and more generally liberalism itself.

Second, political liberalism includes a political conception of justice and, contrary to the comprehensive liberalism, can be presented independently from any comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine. It is an independent and freestanding concept, which draws on "mass culture" of democratic systems and their "implicitly-accepted joint ideas and fundamental principles," and limits itself to the fundamental thoughts in the political culture of democratic societies. In such societies people consider others and themselves as free and equal citizens. Rawls believes that even human rights are independent of the comprehensive moral, religious, and philosophical teachings. According to him (p. 68),

"These rights do not depend on any particular comprehensive religious doctrine or philosophical doctrine of human nature. The Law of Peoples does not say, for example, that human beings are moral persons and have equal worth in the eyes of God; or that they have certain moral and intellectual powers that entitle them to these rights. To argue in these ways would involve religious or philosophical doctrines that many decent hierarchical peoples might reject as liberal or democratic, or as in some way distinctive of Western political tradition and prejudicial to other cultures."

Third, for a liberal society to be stable for the right reasons, political liberalism must be supported and confirmed by the comprehensive moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines that wins adherents in a liberal society. Justice is the first virtue of a social structure and a subject of a basic structure. Rawls says (ibid. p. 11) the following about the basic structure:

"It applies to what I shall call the 'basic structure' of society, which for our present purposes I take to be a modern constitutional democracy."

Freedom and equality are among the central ideas in liberal political conception of justice, about which he says, Although there are liberal interpretations of justice other than what Rawls advocated, we restrict ourselves to his interpretations.

First principle (ibid. p. 5): "Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all, and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value."

Second principle (ibid. p. 6): "Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members."

Thus, Rawls' political liberalism is based on four pillars:

The fact of reasonable pluralism: There is plurality of comprehensive moral, philosophical, and religious doctrines and teachings in human societies that are irreconcilable, but also reasonable and rational (ibid. p. 37).

The burdens of judgment: There is no method for unifying the various comprehensive doctrines of societies. This is because the evidence for arriving at the judgement is complex and contradictory; the weight and the credibility given to various evidence is subject to debate; our concepts are vague and cannot be easily clarified; and the way our judgements is influenced by our moral and ethical experiences is infinitely different from those of others. Rawls believes (ibid. p. 62) that "everyone is exposed to the same difficulties for reaching the judgement."

The reality of repression: Rawls believes that broad social consensus about an ethical, philosophical, or religious teaching or doctrine is possible only through governmental repression of the people (ibid. p. 37). Thus, accepting freedom is tantamount to accepting "comprehensive, diverse, and irreconcilable doctrines" and teachings (ibid. p. 36). Therefore, in political liberalism use of political power for imposing our own comprehensive doctrine, even we consider it as fact, is irrational (ibid. p. 138).

Overlapping consensus: How can such a pluralistic society survive? Rawls does not base the stability of a liberal democratic society on compromise and balance of power, but thinks it can be achieved through as an overlapping consensus. This means that citizens affirm political justice based on their own various comprehensive doctrines. The political conception of justice is a module and an essential part of the constituent structure:

"The political conception is a module, an essential constituent part that fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it" (ibid. p. 12).

Thus, not only the seculars, but also the religious citizens can identify good reasons in their comprehensive doctrines to affirm political liberalism. As Rawls puts it,

"All those who affirm the political conception start from within their own comprehensive view and draw on the religious, philosophical, and moral grounds it provides"(ibid. p 147).

Affirming political liberalism based on one's own comprehensive doctrine can be the basis for stable democratic societies. As Rawls explains it, the consensus "rests on the totality of reasons specified within the comprehensive doctrine affirmed by each citizen" (ibid. p. 170).

There are two other plausible interpretations of Rawls' view about overlapping consensus. Sometimes it appears as if a consensus can emerge between followers of distinct comprehensive views, but not because those who hold such views have made an effort to reach the consensus. By the overlap Rawls also meant that the followers of different and incompatible comprehensive views endorse the same conception of justice and thus recognize the same rights for the followers of a competing comprehensive view.

Rawls' understanding of Islam

As pointed out earlier, Rawls believes that even the religious citizens can endorse political liberalism based on their own comprehensive doctrine. In particular, Rawls believes that the Islamic teachings can endorse political liberalism. To support his view, Rawls begins from the position that the three great historical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, constitute comprehensive rational doctrines. As he puts it,

"Here, I shall suppose - perhaps too optimistically - that, except for certain kinds of fundamentalism, all the main historical religions admit of such an account and thus may be seen as reasonable comprehensive doctrines" (ibid. p. 170).

In "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" Rawls clarifies what he believes about the relation between religion and political liberalism, particularly Islam. He asks, how can those who believe in religious doctrines also believe reasonable political ideas that are the basis for a democratic political system based on a constitution? Can comprehensive religious and secular teachings and doctrines be compatible with political liberalism? As he puts it in his book, The Laws of Peoples (p. 151), Rawls believes that religions must understand that,

"Except by endorsing a reasonable constitutional democracy, there is no other way fairly to ensure the liberty of its adherents consistent with the equal liberties of other reasonable free and equal citizens."

Rawls discusses an Islamic example of the aforementioned overlapping consensus, and refers to the views of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha [who was executed by former Sudanese President Jaafar Nemeiri on the charge of apostasy] and his student Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim in the book, Toward An Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. In their book they interpreted the Meccan Quranic verses (revealed to Prophet Muhammad during the time that he was in Mecca) as the symbol of idealistic Islam, whereas the Medinan verses (those revealed to the Prophet in Medina) were a function of the era's constraints. The former abrogates the latter and, thus, the Meccan Islam that is supportive of freedom and equality must be put into effect in our era. Rawls points out that the two types of verses "is a perfect example of overlapping consensus" (ibid. p. 151).

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim presented a new reading of the Quran. Using reverse abrogation, they declared that Muslims must consider the Meccan verses as the Quran's true gem and the basis for the Prophet to invite people to convert to the new religion. Their work is an example of the Muslims' efforts in modern times to reconcile Islam with the modern era.

Rawls emphasized that "the roots of democratic citizen allegiance to their political conceptions lie in their respective comprehensive doctrines, both religious and nonreligious" (ibid. p 153).

Islam and political liberalism

Rawls has also emphasized that there are different interpretations of the same teaching or idea "since its concepts and values may be taken in different ways..... A conception greatly limits its possible interpretations; otherwise discussion and argument could not proceed" (ibid. p. 145).

One might argue that through overlapping consensus one can construct an interpretation of Islam that endorses political liberalism, but not a liberal Islam. But the descriptive way that Rawls prescribes goes beyond the former.

First, description: In his book, Justice as Fairness (p. 190), Rawls emphasizes that history of religion and philosophy demonstrates how, using many reasonable ways, not only the two have re-interpreted their values in a way that they would not be in conflict with the values in the political arena, but also be reconcilable. Thus, presenting new interpretation of comprehensive doctrines is an experience that has been repeated throughout history.

Second, prescription: Rawls differentiates between "political conception and comprehensive doctrine," believing that, "Should an incompatibility later be recognized between the political conceptions and their comprehensive doctrines, then they might very well adjust or revise the latter rather than reject the political conception. Note that here we distinguish between the initial allegiance to, or appreciation of, the political conception and the later adjustment or revision of comprehensive doctrines to which that allegiance or appreciation leads when inconsistencies arise" (ibid. p. 193).

Thus, Rawls suggests to the adherents of comprehensive doctrines to re-interpret and revise their teachings in a way that would not be in conflict with a political conception of justice. Rawls believes that religious and secular people can do the revision in two ways. One is declaration, in which one declares that "each of us shows how, from our own doctrines, we can and do endorse a reasonable public political conception of justice with its principles and ideals" ( ibid. p. 155).

The second method is reasoning based on conjectures to show that others can endorse political justice based on their comprehensive religious or secular doctrines. Rawls emphasizes that attributing endorsement of political liberalism to religious and philosophical teachings, i.e. conjecture, must be sincere and free of manipulation; "It is important that this be honest, not for the purpose of deceiving," as he put it in his book, The Laws of Peoples (p. 156).

Our job is to develop an interpretation of Islam that can embrace political liberalism. If we assume that political liberalism is honest, it would then be natural to identify the Quranic verses that are more compatible with it, select them as the verses that represent the true spirit of the Quran, and interpret the rest of the holly book based on those verses. As I understand it, our liberal interpretation of the Quran is justified. It is not for the sake of the expediency of our era Thus, if we are Muslim, we believe that such verses represent the Quran's spirit, and by identifying them we declare our position regarding Islam and political liberalism, and if we are not Muslim, we conjecture what form a liberal Islam may have.

Constructing liberal Islam is not evidence of anachronistic time because we ask ourselves, how can we be a true Muslim and liberal? We are not asking whether at its inception Islam was a liberal ideology - a claim that was rejected at the beginning of this article - so that we can be accused of anachronism. Rather, we ask whether a Muslim can be a liberal while truly believing in the spirit and gem of Islam. The Quranic verses are re-interpreted in order not to have any conflict with liberalism.

The Quranic verses that endorse liberal values

I now describe the sources in the Quran and the Sunnah [The Prophet's traditions] that can be used as the pillar of a liberal Islam. How the theological details of such a reading of the Quran and the Sunnah are or must be is beyond the scope of this article. But, the Islamic sources that I describe support liberal values, such as pluralism, justice, freedom, tolerance, the inherent dignity of human beings, respect for pacts, and commitment to the wisdom of each era's elite.

We now show through much evidence that the Quran accepts the Rawlsian concept of "equal and free citizens." But, before doing so, one important point must be emphasized. The Quran has differentiated between two types of freedom: freedom of the people relatice to other people, and their freedom with regards to God. The Quran does not consider people to be free when it comes to God, because it considers them to be God's servants. But, this does not contradict Rawls' political freedom because it defends people's freedom relative to other people. In his political will, Ali ibn abi Talib, the 4th Caliph after the Prophet (and his cousin and son-in-law) and Shiites' first Imam, told his children and all the people, "Do not be servant to anyone, because God created you free."

In every single case in which the Quran speaks about inequality, it is either about inequality of people with respect to God (due to their deeds), or their inequality after their death and in the hereafter. The pious and apostate are not morally equal to God, and will receive different rewards after their death. Consider the following two examples from the Quranic verses:

"Verily, in Allah's Sight the most honorable of you is the most pious of your" (Al-Hujurat, 13).
"Verily, the worst of moving creatures in the Sight of Allah are those who are deaf and dumb [from hearing and telling the truth] and do not use their reason" (Al-Anfal, 22).

Thus, although people may not be morally equal to God and not receive equal treatment in the hereafter, they are equal in this world. In other worlds, one cannot extract inequality of people in this world based on their moral inequality in God's sight. Thus, the concept of "equal and free citizens" is completely compatible with the Quran.

The reality of pluralism

According to the Quran, pluralism is the pillar of creations by God. Consider the following verses:

"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted" (Al-Hujurat, 13).

According to this verse no person is superior to another person except for moral superiority that is a product of piousness, not any particular religion. Thus, no religion is superior over others, and a sort of pluralism has been accepted.

At the beginning of creation there were very few people in a unique group. But, as their numbers grew, differences developed between them, and the masses were divided into various groups.

"And mankind was not but one community [united in religion], but [then] they differed. And if not for a word that proceeded from your Lord, it would have been judged between them [immediately] concerning that over which they differ" (Yunus, 19).

This verse implies that the differences between people cannot be reconciled. Not only is an end to the differences not possible, it is also not desirable, because this is God's wish. Thus, it is not clear which person or group of people is righteous, and which is not. In other words, pluralism is a required ingredient for this world.

God sent Prophets with [holly] books [Scriptures] to the people, but they could also not end the intellectual and practical differences between them.

"Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it - after the clear proofs came to them - out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path" (Al-Baqara, 21


This verse states explicitly that being guided to the righteous path is unconditional. Thus, no group of people can claim that because they believe in a particular religion, they are righteous.

The Prophets and their holly texts transformed people into adherents of various incongruent religions. The Quran has emphasized numerous times that pluralism is natural, and God does not want the people to consist of only one group.

"And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ" (Hud, 118


This is the most explicit statement by the Quran that it is not desirable for all the people to believe in the same religion. The following two verses also lend support to this:

"And if Allah had willed, He could have made you [of] one religion" (An-Nahl , 93).
"And if Allah willed, He could have made them [of] one religion" (Ash-Shura, 8


The difference between the Quran's view of accepting pluralism in the comprehensive and reasonable doctrines and John Rawls' view is that Rawls believes that pluralism is the result of developed cultures of free societies, whereas the Quran considers it as part of God's creation of mankind, and appropriate for human societies, the evidence for which is the Prophets and religions.

"To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you" (Al-Ma'ida, 48).

This verse emphasizes again that it is not desirable for all the people to believe in the same religion because, one, God has selected different ways for different groups of people and, two, the differences and arguments will continue until the Judgement Day. Thus, so long as people live in this world, they will have differences. In fact, right after thye above verse the Quran says, "Hurry to do good deeds. You will all return to God, and then He will make you aware of the [truth] about your differences."

The intellectual and practical differences never end, the people will never reach complete consensus. The Quran describes monopolism and how adherents of any religion consider their beliefs as the absolute truth and those of others as void, and how they consider themselves as blessed and saved, going to heaven [after death], and others as damned. But, the Quran makes it clear that it will be God who will decide this on the Resurrection/Judgement Day:

"But Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they used to differ" (Al-Baqara, 113).

Thus, pluralism is a fact of this world. This reality implies nothing but peaceful co-existence of the adherents of various religions. It is for this reason that the Quran tells the Jews and Christian,

"Say, 'O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.' But if they turn away, then say, 'Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]'" (Al-i-Imran, 64).

Thus, monotheism is the only basis for peaceful co-existence of adherents of all the religions. Similarly, in the international arena, one must be at peace with all the people - Muslim or not, as well as those that are not people of the "book," such as Hindus, and adherents of Confucianism, and secular comprehensive doctrines - except against an aggressor enemy.

"Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes - from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly" (Al-Mumtahina, 8).

One may ask why the Quran did not mention non-Abrahamic religions. The reason is that those who were originally addressed by the Quran did not know about non-Abrahamic religions and their adherents. They did not even know Sabians and Zoroastrians. When they became familiar with such religions, the Quranic jurisprudence became applicable to their adherents. When the original Muslims were introduced to Sabians, the following verse was revealed:

"Verily, those who believe [in the Quran] or those who are the Jews, the Christians and thye SAbians, and those who believe in Allah and the Day of Judgement and do righteous deeds shall have their rewards with their creator and nurturer, and there shall be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve" (Al-Baqarah, 62).

And, when the original Muslims learned about Zoroastrians, the following verse was revealed:

"Those who believe in Islam, and those who follow the Jewish Law and the Sabians, and the Christians and the Magians [Zoroastrians] and the polytheists, they all will be judged and decided for by Allah on the Day of Judgement. Verily, Allah is the Supreme Witness over all things" (al-Hajj, 17).

This verse indicates that the pluralism accepted by the Quran has gone even further as even polytheists will treated the same way as the adherents of various religions. The differences between the adherents of various religions and non-believers will persist. In other words, even nullity of atheism, which has been rejected by the Quran, will not be demonstrated definitively in this world, and the Quran has included it in its acceptance of pluralism.

Not only does the Quran recognize true diversity and pluralism, it also accepts, with one condition, diversity of religions. Consider the followings:

One, the Quran does not restrict salvation to Muslims only, but states that all adherents of various religions that believe in God, the Judgement day, and do good deeds, will be blessed (Al-Baqarah, 62, 112; Al-Ma'idah, 69; Al-An'am, 48; Al-A'raf, 53; and most explicitly, An-Nissaa, 124). The only unforgiveable sin is polytheism (An-Nissaa, 31, 48, 116), and even that can ultimately be forgiven if the sinner truly repents. But, even polytheism does not take away one's fundamental rights, as the aforementioned verse from Al-Hajj, verse 17, demonstrated.

Two, the Quran has repeatedly recognized Judaism and Christianity as divine religions. In at least five verses, the Quran has emphasized that God made Jews superior (Al-Baqarah, 47, 122; Al-Jathiyah, 16; Al-Ma'idah, 20; Al-Dukhan, 32).

Three, Islam considers itself as the ultimate evolution of all religions. Hence, it considers itself as the truth. But, Islam is also religiously inclusive in that, it also recognizes the previous religions, which do not more or less have conflict with it, as the truth.

Four, regarding the truth, the Quran points out an important point, which is that the differences and conflicts between the people regarding what constitutes the truth are themselves symbol of the truth that will never end, and that God will judge them in hereafter and reveal the truth to them (Al-Hajj, 17).

Five, critics may point to the verse, "And whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers" (Al-i-Imran, 85), as the evidence against our argument. But, we should remember that in Islam's logic, religion is unique and is called Islam, because all divine religions have the same roots: "Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam" (Al-i-Imran, 19). The Quran explicitly states that all the prophets had the same religion (Ash-Shura, 13), and that they were all supposed to confirm to each other (Al-i-Imran, 81). Abraham and Jacob were Muslim and invited people to Islam (Al-Baqarah, 128, 132, 133; Al-i-Imran, 67). God asked Prophet Muhammad explicitly to declare that he was not a new phenomenon among the prophets (Al-Ahqaf, 9). The Quran considers all adherents of other divine religions as Muslim (Al-Baqarah, 136; Al-i-Imran, 84). In the Quran's view all divine religions are one and the same, but depending on their era had different approaches and laws (Al-Ma'idah, 45-49). It also states that (Al-Hajj, 34, 67) God gave different rites for different religions.

Six, the Quran emphasizes that conversations with other religions must take place under the best conditions: "And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, 'We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one, and we are [all] Muslims [in submission] to Him'" (Al-Ankabut, 46), and, "Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best" (An-Nahl, 125).

Most interestingly, even those who believe in no religion, i.e. the atheists, will not be harmed in this world, and only will experience losses in the hereafter. They are still included in the Quranic pluralism in this world, and it is only after they pass away that they will be judged by God.

Thus, the difference between Rawls and the Quran is that the former views pluralism as a result of judgement beliefs, whereas the latter considers it a result of lack of commitment to ethics of belief.

The inherent dignity of human beings

The Quran has spoken about the dignity of mankind: "And We have certainly honored the children of Adam" (Al-Isra, 70). Based on this verse, some Muslim commentators have discussed the inherent dignity of human beings. On the other hand, the Quran considers God as the best creator because His creation, human beings, has inherent dignity (Al-Mu'minun, 14).

Respecting the inherent dignity, i.e. human being dignity is unconditional. Thus, being a human being is enough for being respected, and because this is so, all human beings, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, race, and ideology possess inherent dignity.

There is an important issue that deserves separate discussion. To my knowledge, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam have never debated whether dignity is a factual or evaluative concept. In other world, is dignity a fact that only human beings deserve and have, similar to wisdom, free will, search for morality, etc., or is it an evaluative concept, implying that God likes human beings more than other creatures? It appears that Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam view dignity as evaluative.

Justice and equality

The Quran's God is a just one and does not do injustice to anyone: "And your Lord is not ever unjust to [His] servants" (Fussilat, 46); "And your Lord does injustice to no one" (Al-Kahf, 49), and, "Indeed, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom's weight" (An-Nisa, 40). God's goal in sending the Prophet has been spreading justice: "We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice" (Al-Hadid, 25).

Prophet Muhammad also limited his mission to spreading justice, and said, "I have been commanded to do justice among you" (Ash-Shura, 15); "My Lord has ordered justice" (Al-A'raf, 29); "Indeed, Allah orders justice" (An-Nahl, 90); "O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth" (Sad, 26), and, "O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice" (An-Nisa, 135).

The Quran has expanded the concept of justice in many ways: Witnesses (in a trial) must be fair (Al-Baqarah, 182; Al-Ma'ida, 95). There should be justice in trials (Al-An'am, 152; Al-Nissaa, 58), and people should speak justly and neutrally (Al-An'am, 152), and the entire life must be devoted to justice (Al-Ma'ida, 8). Even enemies must be treated fairly: "O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness" (Al-Ma'ida, 8).

Economically, the Quran is against poverty. It is said that there is a link between poverty and infidelity. Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites and the 4th Caliph wrote in Nahj al-Balagha [the Peak of Eloquence], a collection of his sermons, letters, exegesis, and narrations that "poverty is a worse death [than the physical death] (Hekmat, 163). The Quran says, "Satan threatens you with poverty" (Al-Baqarah, 268), and has many verses regarding helping the impoverished, such as, "Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you" (At-Takathur, 1), and, "And those who hoard gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah - give them tidings of a painful punishment" (At-Tawba, 34).

Naturally, the people and intellectual elites of any era did not have the same understanding and interpretation of justice as the contemporary one, but there is nothing that prohibits them from doing so in our era. For example, Muslims can easily interpret the Quranic justice in terms of the capabilities theory of the Indian economist Amartya Sen and the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Freedom and Tolerance

According to the Quranic teachings no one should be forced to believe in Islam: "There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion" (Al-Baqara, 256). Rawls considers acceptance of burdens of judgment and liberty of conscience as the two criteria for reasonableness of a comprehensive doctrine ( Justice as Fairness, p. 191). The following verse from the Quran and several after it recognize liberty of conscience: "And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed - all of them entirely. Then [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers?" (Yunus, 99).

The Quran allows people to freely choose between guidance and straying: "And say, 'The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve'" ( Al-Kahf, 29).

The Prophet is not the attorney for or guardian of the people to pressure them to the righteous path (Yunus, 99; Az-Zumar, 41); he does not control them: "So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not over them a controller" (Al-Ghashiya, 21-22). The Prophet does not have the right to bully people and do injustice to them (Qaf, 45). His mission is to show them the righteous paths, not compelling a specific path. After this is done, people can choose their own path:

"Say, "O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion" (Al-Kafirun, 1-6).

Rawls spoke about political and comprehensive tolerance. The Quran's comprehensive religious tolerance - including all of its constraints - endorses of Rawls' political tolerance. Rawls refers to this as the reasoning from conjecture.

The Prophet's first treaty: a path to just cooperation

Two-third of the Quran's verses was revealed during the time Prophet Muhammad was living in Mecca. This type of verses expressed ethical ideals and was in search of justice. They lacked religious jurisprudence that, according to the human rights of our era, can be considered as violent and against liberalism.

After Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina, the Prophet signed off on a treaty that governed peaceful co-existence of the immigrants, his supporters, and the Jews. According to Muslim historian Muhammad ibn Ishaq the Prophet "signed a treaty with the Jews, recognizing their religion and ownership of their properties, setting some conditions for them, but also accepting some conditions [in return]" ( Al-Nabawiyya Al-sīra, volume I, p. 501). The treaty stated the following about the Jews:

"Every Jewish person who follows us will be assisted, and will be equal to other Muslims. No injustice will be done to him and no help will be given to his enemy. . . All Jewish tribes will form a common front with Muslims in warfare. Also, the Jewish tribe of Bani Ouf constitutes the same community with Muslims. Jews and Muslims each have their own religion. They each have their own friends, allies, and slaves. Unless someone engages in inflicting injustice and committing sin, in which case he will have done injury to himself and his lineage alone. The same regulations that have been specified for Bani Ouf will apply to the Jews of Bani Najjar; and the same will be applicable to all Jewish tribes. No Jew will leave their assembly except by the permission of Muhammad; nobody's blood shall be spilled and trampled upon. He whoever kills another is alone responsible [for the deed] as are his family; except in cases in which he [the perpetrator] is himself a victim of injustice and that God is satisfied with the deed. Muslims and Jews will have their own shares of expenses during times of war. Jews and Muslims will assist each other against the aggressors and their relationships are based upon good will and compassion; they are set apart from sin. Nobody is to harm an ally; all will rise together to help the oppressed."

The treaty was against Mecca's non-believers, which explains why it contained so much about union for war and peace: Everyone was supposed to help everyone else against the invaders of Medina; Muslims and Jews had the right to call on people to make peace with the enemy, unless the war was over religion, and Jews were not allowed to shelter the non-believers of Mecca, who were the Muslims' enemy. According to the treaty, the Prophet was the arbiter of disputes between Muslims, and between them and the Jews.

Although the treaty had many clauses about justice, but social justice in that era did not mean equality of all, particularly men and women. In fact, we cannot even call communities of that era a society in the modern sense. There was tribal authority, but it was due to patronage and family relations, not the existence of a government which, as we understand it today, did not exist. Thus, "equal and free citizens," a product of the modern era, was meaningless. Thus, Rawlsian concepts of fairness and free and equal citizens could not exist in that era. Thus, the treaty between the Prophet and the Jews was one of tribal communities, and possibly a good example of what Rawls names as decency (The Law of Peoples, p. 67).

Commitment to the elite's rationality of the era

The Quran calls on everyone to follow wisdom and science. In 49 verses wisdom-related words have been used. For example, "Then will you not reason? Here you are - those who have argued about that of which you have [some] knowledge, but why do you argue about that of which you have no knowledge?" (Al-i-Imran, 65-66), and, "And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge" (Al-Isra, 36). Interpreting the latter verse, the medieval Muslim scholar, Abu al-Qasim Mahmud ibn Umar al-Zamakhshari, who was of Iranian origin, wrote in al-Kashshaaf [revealer], his book of interpreting the Quran, "The meaning of this expression is to warn the addressee against saying what one does not fully know, and doing that which is unknown. This clear principle includes all forms of imitation, because imitation entails unknowing following of edicts about the truth and falsity of which the imitator has no knowledge."

On many occasions, the Quran has demanded reasoning for those who claim to be truthful: "Say, 'Produce your proof, if you should be truthful'" (Al-Baqara, 111), and, "Say, 'Produce your proof, if you should be truthful'" (An-Naml, 64). Interpreting the latter verse, Zamakhshari states, "This Quranic expression, more than any other reason, vitiates the position of the advocates of imitation, and establishes that any statement for the truth of which we lack reasonable support, is false and unjustified" (ibid.).

A path for constructing a liberal Islam

In this article first I explained my reading of Rawls' political liberalism. Then I described Rawls' views about Islam as presented in his "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" article, where in a famous footnote he conjectures that Taha and An-Naim's idea of Sharia reformation is a perfect example of endorsing the political conception of justice from a comprehensive Islamic perspective. Finally, I discussed the evidence in the Quran and the Sunnah that supports constructing a liberal Islam based on Rawls' views as plausible. There I showed that Quranic verses endorse the reality of pluralism, the inherent dignity of human beings, equality and justice, and finally tolerance and freedom. I also elaborated upon The Prophet's first treaty as an example of decent social cooperation and co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims in early Islamic era.

To the extent that I understand Islam, there is a simple way of removing violence from contemporary Islam and making it compatible with political liberalism: The vast majority of non-worshiping Islamic laws are of ratifying type, i.e. they are the product of the culture and lore of the people of the Arabian Peninsula before the Prophet. The mission of the Prophet was not to destroy the infrastructure of the society, including its culture. He modified many of the existing laws and then ratified them.

As the Quran puts it, the Prophet is a model for all Muslims. He ratified the customs of the elites of his own era. Many Muslim scholars have misunderstood what the Quran says about this issue, interpreting it as meaning that Muslims must do what the Prophet did in his life in his own era. In fact, the Prophet taught the people to ratify the customs of the elites of their own era, not the era of the Prophet.

Rawlsian political liberalism is not the sole liberalism of our era, nor is it the custom of all the thinkers. But, it has been accepted by a large number of thinkers. At the same time, liberal interpretation of the Quran is more compatible with its spirit than any other. Thus, I believe that ratifying Rawlsian political liberalism is exactly tantamount to acting according to the Prophet's teachings. The Prophet is a model for the Muslims by ratifying the reasonable customs of his own era. He is not a model for terrifying people and spreading Islamophobia, which brings nothing for Muslims but losses and harms. As discussed, there are many verses in the Quran that, subject to new and modern interpretations, are completely compatible with John Rawls' liberalism. This means that there are secular and liberal interpretations of the Islamic teachings that are more compatible with the true spirit of the, as compared to the Islam of fundamentalists.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.