Minorities in Muslim Countries
By Ali Al-Halawani
Deputy Editor in Chief — English IslamOnline.net
Personally, I have always been fascinated by the prolific
scholar Dr. Jamal Badawi. He retired as a professor at
An expert in Christian-Muslim dialogue, Dr. Badawi is a
member of the Islamic Society of North America, the Fiqh Council of
Given this, he is one of the best in handling one of the most controversial and thorny religious issues: the status of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim societies. In fact, this issue surfaces every now and then, prompting observers to double-check whether or not non-Muslims enjoy full religious rights. Does Islam tolerate the preaching of other religions in Muslim communities? Does Islamic Shari`ah permit the exploitation of the vulnerability or ignorance of non-Muslims for the purpose of proselyting them? Does it discriminate against non-Muslims in greeting and using public services?
The above and more questions were raised in a live dialogue with Dr. Badawi. The dialogue was conducted by IslamOnline.net's Living Shari`ah Department on April 28, 2009, as an indication of the department's interest in this issue. It was also an attempt to come to a common understanding with IOL's audience, Muslims and non-Muslims, regarding this thorny issue. What follows is a reading of the questions raised and the answers provided throughout this interactive dialogue.
No one can deny the fact that any individual who is truly committed to his or her own faith aspires to make this faith known and more appreciated by others. This is true of dedicated Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as well as the adherents of polytheistic faiths.
However, there should be some ethics that can govern the interwoven relations between all humans, so that one can know what to do and when and how to do it. This should be done in a way that maintains social peace and prevents any possibility of turmoil or disorder.
In his answer to a question on the permissibility of preaching other faiths in Muslim countries from the viewpoint of Islamic Shari`ah, Dr. Badawi started with defining the terms often used in this subject (such as proselytism) as opposed to the Islamic and even Qur'anic terms (such as propagation, tabligh, and da`wah).
He clarified that proselytism is a term that seemingly connotes aggressive efforts aiming at converting others to a particular belief and changing their way of life. To him, it is even a form of recruiting by means of persuading others to a particular group.
Dr. Badawi explained that this term is different from the
Permissibility of Propagating One's Faith
In this regard, Dr. Badawi clarified that there is nothing in the primary sources of Islam (i.e., the Qur'an and Sunnah) that restricts the freedom of the adherents of other religions to share their faiths with others and make their beliefs known. He evidenced this by relating the incident in which a Christian delegation came from Najran to the mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and spoke about their belief in the divinity of Prophet Jesus (peace and blessings be upon him). That was in the presence of Prophet Muhammad and inside his mosque.
According to Dr. Badawi, this was the peak of "tolerance." These Christian delegates were given the opportunity to explain their understanding of the Christian faith without any intimidation or restriction.
However, although I may accept that, I still have reservations concerning the use of the term tolerance, as far as the Islamic Shari`ah is concerned. The same goes for coexistence as well.
In my capacity as a linguist, I believe that these terms are derogatory of Islam, for when we speak about tolerance or coexistence, we actually speak about something that is very minimal, very negative, and very passive. Usually people do not tolerate something that they admire or like but something that they find themselves obliged to live with, despite their possible dislike for it. Meanwhile, Muslims aim at something that is much more positive than the mere act of tolerance.
Therefore, one needs to use terms other than tolerance and coexistence. Acceptance can serve as a suitable alternative for both. Luckily, Dr. Badawi mentioned the term acceptance in his speech, though shyly. Anyway, I do congratulate him on the mere mention of this term, though I think he probably did not have all the above meanings in mind.
Prerequisites for a Constructive Interfaith Dialogue
Presentation of one's beliefs to others must be done in a courteous manner.
Neither side should exploit people's ignorance or vulnerability (such as their critical need for food or medication) to twist their arm or put pressure on them so that they accept something against their free will.
In any society, Muslim or otherwise, keeping public peace is critical. So, any form of freedom must be used with discretion, with the aim of avoiding social turmoil in the name of that freedom. Thereupon, no provocative methods or actions should be used by either side.
Preaching one's faith should not be done in secret. The Christian delegates of Najran presented their beliefs openly in the mosque of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
Exploitation vs. Generosity
A very good question was raised regarding charities given to those who are inclined to Islam. The questioner wondered if that would be some sort of exploitation or coercion. In his answer, Dr. Badawi clarified that one of the categories of legitimate recipients of zakah (obligatory alms) is interpreted to mean those who suffer financial losses or economic pressures as a result of willingly accepting Islam. Based on this interpretation, one can say that such people should enjoy the same rights enjoyed by their fellow Muslims who are in need. Dr. Badawi added that this interpretation does not connote exploiting the vulnerability of those in need (e.g., their need for food or medication). It does not make embracing Islam an explicit or implicit condition for humanitarian aid. Helping the needy should be done only for the sake of Almighty Allah and in fulfillment of Muslims' obligation to show kindness to all of Allah's creation.
In fact, this category of recipients of zakah can even include those who do not suffer a pressing need. This kind of zakah can simply be regarded as an act of generosity toward those who are already inclined to Islam. In addition, Dr. Badawi stated that this category can be interpreted to have another purpose: softening the hearts of those expected to help stop or mitigate the persecution against Muslims.
Generalization: Rejected All the Way
Do not start greeting non-Muslims!
Make them walk on the side of the street!
Some people regard these sayings as general directives of Islam, but they are certainly not. In fact, the generalization of these directives is inconsistent with the Qur'anic ordinances, which are the norms that should be applied by Muslims in their dealings with the followers of other faiths. In the Qur'an, the following guidelines are stated concerning Muslims' dealings with non-Muslims:
(Allah does not forbid you, respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.) (Al-Mumtahanah 60:8)
(And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet with a better (greeting) than it or return it; surely Allah takes account of all things.) (An-Nisaa' 4:86)
To understand the above commands correctly, one has to read them in light of the historical context of the Qur'an without decontextualizing them. In this way, some specific implications can be better understood.
The context of the Prophetic hadith stating the directives mentioned earlier is that some of the Jewish residents of Madinah used to twist their tongues upon greeting the Prophet, saying "as-samu `alayakum," which means "may death be upon you."
Known of his high moral conduct, the Prophet would not reciprocate such offensive distortion of what should have been a greeting of peace: "as-salamu `alaykum" (may peace be upon you). Rather, he would simply respond, "And upon you too," leaving it up to Almighty Allah to judge them according to their intention. In the Qur'an, Almighty Allah refers to that offensive behavior, saying,
(And when they come to you, they greet you with a greeting with which Allah does not greet you, and they say within themselves, "Why does not Allah punish us for what we say?" Hell is enough for them; they shall enter it, and evil is the resort.)(Al-Mujadalah 58:8)
As for the directive that non-Muslims should walk on the side of the street, one needs to remember that in the time of the Prophet the streets in Madinah were not like today's streets. Some of them were hardly wide enough for two persons to walk side by side. So, in response to that offensive greeting, it was necessary for Muslims to confront the arrogance of those insolent Jews.
It is clear then that the hadith containing those directives refers only to such type of situation; thus, it should not to be generalized in dealing with all communities of different faiths. If the directives given regarding those disrespectful Jews were to be generalized, this would be nothing but open injustice to all others — something which is rejected by Islam.
Egyptian Copts' Enrollment in Al-Azhar
Before the session ended, a very tricky question was raised
regarding the possibility of allowing
"Personally, I would support the opening of Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar for any interested non-Muslim."
He further added some enlightening points in this respect. For example, he said that there is nothing in the Qur'an or the Sunnah that prevents anyone from learning about Islam. If the person who wishes to learn about Islam belongs to another faith community, it is good for him or her to get authentic information from credible sources. So, if a Muslim government bans the enrollment of non-Muslims in an Islamic institution, this would be inconsistent with Islamic Shari`ah.
However, Dr. Badawi added that he does not know of any seminary that admits Muslims among the students learning about Judaism or Christianity. By this observation, Dr. Badawi seemed to be hinting at a normal question: "Why then all the fuss over the enrollment of Egyptian Copts in Al-Azhar?"
Dr. Badawi concluded by saying that there may be some non-Muslims who have a genuine desire to enroll in Islamic institutions, but they may be discouraged by the disapproval, if not persecution, of their own faith communities.
Finally, I wish that the audience of IslamOnline.net would appreciate the effort exerted by Dr. Badawi in his attempt to answer all these tricky and hard questions. In so doing, he showed not hing but comprehensive knowledge and complete commitment to what he believes is right and beneficial to all.
Ali Al-Halawani is a doctoral candidate, the managing editor
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