Islam and Religious Tolerance
Islam and Religious Tolerance

Milan University, Italy
December 1985

In the name of God, The Most Merciful, The Most Gracious.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, I greet you with the traditional Islamic greeting, 'Assalamu Alaikum', (Peace be upon you), this greeting represents the sincere effort of the faithful to spread love and tolerance among all people, whatever their language, belief, or social system.

Common misconceptions about Islam and Religious Tolerance
I would like first to begin by dispelling some of the misconceptions that have clouded the understanding of many Christians and westerners alike concerning Islam. Many believe that Islam was spread by the sword, and that Islam is synonymous with oppression, coercion and the denial of basic rights and freedoms. Furthermore, many western nations equate Islam with intolerance and extremism. Even well-educated non-Muslim thinkers, politicians, and clergymen, have persisted in clinging to this negative and erroneous image. It is this stereotype that must be removed by presenting a clear and truthful image of Islam to western people.

Islam urges all people to examine an issue thoroughly before coming to a conclusion or forming a belief. Allah says in the Holy Quran:

O believers: if a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done. T.Q., Sura 49, verse 6.

Islam and the Spirit of Religious Tolerance
As monotheism is the foundation of Islam, so tolerance is one of its most outstanding characteristics. Islam literally means both submission to Allah and peace. Religious tolerance has always been a necessary law of life which cannot be neglected except at great hazard to human society. Let me offer, my dear brothers and sisters, just a few examples of the spirit of tolerance which lies at the very heart of the Islamic faith.

First: Islam makes it absolutely clear that all humanity is but one great family. The origin of all people is one, as all human beings were created from a single soul. Allah says in the Holy Quran:

O mankind, revere your Guardian-Lord Who created you from a single Person, created of like nature, [His] mate, and from them twain scattered countless men and women T.Q. Sura 4, The Women, verse 1.

As all people are part of the family of Allah, Islam insists that there is absolute human equality and respect between all human beings. Neither race, color, ethnicity, nor privilege (but only righteousness) can be the sole standard of value in Islam. In the Holy Quran, Allah addresses all humanity with the words:

O humankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you T.Q. Sura 49, The Inner Apartments, verse 13.

Human variety and diversity is viewed as part of the blessing and bounty of Allah. People are urged to go beyond mere coexistence and to actively seek mutual understanding and relationships of cooperation with one another. The prophet Muhammad taught that all people are considered part of the family of Allah, and that Allah loves the most those who are most useful to His family members.

Second: The Holy Quran insists on a conception of justice which is not limited by race, color, belief, or nationality. Allah says:

When you judge, between people, judge with justice: verily how excellent is the teaching which Allah giveth you! T.Q., Sura 4, The Women, verse 58.

Allah furthermore tells all believers:

O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do T.Q. Sura 5, The Table Spread, verse 8.

Third: Islam is universal in nature, embracing all previous divinely-inspired messages and religions. Just as Allah is One, so is the essential message of faith with which He sent all His prophets and messengers. The Holy Quran says:

The same religion has He established for you as that which He enjoined on Noah -that which we have sent by inspiration to you- and that which we enjoined on Abraham, Moses, and Jesus: Namely, that ye should remain steadfast in Religion, and make no divisions therein. T.Q. Sura 42, The Consultation, verse 13.

In Islam, the unity of Allah implies unity of true belief and religion. The basic message which all of the prophets were entrusted to deliver was timeless and universal: to call humanity to the worship of Allah alone. Allah makes it clear in the Holy Quran that all people of faith, those who truly submit to Allah and His truth, will see the unity of Allah's messengers and their respective revelations, and thus accept them all:

The Messenger [Muhammad] believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the [people] men of faith. Each one [of them] believes in Allah, His angels, His books, and His Messengers. 'We make no distinction' (they say) between one and another of his Messengers, And they say: 'We hear and we obey: [we seek] thy forgiveness, our Lord, and to Thee is the end of all journeys T.Q. Sura 2, The Cow. verse 285.

Religious tolerance is embodied in the Holy Quran itself: at the heart of the Holy Quran are all the essential teachings of the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus (including some miracles of Jesus not mentioned in the New Testament itself). Allah says of the Holy Quran:

To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety. T.Q. Sura 5, The Table Spread, verse 48.

The Holy Quran contains the advice and life-stories of numerous Biblical prophets, which Allah describes thus:

There is, in their stories, instruction for [people] endued with understanding... a confirmation of [the scripture that] went before it-a detailed exposition of all things, and a Guide and a Mercy to any such as believe. T.Q. Sura 12, Joseph, verse 111.

Fourth: Islam affirms a special bond between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Jews and Christians are addressed in the Holy Quran as O People of Book, meaning people of the Torah and the Bible. Jews, Christians and Muslims are viewed as kindred-people whose faiths are all based on divinely-revealed scriptures and who share in a common prophetic tradition. In particular, the Holy Quran emphasizes the relationship of closeness between the followers of Islam and Christianity:

...and nearest among them in love to the Believers wilt thou find those who say 'We are Christians' T.Q., Sura 5, The Table Spread, verse 82.

In the Holy Quran, Allah orders Muslims [and, in fact, all sincere believers] to believe in Jesus, Moses, and all the other Biblical prophets, as all were sent by Him as a mercy to humankind:

Say Ye: 'We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord; We make no difference between one and another of them and we bow to Allah in adherence and submission. T.Q., Sura 2, The Cow, verse 136.

Islamic tolerance is not limited to the People of the Book, but extends to all faithful, sincere, and righteous lovers of truth. Allah affirms in the Holy Quran that:

Those who believe (in the Quran) and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabaeans, any who believe in Allah, and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. T.Q., Sura 2 of 114, The Cow, verse 62.

The sincere believers of all religions, in fact, form one company of the righteous, and Allah extends His grace to them with complete justice:

For Muslim men and women, (for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise), for them hath God prepared forgiveness and a great reward. T.Q. Sura 33, The Confederates, verse 35.

Fifth: Islam unequivocally affirms the right of each individual to freedom of thought and religion. If one takes the time to read the Holy Quran and study the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his close followers, one will find that they built a society based on love, lenience, justice and brotherhood. One will also discover that their acceptance of Islam was a result of reasoning, conviction, and satisfaction, not violence, compulsion or oppression. The Holy Quran commands,

Let there be no compulsion in religion, Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. T.Q., Sura 2, The Cow, verse 256.

Islam insists that all people [not just Muslims] enjoy freedom of religion and worship. Islam considers sacred all religious places of worship [whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic] and asks Muslims to defend the right of liberty of worship for all. Islam seeks the establishment of a universal, liberal society in which all can live enjoying religious freedom in safety and equality. Allah says:

Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure T.Q., Sura 22, The Pilgrimage. verse 40.

Sixth: Another feature of religious tolerance in Islam is the idea that, where religious differences exist, the followers of various religious traditions should engage one another on a basis of mutual respect and kindness. Islam enjoins Muslims to conduct any dialogue or even disagreement about religious matters in a spirit of gentleness, sensitivity, and good will and never with hostility or violence. Allah says in the Holy Quran:

And dispute ye not with the People of the Book except with means better T.Q., Sura 29, The Spider, verse 46.

Recognizing that Allah, the Lord of all, is the sole Judge and greatest knower, Muslims are encouraged to approach all such discussions with gentleness:

Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for the Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance. T.Q. Sura 16, The Bee, verse 125.

Even when dealing with people who may be hostile to them and their faith, Muslims are encouraged to take the path of goodness, peace, and unity, and to respond with patience and kindness. Allah instructs the believers to:

Repel (Evil) with what is better; then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate! And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint none but persons of the greatest good fortune T.Q., Ha-Mim (Abbreviated Letters), Sura 41, verse 34.

Islamic Tolerance in Practice: Some Historical Examples
Even a cursory examination of early Islamic history unearths many remarkable examples of Islamic tolerance. I would like to present here just a few, as they provide instructive models for inter-religious harmony and go a long way to help disprove the common misconceptions of Islam as intolerant as a group of extremists hold today.

During his life as both religious leader and statesman, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) showed great sensitivity and respect in dealing with the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians. In the true spirit of divine revelation, the Holy Quran, with which he had been entrusted, Prophet Muhammad forbade harming non-Muslims and asked Muslims to treat them well. He once said, He who harms a Jew or a Christian will find me his opponent on the Day of Judgment.

The first thing the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did after settling in the city of Madinah, to which he had been invited as leader, was to conclude a treaty between the Muslims and the followers of the Book (Jews and Christians) of that city. According to this treaty, the Muslims guaranteed them freedom of belief and granted them the same rights and duties as those enjoyed by the Muslims.

When a Christian delegation of Abyssinia came to Madinah, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) put them up in the mosque and personally took care of them. Upon serving them food, he said that they had been so generous and honorable to his companions who had emigrated earlier to Abyssinia, that he would like to honor them himself.

When a Christian delegation came to Madinah from Najran, a town in southwest Arabia, the Prophet received them in his mosque and invited them to perform their prayers inside the mosque. The Muslims with the Prophet prayed on one side of the mosque and the Christians on the other side. During their visit, the prophet discussed many ideas with them in a polite and gentle manner.

The Prophet's Successors Carried On His Quranic Policy of Religious Tolerance.
When Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph, liberated Jerusalem from the Byzantine Roman occupation, he agreed to conditions requested by its Christian inhabitants. Omar happened to be inside the greatest Christian church of Jerusalem at the time for the Muslim afternoon prayer. Omar refused to perform his prayers in the church, for fear that it might give Muslims of future generations a reason to confiscate the church and make it into an Islamic mosque.

A Coptic, Christian sect in Egypt, woman came to Omar complaining that the Muslim governor Amru-Ibn Al-`As took her house in order to add the land to an adjacent site being used for the construction of a mosque. Omar inquired into the matter and was told by Amr that the Muslims had increased in number and needed to expand the mosque. Amr explained that he had offered the Coptic woman a great deal of money, but when she refused, Amr left the money in a fund for her to take it anytime she wanted. Though many modern laws permit such a procedure, Omar did not accept it according to Islamic principles. He ordered the Muslims to stop the expansion of the mosque and rebuild the Christian woman's house, as it had been before.

The Jizya, a tax collected from non-Muslims in Islamic territories in return for military protection and other benefits provided by the state, has also been the subject of misunderstanding. When the Muslims discovered that they had withdrawn from the city of Homs and could no longer protect the people there as they had promised, they paid the Jizya back to them. Muslims themselves actually paid a tax called Zakat which was several times more than the Jizya.

One day Omar Ibnul-Khatab saw an old man begging for alms in the street. Omar asked who he was and was told he was a Jew. Omar took him by the hand to his house, gave him food and money and sent him to the Muslim Treasury, saying, Give this man from the Muslim money. Is it right to take money [the Jizya] from him as a young man, and neglect him as an old man? This is not possible in Islam.

The son of the Muslim governor of Egypt once had a horse race with a Coptic man, which the Coptic Christian won. Angry, the son of the Muslim governor lashed the Copt with his whip. The man brought his case to Omar Ibnul-Khatab at the time of Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage. In front of the general assembly of Muslims, Omar gave his whip to the Coptic man, saying, Beat the one who beat you. Then Omar scolded Amr, the boy's father and conqueror of Egypt, saying: When did you enslave the men who were born free by birth?

Offices in the Islamic states were given to those who were best qualified, regardless of their beliefs or backgrounds. For example, Ibn Athal, a Christian physician, was the private doctor of the caliph Muawya, the founder of the Umayyad state. Another Umayyad caliph, Abdul-Malik Ibn Marwan, appointed two Christians, Athnasius and Isaac, to top positions in the state of Egypt. Adud Al-Dawla, an Abbassid caliph, made Nasr Ibn Haroun, a Christian, his prime-minister, giving him authority to rule over Iraq and southern Persia.

Thus, Islam guaranteed non-Muslims full rights with Muslims to their lives, their freedom, and their possessions. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, He who ill-treats a non-Muslim subject or overburdens him will find me his opponent. Islam allowed non-Muslims to live on Islamic lands with respect and honor. It did not impose segregation, but instead permitted non-Muslims to share fully in Muslim society and to participate in activities among the Muslims, in accordance with Allah's instruction in the Quran:

This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time. T.Q., Sura 5, Table Spread, verse 5.

Hope for the Future
The days in which humanity can simply accept ignorance and blind imitation are gone forever. Now is the time of knowledge, light, and truth; a time when humanity will accept only that which accords with reason, logic, and scientific evidence. Humanity has achieved a great deal of scientific progress and material luxury, soaring beyond the dreams of people of past ages. Nevertheless, humanity is at present threatened with destruction by dangers from two sides: spiritual and physical. Ultimately, the problems of modern civilization stem from humanity's disregard of Allah and the spiritual guidance which He has mercifully extended to all. Allah sent His messengers and prophets throughout the ages as a gift from Himself, to guide humanity to true happiness and success. In the Holy Quran, Allah says of the Prophet Muhammad that:
We sent thee not, but as a mercy for all creatures. T.Q. Prophets Sura 21, verse 107.

Allah's divine messages throughout the ages have advised people to live as one human family in love and tolerance. Such a way of life is the only way for humanity to be secure and enjoy the graces of Allah and the fruits of modern progress. Had humanity taken to heart the essence of the divine revelations, it would not have suffered through the hell of the last two World Wars and would not be living in fear of nuclear disaster and environmental destruction.

Men and women of faith must wake up, open their eyes, and begin to look at one another through lenses that show things closer and not those which make things seem distant. Real peace can be achieved only if we unite under the banner of Allah and His messengers and join in spiritual brotherhood and cooperation, to build a rational faith for the people of present and future generations. If only we could find the courage to do this, human beings would live in a worldly paradise until they went to the eternal paradise in the Hereafter.

It is time that our nations cooperated in love and generosity and join together in the worship of the One and Sole Creator of this universe, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. In so doing, we would finally revive and realize the teachings of the prophets and apostles of the past in a manner consistent with the realities of modern civilization, cooperating in the things upon which we all agree, and debating in a brotherly manner about the things upon which we disagree.

May God guide us to the good, to search for truth without any prejudice or earthly ambitions, in a spirit of love, tolerance and brotherhood. All praise and thanks be to God, Lord of all the universe.

Peace be upon you all.