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Freedom of Faith and Conscience
May 1, 2016

The freedom of faith and conscience is, to put it briefly, the universal right to independently adopt and practice a faith of one’s choice. This right includes being able to receive the education required for a thorough practice of one’s faith and the liberty to teach others about a faith’s beliefs and practices.

Those who consider religion merely a matter of conscience are corrupting religion by way of interpretations that contradict a faith’s Divinely ordained nature; by restricting the practice and wider influence of faith, they are preventing the individual, domestic, and social benefits and prosperity that God promises, but are contingent upon faith. However, religion is not only an inner conviction: it is a whole set of principles – ethical, filial, social, and legal in nature – believers are expected to fully observe. For those who subscribe to the faith, these disciplines are binding, with serious consequences for ignoring them. The principles of religion cannot be ignored, nor are the consequences of ignoring them to be taken lightly. Worldly order and balance, as well as individual and domestic peace and prosperity, depend upon these principles. The fruits of faith are eternal bliss in the world beyond.

Unfortunately, many rulers have ignored or distorted these fundamentals of faith. They have interrupted when believers wanted to practice their faith, and tyrannized people’s consciences, making it impossible for them to live in accordance with their beliefs.

Meanwhile, although some states governed under religious jurisprudence may appear to act liberally towards those who adopt a particular religion, it is almost impossible to say they act the same towards those who believe any religion or system of belief. Throughout history, Muslim rulers, those who have truly practiced Islam, have respected all religions, as well as all other philosophies. They have engaged in dialogue with peoples from all walks of life, and have treated other faiths with kindness.

Unfortunately, there have been other Muslim rulers, those who have misunderstood Islam, and rulers in general, no matter what religion they follow, who have ruled with hostility, hatred, discrimination, and fanaticism. And just as they have shrunk their own personal horizons, they have diminished the heavenly immensity of faith, turning belief into a system of oppression instead of a system of relief. They have employed hatred, anger, and jealousy against their coreligionists, and oppressed the “others” with violence, war, and many other various means of barbarism.

Today, there are many secular and liberal systems in which religion is separated from the state. Although governments under these systems claim to provide religious freedoms, it is no secret that many of them impose disbelief by force and treat religion and the faithful with intolerance. When such oppressive regimes dominate the fate of an entire nation, it becomes commonplace that the peace and stability of the people are threatened, and the society is ruled by intimidation. When people of faith have lived under such leaders, their struggle has been for the freedom of conscience against crude power. This campaign for freedom is an ancient one, and unfortunately, in this fight some clergymen took sides with the power, did not abstain to act like those who were against faith, and oppressed their fellow community.

Throughout history, many communities have suffered from violence and discrimination at the hands of their racist leaders. Divinely inspired faiths, which promise peace and security, have been turned into means of conflict and oppression by these leaders. Such a distortion of faith always resulted in the eventual destruction of the oppressors.

During the Crusades, great crimes were committed in the name of Jesus, peace be upon him. Though there is no doubt those “crusaders” thought they were doing good, by committing atrocities, they were misconstruing Jesus’ message of compassion and love. They claimed to be his followers, but they invented many groups of “others” and marginalized them in an illusory attempt to please Jesus and to be rewarded with heaven. The Crusades, of course, are not the only example of such violence committed in the name of religion. Many people have been murdered, throughout history, for opposing a state’s “official” religion. Such violence and unrest eventually led thinkers and philosophers to take action. Their foundational premise of action was that a religion sent by God would not command people to harm and kill one another. The growth of science helped to bring about reforms, which were quite effective at dividing religious and state affairs. Unfortunately, this split has gone too far, moving from the state, into the personal. The word of God was replaced by the word of humanity, and faith was once again shrunk and imprisoned to the individual’s inner conscience, as if it was just an ordinary theory.

Religious belief, by definition, can only maintain heavenliness when practiced in accordance with the principles prescribed by God, not by the limits defined in any kind of ideology or legal system. Indeed, in addition to the freedom of personally practicing religion, believers need to be free to express their faith, either verbally or in writing or in any other medium, without being punished. There is no freedom of faith and conscience when restrictions are imposed on religious practice, whether it is in the public or private sphere.

At the present, it appears that the Western world has mostly solved its own problems after experiencing long periods of turmoil with regards to secularism or laicism. Nevertheless, secularism, i.e. the separation of church and state was never considered as the one and only irrefutable solution to all the world’s problems, but rather as a means of reconciliation and a warranty for the freedom of faith and conscience. We can argue that in many countries where secularism has been defined as such, both religion and secularism have existed without conflict, even perhaps with some sense of mutual support. In some other countries where secularism is being used to oppress religion and religious practice, this is mainly because these countries fail to bring a scholarly definition to secularism, or that those in power are radically opposed to religion and all of its aspects, or because of other sources of power which strive to generate chaos in the country.

We can all agree that religious believers should not infringe upon the rights of others, but the state should also not infringe upon the rights of believers to practice their faiths. To do so would impact the divinity of religion and will generate false interpretations of religion based on foreign concepts. Such a development has the potential to cause serious problems at the global level.

Muslims believe that Islam is a perfected system of worship and ethics, and a spiritual journey leading to Paradise and eternal bliss. Muslims also believe that Islam lays out guidelines for solving individual, filial, economic, administrative, and social problems. It is not fair to ignore these qualities, which can contribute to social peace and security, as well as to dialogue and understanding among nations. Islam – despite Muslims’ shortcomings in its practice – is a universal faith of perfection and excellence, and undoubtedly one of its most significant aspects is that it recognizes the religions of truth and Prophets of the past. Islam refers to members of all the religions of truth as the “People of the Book”; not only did Islam recognize members of other religions, but also immediately implemented regulations in terms of safeguarding their rights. Since the very beginning, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, treated members of other religions with extreme tolerance. He was very delicate regarding this matter, and constantly encouraged his followers to behave in the same manner, calling upon them to be a nation that would be an example to others. Muslims always complied with this appeal, and, with the exception of the harsh and fanatical stances of certain illiberal, inhumane individuals during certain periods, have to a large extent acted with tolerance. The Qur’an clearly defines how Muslims should behave: “There is no compulsion in the religion. The right way stands there clearly distinguished from the false…” (Al-Baqarah 2:256).

“There is no compulsion in religion” refers to methods of reasoning while engaging with others. Some scholars even interpret the verse as meaning no aspect of religion can be forced on others. Thus, based on this commentary, religion can never rely on force; it is a matter of personal choice. As opposed to coercion, Islam has always pledged to protect others from oppression and ensured that every group could freely practice their chosen faith. Furthermore, Islam recognized oppression not only as disrespectful to the individual, but also to the spirit of religion; indeed, coercion or oppression is disrespectful to humans, for it infringes upon free will, which is what separates humankind from other creatures. It is also disrespectful towards religion, as faith is based upon sincerity, and a heart freely accepting faith. Belief and religious duties that are not recognized in the heart are not accepted. Indeed, just as belief imposed upon people with force or oppression is not faith, those who express such “faith” are not believers. If anything, such individuals are hypocrites, and the behavior and actions they perform in the name of religious duties are nothing but ostentation.

Religion is a source of prosperity and kindness. It is not an unpleasant thing that people can only accept by compulsion. In this respect, enforcing religion and religious issues rather than explaining the topic of faith in a civil manner may cause antipathy towards religion. In the very same section where the Qur’an prohibits compulsion, it also delineates the right path from the wrong based on the evidence through external and internal proofs, on the divine messages and legacy conveyed by God’s messengers, and on the teachings and guidance of faithful teachers.

Our predecessors who appreciated this used evidence and persuasive methods laid out by religion in an attempt to convey matters regarding faith and religion. They did not try to force others to join their faith, and everyone lived in accordance with their own faith. People were free to express themselves and never encountered any juridical or administrative problems. Amidst this atmosphere of tolerance, no one was subjected to any kind of oppression with regards to freedom of belief. People were not expelled from their homes or countries, or tried by the courts. People followed the religion of their choice, and were under constant protection on the condition that they abided by their pledge and fulfilled their responsibilities as citizens. Those who broke their pledge and did not fulfill their duties as citizens, who attempted to divide and destroy the nation, who openly rebelled against the legitimate rule and committed terrorist attacks, or who oppressed others, were punished according to their crimes. Peace was upheld.

In the Islamic faith, not only did Muslims act in this manner regarding freedom of faith and conscience, they did not also try to coerce people regarding worship or social relations. In fact, even during times of conflict, Islam granted the right of residence to those who agreed to pay the prescribed taxes, and never intervened in another group’s beliefs or religious practices. As for those who persisted in fighting against the Muslims, following their defeat, they were also granted civil rights in return for taxes, and were left to question their own actions. In addition, Islam enforced the same rules for those who were defeated in battle as those who voluntarily came and asked for the protection of the state, and everyone was allowed to benefit from all the privileges of citizenship, on the condition that they would cause no harm to the state or its citizens.

This immense tolerance displayed by Islam in the name of the freedom of belief and conscience is by no means limited to those who sought refuge in its guardianship alone; Islam has constantly guarded the same values throughout the world. It came to the aid of the aggrieved, helped the oppressed, supported those who fell, and continuously enforced the truth. Islam has opposed the oppression of souls everywhere it has reached, and prepared the foundation for the voluntary acceptance of faith in people’s hearts. By virtue of this agreement, it has prevented the people from being forced into following a religion, philosophy, or ideology against their own will, and whenever possible prevented all kinds of oppression. Wherever it has been, Islam has secured the public peace and tranquility among a vast body of various communities, and stimulated respect for the principle messages of all the Prophets.

Islam places a high priority on freedom of conscience and faith due to its history. The rightly guided caliphs gave great importance to freedom of conscience, and since it was granted to minorities during the period of the Prophet, they enforced it with the utmost sensitivity. In later periods, this practice was maintained without any changes or deviations. From the periods of the Umayyads and Abbasids, to the eras of light, and to the Ottoman period – with few exceptions – all Muslim administrations granted minorities the right to practice religion, perform religious rituals, and educate their children as they wished. Minorities were also free to assemble and join various foundations and societies in efforts to maintain their cultures. They could restore their old places of worship and construct new ones, and nothing was demanded from them in return, except that they abide by the general laws and regulations of the country.

In the context of their age, the Umayyads and Abbasids from Damascus, the Andalusian Muslims, and the Ottomans can all be classified as a model in this respect. Paving the way for the Renaissance, they introduced the West to many things in terms of knowledge and insight; they not only fulfilled their duties of faith, but also did not interfere with the beliefs or cultures of others, and for centuries displayed an exemplary form of administrative conduct. But unfortunately, following the destruction of their states, they were slaughtered, and none were granted the right to remain in the region. Their people had to go through invasions, colonization, interventions, embargos, and oppression, in terms of freedom of faith and conscience.

I believe that all of these constitute, and will continue to constitute, a good example of the stance of past civilizations in terms of the freedom of faith and conscience. I am aware that, in the interest of dialogue, we should not inflame passions, but I also believe that while pointing out problems it is also important to emphasize the good aspects of our past. This is especially important today, since oppression continues. Although I am not certain that cautioning against such behavior will awaken the local and international oppressors to their mistakes, I certainly have no doubt that responding to them in this manner is a duty incumbent upon us all.