The events in the last decade have brought a constant stream of negative news from Muslim states. Human rights issues in Muslim-majority Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are held up as examples of how Islam has held back these societies. After all, these states claim to be staunchly “Islamic,” and hence they must speak for the religion Islam itself. Is this true? Can a religion be gauged by the acts of states?
No historian can deny that Islam emerged as the religion of a severely persecuted, small community in seventh century Arabia and ultimately triumphed against fearsome odds under Prophet Muhammad’s leadership. The reason for their persecution was simple: Islam’s message threatened tribal customs and orthodox practices of existing religions in Arabia.
The first Muslim migration to escape persecution was to Abbysinia, whose Christian ruler, Negus, believed in tolerance and permitted the refugees in his kingdom — an act for which the Prophet expressed his deep gratitude.
It is, therefore, ironic and tragic that powerful clerical Muslim states today use the name of Islam to oppress non-Muslims and also Muslims of other denominations. In fact, early Islamic history contradicts the acts of today’s Muslims. A tradition about Prophet Muhammad states he insisted Christian priests from Najran offer their prayers in his mosque. He also debated religion with them openly and went to the extent of granting them the freedom to practice religion however they wished. This contrasts greatly with leadership in modern Islamic states.
It is impossible to imagine today that someone can publicly question an Ayatollah in Iran or a Mufti in Saudi Arabia. An oft-ignored Quranic verse states, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Even less, however, know of its context. Before the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina to escape religious oppression, some people of Medina had dedicated their children to be raised as Jews. The parents, who later converted to Islam, objected when the Jewish guardians kept these children with them.
The Quranic verse pertains to this particular event when Prophet Muhammad forbade the parents from forcibly taking back their children or converting them to Islam. This is ironic given how some states today force Islamic injunctions on non-Muslims.
If such Islamic traditions of noncompulsion are authentic, which they are, then how do clerical states justify their position? It’s simple — by keeping these traditions away from the larger public or by creating imagined enemies to emotionally force the public behind them.
Invoking dogma to hide inconvenient truths is not the exclusive practice of Muslim regimes. Indeed all repressive states — religious or secular — rely on similar tools. In fact, moderate Muslims, such as those in the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, have to face stiff persecution in Muslim states because their interpretation of Islam threatens dogma.
Thus, next time one hears a Muslim state claiming to act in the name of Islam, perhaps several pinches of salt can be added.