Coexistence with Non-believers in Islamic Jurisprudence

Mohammad Hassan Najafi

Human beings are born as social creatures; they depend on one another for their life. Coexistence and relationship are vital to human life. It is only in society that human beings can meet their needs, enhance their quality of life, and develop their skills and capacities. Human survival depends on coexistence and due to this need people are prepared to enter into contracts and social treaties with one another and care to respect their commitments.

On the other hand, man’s natural aspiration for coexistence in society is hampered by various elements such as individuals’ peculiar inner characteristics, divergent religious beliefs and tendencies, sectarian and ethnic inclinations, and regional and geographical differentiations that restrict human beings’ choice of social relationship via drawing boundaries that segregate communities and separate people from one another. The very institution of family that is the most basic kernel of society is not immune to such segregations. So, human beings implicitly yield to two important facts of life; the general aspiration for living in community and the invisible divides hampering the fulfillment of that aspiration.

Efforts to find a balanced compromise between these two belligerent facts of life have never stopped. People always tried every possible path to reconcile these two opposing forces in an ideal consummation that satisfies the minimum requirements of happy life in a rational manner. For this purpose, man has examined so many different methods including creeds and ideologies. No doubt, the successful candidate for this role must be capable of educating and directing man as to how to live with fellow human beings based on a set of rules that safeguard human interests in general avoiding extremist tendencies of any kind.

The science of Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) undertakes to prescribe how human beings ought to adjust their relations to one another, to nature, and to themselves. A great part of Fiqh discusses the way to coexist with people of other faiths. We can claim that coexistence with non-believers occupies the place of the most urgent and primary concerns of Muslims since the advent of Islam; therefore, we see scattered references to this issue everywhere in Fiqh throughout.

From the first days of the Islamic call in Mecca, the capital of polytheism of the time, when the holy Prophet received the first revelation from Heaven until the establishment of a state in Medina ten years later, when he signed treaties with different tribes of the Jewish nation and went on to internationalize the Islamic call, he was teaching his followers how to treat non-Muslims and live with them in harmony and peace via his preaching and personal practice. The claim by some orientalists and Islamologists to the effect that Islam advanced through the exercise of force because it never recognized any right to live for non-believers is no more than an accusation never supported by sufficient evidence, made and reiterated mainly for the purpose of covering up the heinous crimes committed during dark middle ages by European inquisition courts that suppressed any voice opposing the official. A minimum familiarity with Islamic teachings and the history of this religion suffices to refute such false claims.

Islam emphatically rejects compulsory conversion announcing in Sura Baqareh of the Koran that “There is no coercion in faith” (verse 258) and describing Divine will to let people choose their faith freely forbidding the Prophet from forcing people to follow him: “had thy Lord wished that all people living on earth convert, they would have done so; why should thou coerce people to accept the faith?” (Sura Younos, verse 100). The Koran frankly declares that the holy Prophet’s only duty is to let people know the message of God: “The messenger has no duty but to disclose the message” (Sura Maedeh, verse 100) and he should do so in a pacific and logical manner: “Call to the path of thy Lord in wisdom and through goodheartedly preaching, and debate with them only in the best possible manner” (Surah Nahl, verse 127). In addition, the Koran permits Muslims to treat non-Muslims fairly and respectfully so long as they display no hostility and malicious intentions: “Never doth Allah forbid that thou treat in a spirit of philanthropy and fairness those people who did not fight thee on the cause of faith or forced exile on thee; verily, Allah loves the just.” (Sura Momtahanah, verse 9).

Strong and obvious statements such as these in the holy Koran leave no room for the delusion that Islam does not recognize religious coexistence, or acknowledges no especial regulations for free religious practice of non-Muslims. Had there existed no other law in Islamic Jurisprudence except for the law of Jezyeh, it would have sufficed to show every unprejudiced person that it makes the best possible provision for religious coexistence among followers of different faiths. In fact, some authors have admitted to this truth. Jezyeh is a kind of contract between Muslim state and those who dislike converting to Islam but like to live among Muslims peacefully. Based on this contract, the state undertakes to protect them, let them live and work in Islamic community, exercise their religious freedom of worship and faith as long as they respect the contract.

From the Ideal to the Real

There are some precepts and notions Islam preaches that may seem on the surface to conflict with the principle of religious coexistence, or hint that it is only a secondary rule admitted on the basis of exigencies. Among them are the beliefs that Islam is the only truthful religion, it is a universal religion for all people at all times, the holy war against the infidels is lawful according to the Sharia, and the like. These beliefs may seem to imply that the principle of religious coexistence is wrong or non-Islamic or, at most, something valid in exceptional circumstances only. But sufficient analysis shows that there is no real inconsistency here.

Undoubtedly, Islam is a universal religion. It is the best faith man has ever reached. It is the only faith God acknowledges for this time. The future belongs to this faith. Through human intellectual advancement, everybody will one day come to realize this truth. It is a Divine promise that Islam will triumph: “In order that God brings about that Islam triumphs over all religions.” Such a day will inevitably arrive and waiting for that day is a sign of faithfulness. All these beliefs are held by every Muslim.  But they do not diminish the validity of the principle of religious coexistence because not all people of the world are Muslims. It is an ideal for every Muslim that everybody comes to see these facts sometime. But there is a gulf between the ideal and the real. Yet, there are so many people who have not reached these truths. For the interim period, Islam has a plan. Nobody may see the truth via force. Faith is a matter of free choice. Only through their free choice can people come to the truth. So, the ground must be prepared for the seekers of the truth to see it. Therefore, people must be given the chance to investigate into the righteous faith and opt for their free choice. This is what the holy Prophet did personally.

A distinction must be drawn between peaceful coexistence with the followers of other faiths and failure to strictly comply with Sharia law. Allowing believers in other religions to practice their faith does not imply that one does not care for his own.  In the same way, adherence to ideals does not mean that one should impose his on others. This is a command of Sharia that people must be given the freedom and chance to make up their mind regarding the religion they think truthful. Rules of coexistence are also defined by Sharia.

The issue of coexistence is a central question of human life affected by innumerable factors varying in time and according to regional requirements. There is no fixed prescription implementable everywhere and at all ages. In any particular case, an appropriate decision must be made.

In the early centuries of the history of Islam, this issue was quite crucial because the real circumstances dictated so. There was much intermingling of Muslims and non-Muslims. There were many prisoners of war living among people as slaves. This made the question of treatment of non-believers a pressing one for both Muslim society and non-Muslim ones. It penetrated deep into the structure of society even to the level of family since many of these slaves lived as servants of the household. As the territories ruled by Muslims expanded and the institution of slavery was gradually abandoned and abolished, the question of how to treat non-believers lost its importance and remained confined to the international relations among states of different faiths and the problem of integration of Muslims living in foreign lands into the population of the host countries.

The issue has now assumed far different dimensions as technological advancements have brought about radical changes in economic, legal, and cultural relations among peoples inclusive of followers of different faiths. The complicated interconnected relations among people and the information revolution triggered by modern technology have made a small global village out of the human world where everybody is affected by virtually every choice someone else makes irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity, and faith. Plenty of new questions are now put forward to the tribunal of Fiqh to address. The majority of these questions are unprecedented, therefore, awaiting answers.

Before a government was established with Islamic tinge, the question of treating the followers of other faiths was purely a theoretical one. Now that the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to have founded a political regime on the basis of Islamic precepts, it is more than a theoretical issue. In practice, precise answers to these questions are needed. The practical position this state takes towards non Muslims living within its jurisdiction or without are taken as the embodiment of Islam’s view in this regard. It is therefore necessary to display the superiority of the Islamic approach in this field in practice. Bearing this necessity in mind, the authors of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran who were mostly experts in Islamic jurisprudence added a number of clauses that relate to this subject matter. As an example, they voted for the 13th and 14th clauses that provide:

The Iranian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are the only religious minorities who enjoy the right of free religious education and practice and follow their especial civil code in personal matters.

Since this much provision did not include non-Muslims other than the people of the book, another clause was added:

As ordained by the holy Koran, “Never doth Allah forbid that thou treat in a spirit of philanthropy and fairness those people who did not fight thee on the cause of faith or forced exile on thee; verily, Allah loves the just”, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Muslims ought to treat non-Muslim ethically and according to Islamic concept of justice and fairness and should respect their human rights. This includes all people who do not engage in plotting against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is worthwhile to mention that this statement is the first instance of Muslim jurisprudents recognizing the right to peaceful coexistence for non-Muslims other than the three known creeds based on that Koranic verse. It is well conceivable that this move is the result of radical changes in the relations among people in the modern age. It is also worth noting that the said clause was approved by a decisive majority; 50 out of 53 votes. Only one member of the assembly voted against the move and two others abstained.

The rapid expansion of Islam the world over gives rise to new problems. The Islamic revival movement promoted an Islamist trend in the majority of the highly Muslim populated countries. There are many new converts to Islam every where every day. The new converts face fresh questions in their life; how should they manage their relations with their relatives and old friends who keep belief in their mother faith. A number of moral, psychological, emotional, social, and family problems appear as the result. They cannot be overlooked.

Fortunately, we have so many teachings in regard to this issue among the traditions and the practice of the holy Imams that can be taken as examples. In many different cases, new converts would refer to the holy Prophet or to Imams asking how they could manage their relations with their parents and other family members and friends who refused to embrace Islam.

The science of Fiqh is among exact sciences. Every jurisprudent tries to explore Divine will on every subject matter. Naturally, difference of opinion among jurists emerges. Rational disagreement here is not only acknowledged but also recognized as a vehicle for scientific progress. As an expert comes to a conclusion in his investigation, he states his opinion without any concern for it being breach of a consensus. The question of coexistence is among the controversial issues on which jurists’ views widely diverge though waster and deeper examination of the neglected aspects is also needed. It goes without saying that hardly can a subject matter in jurisprudence be found which is not controversial.

The General Rules of Coexistence

As we said earlier, peaceful coexistence among followers of different creeds may be established according to a set of regulative laws. Some of these laws are general and some relate to specific cases. Among the general ones, three rules are primary.

Rule One; Preservation of Dignity

Muslims are responsible for their dignity and honor. They are not allowed to waive their dignity just as they must not ignore others’. The Koran says, “Verily, dignity belongs to God, to His messenger and to the believers.” It is religiously bounding on every person to safeguard their honor in all affairs of life. When working with people of another faith, a believer must behave in a manner that protects their dignity. One must not belittle oneself or let the glitter of intermingling with others undermine their self-respect. Needless to say, self-respect is different from arrogance and haughtiness. The holy Prophet of Islam was the most honored among Muslims; He respected the non-believer even their dead bodies.

Rule Two; Protection of the Interest of   Muslims

As governments ought to protect the interests of people whenever they enter into any contract with other nations, so must every individual do when collaborating with others. It is the responsibility of all Muslims to safeguard the interests of Muslims and Islam in their cooperation with foreigners. In cases where the personal interest clashes with the interests of the society, the latter is to be preferred.

Rule Three; Good intention

The principle of peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims is valid so long as they do not display hostile intentions. They must refrain from plotting against Muslims and committing any act that may jeopardize Muslims’ security and vital interests. No sooner than the party to the treaty misuses, it is null and void automatically. The tradition of the holy Prophet shows that he always added a clause in His treaties with non-Muslims guaranteeing this point. Muslim jurists, too, observed this condition when authoring the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Historically speaking, Islam has drawn great benefits from the principle of peaceful coexistence. Their ethical behavior to people of other faiths gave Muslims a spiritual superiority to others especially their foes in the eyes of the observant, which sufficed, in many cases, to attract the attention of ordinary people to this religion. There are cases of one individual in an unfriendly alien territory behaving so morally to absorb the indigenous population to Islam at once. In a world ruled by the law of jungle where human relations suffer the ethical blend, the implementation of the Islamic ethics of treating people manifested in the principle of coexistence can call millions to Islam with no propaganda.