Many scholars of Islam today are engaged in rich, intellectual discussions about what religious freedom means to them as believing Muslims. Contrary to media portrayals of Muslims, many of these scholars argue that religious freedom is not only compatible with Islam, but that it is also quite central to it. They hold that belief is necessarily freely chosen, and that human impositions in matters of faith are contrary to the Quranic message.
In studying the origins of religious freedom in the West, legal scholar Gregory Wallace notes, "The struggle for religious freedom originated with persons who were deeply religious and thus had a significant stake in the outcome." Today, within the Islamic tradition, this is precisely the point that many Muslim scholars are making — religious freedom is essential to the very existence of Islam. Without such freedom, Islam, in its early stages would not have survived, since the acceptance of any new religious message requires space for belief.
Regarding the current challenges in many Muslim-majority countries, scholars such as Dr. Abdullah Saeed, Dr. Usama Hasan, H.E. Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid, and Taha Jabir Alalwaniexplain that though religious toleration is endorsed by the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, and key Muslim figures throughout history, the way the concept has been commonly implemented is in direct conflict with Islamic ideals. Contrary to the often unquestioned assumption that Muslims must view apostates as transgressors against God who deserve severe punishment, there are over 200 verses in the Quran that affirm individuals' freedom not only to reject faith but also to disbelieve after having believed without incurring any worldly punishment. In his book, Islam and Belief, Saeed writes, "The Quran shows a remarkable degree of toleration toward other religions. Revealed during a time of diversity in religious traditions, institutions, and values in Arabia, it recognizes that different religious traditions and belief systems (as well as unbelief) will always exist and that forced belief is no belief at all."
Extremists preach a narrow view of Islam, often shrouded in religious rhetoric.”
Muslims are becoming increasingly aware that there is a contradiction between what the Quran and Hadith teach about tolerance and the laws and cultures of intolerance in many Muslim-majority societies today. However, because of other, seemingly more pressing, issues that many Muslims face, such as political corruption, poverty, war, and prejudice, the vast majority does not view a lack of religious freedom as an issue of immediate concern.
However, religious freedom is actually more directly related to solving these problems than many are aware. From supporting economic vitality to reducing cultures of religious prejudice, religious freedom offers much and deserves to be a concern of high priority. Significantly, equipping Muslims with faith-based arguments in support of religious toleration will empower them to delegitimise faith-based extremist narratives. Extremists preach a narrow interpretation of Islam that is often shrouded in religious rhetoric. To counter this ideology, the strongest opposition must come from Muslims arguing from within their faith.
Though a rich dialogue on matters of religious freedom already exists in Islam, a large number of obstacles prevent many who engage in this conversation from receiving the attention and support they need for their voices to be heard. One such obstacle is the existence of authoritarian governments that, because of their vested interest in preventing free thought, endorse and heavily subsidise media that reject religious freedom. Such governments provide financial support for scholars, publications, and school curricula that reject religious toleration, thus increasing the circulation of these viewpoints. This, of course, amounts to nothing less than a form of censorship, in which government-approved media are awarded a favourable market position at the expense of other media and viewpoints.
In such situations, government-endorsed media are likely to create a large class of uninformed citizens who are taught to accept a very limited interpretation of Islam as the onlyinterpretation. Because these citizens are often also taught that questioning Islam is tantamount to apostasy, many are too afraid to think otherwise. Those who try to offer perspectives at odds with what the government promotes as true religion, risk being labeled apostates or blasphemers, the consequences of which can be very grave, both legally and socially.
Due to lack of funding and support in many Muslim-majority countries today for media that challenge this limited view, Muslim scholars who support religious freedom usually publish their works through academic publishers in Western countries and in Western languages, which renders their texts inaccessible to most Muslim audiences in non-Western countries. To help address these obstacles, the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto, California, has developed the Islam and Religious Freedom Project. Working with media (texts, videos, audio) by Muslims who are engaging deeply with their faith on matters of religious freedom, this project translates these media (currently into 11 languages) and seeks to increase their circulation, especially among Muslim audiences.
Despite the climate of fear that exists in some Muslim-majority countries today, we must encourage and support the many Muslims who are engaged in robust intra-Muslim discourse about religious freedom, toleration, and interfaith harmony rooted inside Islam.