A Letter Concerning Muslim Toleration

Over the past decade, headlines from the Middle East have reintroduced Westerners to terms from centuries past. “Heresy,” “blasphemy,” “apostasy” — these are some of the charges that the radical Salafist group known as the Islamic State invokes when it executes its enemies, sometimes by crucifying or burning them alive.

Some Muslim governments, including United States allies, also mete out harsh punishments for similar offenses. The liberal blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged in Saudi Arabia last month on a charge of heresy, which he allegedly committed by criticizing the oppressive Saudi religious establishment.

Although there are contextual differences for these practices, as well as the sanctions for religious offenses in Iran, Sudan or Afghanistan, they all share one fundamental objective: Punishing people in the name of God.

A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that while not all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims approve of this notion, a significant proportion of them do. Majorities in Egypt and Pakistan, for example, support the death penalty for Muslims who dare to abandon their religion.

Looking at this, some Westerners conclude that Islam is inherently more rigid than the creed that has defined their own civilization: Christianity. But they are forgetting that Christianity had its own, no less violent, history of punishing in the name of God. For centuries, churches burned people they thought were heretics at the stake or tortured them to purify their souls. The main difference with Islam is that Christianity gradually outgrew that age of religious persecution by grounding its theology in tolerance, reason and liberty.

So why couldn’t Muslims do the same? This question has been around for a while, and some have proposed to answer it by calling for Islam’s own Reformation, to be led by a Muslim Martin Luther.

This aspiration misreads both Christianity and Islam. Unlike the Catholic world before Luther, the Muslim world today has no central authority against which a Protestant-like Reformation could push back. And whatever Luther’s other contributions, his reform hardly ushered in an era of tolerance; instead, it triggered more than a century of intra-Christian conflict and persecution.

In fact, the man who brought liberalism to Western Christianity came a century and a half after Luther: It was the English philosopher John Locke. The Enlightenment had many thinkers, but Locke, a Christian, was rare among them for defending liberty against religious intolerance not by attacking religion — as Voltaire would do in France — but by reinterpreting it. Locke based his case for political and religious freedom on both reason and the Bible.

If Islamic thought is to liberalize today, it must take a Lockean leap. This would not mean importing any Western cultural notion, for a Lockean tradition has long existed in Islam, buried in the late seventh century, in a largely forgotten school of theologians called the Murjites. They arose at a time of strife, when proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites were fighting over who the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad was, and a fanatical group called the Kharijites, or “Dissenters,” deemed all Muslims but themselves to be apostates and started killing them off.

To counter this zealotry, the more urbane Murjites presented a brilliantly simple argument: No Muslim had the right to judge others on matters of faith; only God had that ultimate authority. Thus, they reasoned, all doctrinal disputes should be postponed to the afterlife, to be resolved by God. (The Quran itself supports this view: “Had God willed, He would have made you a single community”; “Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.”) This is why they were called “Murjites,” which means, “the Postponers.”

Writing a thousand years later, in the midst of passionate intra-Christian conflict, Locke made the same postponement argument. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” he argued that there is no “judge upon Earth” to adjudicate various churches on “the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship,” adding, “The decision of that question belongs only to the Supreme judge of all men, to whom also alone belongs the punishment of the erroneous.”

Locke also believed that faith was “the inward persuasion of the Mind,” and could not be compelled by “outward force.” In this, too, he was like the Murjites: For them, faith was a marifa, an inner knowledge of the heart — not to be measured by external manifestations, and beyond the judgment of any religion police.

The Postponers disappeared as an independent sect after the first centuries of Islam, having been marginalized by successive despots who upheld more rigid views. But they influenced the Maturidi school of theology and Hanafi jurisprudence, the most rational and lenient strains of Sunni Islam, which remain popular among Turks and Central Asians.

The Murjites’ ideas are well worth reviving for all Muslims today, now that the Muslim world has come to bear an unsettling resemblance to their own. Again, Sunnis and Shiites are going at each other, radical neo-Kharijites are spilling blood and self-righteous puritans are purporting to do God’s work on Earth by punishing sinners and heretics.

It is a perfect time, in other words, for Muslims to decide to postpone their religious disputes until the afterlife. Let those be resolved by God, and in the meantime, may Muslims live and let live.

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist and the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

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