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Written by Louay Safi   
Feb 06, 2002 at 08:00 PM
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Understanding Islam
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Challenges to Democracy and Diversity

The theme this panel is asked to address is both timely and thought provoking. For despite its geographical proximity and moral affinity with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is, evidently, the least understood religion in the West. There are many historical and geopolitical reasons for that, but I have neither the time nor the intention to delve into them. I would rather spend the limited time I have to argue that Islam is an essential partner in any effort to develop a more democratic and peaceful world. 

Islam is essential for the development of a better future for human society because its adherents constitute one-fifth of world population. No democratic order can be achieved or maintained by discarding the aspirations and ethos of one-fifth of world population. Yet Islam is an essential partner for developing a democratic and peaceful world for more basic reason. Islam holds in high esteem the most fundamental values that make a democratic and pluralist society possible, namely equality, freedom, justice, and interracial and interreligious solidarity. 

The emphasis Islam places on the values of equality, freedom, justice, and pluralism is manifested in the Islamic scripture—the Qur’an, in the practices of the Prophet of Islam and those of his companions, in the historical experience of Muslim society, and in ethos of the contemporary Islamic reform movements. 


The first thing that strikes us when we study the Qur’anic texts is that the Qur’an neither confines faith and salvation to those who accept the Islamic revelation, nor deny faith and salvation to other religions.1 Indeed the Qur’an does not limit the attribution of faith and salvation to Muslims but extend it to believers of other faiths.2 The Qur’an states in no uncertain terms that all persons who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good, are assured of salvation: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians – any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteous deeds – on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”  (Al-Ma’idah 69)   

Nor does the Qur’an consider all those who accepted Islam as true believers.  For some have accepted the new religion as a general mode of life but failed to internalize its worldview and ethical mission.3

 Others conform to Islamic teachings only in appearance, but continue to harbor suspicion and doubts, even ill-will toward Islam and its adherents and advocates.4  It follows that believers and disbelievers can belong to all religions. 

Because believers and disbelievers cannot be distinguished on religious lines, as they run across all religions, the Qur’an urges Muslims to seek a political order based on peaceful cooperation and mutual respect, and warns them against placing religious solidarity over covenanted rights and the principles of justice.5     

The Qur’an, therefore, directs the Muslims to find a common ground with other religious communities. This common ground is expressed as a mutual respect of the freedom and autonomy of different religious communities.6 That none should appropriate to themselves the right to impose their way of life on other religious communities.7 The Qur’an is also clear that their can be no force in matter religious.8 


Equipped with the above set of principles, the Prophet managed to establish in Medina a multi-religious political community, based on a set of universal principles that constituted the Compact of Medina (Sahifatul Medina).9  The various rules enunciated in the Compact were aimed at maintaining peace and cooperation, protecting the life and property of the inhabitants of Medina, fighting aggression and injustice regardless of tribal or religious affiliations, and ensuring freedom of religion and movement.  It is remarkable that the Medina Compact placed the rules of justice over and above religious solidarity, and affirmed the right of the victims of aggression and injustice to rectitude regardless of their tribal or religious affiliations. 

The Compact of Medina formed the constitutional foundation of the political community established by the Prophet.10 It established a number of important political principles that, put together, formed the political constitution of the first Islamic state, and defined the political rights and duties of the members of the newly established political community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and drew up the political structure of the nascent society. 

The Islamic political system adopted the principle of religious tolerance based on freedom of belief for all the members of the society. It conceded to the Jews the right to act according to the principles and rulings in which they believed: “The Jews of Banu Auf are one community with the believers. The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs.” The Compact emphasized the fundamentality of cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims in establishing justice and defending of Medina against foreign aggression. “The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims theirs. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this Compact. They must seek mutual advice and consultation.” It prohibited the Muslims form doing injustice to the Jews or retaliating for their Muslim brothers against the followers of the Jewish religion without adhering to the principles of truth and goodness. “To the Jew who follows us belongs help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.”11 

The Compact stipulated that the social and political activities in the new system must be subject to a set of universal values and standards that treat all people equally. Sovereignty in the society would not rest with the rulers, or any particular group, but with the law founded on the basis of justice and goodness, maintaining the dignity of all. The Compact emphasized repeatedly and frequently the fundamentality of justice, goodness, and righteousness, and condemned in different expressions injustice and tyranny. “They would redeem their prisoners with kindness and justice common among the believers,” the Compact stated. “The God-conscious believers shall be against the rebellious, and against those who seek to spread injustice, sin, enmity, or corruption among the believers, the hand of every person shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them,” it proclaimed.12 

The Compact introduced a number of political rights to be enjoyed by the individuals of the Madigan State, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, including (1) the obligation to help the oppressed, (2) outlawing guilt by association which was commonly practiced by pre-Islamic Arab tribes: “A person is not liable for his ally’s misdeeds;” (3) freedom of belief: “The Jews have their religion and the Muslims theirs;” and (4) freedom of movement from and to Medina: “Whoever will go out is safe, and whoever will stay in Medina is safe except those who wronged (others), or committed offense.”13 


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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