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Peter Heine {*}

But God knows best

How tolerant is Islam?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2012, P. 631-635
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Not without good reason, Muslims fight against the fact that their religion is portrayed as intolerant. But is not for instance even apostasy from Islam punishable by death? The situation is more complicated. The emergence of the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula was fraught with serious consequences.


In mid-October 2012 in Istanbul there was a trial against the internationally known pianist Fazil Say (born in 1970) because of disparagement of religious values. To the annoyance of Turkish intellectuals, the court proceedings were not immediately abandoned because of formal or contentual facts but postponed until early next year. What were the accusations against Say? Say had already repeatedly commented negatively on the conservative tendencies with regard to religion in Turkey under the political leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-traditionalist party.

At first glance, in the recent cause no allegations of blasphemy or defamation of Islam or of fundamental religious beliefs of any however defined group of Turkish citizens could be established. The Turkish pianist criticized merely that the five times a day prescribed prayer of the muezzin would too often carried out in an extremely fast pace. Here, the musical feeling of a professional pianist had certainly played an important role. He had then polemically asked whether the muezzins, given the pace that they displayed while calling for prayer, were in such a hurry to get to their sweethearts. It is certainly possible to understand this as a polemical criticism, but a comprehensible one - given the criticized manner of calling for prayer. The latter is perceived by all Muslims as sacred.

Fazil Say is here in a polemical and cultural tradition, which up to the present day is often noticeable in all Muslim societies. Muslims poke gladly and often fun at Imams, the Muslim prayer leaders, at teachers who by severe corporal punishment hammer texts of the Koran into the children in the village school, and even at the Prophet of Islam. Here it is about jokes and gages of Muslims. They are usually not taken amiss. Devout people get perhaps excited about it. But the majority of Muslim listeners would probably rather have fun or at least show tolerance. It would be a quite different matter if non-Muslims would tell those jokes.

Exemplary for this form of criticism of various aspects of religious doctrine and practice in Islam is already the Persian poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Up to the present day he enjoys high veneration for his quatrains (Rubayyât). Apart from other skeptical or freethinking poems, also the following verses are by him, "You say that there are rivers of wine./ Does that mean it is a heavenly bar?/ You say two virgins will be given to every believer./ Does that mean it is a heavenly brothel?" He referred even to the Prophet Muhammad as witness for his attitude, "You must go to the prophet and say:/



Khayyâm sends greetings to you and asks you :/ Why does you permit me sour milk/ And why should I renounce sweet wine?" The poet lets the prophet answer, "Go to Khayyâm and tell him, I send this word to you:/ Only a fool can ask so unreasonably. / My ban on wine does not apply to a wise man. I must only deny fools it."

These verses of the poet, who was also a famous astronomer, were hardly known in his lifetime. But since the 12th century they exerted a strong influence on Persian poetry, even with regard to those contents which were skeptical and criticizing Islam. They were also translated into the other two major Muslim literary languages Arabic and Turkish. Still in the seventies of the last century you could without problems in Baghdad or Tehran bookstores buy editions of Omar Khayyâm's quatrains. They were illustrated in a bibliophilistic manner and quadrilingual in Persian, Arabic, English and German.

As the trial against the pianist Fazil Say shows, a new situation obviously evolved in the meantime - even in an according to its constitution secular country like Turkey. The former tolerance in religious matters has been evidently repressed. In conversations, Muslims often and not without good reason fight against the fact that their religion is portrayed as intolerant. They can refer to the fact that up to the eighties of the 20th century pogroms against religious minorities in Islamic states were an absolute exception. The reason for it is a particular attitude of Islam towards other religions.


Different Positions within the Quran

In numerous passages, the Quran takes up a position on the "people of the Book" (Ahl al-kitâb). They include Jews, Christians and Magicians (Mâjûs). As regards the latter, also Sabians or Sabeans are meant. Which religious group is exactly meant by the Quran is controversially discussed by scholars. The Koran feels connected with all of them, because they refer to a revelation set out in writing: Torah, Psalms and Gospel. Regarding the Mâjûs, it is tacitly assumed that they have also received a revelation. The attitude towards the polytheists is different: the Koran comments strictly hostile on them. With regard to them, the Qur'an says in Sura 8.39: "And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do."



While in the Koran, Sura 2.62 it says about the "people of the Book", "Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (all translations of the Koran by YUSUFALI). However, this is in contrast with other statements. In Sura 2.105 it says for instance, "It is never the wish of those without Faith among the People of the Book, nor of the Pagans, that anything good should come down to you from your Lord. But Allah will choose for His special Mercy whom He will - for Allah is Lord of grace abounding." Such different positions within the Qur'anic text are no rarity. In the actual coexistence between Muslims and members of other monotheistic religions it was and is therefore possible to refer to this or that kind of statements. In the course of history the following fundamental position of Islam towards monotheistic non-Muslims arose as a result. They had the status of protected persons (dhimmi) of the Muslim state. They were allowed to practise freely their religion in Muslim countries. In practice, this was all the easier since the various religious communities lived in various urban quarters, which were often separated from each other by walls and gates. Contacts were made via trade and commerce. Some members of religious minorities could as doctors or clerks achieve high positions in the Muslim state.


Second-class Subjects

Examples for this can be found in the Baghdad of the 10th century but also and above all in Andalusia under Muslim rule from 711 to 1492. The minorities were almost never forced to accept the Islamic faith. That's why the Islamization of the by the Muslims in the course of about 100 years conquered regions between the Iberian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent took place only very slowly. Demographic historians have e.g. established that in Egypt still in the 16th century the majority of the population were Coptic Christians.

Studies with similar results have been made also for Iran. There were definitely two practical reasons for the low interest of the Muslim authorities to induce the followers of Judaism or Christianity to embrace Islam. First, the percentage of Jews and Christians in Muslim countries both in the cities and in the country was much higher than that of the ruling members of the Islamic religious community. Change of religion by force would have resulted in unrest and a weakening of the power positions of the Muslim rulers. Furthermore, a special tax, the jizya, was imposed on minorities. This tax, which had to be collected by the religious leaders of Jews and Christians and forwarded to the Muslim state, was an important part of the state financial revenue. This would have been lost by a large-scale change of religion.

The Muslim state was therefore not interested in it. This was not only noticeable in those cases where Muslims and Jews or Christians faced each other. It applied also to cases where Muslims came upon peoples which according to the Koran must rather be regarded as polytheists. In India, Hindus were regarded as Mâjûs, although Muslim scholars had a precise knowledge of their religion. Even today some animist groups in the area of West African Muslim Hausa are called "Maguzawa" (from Mâjûs), and so they receive then the respective legal status as protected citizens.


Culture of Ambiguity

A key element in the relationship between the Muslim state power and the members of the "ahl al-kitab", however, was that they were regarded as second-class subjects. As a rule, they were not allowed to do military service. In cases with Muslim adversaries, their testimony in court had only half the value of a Muslim witness. It was impossible for them to attain high political positions. In cases of military confrontations between Western Christian rulers and Muslim states, Oriental Christians were regarded by Muslims as "unreliable"; although they were often worse treated by the members of Latin Christianity than by their Muslim "compatriots".

Not least the lack of social and political advancement opportunities was probably the reason that then induced some Christians to embrace Islam. Apart from that, due to its intellectual and technological superiority over the rather backward medieval Occident, the Islamic culture had a strong attraction, especially for young Christians

Also the issue of intra-Islamic tolerance is time and again addressed in the current public debate. It is frequently pointed to the fact that the apostasy from Islam is punishable by death. Here, too, the situation is more complicated. In the Qur'an, the punishment for apostasy is postponed to the Last Day. Until their death, the renegades have still the opportunity to return to Islam. In Sura 2, 217 e.g. it says, "And if any of you Turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter; they will be companions of the Fire and will abide therein."

According to the Koran, Sura 4.137 the apostasy can even occur several times, "Those who believe, then reject faith, then believe (again) and (again) reject faith, and go on increasing in unbelief,- Allah will not forgive them nor guide them nor guide them on the way."



Until well into the modern era, the legal debates about the punishment for apostasy were a largely academic question. Here, treason of the Muslim state was the main topic of deliberations. The by Muslim historians documented cases, where actual or alleged apostates were really put to death, have on closer examination usually a political background. People like the mystic al-Hallâj (858-922) got tangled up in power-political intrigues. The charge of apostasy was then the pretense to execute him.


The Emergence of the Wahhabi Movement was of Serious Consequences

Apart from a few exceptions, the intra-Islamic theological debates were, not only in matters of apostasy, characterized by an attitude that the German Islamic scholar Thomas Bauer described as the "culture of ambiguity." In their interpretations and studies, Qur'an commentators, legal scholars and other representatives of the various disciplines of Islamic theology formulated a variety of possible positions that could be taken up on a question. They liked closing their exposition with the formula, "But God knows best." Only a few took the liberty of taking a binding position on a particular issue.

This situation, which is characterized by a more or less conscious tolerance, changed since the beginning of the 19th century. Here it is necessary to point to differences between the Sunni majority and the Shiite minority. For this, external and internal causes can be established. The Islamic world as a whole had first not noticed the incipient economic, technological, and thus also political superiority of the West, even not when in the by Muslims dominated India or in the Muslim sultanates of today's Indonesia the European influence more and more prevailed.

It was only with the occupation of Egypt by French troops in 1798, the various armed conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire or the Greeks' struggle for independence against Ottoman rule since 1821 that Muslim elites became aware of the superiority of the West. Muslim scholars and intellectuals were now interested not only in the technological and scientific innovations from Paris or London but also in the intellectual developments, as e.g. the one connected with the French Revolution, which often were definitely not characterized by ambiguity.

Political concepts such as nationalism or socialism, also in their rigid forms, were noticed and adapted. This western model also strengthened corresponding tendencies within the Islamic theological discourse, which had already developed in the first half of the 18th century.

Grave consequences had the emergence of the Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula. It was founded by the legal scholar Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). In his teaching, he demanded a return to the early days of Islam, the religion of the "brave forefathers" (alsalaf al-sâlih). All religious changes that Islam had undergone since that time were rejected by him as "inadmissible innovations". He therefore declared Shiites or the numerous followers of Islamic mysticism to be apostates. He criticized forms of Islamic popular piety, such as the cult of the saints and tombs. For the determination of the legislation in the ritual and ethical field but also in everyday life he admitted only the Koran and the Prophet sayings (Hadith).

He rejected the by Islamic jurisprudence developed secondary sources of law, such as analogy (Qiyâs) and consensus of scholars (fimâ`). One can therefore speak of a real fundamentalism. In cooperation with the tribe of Âl Sa´ûd (Saud family), Ibn Abd al-Wahhab enforced these positions by military means. After successes and failures, in 1924 this family finally succeeded in being predominant in large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded. The rigorous theology of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab became the state religion. The discovery of rich oil and gas resources allowed the royal family a high degree of political independence and the possibility of political influence not only in the Islamic world. A special religious police enforces until today the regulations of Wahhabism. The dissemination of other beliefs regarding Islam and its rules is as far as possible prevented.

For Christians it is possible to practice their religion only in the closest privacy or the extraterritorial area of an embassy. On the initiative of the Saudi regime, international Islamic organizations such as the "Muslim World League" and "Organization of the Islamic Conference" were founded. The first sees itself as a religious and cultural organization, the second is an association of Islamic states. Saudi Arabia has a dominant position above all in the "Muslim World League." This means that the Wahhabi form of Islam finds in this organization a means of dissemination. This is done by scholarship programs for students, foundation of libraries, building schools and mosques in regions which were traditionally Islamic but where Islam has lost its influence, as e.g. the Central Asian republics.



There are similar activities also in West African countries. The League is also active in Palestine, in the by Muslims inhabited parts of the Philippines or in the Muslim diaspora in Europe and North America. In the recent past, also the conservative forces were supported by significant financial means in the domestic political controversies related to the "Arab Spring".

Given the economic importance of Saudi Arabia, the attitude of Western countries towards Wahhabi attempts of expansion and actual exertion of influence could be described as "reserved". Liberal Muslim intellectuals who are propagating a modern Islam see this very critically.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944) was from 1994 to 2009 Professor of Islamic Studies on the non-Arab area at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Most recently he published "Märchen, Miniaturen, Minarette. Eine Kulturgeschichte der islamischen Welt" Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 2011.


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