Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Question of Tolerance

As the sometimes violent protests against the Danish cartoons continue, I've spent some time researching the matter from the Islamic point of view. One site I found,, was pretty informative.

In a discussion on the spirit of tolerance in Islam, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), makes the following statements:

Tolerance is a basic principle of Islam. It is a religious moral duty. It does not mean "concession, condescension or indulgence." It does not mean lack of principles, or lack of seriousness about one's principles. Sometimes it is said, "people are tolerant of things that they do not care about." But this is not the case in Islam. Tolerance according to Islam does not mean that we believe that all religions are the same. It does not mean that we do not believe in the supremacy of Islam over other faiths and ideologies. It does not mean that we do not convey the message of Islam to others and do not wish them to become Muslims.

Interesting. So, tolerance is a "basic principle of Islam", but it's not without it's qualifiers. Dr. Siddiqi goes on to say:

Islam emphasizes the establishment of equality and justice, both of these values cannot be established without some degree of tolerance. Islam recognized from the very beginning the principle of freedom of belief or freedom of religion. It said very clearly that it is not allowed to have any coercion in the matters of faith and belief. The Qur'an says, (There is no compulsion in religion) (Al-Baqarah 2:256).

If in the matters of religion, coercion is not permissible, then by implication one can say that in other matters of cultures and other worldly practices it is also not acceptable. In surat Ash-Shura Allah says to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), (If then they turn away, We have not sent you as a guard over them. Your duty is but to convey (the Message)…) (Ash-Shura 42:48). In another place Allah says, (Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. Your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance) (An-Nahl 16:125).

Wait, are we talking about the same religion here? If coercion in "other matters or cultures and other wordly practices" is against the teachings of Islam, then how do you explain this:

Not exactly arguing in ways that are "best and most gracious". Dr. Siddiqi goes on to say:

All these verses give note that Muslims do not coerce people; they must present the message to them in the most cogent and clear way, invite them to the truth and do their best in presenting and conveying the message of God to humanity, but it is up to people to accept or not to accept.

So, what have we learned? First, that tolerance is a basic principle of Islam. Second, that followers of Islam should not coerce non-believers into accepting their faith, but instead simply convey the message of God and allow each person to accept or not accept as they see fit. If these conclusions are to be accepted, then the entire "cartoon jihad" is called into question. Now, I'm willing to accept that an afternoon of reading a website is not the same as a dedicated study of the faith. Also, it's obvious to even the most casual observer that Islam has a LOT of nuances. Still, if Dr. Siddiqi's comments reflect the true nature of Islam, then Muslims have an obligation to respect the Western concept of freedom of the press without trying to qualify it according to their sensibilities. Certainly, burning down embassies, threatening the lives of innocents, and actually killing people would be a violation of Islam's teachings. For that matter, protests and boycotts are definitely coercive and punitive.

Naturally, the incidents of violence are being blamed on radical elements, small in number. To be fair, several Muslim leaders have labeled the violence as being against the teachings of Islam. My question is, if violating one tenet of a religion demands such a forceful response, shouldn't the violation of other tenets demand an equally forceful response?

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