Document 6




Muhammad Talbī[1]

1. From old relations to a new context

2. The Qurāns basic principles

A. Human dignity and religious liberty

B. Religious liberty is neither indifference nor atheism

C. Reconciliation to God and to people

3. Beyond the limits imposed by traditional theology

A. The case of the dhimmīs

B. The case of the apostate

C. The Qurānic teaching

1) The Qurān argues

2) The Qurān warns

3) The Qurān advises

4. Conclusion

1. From old relations to a new context

At the outset we have to remember that the problem of religious liberty, as a common human concern and international preoccupation, is relatively new.  In former days the problem was irrelevant totally.  In ancient times everybody felt it natural to worship the deities of his city.  It was the job of these deities to protect the house and to look after the family and the welfare of the state.  With their worshippers they took the rough and the smooth.  The deities of Carthage were by nature the enemies of the deities of Rome.  In such a context the refusal to worship the deities of the city was felt essentially as an act of disloyalty towards the state.

In the beginning the situation was almost the same within the Biblical tradition.  In the Bible, Yahweh acts as the God of the Jews.  He constantly warns his people not to worship any other deity and to obey his Law.  This people, with one God, is also the association of a physical entity B the twelve tribes descended from Abraham via Isaac and Jacob B with a land, Palestine.  The Jewish community is an ideal prototype of unity: it obeys at one and the same time the ius sanguinis, loci and religionis, the law of blood, place and religion.  It is the perfect prototype of an ethnically homogeneous community, rooted in religion and shaped into a land and a state.  In a way, to speak of religious liberty in such a case is literally absurd.  There is no choice other than remaining in the state-community or leave it.  In particular the Jew who is converted to another religion ceases ipso facto to belong to his state-community.  So his conversion is felt as a betrayal and, as such, it warrants the penalty of death (Cf. Dt 13:2-19; Lev 24:10-23).  If we have dwelt on the case of the Jewish community as a prototype, it is because that case is not without some similarities with the classical Islamic umma, as it was shaped by traditional theology.

For historical reasons the situation changed completely with the appearance of the Christian preaching.  From the beginning this preaching was not linked with the state, and Jesus people, the Jewish community, rejected the call.  Jesus ordered his disciples “to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesars, and to God the things which are Gods” (Mt 22:21).  This revolutionary attempt to dissociate state and religion and to ensure the freedom of the individual conscience failed.  The time was not yet ripe.  Consequently, in the Roman Empire, the first Christians were considered as disloyal subjects, because of their refusal to pay honour to the deities of their city and of their social group.  Accordingly, they were treated as rebels.  The right to self-determination and to religious liberty were denied them as individuals acting freely in accordance with their conscience.

To make a long story short, let us say that power and religion conserved more or less their old relations or resumed them.  They needed each other so much.  The intolerance of the dominant social group asserted itself everywhere in the world with internal and external wars, and many forms of more or less tough discrimination.  Of course the Islamic world, though relatively tolerant, was no exception.  As everywhere in the world, human rights were violated in this area, and it still happens that here and there they are more or less ignored.  But that does not mean, as we shall soon see, that Islam as such authorizes violation of these fundamental rights.

Now, to avoid looking only on the dark side of things, we have to add that our common past was not entirely so ugly and so sombre.  We can also quote some brilliant periods of tolerance, respect, understanding and dialogue.  Nevertheless it was necessary to wait till the 19th century to see the right to free-thinking clearly claimed.  Political liberalism and philosophical studies were then in vogue, and in fact what was claimed was not the right to think freely, but the right not to believe.  So the concept of religious liberty unhappily became the synonym of secularism, agnosticism and atheism.  Consequently, a stubborn fight was carried on against it as such.  To deal with the subject honestly and calmly, we have to free ourselves of this false notion.

It must be admitted too that religious liberty is today, as a matter of fact, definitely and for good rooted in our social life.  Since the Declaration of human rights in 1948, this concept is hence forth an essential part of international law.

On the other hand we already live in a pluralistic world, and our world is going to be more and more pluralistic in the near future.  I wrote elsewhere that each man has the right to be different, and at the same time our planet is already too narrow for our ambitions and our dreams.  In this new world which is in speedy gestation under our eyes there is no longer room for exclusiveness.  We have to accept one another as we are.  Diversity is the law of our time.  Today, because of mass media, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and pervasive, everyone is truly the neighbour of everyone else.

From the beginning, in our Islamic countries we have been in the habit of living side by side with communities of different faiths.  But it is only recently that we have begun to be confronted with secularism.  It is now our turn to experience from the inside the growth of agnosticism and atheism.  We have to be conscious of this overwhelming change in our societies, and accordingly we have to exercise our theological thinking in this new and unprecedented context.

But before going further, let us first ask what is religious liberty?  Is it only the right to be an unbeliever?  One may indeed say that religious liberty has very often been exclusively identified with atheism.  But this is only one aspect of the question and, from my point of view, the negative one.  In fact religious liberty is basically the right to decide for oneself, without any kind of pressure, fear or anxiety, the right to believe, the right to assume with full consciousness ones destiny, the right of course to get rid of all kinds of faith as superstitions inherited from the dark ages, but the right also to espouse the faith of ones choice, to worship and to bear witness freely.  Is this definition in harmony with the Qurāns basic teachings?

2. The Qurāns basic principles

In my opinion religious liberty is basically founded, from a Qurānic point of view, first and foremost on the divinely ordered nature of man.  Man is not one being among many others.  Among the whole range of creatures only man has duties and obligations.  He is an exceptional being.  He cannot be reduced to his body, because man, before everything else, is a spirit, a spirit which has been given the power to conceive the Absolute and to ascent to God.  If man has this exceptional power and this privileged position inside creation, it is because God “breathed into him something of His spirit (Qurān 32:9).  Of course man, like all living animals, is matter.  He has a body created “from moulded clay, from mud moulded into shape” (Qurān 15:28).  But he received the spirit.  He has two sides: a lower side - his clay - and a higher side - the spirit of God.  This higher side, comments A. Yusuf Ali, “if rightly used, would give man superiority over other creatures.”  Mans privileged position inside the order of creation is strongly illustrated in the Qurān in the scene where we see the angels receiving the order to prostrate themselves before Adam (15:29; 38:72), the heavenly prototype of man.  In a way, and provided we keep man at his place as creature, we may say as Muslims, in accordance with the other members of Abrahams spiritual descendants, Jews and Christians, that God created him in His image.  A hadīth, a saying of the Prophet, although questioned, authorizes this statement.  So we can say that on the level of the spirit, all persons, whatever their physical or intellectual abilities and aptitudes, are really equal.  They have the same “breath of God” in them, and by virtue of this “breath they have the ability to ascend to Him, and to respond freely to His call.  Consequently they have the same dignity and sacredness, and because of this dignity and sacredness they are equally and fully entitled to enjoy the same right to self-determination on earth and for the hereafter.  So from a Qurānic perspective we may say that human rights are rooted in what every man is by nature, and this is by virtue of Gods plan and creation.  Now it goes without saying that the cornerstone of all human rights is religious liberty.

A. Human dignity and religious liberty

It is quite evident that from a  Muslim point of view man is not the mere fruit of “chance and necessity”.  His creation obeys a plan and a purpose.  Through the “breath”, he has received the faculty to be at one with God, and his response, to have a meaning, must be free.  The teachings of the Qurān are clear: man is a privileged being with “spiritual favours” (Q 17:17); he has a mission and he is Gods “vicegerent on earth (Q 2:30).  Proceeding from God with a mission to fulfil, his destiny is ultimately to return to Him.  “Whoso does right, does it for his own soul; and whoso does wrong, does so to its detriment.  Then to your Lord will you all be brought back (Q 45:15)

For all that, it is absolutely necessary that each person be able to choose his way freely and without any kind of coercion.  Every person ought to build in full consciousness his own destiny.  The Qurān states clearly that compulsion is incompatible with religion.

There should be no compulsion in religion.  Truth stands out clear from error.  Whosoever rejects evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks.  God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing (Q:2:256).

To the best of my knowledge, among all the other revealed texts, only the Qurān stresses religious liberty in such an accurate and unambiguous way.  The reason is that faith, to be true and reliable faith, needs absolutely to be a free and voluntary act.  In this connection it is worthwhile to underline that the verse quoted was revealed to reprove and condemn the attitude of some Jews and Christians, newly converted to Islam in Medina, who were wiling to convert their children with them to their new faith.  So it is clearly stressed that faith is an individual concern and commitment and that even parents must refrain from interfering with it.  The very nature of faith, as it is stressed in the basic text of Islam in clear and indisputable words, is to be a voluntary act born out of conviction and freedom.

In fact even God refrains from overpowering man to the point of subduing him against his will.  This too is clearly expressed in the Qurān.  Faith then is a free gift, a gift of God.  Man can accept or refuse it.  He has the very faculty to open his heart and his reason to Gods gift.  Guidance (hudan) has been given him.  He is warmly invited to listen to Gods call.  God warns him in clear and unambiguous terms.  As it is underlined in the quoted verse stressing mans freedom: “Truth stands out clear from error.”  It is up to man to make his choice.  Mans condition - and that is the price of mans dignity and sacredness - is not without something tragic in it.  Man can be misled.  He is able to make the wrong choice and to stray from the right path.

In a word, he has the capacity to resist Gods call, and this capacity is the criterion of his true freedom.  Even the Messenger, whose mission is properly to convey Gods call and message, is helpless in such a situation.  He is clearly and firmly warned to respect mans freedom and Gods mystery.  “If it had been thy Lords will, all who are on the earth would have believed, all of them.  Wilt though then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?” (Q 10:99).  A. Yusuf Ali, in his translation of the Qurān, comments on that verse in this way:

Men of faith must not be impatient or angry if they have to contend against unfaith, and most important of all, they must guard against the temptation of forcing faith, i.e. imposing it on others by physical compulsion, or any other forms of compulsion, such as social pressure, or inducements held out by wealth or position, or other adventitious advantages.  Forced faith is no faith.

The Apostles mission – and all the more so ours – is strictly confined to advise, warn, convey a message and admonish without compelling.  He is ordered: “Admonish, for thou art but an admonisher.  Thou hast no authority to compel them (Q 88:21-22).  In other words, God has set man truly and tragically free.  What He wants is a willing and obedient response to His call, in full consciousness and freedom, and that is the very meaning of the Arabic word islām.

B. Religious liberty is neither indifference nor atheism

Now we must emphasize that this does not mean that we have to adopt an attitude of abandon and indifference.  In fact, we have to avoid at one and the same time striking two kinds of rocks.  We have, of course, to refrain from interfering in the inner life of another person, and we have already sufficiently stressed this aspect of the problem.  It is time to add that we must also avoid becoming indifferent to anything and careless about the other person.  We have to remember that the other person is our neighbour.  We must bear witness and convey Gods message.  This too needs stressing.

We are too much tempted today to shut ourselves up and to live comfortably wrapped in our own thoughts.  But this is not Gods purpose.  Respect is not indifference.  God Himself sets the example.  He is nearer to man “than the mans own jugular vein” (Q 50:16), and He knows better than we do our inmost desires, and what these desires “whisper (tuwaswisu) to us (Q 50:16).  So He stands by us and He speaks unceasingly to each one of us, warning and promising with a divine pedagogy that fits person of every social and intellectual class, at all times, using images, symbols and words that He alone may use with total sovereignty.

And God urges us to follow his example and to turn our steps towards all our brothers in humanity, beyond every kind of frontier, the confessional ones included.   “O mankind! We created you from a male and a female, and We have made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other.  Verily, the most honourable among you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.  And God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (Q 49:13).  A. Yusuf Ali comments on the verse in this way: “This is addressed to all mankind, and not only to the Muslim brotherhood, though it is understood that in a perfect world the two would be synonymous.  As it is, mankind is descended from one pair of parents.  Their tribes, races and nations are convenient labels by which we may know certain differing characteristics.  Before God they are all one, and he gets most honour who is most righteous.

C. Reconciliation to God and to people

In other words, man is not created to be alone and to live as an individual impervious to others.  He is created for community, relationship and dialogue.  His fulfilment is in his reconciliation at once to God and to people.  We have to find the way, in each case, to bring about this double reconciliation without betraying God and without damaging the inner life of the other person.  To do so we have to listen to Gods advice: “Do not argue with the People of the Book unless it is in the most courteous manner, except for those of them who do wrong.  And say: ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you.  Our God is one, and to Him we submit’” (Q 29:46).  Let us note that the Arabic word used in the verse, and rendered in the translation by the verb “to submit” is muslimūn – “Muslims”.  So, to be a true Muslim is to live in a courteous dialogue with all peoples of other faiths and ideologies and ultimately to submit to God.  We must show concern for our neighbours.  We have duties towards them, and we are not isles of loneliness.  The attitude of respectful courtesy, recommended by the Qurān must be of course enlarged to all mankind, believers and unbelievers, except for those who “do wrong”, that is to say, for those who are unjust and violent and who resort deliberately to the argument of the fist, physically or in words.  In such a case it is much better to avoid a so-called dialogue in order to avoid something worse.

In short, from the Muslim point of view that is mine, our duty is just to bear witness in the most courteous way, the one most respectful of the inner liberty of our neighbour and of his sacredness.  At the same time, we must also be ready to listen to him in truthfulness.  We have to remember, as Muslims, that a hadīth of our Prophet states: “The believer is unceasingly in search of wisdom; wherever he finds it he grasps it”.  And another saying adds: “Look for science everywhere, even as far away as in China”.  And finally, it is up to God to judge, for we, as limited human beings, only know in part.  Let us quote:

To each among you have We prescribed a law and an open way.  And if God had enforced His will, He would have made of you all one people.  But His plan is to test you in what He hath given you.  So strive as in a race for all virtues.  The goal of you all is to God.  Then will He inform you of that wherein you differed (Q 5:51).

Say: O God! Creator of the heavens and the earth! Knower of all that is hidden and open! It is thou that wilt judge between Thy servants in those matters about which they have differed (Q 39:46).

3. Beyond the limits imposed by traditional theology

Though all Muslims are bound by the Qurāns basic teachings, Muslim traditional theology developed in a way that for historical reasons, in my opinion, does not always fit in with the spirit of the Qurān.  We are going to call to mind briefly two important cases: on the one hand the case of the dhimmīs - that is to say the situation of the confessional minorities inside the Islamic empire during medieval times - and on the other hand the case of the apostate.

A. The case of the dhimmīs

Let us start with the dhimmīs.  First we must emphasize that if the doors of many countries, not all of them, were opened (fath) by force or jihād – as was the general usage then – to pave the way for Islam, practically Islam itself was never imposed by compulsion.  From this point of view the Qurāns teaching have been fully operative.  They provided the dhimmīs with sound protection against the most unbearable forms of religious intolerance.  In particular, with two or three exceptions located in space and time, the dhimmīs have never been prevented from following the religion of their choice, from worshipping or organizing their communities in accordance with their own law.  In the beginning we can even say that their situation was greatly improved by the Islamic conquest.  They enjoyed long periods of tolerance and real prosperity, very often holding high positions in the administration, in the court and in economic activities.

But it is a fact that they suffered from time to time, here and there, from discrimination.  Roughly speaking, things began to worsen seriously for them from the reign of al-Mutawakkil onwards (846-861).  Discrimination, especially in the matter of dress, took a form openly humiliating.  The oppression culminated in Egypt during the reign of al-Hākim (996-1021), who maybe was not mentally sane.

In the medieval context of wars, hostilities and treacheries, this policy of discrimination or open oppression was always prompted, or strongly backed, by the theologians.  To understand this we have to remember that it was not then a virtue - according to the medieval mentality prevailing everywhere in the world and inside all communities - to consider all human beings as equal.  How to consider equal truth and error, true believers and heretics!?

So in our appraisal of the past we must always take the circumstances into account, and above all we must strive to avoid the recurrence of the same situations and errors.  In any case the Qurāns basic teachings, of which we have tried to bring out the inner meaning, lay down for us a clear line of conduct.  They teach us to respect the dignity of the other person and his total freedom.  In a world where giant holocausts have been perpetrated, where human rights are still at stake, manipulated or blankly ignored, our modern Muslim theologians must denounce loudly all kinds of discrimination as crimes strictly and explicitly condemned by the Qurāns basic teachings.

B. The case of the apostate

On the other hand we must consider the case of the apostate.  In this field too, traditional theology did not remain faithful to the spirit of the Qurān.  This theology abridged seriously the liberty of choice of ones religion.

According to this theology, though conversion to Islam must be and is in fact without coercion, it is practically impossible, once inside Islam, to leave it.  Conversion to another religion from Islam is considered as treason and the apostate is liable to the penalty of death.  The traditional theologians, in their elaboration, rely on the one hand on the precedent of the first caliph of Islam, Abū-Bakr (632-634), who energetically fought the tribes who rejected his authority after the Prophets death and refused to pay him the alms taxes, likening their rebellion to apostasy.  On the other hand they mainly put forward the authority of this hadīth: “Anyone who changes his religion must be put to death (Bukhārī, IX, 19 etc.)

I do not know, throughout the history of Islam, of any application of the law condemning the apostate to death.  This law is mostly theoretical.  But it is not useless to draw attention to the fact that during the seventies in Egypt, the Islamists narrowly failed in enforcing this law against the Copts who, without due consideration, were converted to Islam, generally to marry Muslim girls, and who, after the failure of their marriage, returned to their former religion.  Recently too some Tunisian atheists expressed their concern.

So the case of the apostate in Islam, though mostly theoretical, needs to be clarified.  Let us first point out the fact that the hadīth, upon which essentially the penalty of death relies, is always more or less mixed, in traditional writings, with rebellion and highway robbery.  The cases quoted of “apostates” killed, during the Prophets life or shortly after his death, are all without exception those of persons who, as consequence of their “apostasy”, turned their weapons against the Muslims, whose community was at that time still small and vulnerable.  The penalty of death appears in these circumstances as an act of self-defence in a war situation.  It is undoubtedly for that reason that the Hanafī school of fiqh does not condemn to death the woman apostate, “because women, contrary to men, are not fit for war.

On the other hand the hadīth authorizing the penalty of death is not, technically mutawātir, and consequently, according to the traditional system of hadīth, is not binding.  Above all, from a modern point of view, this hadīth can and must be questioned.  In my opinion we have many good reasons to consider it as undoubtedly forged.  It may have been forged under the influence of Leviticus 24:16 and Deuteronomy 13:2-10 - where it is ordered to stone the apostate to death - if not directly, then perhaps through the Jews and Christians converted to Islam.

C. The Qurānic teaching

In any case, and as a matter of fact, the hadīth in question is at variance with the teachings of the Qurān, where there is no mention of the penalty of death required against the apostate.  During the life of the Prophet himself the case presented itself at various times, and several verses deal with it.  In all these verses, without a single exception, the punishment of the apostate who persists in his rejection of Islam after having embraced it, is left to Gods judgement and to the afterlife.  In all the cases mentioned in the Qurān and by the commentators, it is a questions on the one hand of time-servers, individuals or tribes who, according to the circumstances, turned their coats, and on the other hand of hesitant persons attracted by the “People of the Book” (Q 2:109; 3:99-100), Jews and Christians, to their faith.  Always taking into account the special situation, the Qurān argues, warns or recommends the adequate attitude to adopt, without ever threatening death.

1) The Qurān argues

From a Muslim point of view the Qurān recognizes all the previous revelations, authenticates and perfects them:

Say: We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus and the Prophets, from their Lord.  We make no distinction between any one of them, and to God we submit (muslimūn) (Q 3:84).

It does not follow that each one is permitted, at the convenience of the moment, to change his religion as he changes his coat.  Such behaviour denotes in fact a lack of true faith.  It is for this reason that the following verse insists on the universal meaning of Islam, a call directed to the whole of mankind:

If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the hereafter he will be among the losers (Q 3:85).

Accordingly apostates are warned: those who choose apostasy, after being convinced, in their inmost thoughts, that Islam is the truth, are unjust, and as such they are deprived of Gods guidance, with all the consequences that follow for their salvation:

How shall God guide those who reject faith after they accepted it, and bore witness that the Apostle was true, and that clear signs had come to them?  But God guides not a people unjust (Q 3:86; see also vv. 87-91).

On the other hand, the Qurān denounces the attitude of “the People of the Book”, who exerted pressure on the newly converted to Islam to induce them to retract.  There is no doubt that the polemics between the dawning Islam and the old religions were sharp.  In this atmosphere the Qurān urges the persons who embraced Islam to remain firmly in their new faith till death, to close their ranks, to refuse to listen to those who strive to render them apostates, and to keep out of their trap.  They are also reminded of their former state of disunion when they were “on the brink of the Pit of Fire”, and they are exhorted to be a people “inviting to all that is good” in order to ensure their final salvation.  Let us quote:

Say: O People of the book: Why obstruct ye those who believe from the path of God, seeking to make it crooked, while ye were yourselves witnesses thereof?  But God is not unmindful of all that ye do.

O ye who believe! If you obey a faction of those who have been given the Book, they will turn you back into disbelievers after you have believed.

And how would you disbelieve, while you have rehearsed the signs of God, and His Messenger is among you?  And he who holds fast to God is indeed guided to the right path.

O ye who believe! Fear God as He should be feared, and die not except in a state of Islam.

And hold fast, all together, by the rope of God, and be not divided, and remember Gods favour on you: for ye were enemies, and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the Pit of Fire, and He save you from it.  Thus doeth God make His signs clear to you, that ye may be guided.

Let there arise out of you a community inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.  They are the ones to attain felicity. (Q 3:99-104)

Thus, unceasingly and by all means, the Qurān strives to raise the new Muslims spirit, in order to prevent them from falling into apostasy.  the argumentation is only moral.  The Qurān goes on: It is “from selfish envy” that “quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could turn you back to infidelity” (Q 2:109; see too 3:149); you have not to fear them, God is your Protector, and He is the best of helpers; soon shall He cast terror into the hearts of the unbelievers” (Q 3:150-151); “your real friends are God, His Messenger, and the believers.. It is the party of God that must certainly triumph... Therefore take not for friends those who take your religion for a mockery or sport.. (Q 5:58-60).  And finally, those who, in spite of all that, allow themselves to be tempted by apostasy, they are forewarned: if they desert the cause, the cause anyhow will not fail.  Others will bring it to a head.

O ye who believe! If any from among you turn back from his faith, soon will God produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him, - lowly with the believers, mighty against the rejecters, striving in the way of God, and never afraid of the reproaches of a fault finder.  That is the grace of God, which He will bestow on whom He pleaseth.  And God is Bountiful, All-Knowing (Q 5:57; see too 47:38)

2) The Qurān warns

The young Muslim community is thus given plenty of reasons to remain in their new religion.  The members of this community are also warned that for their salvation they should not depart from their faith.  They are urged to follow the true spirit of Islam, and this spirit is defined in two ways: first they will love God and God will love them; secondly they will be humble amongst their brethren, but they will not fear the wrongdoers and they will not compound with them.  If by fear, weakness or time-serving, they depart from this line of conduct and fall in to apostasy, the loss will be their own and the punishment will be hard in the hereafter.  “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” (Q 2:217), “except for those who repent thereafter and amend, for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” Q 3:89).  But there is no hope for those who persist in their apostasy (Q 3:90-91).  These obstinate apostates will “taste the penalty for rejecting faith” (Q 3:106; see too 3:140).  Such men are entirely in the hands of evil (Q 47:25).  They secretly plot with the enemies (Q 47:26-7), and “they obstruct the way to God” (Q 47:32,34).  As a result “God will not forgive them” (Q 47:34).

3) The Qurān advises

How to deal with such obstinate and ill-disposed apostates?  How to treat those who try to draw them into their camp or to manipulate them?  Let us emphasize once more that there is no mention in the Qurān of any kind of penalty, whether death or any other.  To use the Arabic technical word, we say that there is no specified hadd in this matter.

On the contrary, Muslims are advised to “forgive and overlook till God accomplishes His purpose, for God hath power over all things” (Q 2:109).  In other words, no punishment on earth.  The case is not answerable to the Law.  The debate is between God and the apostates conscience and it is not our role to interfere in it.

Muslims are only authorized to take up arms in one case, the case of self-defence, when they are attacked, and their faith seriously jeopardized.  In such a case “fighting” (al-qitāl) is “prescribed” (kutiba) for them, even if they “dislike it” (kurhun la-kum) (Q 2:216), and it is so even during the sacred month of pilgrimage (Q 2:217; 2:194).  To summarize, Muslims are urged not to yield when their conscience is at stake and to take up arms against “those who will not cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith, if they can” (Q 2:217).

4. Conclusion

It is thus evident that the problem of religious liberty, with all its ramifications, is not new within Islam.  The Qurān deals at length with it.  At the heart of this problem we meet the ticklish subject of apostasy.  We have seen, with regard to this very subject, that the Qurān argues, warns, advises, but never resorts to the argument of the sword.  The reason why is that argument is meaningless in matters of faith.  In our pluralistic world our modern theologians must take that into account.

We never emphasize enough that religious liberty is not an act of charity, or a tolerant concession towards misguided persons.  It is a fundamental right for everybody.  To claim it for myself implies ipso facto that I am disposed to claim it for my neighbour too.

But religious liberty is not necessarily the equivalent of atheism.  My right, and my duty also, is to bear witness to my own faith by fair means, and to convey Gods call.  And ultimately it is up to each man to respond to this call or not, freely and in full consciousness.

From a Muslim point of view, and on the basis of the Qurāns basic teachings, whose letter and spirit we have tried to bring out, religious liberty is fundamentally and ultimately an act of respect for Gods sovereignty and for the mystery of His plan for man, man who has been given the terrible privilege to build, on his own entire responsibility, his destiny on earth and for the hereafter.  Finally to respect mans freedom is to respect Gods plan.

To be a true “muslim” is to submit to this plan.  It is, in the literal sense of the word, to put oneself voluntarily and freely, with confidence and love, in the hands of God.

[1] [1]Muhammad Talbī was born in Tunis in 1921.  A historian, he was formerly dean of the Faculty of Literature and Human Sciences of the University of Tunis.  This article originally appeared in Islamochristiana, 11 (1985), 99-113.