Neither Reformation nor Enlightenment: The Seeds of Religious Freedom Within Islam

Contrary to what one often hears in Western media, Islam needs neither a Reformation nor an Enlightenment. Islam must—and can—find resources from within its tradition to defend the full human right to religious freedom. The second in a two-part series.

“What Islam needs is a Reformation.” One often hears claims like this made in the Western media. Put another way, it is an Enlightenment that Islam really needs.

Both of these haphazard pastings of Western history onto Islam are defective. Protestants proved just as capable of repression as Catholics and by and large did not come to advocate religious freedom until 150 years into the Reformation. Likewise, the Enlightenment bore an uneasy relationship to religious freedom, skeptical as it was toward religious authority and revelation. It culminated in the French Revolution, which advanced (some) rights of man while beheading religious men and women. Both analogies would impose religious freedom on Muslims according to logics external to the Islamic tradition. Neither, then, is likely to appeal to contemporary Muslims.

From the Edict of Milan to Vatican II

If Reformation and Enlightenment are false steps, there is a more instructive analogy. Ironically, it can be found in the religious body that the Reformation and the Enlightenment both considered freedom’s greatest enemy: the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church came around to religious freedom quite late in history, with the Second Vatican Council’s promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, its Declaration on Religious Liberty. The example of the Church shows how robust religious freedom can emerge from within a tradition that previously had regarded it with suspicion.

When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he legalized both Christianity and Paganism with the Edict of Milan (313 AD). That is, he promoted religious freedom while also establishing a church. This provides historical evidence that religious repression is not endemic to Christianity and that Dignitatis Humanae was not without precedent.

Similar evidence lies in the first three centuries of the Church’s history. Dignitatis Humanae footnotes Lactantius as an early defender of religious freedom. As political philosopher Timothy Samuel Shah shows, third-century theologian Tertullian appealed to officials of the Roman Empire to acknowledge that “It is a human right (humani iuris) . . . that one should worship whatever he intends; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another.”

To mention these examples is not to deny that Catholicism was often unfriendly to religious freedom. By the end of the fourth century, the Church sanctioned the use of repression against pagans. The use of law and temporal power to uphold the faith has been used to justify inquisitions, expulsions of Jews and Muslims, discrimination against and ghettoization of Jews, and—in early modern Europe—the religious wars. In Christendom, heresy and apostasy on the part of once baptized Christians were not only considered spiritual and moral faults but also public crimes, because they damaged the social ecology that sustained the faith of others. The Catholic Church continued to advocate the basic tenets of Christendom right up to the eve of Dignitatis Humanae, especially after the French Revolution of 1789. Several nineteenth-century popes roundly condemned religious liberty, which they associated with the religious relativism of the Enlightenment.

Contrast this with what Dignitatis Humanae proclaimed on December 7, 1965:

the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

What the Church proclaimed was essentially the human right to religious freedom that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had set forth in 1948, that the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights would enunciate almost exactly a year later in December 1966. Indeed, it articulated the same principle of religious freedom that I argued in yesterday’s essay is universally valid.

The Seeds of Religious Freedom in Catholic Christianity

How did these developments occur? What must be acknowledged—and what makes the Catholic experience relevant to Islam—is that religious repression in Catholicism was rooted strongly in the tradition. Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, two of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition, sought to sanction coercion in matters of religion. Augustine reluctantly accepted the suppression of the heretical Donatist sect in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and Aquinas held that heretics could be punished, even with execution.

Broadly, Augustine and Aquinas referred to spiritual ecology to justify coercion. Augustine thought that the Donatists were a danger to social peace and to the faith of the community. Indeed, they were. Bands of Donatists known as Circumcellions were cultish terrorists; they would commit suicide in dramatic fashion, even bizarrely forcing highway travelers to take their lives. Thomas thought that heretics endangered the souls of others and could be punished also for breaching their baptismal promise.

Despite justifying coercion, though, the thought of Augustine and Aquinas also contains important seeds of religious freedom in the Catholic tradition. Both maintained the necessity of the free adoption of faith. In numerous writings, Augustine insisted that religious faith is of necessity adopted out of a free will, that the will is guided by the intellect, and that people should therefore be brought to faith by reasoning and persuasion. Aquinas forbade any sort of conversion of non-Christians by force, including Jews, Muslims, pagans, and prisoners of war. He also stressed the importance of the individual’s conscience to a degree exceeding that of any previous philosopher, teaching that a person is bound to follow his conscience even if it tells him to do wrong.

The seeds of religious freedom lying in Augustin’s and Aquinas’s insistence that a person’s basic decision to adopt faith could not be coerced, later germinated in Dignitatis Humanae. This is the core idea of the human right of religious freedom. Importantly, it was internal to Catholicism. In Vatican II, the Church did not have to deny that a sound spiritual ecology was a valuable thing; it just had to recognize that, since faith must be elicited freely, spiritual ecology could never justify a political policy of coercion. This argument could be successful at the Council because it could be recognized as an authentically Catholic development, grounding religious liberty neither in skepticism nor in autonomy but in the fact that the search for religious truth must be free. It won over skeptical bishops because it formulated the right to religious freedom in a way that was compatible with dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church. It repudiated the political doctrine that religious uniformity must be enforced in order to maintain unity and ensure the salvation of the religion’s members. Although this political doctrine had persisted for centuries, it had never been proclaimed as a dogmatic teaching. Thus, it could be left behind. And it was.

If Muslims are to embrace religious freedom, they must be convinced that it is an authentically Muslim development. Muslims are more likely to find promising a basis for religious freedom that is rooted in religion—the religious nature of the person, the nature of religious faith, and the communal dimensions of religious faith—than one rooted in skepticism about religious truth. They will accept religious freedom if it can be shown to develop seeds of the principle that have been present in the tradition for centuries: Quranic verses, hadith, certain political practices, and strands of jurisprudence and philosophy. And there are such seeds in the history of Islam.

The Quran and Hadith

Numerous verses in the Quran stress that Islam must be lived freely. One is preeminent: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” It is rare to find such a direct and simple exhortation to freedom in the central text of any religious tradition. The verse—Quran 2:256—has been asserted by proponents of freedom through the Muslim tradition.

In the early centuries of Islam, for instance, the Mutazilite school, which stressed rationality, argued on the basis of this verse that faith must be an “action of the heart” and thus unhindered. Tenth-century philosopher Al-Farabi applied this Mutazilite insight to the political realm, which he thought should be completely free. Today, writes scholar Yohanan Friedmann, “the verse is being used constantly in order to substantiate the notion of religious tolerance in Islam.”

Of course, the interpretation of Quran 2:256 and its place in Islam have both been challenged. Historically, this and other Quranic verses stressing the free character of faith have not prevented the sanctioning of heavy religious coercion by Muslim rulers. For two and a half centuries following the life of Muhammad, a period of vigorous debate over ijtihad, or interpretation, ensued. Hawks in today’s culture wars stress that the skeptics of human reason and the proponents of harsh religious restriction—the school of thought known as the Asharites and the emergent Hanbali legal school—won the debate. In the tenth century, the traditionalists “closed the gates of ijtihad” and crystallized Muslim orthodoxy for centuries to come.

Early interpreters held that other verses, which called for warfare against unbelievers, abrogated Quran 2:256 because they were revealed later in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Some interpreted the Quran to mandate the death penalty for apostasy and found sanction for coercion in the hadith, or sayings of the prophet, the most direct of which says, “whoever changes his religion, kill him.” Contemporary scholar Abdullah Saeed, a Muslim advocate of religious freedom, observes that almost all early jurists and most contemporary scholars “took a hard line, believing that apostasy was to be punished by death.”

Saeed and other Muslim proponents of religious freedom believe this interpretation to be mistaken and deny that Quran 2:256 has been abrogated. They argue that advocates of abrogation misread verses that call for fighting unbelievers as a command to convert them through force. The Quran and hadith, they hold, command violence against unbelievers only when the same practitioners of heterodoxy are also engaged in attacks on the Muslim community—that is, sedition or aggression. The justice of religious coercion, they claim, turns out to be the ethics of war. What is more, the many Quranic verses that stress the free character of faith come from both the earlier and later parts of the Prophet’s life, contra the abrogation theory.

This debate clearly could go on and on. Even should the dovish interpretation of the passages in the Quran and hadith prevail, they do not prescribe the full human right of religious freedom that we know today. That is what makes these passages seeds of freedom—a partial deposit, yet to be realized in full. The point here is not to demand that the Quran contain the content of modern human rights conventions; none of the world religions’ holy books could meet such a standard. It is rather to show from what sources a Muslim appreciation of the full human right of religious freedom can grow.

The Life of the Prophet Muhammad

A second seed of freedom is the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims regard his life as recorded in hadith to be nearly as important as the Quran as a source of faith, law, and morals. The Prophet’s career following the first revelations to him in 610 is typically divided into two periods: his life in the city of Mecca (610-622) and his life in the city of Medina (622-632). During the Meccan period, his followers increased, but they remained a minority and were persecuted. The real test of whether the Prophet’s life points to religious freedom lies in the Medinan period, when he wielded the power of a political ruler.

Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad negotiated what is known as the Constitution of Medina, settling conflicts between tribes there and setting forth religious freedom and near equality for the Jewish minority. After he went back and conquered Mecca, he issued a general amnesty and forced no one to accept Islam. On many occasions, he insisted that he could not discern other people’s states of belief. He never put anyone to death for simple apostasy, and a few stories in the hadith recount instances when he refused an opportunity to pursue forced conversion.

Against this account, hawks respond with stories of Muhammad the Conqueror. The Constitution of Medina may have been tolerant, they argue, but subsequently Muhammad expelled three Jewish tribes from Medina. In conquering the Arab peninsula, Muhammad forced Christians into a submission by which they could practice their faith but were required to pay tribute. He gave pagans a choice between Islam or death.

Doves rejoin that Muhammad the Conqueror was just that—a conqueror, not a forcible converter. His battles with people who had not accepted true Islam were driven mostly by a political and military logic, not the desire to force them to convert. Thus, the life of Muhammad did not leave a legacy of religious repression.


From Muhammad’s rule emerged a practice that can be regarded as a third seed of freedom: dhimmitude, a permanent status for non-Muslims living under Muslim rule that allowed them to practice their faith freely while paying tribute to the government.

Under the terms of dhimmitude, minorities would live under a Muslim regime and obey its laws. They would receive protection and could practice their faith. In return, they would have to pay the jizya, or poll tax, as well as the kharaj, a tax on land. They could not build new houses of worship—that is, expand their faith—though they could repair their existing ones. Never, never, could they proselytize among Muslims. All of this is more or less a standard picture of dhimmitude, which existed widely in the heartlands of Islam over the course of its history—the Ummayad Caliphate of 661-750, based in Damascus; the Abbasid Caliphate of 750-1257, based in Baghdad; and the Ottoman Empire, spanning from 1299 to 1922, where dhimmitude was known as the millet system. In some times and places, dhimittude was more harshly restrictive. In others, it was more relaxed.

Doves would concur with Bernard Lewis’s judgment that in most times and places over the course of Muslim history, “the dhimmīs were allowed to practice their religions, pursue their avocations, and live their own lives, so long as they were willing to abide by the rules.” For hawks, dhimmitude was a condition of humiliation and subordination. They, too, can find support in Lewis, whose balanced interpretation acknowledges dhimmitude’s darker dimension. Over the course of Muslim history, as Lewis renders it, there took place episodes of heavy subordination.

Who is right? Lewis’s evenhanded judgment seems on the mark: dhimmitude was second-class citizenship, but it was citizenship nonetheless—not expulsion or death. It was not full religious freedom, but it was tolerance. For the seed of dhimmitude to flower into full religious freedom, all dimensions of subordination would have to be shed and full equality of citizenship would have to emerge.

The Possibilities for Growth

This discussion of seeds of freedom has been too sweeping and brief, neglecting other seeds that in many cases spring from those mentioned here. Islam and liberalism, for instance, have coexisted and flourished together in countries such as Egypt and Iran, especially in the early twentieth century. Another seed lies in the arguments of contemporary Islamic proponents of religious freedom such as Saeed and Mustafa Akyol. While their arguments defend something close to the human rights of religious freedom in full, they are still only a seed of religious freedom since they are not yet accepted by the broad swath of the world’s Muslim jurists.

Hawks then are right to object to and temper assessments of the Muslim tradition that ignore the reality of religious repression. Prospectively, though, what is important is that Islam possesses the resources to develop a full human right to religious freedom. As I noted yesterday, from a satellite view, Islam is low on religious freedom. Closer up, however, the picture is more complex and more hopeful.

The metaphor of seeds conveys possibility. The reality and promise of this possibility is underlined by the actual development of religious freedom in certain places under the leadership of certain people. These people follow the Prophet and are themselves prophets of peace and justice.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!