The situation of both Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities within the
Muslim world is dreadful. Today’s Muslims have developed neo-exclusivist
tendencies in response to a world-wide wave of intolerance. Islam now reflexively
prohibits tolerance of Christians, Jews and others. As a Muslim myself I’m sorry to
have to say it, but today’s Islam is not like the Islam of old. Allow me to offer an
example of 12th century inclusivity, and contrast it with 20th century exclusivity.
Much has been written of Saladin’s treatment of Christian and Jews, so I won’t
rehash it for you. Yet very few know that his actions were not a product of his
unique world view; it was accepted Islamic dogma and this may explain Islam’s
astonishing acceptance amongst the people its armies conquered. Things began
to change around the time of the Fatwa of Ibn Taymieh, when anti-foreigner
groups started to subvert Islamic universalism. Prior to that time Islam was
magnificent in its inclusiveness. Muhideen Ibn Arabi was the Grand Sheik of Islam
in the 12th century. He is buried in Damascus in the small beautiful district of
Ṣāliḥiyya. He once wrote; “My heart has adopted every shape; it has become
a pasture for a gazelles, and a convent for Christian monks. A temple for idols,
and a pilgrim’s Ka’ba, the tables of a Torah, and the pages of a Koran. I follow
the religion of Love.” These were the words of the highest authority on Islam at
the time, so we can put to rest allegations that Islam is inherently intolerant of
Christians and Jews, and less “Love” driven than Jesus’ message.
Islam is (or at least was) universal and inclusive so how come many Muslims
treat their fellow human beings so poorly today? The answer is that Muslims are
trending towards a form of exclusivism that assumes that one starts reform from
the outside in and not from the inside out. How we now look is more important
than how we treat others. The Prophet, peace be upon him, went out of his way
to stress the continuity of many prophets who preceded him from Abraham,
to Moses to Jesus to Mohammad. The verse that captures this universality
and inclusiveness is s 3:84. Other Quranic verses continue the importance of
tolerance and acceptance such as s109:6: “To you your religion, to me mine.” In
addition the well known verse 2:256: “There can be no coercion in religion.” This
is ample evidence of the “universalist” and tolerance message. On the other side
of the coin you have what some call the “Islamists.” Islamists define religion so
narrowly that it excludes most who do not subscribe to their narrow definition
of true faith. Included among the exclusivists are those who wear the Hijab as
a statement and consider anyone who does not wear it to be non-Muslim. As
the exclusionists become militant and belligerent in imposing their beliefs upon
others, I must take exception to the kind of Islam they are proposing. I refuse this
infringement upon personal freedom and “There is no coercion in religion” should
be a constant reminder to them. God, not man, will ultimately judge us.
Our prophet’s Islam drew its power from its “universalist” nature. In spite of their
internecine successional bickering, all Islamic leaders who followed Mohammad
instinctively retained this critical quality. This Universalist quality allowed people
from many cultures to accept Islam. At its core, Mohammad’s religion opened
its doors to anyone willing to make a simple declaration of faith: “I proclaim that
there is no god but God, and I proclaim that Mohammad is the messenger of
God.” It is that simple, and it is powerful. Mohammad put few restrictions on his
followers. All he asked of them is to accept the basic truth that we are all united
by the worship of one God and only one God; the Merciful and Magnanimous.
Now here is a tiny example of this intolerance in an encounter my mother
recently had at a women’s reception in Damascus. My mother is an 80 year old
well respected practicing Muslim who is unveiled. My mother believes that the
veil is not synonymous with real Islam and she can cite chapter and verse in the
Koran to support her belief but her protests fall on deaf ears. At this reception,
Mom rose to shake hands with a young woman, only to be rebuffed because,
the woman said, “I assumed she was a Christian!” A few blocks away Ibn Arabi
must have been turning in his grave. Lest I be (again) accused of being anti-
Muhajabat, I want to stress the fact that my problem is not with the Hijab itself.
My Childhood friend is a Muhajabeh who preaches inclusivity and has taught me
more about Islam than anyone, and the Hijab itself is a time honored Islamic
ritual. My problem is in the assumption of some that those who don’t choose this
ritual (and other rituals) are not Muslims or people worthy of a simple handshake.
My issue is with Islam’s new exclusionary identity.
I hope we can one day go back to the Islam of old, and transcend the Islam of the
last eight hundred years, because we can all see where exclusion has gotten us.