Recently, a reputable Muslim scholar based in the US, that deserves great respect for his beneficial work, wrote an interesting piece on the historical Muslim tolerance of the non-Islamic practices of non-Muslim minorities in Islamic lands during the time of the Islamic Caliphate (which was based upon the Prophet’s commands and example). This included accepting a (minority) Zoroastrian practice of Incest marriage and the Hindu practice of Sati (widow’s choosing to burn themselves after their husbands pass away). The history he refers to, is also something I’ve highlighted in my debates against Secularist Liberals, who I’ve argued deny plurality of legal systems and enforce a ‘one law for all’ uniformity. This lies in contrast to Islam which allows true multiculturalism and plurality of laws.
This scholar then argued that Muslims living in Western countries that permit same-sex marriage, should in the same vein ‘support’ the right of non-Muslims to practice whatever they believe in according to the law of the land.
Now, this scholar was very careful to explain that Islam does not approve of any of these practices, however, considering that Muslims accept non-Muslims living by their own laws under Islamic government, then by analogous reason, he argued, Muslims should also accept non-Muslims to practice their beliefs in their own states according to their own laws. The reason he argued this, was to allow Muslims to claims rights for ourselves that society might not tolerate, and that only by supporting the rights to practices of those we disagree with, can we claim the same for ourselves from the non-Muslim majority.
Some Muslims didn’t fully understand the point being made though, however being the pedant that I am, I believe the language used should be made clearer, and I wanted to advise a small modification to the words used in scholar’s explanation.
As the scholar deftly explained, of course Muslims tolerate the practices and beliefs of non-Muslims as a general rule – that is beyond dispute. However, when it comes to the Muslim view of the non-Islamic laws that non-Muslims are under, instead of using the word ‘support’ (which can be misunderstood to mean endorse), perhaps we should more clearly say ‘we observe and accept that this is what you believe in, and that it is permitted under your laws and morals’.
Muslims do not have to say they support a right to do things that Islam may not recognise as a right. Rather, it is perhaps more accurate to say ‘we [factually] observe that your law claims it is permissible for you to practice such and such’, or ‘this country’s law says you have a right to do such and such’.
The argument that is usually then made in defence of stating our ‘support’ is ‘what are Muslims to do when the West may not accept Islamic practices then? To which common basis with non-Muslim government, shall we have recourse in the address of our Islamic rights?’. The answer to this, is found in the Islamic texts. The Prophet (saaw) is narrated to have said:
“The people before you were destroyed because they used to inflict the legal punishments on the poor and forgive the rich” [Bukhari]
What this means, is that all nations should be held to account if they are not consistent with their laws. If their law gives rights to all, yet they only apply it on some, while denying others, then we have a basis to call them out for injustice. France permits topless nudity in the name of ‘right to wear clothing of one’s choice’, but then bans the Niqab. Either everyone gets the right to wear clothing as they please, or no one does – you shouldn’t selectively apply it to some and not to others, hence the french law is not fair*.
Likewise, Muslims should argue that if same-sex marriage is permitted in the West, then Muslims should be permitted by the authorities to have a Sharia-based marriage. That is how we can argue – from the basis of consistency in treatment from the non-Muslim government.
So in conclusion, it may be wiser (to avoid confusion) if Muslims refrain from using the word ‘support’ to express that we recognise and accept that Islam permits non-Muslims a political right to believe and practice non-Islamic practices (as a general rule) if they do not accept Islam.
When talking about non-Muslim countries, which is different from a non-Muslim minority under an Islamic government, we should merely (factually) observe that that country gives non-Muslims the right to do non-Islamic practices according to their own laws. We should only raise issue if that government is not being consistent to all its citizens if it deprives some of these rights, but enforces it with others. Of course the exception to this rule, is if the rights are antithetical to Islam. So if a non-Muslim government declared that all its citizens must drink alcohol except Quakers. Muslims shouldn’t campaign to enforce that law on Quakers in the name of consistency!
However, in all these cases, there is something Muslims can and should always do – intellectually challenge and criticise other beliefs and non-Islamic laws in a wise and fair fashion. Muslims in the past never neglected to criticise Sati, or Incest marriage, despite not (usually) forcefully compelling non-Muslims to abstain from it. As the Quran commands Muslims, we must always be witnesses to mankind in the good. Therefore, Muslims should ensure that our positions are clearly stated, persuasively made, and wisely invited to.
* French politicians argue “we’ve banned everyone from covering their face, not just Muslims, so its not unjust or inconsistent”. But this is about as ‘just’ as if all the Muslim countries expected non-Muslims to publicly fast during Ramadan. or Christians to give up wine and pork. Would the West think that would fair if Muslims were to make the same retort ‘everyone has to follow these laws, not just non-Muslims, so the law is equally applied to all’? No, they’d complain that Muslims are imposing their values on non-Muslims. Yet they are happy to impose their values on Muslims by legal force.