If seeking classification for my standpoint on religious matters, it is perhaps most accurate to call myself an American Transcendentalist. One of the most important points regarding that classification, to me, is the establishment of a universal ethical standard accessible to every person, regardless of the texts or other resources to which each person happens to have access. In order to deal with the challenges facing those who investigate and find value in a variety of religious systems, one must have an objective principle (or set of principles) by which to judge these systems.
Fortunately, once outside the realm of crazy sociologists and nonsensical postmodernism infecting much of academic religious study today, it is not extremely difficult to come up with a few good theories on this matter from which to begin. Religion shares many commonalities regardless of the culture from which it springs forth. For our purposes here, the most important commonality might be designated as such:
Religion deals with the source and nature of Mind and its relationship with the world.
This recognition (insofar as it is true – I’m a fallibilist here, but this seems pretty good to me) aids us in many ways, one of which is in finding that principle by which we may judge religious assertions as acceptable or not. Every human being experiences Mind, and so it is by this shared standard that we can operate justly when interacting. Insofar as religion recognizes the divinity of Mind and the holiness of righteousness, I’m on board.
That being said, it may be of interest to readers that I can happily consider myself a Muslim, for I believe in God and the Last Day. I believe the Koran is one of the greatest religious works yet seen by mankind, and I believe that there is to be no division between God’s prophets, of which Muhammad is one (though my understanding of prophethood is likely distinct from many of my contemporaries).
Additionally, I consider myself a God-fearer, and a Christian. However, I do not believe in the Trinity (a confused, hapless philosophical shim designed to support a series of misinterpretations and strange beliefs, if you ask me) or the idea that Jesus is a sacrifice for our sins (Jesus himself references Hosea 6:6, saying “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (Matthew 9:13). If that doesn’t make you rethink the notion that Jesus himself IS a sacrifice, you may want to reexamine your objectivity in the matter), so I am meaningfully distinct from modern Christian communities in many important ways.
This degree of difference from modern Christian communities is similar to the degree to which I differ from predominant Muslim communities. My views would perhaps align most easily with Sufi Islam, or much of early Christianity which was heavily influenced by and inextricable from the Essene and Rabbinic traditions (check out The Didache if you haven’t; it is a masterpiece).
And it gives me a bit of comfort that I expect this sort of character in honest and avid seekers of God, for religion is perhaps first and foremost a personal endeavor which goes against the grain of conformity in favor only of the pursuit of truth. The primary qualities of any such personal endeavor must be a love of truth and steadfast intellectual honesty. Such qualities must give us the courage to adopt and reject written words as they accord with reason. One of the greatest aspects of the Koran is its support for this very position, as we are to be masters in that we study and know the Book (see the passage cited below).
In that vein, I feel obligated to point out to my fellow Americans that the attempts of various countries’ legislative systems to enforce behavior consistent with their interpretations of Islam must in no way be considered an essential feature of the Muslim faith. In fact, I put forth that the Koran itself denounces such a coercive, oppressive notion as that of laws formed to compel religious behavior. Though elements of sharia (that is, the model lives of Muhammad and God’s prophets) will find a place in social laws where they align with legal practices of fairly obvious necessity (such as the injunction not to murder), religion cannot be a tyrannical coercive force, for that would be contrary to the very foundation upon which it is built – the freedom of will brought forth by Mind.
Because of that distinction, this can be a difficult subject, perhaps not adequately addressed in a short post. However, my primary goal here is to dispel the notion promulgated largely by the American religious right, that an essential part of being Muslim is support for a theocratic state which imposes Islam on any and all who fall under its jurisdiction. That is garbage, and it takes an amount of effort approaching a null limit to see that it is garbage. For one obvious counter-example, legislated enforcement of Islam is not how Muhammad himself organized society when given the opportunity (see the Constitution of Medina, for example). However, at the same time, Islam, as with any other religion, contains normative claims, many of which require no particular theological stance to gain support, and which must be legislated (I’m thinking of claims against murder, theft, deceit, and the like).
So while I am writing to claim that “nation-state-legislated sharia,” is incompatible with Islam, that cannot strictly and entirely be true, for there are points within sharia which are entirely compatible with sound nation-state governance, such as those regarding the generally universally accepted moral transgressions listed above. However, as will be shown below, the Koran makes it very clear that religious adherence is a voluntary matter, and cannot be coerced or enforced. Therefore, governance must take a more secular path, aimed towards the promotion and assurance of social and economic stability and progress, while those religious matters observed within the private sphere must be left to the conscience of the individual.
With that in mind, let us take a look at some excerpts from the Koran which might justify this position:
There is no compulsion in religion (2:256). That is stated plainly and clearly in the Koran (and it is one of many reasons that the text is so astoundingly good). Furthermore (as if the issue needed further clarification), the Koran speaks wholly unambiguously:
“And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Wouldst thou then constrain the people, until they are believers?” (10:99)
As I wrote above, I consider it against the fundamental principles of religion, out of respect for the divinity of Mind, to attempt to coerce a people into belief or to align their behavior with that which they do not believe. The Koran not only recognizes this, but assures the reader that such a task is not his or hers to bear:
“And some of them believe in it, and some believe not in it. Thy Lord knows very well those who do corruption. If they cry lies to thee, then do thou say: ‘I have my work, and you have your work; you are quit of what I do, and I am quit of what you do.'” (10:40-41)
This is bolstered by many repetitions of the same theme; it is the duty of the Muslim to remember God and act righteously in every moment. When encountering a non-Muslim, simply proclaim the message. If the message is not accepted, so be it; it is as God wills. We are charged only with ourselves as viceroys of God.
There really isn’t any need to go any further here. Forced religious conformity, applied under the guise of sharia, is directly incompatible with the teachings of Islam, just as the Inquisition was directly incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Religious coercion is not sharia and it should be condemned by every Muslim. In fact, sharia must not be coerced to be what it is.
Finally, I would like to point out that the Koran has predicted this state of affairs, and that prediction is laid forth plainly in the very beginning of the work:
“And some men there are who say, ‘We believe in God and the Last Day’; but they are not believers. They would trick God and the believers, and only themselves they deceive, and they are not aware. In their hearts is a sickness, and God has increased their sickness, and there awaits them a painful chastisement for that they have cried lies. When it is said to them, ‘Do not corruption in the land’, they say, ‘We are only ones that put things right.’ Truly, they are workers of corruption but they are not aware.” (2:8-12)
There are people who claim to be Muslim, but they are liars who deceive no one more greatly than they deceive themselves. Any Muslim who attempts to compel religious belief in another human being ought to be viewed in the harshest of light, with heavy scrutiny, for lastly:
“It belongs not to any mortal that God should give him the Book, the Judgment, the Prophethood, then he should say to men, ‘Be you servants to me apart from God.’ Rather, ‘Be you masters in that you know the Book, and in that you study.'” (3:79)
No religious leader in Iran or Saudi Arabia or where-have-you has authority over any Muslim. Only God has authority over Muslims, and this authority is learned through earnest study and the pursuits of the free will which seeks the provider of that which is expended.
Throughout history, religion has been abused to oppress and coerce, but this affront against the holy freedom of will is denounced in every major work of religious literature which I have encountered. We must remember that what divides Christians in America from their Muslim siblings in Afghanistan is much more a matter of social and economic stability than religion. Fundamentally, humans want little beyond freedom, the most precious of Heaven’s Gifts. Those of us who have found peace in America may thank this great nation for the stability which gives clarity of sight to those who contemplate such matters. Simultaneously, we must appreciate those circumstances which harm our brothers and sisters so that we can target the genuine sources of the issues at hand.
There is no greater indication of the blindness of this world in these matters than the fact that the world’s Abrahamic religions find themselves in constant dispute rather than cooperation.