The Compatibility of Islam and Liberalism


My good friend over at asked me about the commensurability of Islam with liberal principles, and while I simply lack the time to put together the exhaustive and complete response such a question deserves and I retain the expectation that my words will have but little effect on my fellow citizens, I felt obligated to put together what I can.

Below, my friend’s questions appear in bold and my answers beneath them. Forgive me for errors, but I hold fast to the spirit in which they were committed.

Is Islam intolerant toward other religions?

Absolutely not.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but I think one of the most compelling pieces of information for someone who knows little of Islam is a political document written by the man who wrote the Koran: the Constitution of Medina. It’s a fascinating historic document in which Mohammad proclaims the varied peoples of the local geographic region to be members of one ummah (Arabic: community). There is much to be said about this document, but most directly pertinent to the question is the nature of the community; there are pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. All tribes are declared by the constitution to be one ummah, regardless of faith. Wikipedia summarizes the main agreements between the peoples of the ummah adequately (it seems to me, at least):

The non-Muslims included in the ummah had the following rights:

  1. The security of God is equal for all groups,
  2. Non-Muslim members will have the same political and cultural rights as Muslims. They will have autonomy and freedom of religion.
  3. Non-Muslims will take up arms against the enemy of the Ummah and share the cost of war. There is to be no treachery between the two.
  4. Non-Muslims will not be obliged to take part in religious wars of the Muslims

It’s a really amazing document, frankly. And it isn’t alone in its testament to the duty of religious tolerance in Islam. A similar, but less broad (pagans are not explicitly included) usage of the term “ummah” appears in the Koran many times. Christians, Jews, and an ancient community of Arabian people known as the Sabaeans, who accepted Abrahamic monotheism and thereby became Muslims* . The Koran includes many remarkable passages in regard to this subject:

*The most simple definition of a Muslim given in the Koran is one who believes in (and worships or submits to) God and the Last Day (the day of judgment). That’s it.

Sura 2: And they say, ‘Be Jews or Christians and you shall be guided: Say thou: ‘Nay, rather the creed of Abraham, a man of pure faith; he was no idolater.’ Say you: ‘We believe in God, and in that which has been sent down on us and sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender.’

Sura 2: Say: ‘Would you then dispute with us concerning God, who is our Lord and your Lord? Our deeds belong to us, and to you belong your deeds; Him we serve sincerely.’ Or do you say, ‘Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes – they were Jews, or they were Christians?

And later:

Sura 3: People of the Book! Why do you dispute concerning Abraham? The Torah was not sent down, neither the Gospel, but after him. What, have you no reason? Ha, you are the ones who dispute on what you know; why then dispute you touching a matter of which you know not anything? God knows, and you know not. No; Abraham in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian; but he was a Muslim and one pure of faith; certainly he was never of the idolaters.

The Koran asserts that the Torah and the Gospel were both sent down by God. The Koran speaks reverently of the heroes (many non-Jewish, not being descended from Jacob) of the Tanakh:

Sura 4: We have revealed to thee as We revealed to Noah, and the Prophets after him, and We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, .. Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, Jesus and Job, Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and We gave to David Psalms, and Messengers We have already told thee of before, and Messengers We have not told thee of; and unto Moses God spoke directly – Messengers bearing good tidings, and warning, so that mankind might have no argument against God, after the Messengers; God is All-mighty, All-wise.

The Koran speaks frequently and reverently of Jesus (the third Sura is entitled “The House of Imran,” which is a reference to the family of Mary, mother of Jesus), and includes him among the prophets with Mohammad, who are ranked equally (it is frequently written that there is no division between God’s prophets), but denies the Trinity and the doctrine that Jesus is the only “Son of God” by common Christian interpretation (which is patently ridiculous given, among many reasons, Jesus’ own proclamation that all peacemakers shall be called children of God).

Sura 4: Those who disbelieve in God and His Messengers and desire to make division between God and His Messengers, and say, ‘We believe . In part, and disbelieve in part,’ desiring to take between this and that a way – those in truth are the unbelievers; and We have prepared for the unbelievers a humbling chastisement. And those who believe in God and His Messengers and make no division between any of them, those-We shall surely give them their wages; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

Sura 4: People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, ‘Three: Refrain; better is it . For you. God is only One God. Glory be to Him–that He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian.

Having studied the Tanakh and the Gospel, I actually came to the same conclusion prior to reading the Koran, and I was shocked to find such similarity between its words and my beliefs which had developed over the years of study. It is remarkable.

One of the most interesting (and wonderful) features of Islam, to me, is that the holy book itself asserts the veracity of other holy books in a tradition apart from the culture of the author. Mohammad was an Arabic man who was not Jewish. But more importantly, to be a Muslim, it isn’t even required to have known of Mohammad or the Koran, or even the Gospel or the Torah. Abraham, Ishmael, Noah, Isaac – they were Muslims, for they worshiped the Lord of Being.

The Koran is against the very issue ravaging the Muslim world now: sectarian disputes and violence. The Koran states directly to the reader:

Sura 6: Those who have made divisions in their religion and become sects, thou art not of them in anything; their affair is unto God, then . He will tell them what they have been doing.

These psychopathic “Muslims” who pronounce themselves the Islamic State, separate from all other believers who fail to conform to their ways, and murder those who disagree, they violate so many precepts in the Koran, I simply have not the time to list them all. First:

Sura 2: No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error. So whosoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God, has laid hold of the most firm handle, unbreaking; God is All-hearing, All-knowing.

And second, very expansively and inclusively, it is claimed:

Sura 10: Every nation has its Messenger; then, when their Messenger comes, justly the issue is decided between them, and they are not wronged.

This seems to me support for Averroes’ view of the variety of metaphorical representations of the Truth.

Moving on, how should a Muslim act toward those who disbelieve in Islam?

Sura 3: Say: ‘People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not . Aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’ And if they turn their backs, say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims.’

Sura 3: “So if they dispute with thee, say: ‘I have surrendered my will to God, and whosoever follows me.’ And say to those who have been given the Book and to the common folk: ‘Have you surrendered?’ If they have surrendered, they are right guided; But if they turn their backs, thine it is only to deliver the Message; and God sees His servants.

Sura 10: 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.’

And one of my favorites:

Sura 10: 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? It is not for any soul to believe save by the leave of God; and He lays abomination upon those who have no understanding. Say: ‘Behold what is in the heavens and in the earth!’ But neither signs nor warnings avail a people who do not believe. So do they watch and wait for aught but the like of the days of those who passed away before them? Say: ‘Then watch and wait; I shall be with you watching and waiting.’ Then We shall deliver Our Messengers and the believers. Even so, as is Our bounden duty, We shall deliver the believers

Abominations upon those who have no understanding. This is the reward of so-called “ISIS,” perhaps the most laughably wrong-headed group of sinners the world has ever known. And though it is hard to find followers as wrong-headed as one finds in the Muslim world, I would like to mention that socioeconomic strife ravaged Europe in the middle ages but a thousand years ago, and Christians were raping and pillaging their way through various countries during various holy wars of their own, all in the name of a prophet who asked only for steadfast love and mercy of God and neighbor.

There are frankly just too many wonderful passages to cite. I have rarely come across a text so dense with wisdom that each attempt at paraphrase feels an injustice, but as you can see, it is not hard to refute the abject garbage pouring from American public discourse of this subject matter. Rarely have I known America to be so unbelievably stupefied by a subject as this, but that may be more a function of my relative knowledge level which has not formerly been as comfortable.

But maybe I’ll continue just a little more…

God is frequently referred to as the “Lord of all Being”:

Sura 10: This Koran could not have been forged apart from God; but it is a confirmation of what is before it, and a distinguishing of the Book, wherein is no doubt, from the Lord of all Being

The Koran opens Abrahamic monotheism to every being who can truly assert submission to the Lord of Being. It identifies Allah in a way which binds together the Tanakh, the Gospel, and the Koran, and accepts other faiths who call God by another name. Averroes, one of the most wonderful of the early Islamic philosophers, believed that religion and philosophy were both paths to one truth, and that different religions could possess different metaphorical representations of that one truth. He argued that one need not be of great intellectual capacity to have a good will, and therefore be loved by the one Lord.

This is why the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus were such massive hits in Islamic philosophy. Aristotle is frequently referred to humbly in Arabic as “The Teacher.” St. Thomas Aquinas was familiar with Averroism and took issue with its doctrines, but Islamic philosophy greatly informed Western philosophy, revitalizing European Christians in their sorry medieval state and breathing new life into the West.

It is apparent from the text, to me at least, that any who believe in the existence and Divinity of a single force which binds together reality and sets it in motion will have his own nation, and his own messenger, and he will reach that metaphor which so attracts his heart and helps him to do what is righteous and so to be loved by God. And he will see his just reward in heaven:

Sura 10: To Him shall you return, all together – God’s promise, in truth. He originates creation, then He brings it back again that He may recompense those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, justly.

Like the Tanakh before it, righteousness is held aloft as the key to salvation; one who is righteous is moving in unison with the Divine force of God. God is the universal, rational force of the Stoics, bringing justice to the world:

Sura 4: Surely God shall not wrong so much as the weight of an ant; and if it be a good deed He will double it, and give from Himself a mighty wage.

And on the nature of that justice, the Koran echoes Ezekiel, saying:

Sura 4: God shall turn only towards those who do evil in ignorance, then shortly repent; God will return towards those; God is All-knowing, All-wise.

God demands not perfection, but a wise growth, and a constant, consistent turning away from sin.

By now, I hope it’s clear that the Koran does not endorse the irrational, psychopathic violence and hatred being carried out in the name of God every day. Some passages which are cited in support of violence against unbelievers are taken out of context, such as the oft-quoted:

Sura 4: They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they tum their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves anyone of them as friend or helper…

Looks pretty bad, eh? Well it goes on, but it’s rarely read to completion:

…except those that betake themselves to a people who are joined with you by a compact, or come to you with breasts constricted from fighting with you or fighting their people. Had God willed, He would have given them authority over you, and then certainly they would have fought you. If they withdraw from you, and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God assigns not any way to you against them. You will find others desiring to be secure from you, and secure from their people, yet . Whenever they are returned to temptation, they are overthrown in it. If they withdraw not from you, and offer you peace, and restrain their hands, take them, and slay them wherever you come on them; against them We have given you a clear authority.

The support of decisive self-defense in the Koran is often used as justification for religious wars, but it is a right always conferred only in the face of attack, and always with the caveat that those who come to you for peace shall not be turned away (unless it’s a second time, and they had been treacherous before, as seen above). I’m not trying to downplay the severity of the above passage, but I will point out that it is atypical of the book to speak so harshly, as demonstrated above and below. A full and fair reading of the document should put any reasonable mind to rest on this matter, in my opinion, though I am certainly open to discussion. I want not for any unrighteousness in my life, for it is this primarily, after all, which makes me a Muslim.

Remember the expansive definition of Muslim, and read the following passages:

Sura 4: It belongs not to a believer to slay a believer, except it be by error.

Sura 4: And whoso slays a believer willfully, his recompense is Gehenna, therein dwelling forever, and God will be wroth with him and will curse him, and prepare for him a mighty chastisement.

And even more expansive:

Sura 5: Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth.

And perhaps the final word on the matter of unwarranted aggression:

Sura 2:  And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.

The Koran is very clear in regards to murder of the innocent – it is one of, if not the most, heinous crime possible.

Whew! I could go on, but I think this may suffice for my point here.

Is Islam intolerant toward apostasy?

Despite the insanity regarding this issue which is rampant among fanatics, the Koran does not encourage any sort of punishment or retributive action to be taken against apostates by humans.  The Koran does state that one who believes and then turns from belief will never be forgiven his sin, but this is in line with verses from the Tanakh (see Ezekiel, for example) and the Gospel (blaspheming the holy spirit, of which apostasy could be considered part, is the one unforgivable sin, according to Jesus). The Koran never encourages or specifies any form of punishment for apostates, and given the direct assertions against forced conversion, and in support of the existence of those who disbelieve, I see only prohibition of persecution of those who disbelieve.

Here, a big problem is the vast troves of hadith and sayings of respected leaders which are often, and with great variance, revered as scripture or condemned as blasphemy by the various sects of Islam. Among these sayings, one can often find injunctions to deliver capital punishment to apostates. Again, moronic religious leaders rise to the top in all faiths, but most importantly, this insanity is not present in the Koran, and it is directly prohibited by an honest reading.

And, of course, belief in the hadith or other sayings are obviously not required in any way for a religion whose heroes have often lived lives prior to the Koran and the edicts which arose around it.

Is Islam intolerant toward atheism?

I do not believe it is.

Regarding modest atheism (or agnosticism), the Koran gives little to go on.  However, one might argue that strong atheists who assert positively that there is no God are what the Koran refers to as “unbelievers” – that is, people who actively deny the religion of Islam.  The Koran deals extensively with interactions between believers and non-believers and, as has been established above, this is to be a tolerant and patient relationship on behalf of the believers.

Is Islam sexually repressive?

As much as any Abrahamic faith, sure. Sex outside of marriage = adultery. Once you’re married, you get to do it, though.

Is Islam repressive with respect to women?


Sura 4: Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All-high, All-great.

Let me just say it’s one of the low points in the book, but salvation for it from the accusation that it encourages the subjugation and/or repression of women is the same as with all the Abrahamic texts.  One relevant point often made: if the man to whom the woman is submitted, so to speak, follows his duties appropriately, this designation does little more than give him the final say on matters where both parties arrive at a reasoned disagreement (and again, if he is dutiful, his final say is liberal and beneficent).  This leaves the problem of designating women as submitters to men, however, and this leads me to choose instead to make a scriptural argument that the position regarding women can fairly be considered as having been brought on by extenuating circumstances among the people in that time. Jesus once asserted, after all, “because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.  And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8).

So maybe the people weren’t ready to hear it or something. Anyway, it obviously can’t be accepted as written without context, so something’s up: that’s the charitable interpretation. The uncharitable interpretation is that the book is hideously wrong. As I am with Emerson in believing literary works to be but commentary on the text of Life, the constant evolution of religious text is no big surprise, so while I tend towards a charitable interpretation, the veracity of an unreasonable interpretation would not cause me to stumble too greatly in my overwhelming endorsement of the Koran as a wonderful holy work.

For that’s not the end of what the Koran says about women. Sura 4 is entitled “Women” and the Koran is probably the most progressive of the Abrahamic texts. I mean, we’re coming from the Tanakh, in which Ben Sira flatly asserts that the birth of a son is a joy, but the birth of a daughter is a disaster. A disaster! There has been much misogyny in the Abrahamic faiths, but within them one sees a certain trend away from it, and that is all God asks – a constant, wise growth in virtue.

The multiple marriage thing, for example, is actually more explicitly reasonable than in other texts:

Sura 4: If you fear that you will not act justly towards the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four; but if you fear you will not be equitable, then only one, or what your right hands own; so it is likelier you will not be partial.

It also defends women from the common belief that a woman correcting a man would be considered unacceptable:

Sura 4: If a woman fear rebelliousness or aversion in her husband, there is no fault in them if the couple set things right between them; right settlement is better; and souls are very right settlement is better; and souls are, and are godfearing, surely God is aware of· the things you do

So there’s that.  The Koran is also explicitly against the infanticide of newborn girls, which was a widespread problem tackled by Christianity as well.

Women continue to receive the short end of the stick in the Abrahamic faiths, but modern believers are turning from this fault and growing in the light of God.  The Koran is a step away from fault, even if it is perhaps not directly complete in that regard.

Is Islam anti-science?

Not even a little.


As I understand it, liberalism is primarily interested in carving out a large and inviolable private sphere into which the government is not allowed to intrude (sadly, liberalism may be moving away from this, and ceding that most important ground to libertarianism), and it’s also extremely concerned with securing civil rights for all.

Perhaps my favorite verse in the Koran is the most liberal (if not for the assertion that there is no compulsion in religion):

Sura 3: 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.’

And so:

Sura 4: So do thou fight in the way of God; thou art charged only with thyself. And urge on the believers; haply God will restrain the unbelievers’ might; God is stronger in might, more terrible in punishing

Islam places the ultimate emphasis on the sanctity of the private sphere and the responsibility of the individual for oneself. In this way, I can see it as nothing less than the most liberal religion whose holy text I have yet encountered. None shall be coerced nor compelled in their religion, but all shall accept one another as brothers and sisters in service of the creative force which binds us all together.

A Final Note

If I could tell, and really expect an honest scrutiny of my words, a rampaging member of ISIS anything, it would be from his own purported holy book:

Sura 2: 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.

Sura 3: It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous. As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring dissension, and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say. ‘We believe in it; all is from our Lord’; yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds.

I could not agree with that last passage more. Religious difficulty in the world is almost entirely caused by the very sin which it discusses so thoroughly and frequently. In the name of every faith, one will find the perplexed sinner, utterly deceived by his own ways. Let us not wrongly affiliate such common phenomena with those works wrought in the pursuit of righteousness.

This entry was posted in Religious Studies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s