In the Arab and Muslim world, a new discussion on religious coexistence emerges

In Brief: 
  • Inspired partly by the gift of Iran’s Ayatollah Tehrani, Arab and Muslim thinkers and scholars are opening a new discussion on religious coexistence.
  • In articles, commentaries and interviews, these leaders are openly calling for religious freedom.
  • Many cite passages from the Quran to support their vision, saying that Islam is at its heart a religion that supports equality and tolerance.

MANAMA, Bahrain — Throughout the Arab and Muslim world, a new discussion on how to live peacefully side by side with the followers of all religions has begun to take shape.

This discourse has been inspired partly by the dramatic call of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, an Iranian cleric who has called for religious coexistence with the Bahá’ís in Iran.

But the discourse has in some ways taken on a life of its own, emerging as a heartfelt discussion about the situation of religious freedom in Arab and Muslim lands and elsewhere.

In Bahrain, respected journalist Es’haq Al-Sheikh published a commentary in the newspaper Alayam saying that Ayatollah Tehrani’s calligraphic gift offered insights about the need for bold action to promote the principle of religious coexistence in the entire region.

“The call of this Iranian cleric creates a genuine invitation for a spirit of peaceful and stable religious coexistence, firmly established in tolerance among all religions,” wrote Mr. Al-Sheikh on 21 April 2014, in an article headlined: “Allow for the Bahá’í Faith amongst us.”

“This is a blessed call that must take its path to...the Arabian Peninsula and all the Arab countries, to give Bahá’ís their rights in practicing their religion, and for those countries to strengthen their own concept of citizenship through justice and equality between all religions and beliefs in our Arab societies,” wrote Mr. Al-Sheikh.

‘Abdu’l-Hamid Al-Ansari, an expert on Islamic law in Qatar, wrote in the Kuwaiti newspaper Aljarida on 26 May 2014 that: “Man was created ‘free,’ and from the Islamic perspective, ‘freedom’ is not a mere right, but rather a duty accountable by law.

“Islam grants ‘religious freedom’ to those who are at variance with it in belief and worship [as stated in the Quran]: ‘To each among you have we prescribed a law and a system.’

“Hence,” wrote Dr. Al-Ansari, a former dean in Islamic studies and law at the University of Qatar, “what will remain of the meaning of ‘freedom’ if we prevent the followers of other religions from practicing their religions?”

An “opening of the mind”

Suheil Bushrui, an authority on religious and interfaith issues in the Arab world, said the region “is an area where there are without any doubt tremendous forces of fanaticism, but at the same time there is an opening of the mind, and a tremendous desire to create a new way of thinking.

“Part of this new thinking is that violence is not what religion teaches, and there is an increasing discussion that emphasizes that freedom of worship and freedom of religion are guaranteed by the Quran itself,” said Dr. Bushrui, who is director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Research and Studies Project at the University of Maryland.

In Iraq, one of the most senior Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Seyed Hosein Sadr, gave a long interview outlining a similar vision of religious coexistence and freedom of belief.

“I do not believe in dichotomy in God’s message, just as I do not subscribe to dichotomy or conflict between God and mankind,” said Ayatollah Sadr on 14 May 2014 in Din Online. “I believe that such presumption stems from erroneous understanding by religious fanatics and radicals....

“Religion should not be used to suppress mankind, or to force him or her, or cause pressure or duress; religion is meant to guide mankind to a more noble life, and to imbue feelings of joy and good fortune, to offer meaning and value to life,” said Ayatollah Sadr.

Ayatollah Sadr was also asked about a recent statement he made, in which he urged Muslims to have cordial relations with Bahá’ís. “I might not agree with followers of a certain religion, but that does not mean that I can deprive them of their natural human rights,” he said. “Religion has bidden us to treat others with equity and justice, even our enemies. As God has said: ‘Collective animosity should not make you cease being just! You must observe fairness and justice, and that is closer to piety.’”

In Iran in May, a high-ranking cleric — while not mentioning Ayatollah Tehrani — declared that interpretations of Islam that hold Bahá’ís to be impure are incorrect — and that Bahá’ís should therefore enjoy equal rights.

“Like all other religious jurists who believe that [all] people are ritually pure, I also believe that Bahá’ís are pure,” wrote Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi.

“In accordance with the citizenship rights of all citizens of a country, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Zoroastrians, or any people holding any set of beliefs should enjoy rights equal to those of any other citizens of the country,” wrote Hojatoleslam Meybodi in an essay on Iranwire.

“There should be no difference between a Bahá’í, a Jew and other religious minorities in other situations such as the right to education, the right to earn a living, the right to select one’s residence, etc.,” said Hojatoleslam Meybodi.

Mahmoud Chreih, a noted author, editor, and scholar in Lebanon, said the new message of coexistence is clearly supported in the Quran and in other Islamic texts. “The Quran is clear — the verses are clear about tolerance — so there is no problem with the text of Islam,” Mr. Chreih said. “The problem is how it is applied.”

Accordingly, he said, the message of Ayatollah Tehrani and others resonates throughout the region.

Ahlam Akram, a prominent Arab activist for peace, wrote on 24 April 2014 in Elaph: “Surprisingly, and perhaps hopefully, a number of Muslim clergymen have adopted a new understanding of the teachings and principles of Islam, an understanding that takes a positive stance based on the spirit of the religion, and believes that the Holy Quran encourages coexistence between religions; in fact it welcomes it.”

Outside the Middle East

In the United Kingdom, the founder of the British Muslim Forum said he hoped Ayatollah Tehrani’s initiative would “result in bringing much needed understanding” between Muslims and Bahá’ís in Iran and elsewhere.

“The Forum congratulates the Ayatollah for his courageous and dignified act and sincerely hopes that it will open the door of constructive inter-faith relations between the two faith communities in Iran,” wrote Maulana Shahid Raza on 5 May 2014.

Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, an interfaith and anti-extremist organization based in the United Kingdom, praised the actions of Ayatollah Tehrani in the Huffington Post. “[T]he symbolism of [his] ‘reaching out’ comes in the wake of several recent statements by religious scholars in the Muslim world who have set out alternative interpretations of the teachings of Islam in which tolerance of every religion is, in fact, upheld by the holy Quran,” wrote Mr. Mughal on 12 May 2014.

Ibrahim Mogra, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, wrote an article about the need for religious coexistence on the website of The Guardian newspaper.

“He has reminded us that Islam is a religion of peace that recognizes diversity of every kind as part of God’s design for his creation,” wrote Imam Mogra on 21 April 2014.

“The Ayatollah has done something unprecedented in Iran,” continued Imam Mogra. “And he is part of a growing trend in that country; others have also championed the inalienable rights of all Iranian citizens. Islam has a history of defending minorities and protecting their religious rights and freedoms.”

In an interview in May 2014, Clovis Maksoud, the former ambassador of the League of Arab States to the United Nations and now living in Washington, DC, said: “There is no doubt that there is a trend against dogmatism and intransigence among all religions at this moment.

“There is a discovery of what is common amongst the religions much more than what distinguishes them from each other.

“And what the Ayatollah has done, and the gift he has given to the Bahá’ís, is a testimony [to this] in a very subtle way. And it applies not only to what has happened to Bahá’ís but also what is happening in many situations between Shiites and Sunnis, and between Christians and Muslims,” said Dr. Maksoud.