In the Arab world, a new discourse on religious coexistence takes root

June 4, 2014
A conversation about religious coexistence has recently been taking root in many different Arab countries, including Egypt. (Photo courtesy of Azeem Azeez)

MANAMA, Bahrain — Throughout the Arab 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 is inspired partly by the dramatic call of an Iranian Ayatollah for religious coexistence with Baha'is, but has since taken on a life of its own, becoming a heartfelt discussion about the situation of religious freedom in Arab lands.

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

"Islam grants 'religious freedom' to those who are at variance with it in belief and worship (as stated in the Qur'an): '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?"

Professor 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 Qur'an itself," said Professor Bushrui, who is director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Research and Studies Project at the University of Maryland.

Dr. 'Abdu'l-Hamid Al-Ansari, a former dean in Islamic studies and law at the University of Qatar. Slideshow
7 images

Dr. 'Abdu'l-Hamid Al-Ansari, a former dean in Islamic studies and law at the University of Qatar.

This discussion is reflected in a growing number of news articles and commentaries on the theme of religious coexistence that have been published in recent weeks throughout the Arab world.

A number of Arab commentators have indicated they were inspired by the actions of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, an Iranian cleric who recently created a calligraphic work of Baha'i holy verses and sent it as a gift to the Baha'is of the world, along with a statement on the need for coexistence with Baha'is, who face intense persecution in Iran.

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, in an article headlined: "Allow for the Baha'i Faith amongst us."

"This is a blessed call that must take its path to...the Arabian Peninsula and all the Arab countries, to give Baha'is 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.

Clovis Maksoud, the former ambassador of the League of Arab States to the United Nations and a renowned author, scholar, and educator, said: "There is no doubt that there is a trend against dogmatism and intransigence among all religions at this moment." Dr. Maksoud added: "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 Baha'is, is a testimony (to this) in a very subtle way. And it applies not only to what has happened to Baha'is but also what is happening in many situations between Shiites and Sunnis, and between Christians and Muslims," said Dr. Maksoud in an interview.

Dr. Maksoud said the need is to go beyond the idea of mere tolerance or even coexistence. "I want to be in the process of co-discovery to see what unites and what is diverse. I want to enjoy diversity as an exercise in spiritual inclusion and practice."

Mahmoud Chreih, a noted author, editor, and scholar in Lebanon, also said the new message of coexistence is clearly supported in the Qur'an and in other Islamic texts.

"The Qur'an 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.

In Iraq, one of the most senior Shia clerics, Ayatollah Seyed Hosein Sadr, recently 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 in an interview published by 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 Baha'is. "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.'"

Ahlam Akram, a prominent Arab activist for peace, wrote on 24 April 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 Qur'an encourages coexistence between religions; in fact it welcomes it."