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Religious Limits in the Muslim World

Middle East | Religious Freedom

IF THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT AUTHORITIES IN ISLAM, the Quran and the Hadith, do not curb religious freedom, then where do the restrictions in the Muslim world come from?

This is a question leading scholar of Islam and religious freedom Prof. Abdullah Saeed has spent much of his career trying to answer.  Saeed (pictured in center above) informed an audience of graduate students, lawyers and journalists at a recent seminar on religious freedom that his research has found very little historical or theological evidence to support any ongoing religious restrictions.

In fact, the restrictions that countries such as Saudi Arabia impose on Muslims as well as non-Muslims “serve no Quranic or Prophetic purpose,” stated Prof. Saeed, who is Muslim himself and teaches Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

The professor, who spent his early education at conservative Islamic seminaries in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, was one of the speakers at the Witherspoon Institute's seminar on Islam and Religious Freedom at the Princeton Theological Seminary.

An often-overlooked aspect of this issue is that Muslims who do not subscribe to a country’s official version of Islam face greater restrictions than non-Muslims, noted Saeed, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. The main issue concerning non-Muslims, he went on, is not belief per se, but its manifestation.

The Maldivian-born scholar explained that the first restrictions emerged in the early first and late second centuries of Islam.

The Prophet lived for 12 years in Mecca and then 10 years in Medina, said Saeed, co-author of Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam. The 114 suras of the Quran are broadly classified as Meccan and Medinan, according to their place and time of revelation.

When the Prophet was teaching and preaching in Mecca, he attracted a few hundred converts, many of whom were themselves persecuted. But “the Quran kept emphasizing again and again that the Prophet’s job was to preach. He did not have the authority to force anybody…No violence was allowed,” Saeed emphasized.

In 622 CE, the Prophet and his followers had to flee to Medina because their condemnation of idol worship had angered powerful groups of Meccans, and conversions into Islam were seen as a threat to local tribal leaders.

Medina, where the Prophet spent the next 10 years, had very different politics. Large numbers of people converted to Islam, but there was a significant Jewish community that did not convert, Saeed added. In the first five years, “the Muslim community was struggling, trying to defend itself from outside repression from the opponents [Meccans and Jews who allied with them].”

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