ISIS and Religious Tolerance

The arrival of Islamic rule marked an end to the persecution to which non-Zoroastrian minorities had been subjected in pre-Islamic Persia.[1] It is sadly strange then, that fourteen centuries later, Islam is now being invoked and interpreted in an attempt to exterminate such populations, and moreover to do so in grisly and inhumane ways that are themselves incongruous with Islam’s central values of kindness and compassion.

I was incredulous when I first read recent reports of ISIS killing and enslaving members of the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in Iraq. The reported ISIS actions troubled my conscience, and furthermore, for historical and theological reasons, did not sit right with my understanding of Islam. Yet, I was aware of statements in medieval books of Islamic law that might be produced as partial justification of the ISIS actions, and so I felt the need to articulate a coherent response to questions such as the following: As a Muslim, am I required to agree with the ISIS actions? If they are correct, then how can it be that these religious minorities have survived fourteen centuries in the heart of the Islamic lands without yet having been exterminated?

The majority opinion among Muslim jurists, and the dominant operative view across Muslim history has been that of tolerance to all non-Muslim religious communities.  After explaining this to be the case, I will show how this view is also in line with a general Qur’anic principle backed by common sense.

Muslim scholars, across sects and the various legal schools, are in agreement that Jews and Christians, being People of Scripture, can live as subjects of the Islamic state, and are not forced to convert to Islam (although they are welcome and encouraged to do so). They are subject to a tax called the jizyah, which was paid, as British Orientalist Thomas Arnold Walker explains, “by those whose religion precluded them from serving in the army, in return for the protection secured for them by the armies of the Musulmans.”[2] Muslim scholars are further agreed that Zoroastrians can similarly live as subjects of the Islamic state, even though they are not decisively People of Scripture, because the Prophet Muhammad himself afforded them such treatment. Jurists of the Maliki school (which dominates North and West Africa), and the Zaydi Shi`ite school, along with Imam al-Awza`i (whose school was widely followed in the Levant and across North Africa before being displaced by the Malikis and Shafi`is), generalized from this to conclude that the same courtesy is extended to people of all religions. The Hanafi school (geographically and historically the school with the widest following among the public and the most implemented by rulers) concluded similarly, making an exception only for idolators of Arabia which is actually a moot point given that idolatry did not survive there following the large-scale conversions to Islam during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. When the Muslims ruled Mogul India, the (idolatrous) Hindus remained tolerated under Hanafi legal doctrine.[3]

Reframing the preceding breakdown of views, we realize that the earliest schools of Islamic law and the most widely followed (Hanafi, Maliki and Awza`i), allow and tolerate non-Muslim minorities of any religion within the Islamic lands (i.e. the “Islamic state,” for let us not allow ISIS to monopoloize and subvert the term). Given the status of these schools and their adoption by Muslim governments across the centuries (until the Muslim world was largely secularized in early modernity), this view has also been the operative view across the overwhelming bulk of Muslim history. The dissenting view (of the (later) Shafi`is and Hanbalis, along with the Imamis), for practical purposes, persisted as little more than hypothetical juristic cogitations, and perhaps as reminders of the more stark era of war in the Hebrew Bible, where for example we read that the city of Jericho (including even the women, children and beasts) was put to the sword apparently for idolatry.[4] That tolerance of all religious groups was the norm in Muslim history is reflected in the fact that the Mandaeans, Yazidis and others have survived and maintained a presence in Islamic lands to this day.

It is worthwhile to note that the dominant Islamic view, of tolerance towards other religious communities, is also backed by general Qur’anic principle, and by common sense. The Qur’anic principle is that, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of the] religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), and common sense confirms that a forced conversion is unlikely to be genuine. How can it be reasonable to suddenly expect Yazidis, who have been raised in their own religion all their lives, to suddenly give it up at the point of a sword or rifle? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that if there be but one right [religion], and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged.”[5] The Qur’an foreshadows these wise words of Jefferson’s:

“Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah , and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” (Qur’an, 10:99-100)

“[U]pon you is only the [duty of] notification, and upon Us is the account.” (Qur’an, 13:40)

“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” [Qur’an, 16:125]

Further Considerations

So far, we have established that the majority and operative position across history has been tolerance of all non-Muslim religious communities. This is sufficient to refute the notion that ISIS’ recent actions represent the majority of Muslims, and to dispel the idea that ISIS is implementing a clear and immutable Islamic teaching. But what if ISIS claims that they want to follow a minority position on religious tolerance, and to revive the practices of enslavement and concubinage? In what follows, I explain how their actions are actually inconsistent with several broader Islamic principles:

(i) The Qur’anic principle (backed by common-sense) of non-coercion in faith, already mentioned earlier (above).

(ii) The importance of priorities. Even if someone truly believes it justified to target the non-Muslim minorities, they should ask themselves: If these minorities were not exterminated by the Prophet, nor by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, then how can a Muslim group today consider it their prerogative and priority to undertake such a genocide?

(iii) Categorical imperative: If we as Muslims are to exterminate or expel indigenous non-Muslims who have been living in a country for centuries, how are we better than the Zionists who attempt to do the same to indigenous Palestinians?

(iv) The use of inhumane techniques (such as the forced starvation ISIS apparently attempted to inflict on tens of thousands of Yazidis) contradict the Prophet Muhammad’s code of ethics in war and peace. When Thumama ibn Athal, a South Arabian chief, imposed a wheat embargo on the idolatrous Makkans to punish them for their mistreatment of the Muslims, Prophet Muhammad asked him to lift the embargo to prevent the starvation of the Makkan idolators and especially of their women and children.[6]

(v) The Prophetic paradigm calls for wisdom, which includes recognition of people’s sensibilities and thinking. The Prophet Muhammad once remarked to his wife that he would have liked to demolish the Ka`bah[7], and then to rebuild it according to the original pattern on which Prophet Abraham had built it. However, he refrained from this, citing as a reason the fact that people had only recently come out the state of idolatrous ignorance (and would therefore misconstrue his action as sacrilegous).[8] The fourth Caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law `Ali, drawing attention to the importance of sensitivity in engaging people, said, “Speak to people with what they can relate to. Would you like for God and His Messenger to be considered liars?”[9] The renowned 19th century Hanafi Muslim jurist Ibn `Abidin wrote, in his didactic poem Rasm al-Mufti, “Customary norms are to be given consideration in the Sacred Law, and hence the legal determination may hinge upon it.” Actions such as forced conversions and enslavement surely have a bigger impact on the public than mere words, and taking a human life is clearly more drastic than demolishing a brick-structure. Even if (hypothetically) someone’s conscience is genuinely not troubled in the least by such actions as enslavement, they should ponder deeply the consequences of their actions on the image and perception of Islam among non-Muslims, and remind themselves that Islam’s mission is to be a source of blessing to all.

“We have not sent you [Muhammad], except as a blessing to all creatures.” [Qur’an, 21:107]


[1] “The followers of all those varied forms of faith could breathe again under a rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service, on payment of a light tribute.” Thomas Arnold Walker, The Preaching of Islam: a history of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1896), 177.

[2] Walker, The Preaching of Islam, 55-57.

[3] See, for example, the following medieval references of Islamic law: Ibn `Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar; al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Murtada, al-Azhar fi FIqh al-A’immahal-Athar.

[4] See: Joshua, 6:21.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982) 160.

[6] See: Ibn Hisham, Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah.

[7] The building, in Makkah, that Muslims believe was the first house of pure monotheistic worship on earth, built by Prophet Abraham.

[8] Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.

[9] Narrated by Bukhari.