A kind Rabbi, interested in building bridges between Islam and Judaism, recently wrote to me and suggested that I would be destroying my credibility by "trying to whitewash Islam." I thanked him for taking the time to write and for offering his opinion. I get where he's coming from, and it will be helpful as I go forward to keep his critique in mind. I have no intention of ignoring the abuses and crimes done in the name of Islam, but neither is it my intention to concentrate on those distortions.
My purpose here is to make the case that intrinsic Qur'anic values are not some barbaric medieval system of dogma and rigid rules, but that these values are fundamentally harmonious with the best of Western Civilization. Some may disagree that the Qur'an could ever be the basis for such humane and uplifting values, but I feel it is important for people to hear what the Qur'an has to say about the fundamental issues.
If someone were to be so ambitious as to write a series on the "Highest Values of Western Civilization," one could also see it as a whitewash of history, as well as an unrealistic and problematic undertaking. What I hope to show, however, is the beneficence and justice coherently expressed in the Qur'an, and to make the case that these Qur'anic values can contribute to social justice and harmony among human communities.
Of all the distortions and misconceptions about Islam one of the most important to dispel is the idea that Islam claims to be the one true religion and rejects the truth of other religions. The Qur'an bears witness to a history of prophetic revelations that have come to humanity, bringing essentially the same truth: the beneficence of God. It would be incorrect to say that Islam claims to be the only religion acceptable to God. What the Qur'an does claim is this: it confirms what still remains of the truth of other religions and offers a critique of how the original message of these Prophets has, to some extent, been distorted and corrupted by human beings.
The two most significant ways that the original "Message" is distorted, according to many examples in the Qur'an, is through the granting of special power and privilege to religious authorities and the proliferation of legal prescriptions leading to an oppressive and complex religious law (sound familiar?). Consider, for instance, this: Say: "Have you ever considered all the means of sustenance which God has bestowed upon you from on high - and which you thereupon divide into 'things forbidden' (haram) and 'things lawful' (halal)?" Say: "Has God given you permission - or do you, perchance, attribute your own guesswork to God?" But what will they think - they who attribute their own lying inventions to God -on the Day of Resurrection? Behold, God is indeed limitless in His bounty unto human beings - but most of them are ungrateful. (Quran: 10:59)
Islamophobes and narrow-minded Muslims may both quote a verse that says "The only religion in the sight of God is Islam" (Qur'an 3:19). What is overlooked, however, is that the word Islam here applies to a relationship with the Divine, "submission" or "consent," not a religion as is commonly understood. At the time this verse was revealed the practice and beliefs of the community of Muhammad were very rudimentary -- a simple Abrahamic monotheism. Furthermore, Jews and Christians of former times were also referred to as "muslim," and not only the followers of these religions, but also the circling stars and all of nature are described as "muslim" (note the lower case "m")!
Is it true that Islam was spread by military conquest?
No. True Islam cannot be spread by force or coercion. While it is true that during the early period of its expansion its adherents established an empire and civilization that stretched from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and all the way to India, Islamic Law also granted self-determination to Christians, Jews, and other religions. The establishment of Islamic rule was not synonymous with the imposition of the Islamic religion on the people within its domain. Many Christian sects, for instance, received greater freedom under Islamic rule than they had known under Byzantine Christian rule. These non-Muslim communities received the status of "protected peoples" and exemption from military service in exchange for a small tax (jizya).
We can still read today a copy of a letter written by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai Desert of Egypt, granting protection and privilege to this monastic community even while monasticism was not a part of Islamic practice. (Islam prefers that its most spiritual members be integrated into everyday life and not remove themselves fro the gene pool.)
Does Islam permit forced conversion?
No, the acceptance of Islam must be an act of free will. Conversion by any kind of coercion was universally condemned by Islamic scholars. Obviously, a coerced conversion would have little value to the converted and no value in the eyes of God.
Is it true that apostasy from Islam is punishable by death?
The idea that apostasy may be punishable by death stems from a time in the early days of Islam when a tribe that had voluntarily embraced Islam and established a treaty, renounced that treaty and in so doing took the side of forces that were attacking the nascent Islamic community. In such a case leaving Islam really amounted to sedition and violation of a treaty.
In actual practice the application of capital punishment for apostasy has been rare. Moreover, there is no sanction for such a punishment in the Qur'an. It is known that during the lifetime of the Prophet, when certain people left Islam after initially converting, he did not prescribe a punishment.
Finally, I would hope that Muslims in all lands would unequivocally defend the right of people to follow their conscience in matters of faith.