A Central Question for Islam: How Does a One-Way Religion Handle Freedom?

 John C. Rankin (May 18, 2010)

Is there a simple way to understand the relationship between “moderate Islam” on the one hand, and “jihad” on the other?

Yes – in grasping the nature of Islam as a “one-way religion.”

This term, one-way religion, is rooted in the nature of the Qur’an, and affirmed across the centuries in orthodox Shi’a and Sunni Islam.

Namely, if you are born a Muslim, or if you convert to Islam, it is a one-way street. There is no theological freedom to later convert away from Allah and Islam. And if such conversion is attempted, there are historically dire consequences – whether death, persecution or shunning.

The nature of the Bible is otherwise. In the Law of Moses, and as summed up by Joshua, the freedom to choose is always honored. There are consequences to all choices, whether good or ill, but conversion to Yahweh Elohim was also made difficult to begin with. And if the Israelite, or Gentile convert ever wanted to abandon faith in Yahweh Elohim and leave the nation, he or she was free to do so.

Likewise with Jesus – he made conversion a costly decision to begin with. As well, neither he nor the apostles ever put into place a theological, political or social structure that prevented people from converting to another religion or philosophy.

Islam, when it exploded out of Arabia following Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, advanced its religion with a universal claim, whether by invitation, treaty, intrigue or the sword.

Islam was politically hegemonic in nature, and required all peoples under its control to submit to the rule of an Islamic social order – Shari’ah law. This included class distinctions between Muslims and everyone else.

Six centuries earlier, Christianity, in its own universal claim, grew initially through suffering and persecution, with no political power at all. But three centuries later, beginning with the political power of Constantine supposedly on its behalf, and exacerbated under Theodosius and Justinian, Christianity lost its integrity. “Christendom” began to employ the power of the state against the religious liberty of others. Its theological integrity was exhausted in Byzantium when Islam arose – and the conflict has raged since.

To sum up the contrast – the Bible never employed state power or social pressure to force someone to maintain a Hebrew or Christian identity and belief. A two-way street of human freedom was always in place, a freedom to dissent. The Qur’an did employ political power and social pressure to keep Islam as a one-way street.

The Christian Church has not always been faithful to its biblical heritage, but in the 21st century the idea of forced belief is nearly non-existent – biblical ethics have largely triumphed in the church in this respect. Orthodox Islam has always hewed to its one-way religion heritage.

So when any of us use the language of “moderate” Islam, it is not “moderate” to an orthodox Muslim. They believe they have moderated nothing of their core beliefs. And, too, jihad – the Arabic word for “struggle” – means far more than just violent struggle. Most Muslims employ it in the internal sense of religious devotion.

The point is this – historically orthodox Muslims are united in their belief that Islam is the “perfect” religion, that one day will triumph, and the whole world will be under Islamic control. This goal is pursued “moderately” by most, or violently by some, but the goal remains the same.

The Declaration of Independence, rooted in unalienable rights given by the Creator, and the U.S. Constitution, rooted in the biblical assumptions of checks and balances on political power, embrace a two-way street in matters of religious, political and economic liberty. Fifty-five of the nation’s fifty-six signatories to the Declaration were Protestant, yet they did not impose a Protestant faith on the nation. They appealed to a religious liberty for all people to practice their faiths, so long as the lives, liberties and properties of all others were not violated.

Thus, how does a one-way religion such as Islam handle freedom in the United States? Can it?

I have various Muslim friends, scholars and leaders, here in the United States, whose instincts on freedom are the same as mine. And some of them do yeoman work to bring these instincts into the Islamic world in ways that stretch the limits with Islam as much as possible. But are these friends the exceptions, or hopefully, the leading edge of something dynamic?

Thus, another question: Is Islam confident enough in its universal truth claims to allow a two-way street of human freedom? As a biblically rooted Christian, with conviction in its universal truth, I celebrate such freedom. If a Muslim can persuade me that the Qur’an is true, that it supersedes a corrupt Bible, that Allah and Muhammad are who the Qur’an claim them to be, then I am free to be persuaded. But it will take a genuine two-way street of human freedom to even start the conversation. Is this possible?

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