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Religion and Society

Islamic Law and the Diversity of the Other



Author: Yohanan Friedmann


Title: Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition


Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003





I don’t know how to treat these people who are neither Arabs nor People of the Book’. These words of the Caliph Omar, who was puzzled as to how to treat the Zoroastrians, describe the dilemma that Islam has had to face ever since the beginning of its expansion: what relationship should be formed with other religious communities? The author of this volume, beginning with the text of the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet, shows how Sunnite doctrine was produced through an enormous interpretative effort, with at times conflicting results, in order to apply the scarce data derived from the revealed text and from the tradition of the Prophet to a social, religious and political scene that was in continuous evolution.



Friedmann is interested in Islamic doctrine and not in the application that this has received by politicians and agents of the law. Instead, he allows the socio-political reasons that pushed that doctrine constantly towards new approaches to emerge: for example, the initial hostility towards the Zoroastrians and above all to the polytheists gave way over time to greater tolerance and openness, when with the expansion of Islam to the East the Muslims ended up by governing territories in which these religions were in the majority and realistically realised that they could not immediately impose the new faith.



That political realism is a evolutionary factor in Islamic law is not a new discovery for scholars – for that matter one is dealing with an element that perhaps marks the whole of juridical experiences. And the same is true of a second observation that Friedmann makes at a general level. Indeed, he reads in this doctrine an attempt to locate within the revelation of the Koran a development which instead only took place at a later moment: the classical jurists attributed to the period of the Prophet acquisitions which in reality belonged to a subsequent period.



However the work of Friedmann is to be appreciated both because of the evidence he uses to support his analysis (which is a valuable treasure available to scholars) and because of his stress on certain characteristics of Islamic doctrine as regards religious freedom, apostasy and relations with other religious confessions, which helps in a deciphering of certain problematic knots to be found both in Islam in the West and in countries with Islamic majorities. Indeed, this scholar shows how classical Islamic doctrine in relation to religious freedom centres around certain clear keystones: attention directed prevalently to the Arab peninsula (or parts of it) which was to be defended by assuring a religious uniformity which then experienced a consistent tempering in countries that were progressively conquered, and a clear differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims. The scholars of the classical epoch and its political leaders oscillated in distinguishing the protected peoples of the Book from polytheists but they always made a clear distinction between the Islamic community and those who did not belong to it.



Through a detailed and open-minded survey, Friedmann demonstrates the complexity of Islamic doctrine as regards relations with other confessions. Although he does not say this explicitly, one may grasp the need for Muslims to take up again an approach that was able to extrapolate an inestimable juridical patrimony from relatively few facts, adapting it to a social and political scene undergoing constant change. In other terms, the author seems to recognise that Islam, ever since its beginnings, has been the subject of a cultural interpretation.



The fact that Islam law evolved gives good grounds for hope; the fact that this took place in a hidden way, instead, raises difficulties for those who openly seek new interpretations from tradition. For that matter, Muslims are in a dramatic condition: if, as Friedmann seems to say, it is right and reasonable to choose – almost arbitrarily – those elements of one’s own religions that should be conserved, Islam disappears in the image that each person gives of it; if, instead, it is realistic to think that textus crescit cum legente, then a cultural interpretation of Islam is truly possible and also respectful of its nature.