The term Sharia, or what is understood as Islamic Law, has become a controversial and at times anxiety-producing subject in the West given the acts of extremists and misconceived notions promulgated as laws in some Muslim nations. Some Muslim nations and errant scholars wrongly prescribe punishments for blasphemy and apostasy with little regard for freedom of conscience. Sharia law is also misunderstood as enforcing Islamic law on all subjects of the state, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. However, if we review and analyze the Holy Qur’an and the acts of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) we realize that the true meaning of Sharia based on Islam teachings does not permit enforcement of religious laws upon non-Muslims, and in fact it upholds the freedom of religion and conscience.
To understand this topic, it is important to first cover the core definition and essence of Sharia in light of the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. The Arabic words translates as ‘path to follow’ or can also understood as ‘path to water’. This meaning is derived from verse 45:19: Then We set thee on a clear path in the matter of religion; so follow it, and follow not the evil inclinations of those who know not. Here, the word Sharia translates as ‘path’ along with the commandment to follow it, hence Sharia is a ‘path to follow’. The ultimate purpose of religion is to purify the soul and gain proximity to God, thereby achieving Paradise. Water is a source of purification for the body and critical to sustaining life in the physiological sense. In the Holy Qur’an, water is also mentioned in a spiritual sense as a source of purification for the soul. It states in states: …And He sent down water upon from the clouds, that thereby He might purify you, and remove from you the filth of Satan, that He might strengthen you hearts and make your steps firm therewith (8:12).
The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad ( peace be upon him ), writes about this spiritual sense of water in his book How To Be Free From Sin: True salvation cannot be found in filthy water. The water that cleanses the heart comes from heaven at its appointed time, and the river that carries it is free from dirt and filth, and its clean and pure water is eagerly used by people.
Hence, the meaning of Sharia develops into ‘path to water’ or ‘path to life-giving water’. Essentially, this means that if the Holy Qur’an is followed wholeheartedly with all its injunctions and commandments, then it is a path that leads one to purification and thus to Paradise and nearness to Allah Almighty. The Holy Quran is a book of guidance from God Almighty to the whole of mankind for all facets of life: for individuals and for communities.
Indeed, for an individual Muslim and for those Muslims who may be rulers of communities of diverse backgrounds and religions, it is crucial to abide by all the injunctions of The Holy Qur’an. One such verse is 2:257: Let there be no compulsion in religion. Religion is a matter of the heart and mind, of reflection and conviction. For any individual or society that seeks to employ Sharia, its essence is betterment and purification. Claiming to practice Sharia while an individual or society remain stuck in corruption, as happens in many Muslim nations today, goes against the meaning of Sharia.
Given verse 2:257, it is inconceivable that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would violate any injunction or law of the Holy Quran and impose Sharia on non-Muslims. For anyone to follow a path to purification they must first be convinced of it. Imposing such a law on anyone will be self-defeating and could not lead to purification as the person or peoples forced into following it will not do it wholeheartedly. In fact, they will likely disfavor the idea just because it was imposed on them.
Let us now examine the life and governance practices of Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) to validate the fact that he never imposed Sharia on non-Muslims.
The Charter of Medina
Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) and his followers were brutally persecuted in Mecca for the first thirteen years of his ministry. Eventually, Muslims would leave Mecca and settle in the town of Medina. Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) was invited to serve as Chief Arbitrator of Medina. Medina at the time was embroiled in feuds between mainly Jewish and Polytheist tribes. The Medinites had been searching for someone who could arbitrate between the tribes with equity and fairness. In the Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) they would have seen someone who believed in the Biblical prophets and the unity of God like the Jews and yet was from a polytheist tribal community.
It would have gone against his responsibilities and the great trust placed in him if he began imposing Sharia on the non-Muslims of Medina. In fact, the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) developed a charter or constitution to govern Medina where Jews were permitted to settle disputes according to their own religious law. The articles of the constitution treat all the different tribes of Medina as one community. It is the first known constitution in history that established citizenry and equality before the state regardless of one’s religion or social background.
Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the prime icons of the French Renaissance and the modern liberal ideal, stated: the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and alone can lead men to happiness. American founding- father Benjamin Franklin said, ‘If the mufti of Constantinople sent a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service’. And John Adams, the second President of the United States, called Muhammad: a sober inquirer after truth.
Academics have reasoned that such admiration is owed to the principles of freedom, justice, diversity and equal rights enshrined in the constitution drafted by Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) as chief arbitrator of Medina. These are powerful testimonies to the fact that Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) never imposed Sharia on non-Muslims but fully adhered to the Islamic universalist commandment: let there be no compulsion in religion (2:257). This core ideal of the freedom of religion is also enshrined in author Michael Hart’s book- The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History’. Mr. Hart states that the reason he picked Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) as the most influential person in history is that he was not only a religious leader, but also as a secular leader too.
Letter of Protection to the Monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery
The true teachings of the Holy Qur’an are also recognized by the actions and declarations of Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace) who provided a document of protection to Christians at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. This document is historically vetted and survives to this day at the Monastery in Egypt. Below is an excerpt from this document proving that Sharia is not a law to be enforced on non-Muslims– whenever monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection. They must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them. They must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled….Should any Christian woman be married to a Muslim, such marriage must not take place except after her consent , and she must not be prevented from going to her church for prayer. Their churches must be honored and they must not be withheld from building churches or repairing convents. It is positively incumbent upon every Islamic nation not to contradict or disobey this oath until the Day of Resurrection and the end of the world. (Excerpts from ‘The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World’ by Dr. John Andrew Morrow, Angelico Press / Sophia Perennis, 2013)
One of the watershed moments of Holy Prophet Muhammad’s (on whom be peace) life was the conquest of Mecca towards the end of his life. It was a bloodless conquest. At this point the Holy Prophet (on whom be peace) was in a position of absolute power over some of his most bitter enemies. Yet he did not impose Sharia law or compel anyone to become a Muslim. There can be no greater testimony to this fact during his life.
Hence, by virtue of the teachings of the Holy Quran and legacy of Holy Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace), Sharia law is essentially the practice of Islamic injunctions and teachings that lead to the purification of an individual and a society that in itself must guarantee the freedom of religion under the command of God in verse 2:257– Let there be no compulsion in religion.
Unfortunately, over the course of history, the concept of Islamic jurisprudence known as Sharia has been exploited by kings and empires to suit their political aims. Some of these exploits include the misuse of hadiths (sayings of the prophet) which were textualized a couple of centuries after the birth of Islam and are not regarded by Muslims as infallible. Some of the injunctions found in Sharia in some Muslim countries such as death for apostasy are in profound conflict with verse 2:257 of the Holy Qur’an given above. Fortunately, Islamic jurisprudence has always been regarded as open to interpretation and certain schools of jurisprudence have made different interpretations of the same subject. These interpretations are subject to change. For example, the Islamic council of Morocco in 2017, upon closer examination, retracted the ruling of death for apostasy.