Imam Sayed Razawi
Who are Shī‘ī Muslims?
The Shī‘ī interpretation of Islām is one of the oldest Islamic theological traditions to have survived from the first century of Islām. In the modern world, Shī‘ī communities make up approximately twenty percent of the Muslim world, found mainly in the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East, parts of Africa and now across the Western World. Just like Sunnī communities, Shī‘ism also has a number of sub-denominations, such as the Twelvers, the Ismā‘īliyya (including both the Nizārī and Bohra communities), as well as the Zaydiyya, but also less known sub-groups such as the Alevites of Turkey or the Bekhtashis of Eastern Europe.
The largest group from among the Shī‘ī are the Twelvers who number some three hundred and fifty million strong and were traditionally concentrated in the Indian Subcontinent, Iraq, Iran and the Lebanon. The fundamental belief which unites all Shī‘ī sub-denominations is the Doctrine of Naṣ, which can otherwise be interpreted as Divine appointment – in this case of ‘Alī, the son inlaw and cousin of Muhammad, as his successor, appointed by God and then subsequently, the Imāms from the line of ‘Alī. What this allows for is a level of both religious and social hierarchy and as this position is primarily spiritual, it does not depend on political governance. As a consequence, the existence of a divinely-appointed Imām or his representative appears in all times, with a goal of providing religious and spiritual guidance to the faithful. In practical terms, these centralised structures have prevented misinterpretation of Sacred Texts and thus forms of extremism to appear in the interpretation of the faith. The main sources of guidance for Shī‘ī Muslims is the Qur’ān and prophetic tradition as understood by the Ahl al-Bayt (the Family of Muhammad).
Islām, similar to Judaism is not just a set of beliefs and principles, but consists of a legal – jurisprudential side which governs two aspects of life; the first being acts of worship and the second, social interactions. What this entails in practical terms are rulings pertaining to prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, but also in terms of social interactions, bilateral contracts ranging from business to marriage.
Islām also places great emphasis on ethics and morals and for this Abrahamic virtue ethics is of extreme importance. Crucial to Shī‘ī Islām is its mystical dimension which focuses mainly on the pathway of love, compassion and peace.
Islamic Sources of Reference on Freedom of Religion and Belief
There are two main sources of Islamic jurisprudence are the Qur’ān, and as important are prophetic traditions which come under the umbrella of Hadith literature. Within Shī‘ī Islām, explanation of both the Qur’ān and prophetic traditions are found in the words of the Imāms. For this reason, we will explore all three sources.
It is important to understand from the onset that the Qur’ān is not a book of law, though it does contain principles through which jurisprudential edicts are extrapolated. The Qur’ān contains some six thousand six hundred odd verses of which around five percent of these verses pertain to principles through which law is formed. Traditional readings of these verses take place through an extensive prism of prophetic traditions required to unpack and contextualise verses. As the Qur’ān consists of its own language, with its own creative use of rhetorical tools, without the help of prophetic tradition, it at times becomes extremely hard to implement jurisprudential rulings. It must be added, that to authenticate prophetic tradition is in itself a complex science and therefore within Shī‘ī Islām, the position of the divinely- appointed Imām becomes even more crucial in that he is both the interpreter of the Qur’ān and explainer of prophetic tradition.
In these next three subsections, we will look at what the Qur’ān, prophetic tradition and words of the Imāms teach the faithful about freedom of religion and belief.
What does the Qur’ān say about Freedom of Religion and Belief?
For a Shī‘ī reading the Qur’ān, the most striking observation is its acceptance of pluralism and diversity. Perhaps contrary to certain cultural norms, the religion of Islām addresses pluralism in a positive manner. The God of Islām, whilst recognising difference, addresses sections of society, either by calling upon all of humanity, or ‘The People of the Book’, (meaning those who take Abraham as their patriarch), or sometimes Muslims, Jews and Christians separately. This visible show of acceptance of the other, coupled with a policy statement found in the second chapter of the Qur’ān that “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion”, is in principle a guiding order by God against forced conversations, and intolerance to those with other beliefs. When read alongside the explanations of the Imāms, these verses highlight the importance of freedom of belief and conscience. In fact Shī‘ī jurists in formulating law through the Qur’ān and tradition have inferred the need to help preserve the rights of all minority communities within society, and indeed to encourage people to live according to their own moral and religious principles.
If we were to look at four key verses in understanding better Islamic principles pertaining to freedom of faith and belief, the first would be found in verse seventy of chapter seventeen, which begins by stating;
And We have certainly honoured (karramnā) the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference.
Key in this verse is the word karramnā, which although translated as honoured, in fact contains both dignity and nobility. In essence, this verse addresses all of humankind by reminding them of human dignity which is not exclusive to any one group, but is an honour given to all of humanity. For this reason verse thirteen of chapter forty-nine continues the given explanation and says;
O’ People, indeed We have created you from a male and female and made you into nations and tribes, they you may know one another. Verily, the most honoured of you [akramakum] in the sight of God is the most righteous. Surely God is Knowing and Acquainted.
The word ‘akramakum’ in the verse quoted immediately above, is from the same root word as karramnā. In both cases the Qur’ān upholds universal human dignity and equality, whilst describing those who are righteous, as honoured and noble in the eyes of God. The difference in the two verses are that whereas all humans are equally honoured on the physical plains of existence, those who have good character, are compassionate and selfless are regarded as righteous and thus are honoured by God on the spiritual plain. In both cases an honourable person transcends religious labels and is of good standing in the eyes of God.
In times of disagreements among faiths, the Qur’ān calls on the ‘People of the Book’ to come together on what it refers to as ‘a common word’. Though the outer meaning of the verse is in relation to reconciliation, yet it is apparent that for any reconciliation or ‘common word’ requires a recognition of the dignity and equality of the other. It should be of no surprise therefore that on the 13th October 2007, an open letter entitled “A Common Word between Us and You“, was signed by a hundred and thirty-eight Muslim thinkers from across denomination, calling upon Christian leaders to dialogue. The first two paragraphs of the letter reads as follows;
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity.
In summary, rights, freedoms and human dignity comes from the principle that the human race was created from one soul and it was from this one soul that it was divided into male and female. Not only are collective freedoms and rights inferred from these verses, but gender equality should also not be overlooked, for both male and female come from the one soul.
It is perhaps important to emphasise at this juncture the acceptance of the Qur’ān for the other when it states,
Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians and Christians—whoever truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.
At times, religions have been criticised for being exclusive, with salvation strictly being promised to their specific congregants. God in the Qur’ān explains that judgment is only for Him, taking away from humans the right to judge, or admonish the other on the basis of faith,
Indeed, those who have believed, the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians, the Magians , and the polytheists – God will judge between them all on Judgment Day. Surely Allah is a Witness over all things.
Now that a brief analysis of the Qur’ān has been undertaken, it would be appropriate at this stage of this paper to explore prophetic traditions.
Shī‘a Muslims learn from prophetic tradition that in the ten years Muhammad governed in Madinah, there were no forced conversations, whilst people of various faiths lived together, in respect and dignity. Islām like other faiths, adheres to the principle of the golden rule. In the Qur’ān it states,
Worship God and associate none with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the neighbours, the stranger, the companion at your side, the traveler and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, God does not like those who are self-deluded and boastful.
In explaining the right of the other, Muhammad in a famous tradition remarked – “The respect paid to one’s neighbour is just like the respect paid to one’s mother”. He further went on to say, “Go and publicly announce that the curse of God and his angels is on whosoever hurts their neighbour” – But perhaps a more pragmatic statement is;
Treating one’s neighbour with kindness and being a good neighbour will result in an increase in one’s share of daily bread and the development of towns.
What this final statement outlines is a roadmap to social cohesion. For any town or city to flourish requires peace, which according to Muhammad can only come with kindness to others. Historically, Islamic towns and later cities were homes to multi-faiths and therefore its prosperity required all its communities to flourish, with the premise that as people become merciful to one another, so too will prosperity follow. With no differentiation made between a Muslim neighbour and non-Muslim neighbour, Shī‘ī Muslims take this tradition as showing mercy to the other, part of which is freedom of belief and faith. So Muhammad continues by saying, “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself”.
Similar stories such as the story of the Good Samaritan help to lay a religious foundation for the respect and the dignity of the other.
A practical example of basic human rights, and freedom of belief and faith from an Islamic perspective comes in the reign of Imām ‘Alī, the first Imām of the Shi’a and fourth Caliph for all other Muslims. After appointing Mālik al-Ashtar [d. 658] as governor of Egypt, a region at the time consisting of both an old Christian and Jewish community, he reminds Mālik by writing;
Remember that the citizens of the State are of two categories – they are either your brothers in religion, or your equal in humanity. They are subject to infirmities and liable to commit mistakes. Some indeed do commit mistakes. But forgive them as you would like God to forgive you […] Let your mind respect through your actions the right of God and the rights of man, and similarly, persuade your companions and relations to do likewise. For otherwise, you will be doing injustice to yourself and injustice to humanity.
Imām ‘Alī then continues to enforce the principle that every layer of society must be protected and safeguarded and that Muslims should be willing to defend the rights of others, as this is the only way one would fulfil their obligations to God and the people. In practical terms upholding the rights and dignity of each group within society is necessary for a society to be equitable and progressive.
How does Freedom of Religion and Belief work today?
Shī‘ī Islām as discussed, is quite explicit in its position on freedom of religion and belief. As the majority of Shī‘ī Muslims reside in parts of the world which are diverse and multi-faith, it is only natural that a more developed understanding of principles surrounding pluralism, and freedoms be demonstrated. The question comes when there is a concentration of Shī‘ī Muslims in one particular region of the World, as to how they cope with other faiths. A practical answer was witnessed in Iraq with the advent of ISIS. The Shī‘ī spiritual leadership of Iraq mandated that the Shī‘īcommunity of Iraq defend, protect and safeguard the ability to worship for minority communities, such as the Christians and Yazīdī. In an effort to flee from the horrors of ISIS, minority communities were given shelter in Shī‘ī strongholds such as Najaf, a city which has become the spiritual homeland of the Shī‘ī community. A public Christmas tree displayed on a significant cross road in 2015-16 highlighted how the ancient town was willing to accommodate Christians who had temporarily sought refugee there. It should not be forgotten that this was in light of the fact that the largest human casualties at the hands of ISIS were in fact Shī‘ī Muslims who when caught were brutally murdered, raped or burnt alive. In a historic meeting between Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis in 2021, the Pope praised the Ayatollah for what he described was having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted”. The Ayatollah had issued a statement enforcing that Christians in Iraq should “[…] live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He also pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years”.
Shī‘ism exists today having in every period of time faced violent persecution. The slaughter of Shī‘ī men, women and children are still fresh in the collective memory of the Shī‘ī nation, persecuted only for expressing their religious beliefs by the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. Having been the recipients of such brutality, the Shī‘ī community works to provide support for those who may have faced persecution in the name of religion. For instance, in Scotland, Shī‘ī children are not only taught to respect and accept the other for their differences, but witness every key civic and charitable project in the community done with a multi-faith component to it. An example is the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society’s blood donation drive, which on a yearly basis witnesses an influx of blood donation by peoples of faith and no faith in an attempt to save lives. Similarly Shī‘ī youths provide food parcels to the underprivileged of Edinburgh and Glasgow and work on joint projects for the welfare of Scottish society at large. The reason why this is important is because it normalises social equality at a practical level and allows for religious harmony to prevail. As a result, it has become normal for a Shī‘ī youth to witness a Christian prayer, or to attend a Jewish Shabbat or even take part in Diwali. It also allows for Shī‘ī Muslims to gain knowledge of the other directly from the other. The Shī‘ī community in Scotland is also engaged in bilateral dialogues with other faith communities to bolster fellowship, such as with the Bahá’í community. This allows for better understanding and mutual cooperation to take shape, perhaps at a time when religion has been tainted by politics. Through the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, the Shī‘ī Muslim community in Scotland and across the United Kingdom have worked to support the rights and freedoms of minority Christian communities both in the Middle East and Pakistan.The belief in dialogue has always been an overarching principle. The purpose is that dialogue leads to friendships, friendships lead to hope and hope leads to a better world. The least one can aspire to through dialogue is acceptance of the other. What friendships have shown is the ability to know the other enough that each faith community advocates for the rights of the other. In fact, Europe witnessed this at a practical level when the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, in partnership with the European Conference of Churches, the Board of Deputies of Jews and their European counterparts convened a session in Iceland to advocate for upholding certain religious rites and rituals. Knowing that freedom of religion and belief is enshrined in Shī‘ī jurisprudence, whilst at the same time being a fundamental human right grounded in Islamic tradition, must be communicated both with those outside of the faith, but in particular among Muslim communities, so that these principles are upheld regardless of whether they be reciprocated.
 Qur’ān 2.256.
 Ibid. 17.70.
 Ibid. 49.30.
 Ibid. 3.64.
 Qur’ān 2.62.
 Ibid. 22.17.
 Ibid. 4.36.
 ‘Alī b. al-Ḥusayn, A Divine Perspective On Rights, Ansariyan Publications, [Qum, 2002], 363.
 Ibid. 363.
 Ibid. 363.
‘Alī b. al-Ḥusayn, A Divine Perspective On Rights, Qum, Ansariyan Publications, 2010.
Hakimi, M. Karāmat Huqūq Insān Dar Nahj al-Balāghah, Mashhad, Āstan Quds Razawī, 2020.
Jafari, M. T. A Comparative Study Of The Two Systems Of Universal Human Rights From The Viewpoints Of Islam And The West, Tehran, Al-Hoda International Publisher, 1999.
Nahj al-Balāghah, Letters, Sayings and Speeches of Imām ‘Alī
Service celebrates Middle East Christians, 5th December 2018
International seminar of representatives of religions and politicians discuss circumcision ban in Iceland, 19th April 2018
Scottish Food Aid
Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society’s blood donation drive in partnership with the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Services.
Khalil, A & Winfield, N. Iraqi Shiite leader Sistani tells Pope Francis that Christians must be protected, 6th March 2021.
Winfield, N & Abdul Zahra, Q. Iraqi Shiite leader Sistani tells Pope Francis that Christians must be protected, 6th March 2021
Najaf Christmas, December 2015
The ACW Letter : A Common Word between Us and You