A recent report from the Pew Research Center, a reputable American think tank, revealed some damning findings on the state of religious freedom around the world. According to the report, religious hostilities increased in 2012 in every major region of the world, with Muslims and Christians being oppressed in the largest number of countries. Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion, while Egypt, another predominantly Sunni Muslim country, had the highest level of government restrictions on religion. On the other hand, the US, a largely Christian populated country, was reported as having a “moderate” level of government restrictions on religion, which is troubling considering the country was founded upon the principle of religious freedom.
Developments such as these are worrisome because 55 percent of the world’s population is either Muslim or Christian. It is therefore imperative to restore the spirit of two key documents – the Constitution of Medina and the US Constitution – in order for the “Muslim world” and the US to return to their rightful places as champions of religious tolerance.
Over 1,000 years before the US Constitution, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers devised the Constitution of Medina, a document that created a free and just society for Muslims, Jews, and Pagans. As he made clear in the Constitution, Muhammad believed that all Muslims were to be treated fairly and with dignity. In particular, Article Three of the Constitution states that all the Muslim groups of Medina “shall formulate a Constitutional unity,” even as the community was diverse in its Muslim identities.
In the 7th century, Muhammad envisioned a tribeless, raceless, and classless society based on tolerance and civil rights. His egalitarian vision should not be overlooked today, especially considering that in countries such as Pakistan, Shia Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims are persecuted and even killed for their religious beliefs.
Muhammad also specifically mentioned the Jews of Medina, a community of believers who, according to Article Thirty, were “guaranteed the right of religious freedom along with the Muslims.” Article Twenty of the Constitution of Medina declared that a Jew “enjoys the same right of life protection (as the believers do).” Here the Prophet was echoing the spirit of the Quran (109: 6), which states “To you be your Way, and to me mine.”
Muhammad also recognized the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences within the Jewish community. In granting equality to each Jewish tribe, he emphasized that certain Jews were not superior to others and that universal freedom was a pillar of his Muslim society. Safeguarding the religious freedom of Jews was a way for Muhammad to abide by one of the most important messages of the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
Like the Constitution of Medina, the US Constitution also guarantees religious freedom. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus officially establishing the separation between religion and state, much like Muhammad had done in the 7th century. As Muhammad had done with the Constitution of Medina, the Founding Fathers of America did not make a single religion the religion of the state. Instead, the Founding Fathers opted for the “wall of separation” between religion and government rule, an idea which can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1777, Jefferson authored a bill in the Virginian Legislature which guaranteed freedom of (and from) religion. Jefferson began the bill with the phrase “An Act for establishing religious freedom” and continued by suggesting that people should not impose their religious beliefs on other people. Moreover, he wrote “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Both Muhammad and Jefferson were not only concerned with protecting the religious freedom of members in the Abrahamic tradition (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), but all individuals and groups in society regardless of whether they believed in God, multiple Gods, or no God.
Moreover, the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution also included a pivotal message on religious freedom, for it guarantees the religious civil rights of American citizens, regardless of their ethnic or racial background. Dealing specifically with the prohibition of religious discrimination on behalf of a state, the Fourteenth Amendment declares: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…” The Founding Fathers intended for the US to be a safe haven for all of humanity, especially for individuals and groups who have been attacked because of their religion. Being impartial in dealing with the complex issue of religion and politics was the only way for them to achieve this goal.
Muslim-majority countries worldwide and the US have the necessary tools to deal with the problem of religious oppression. Muhammad and the Founding Fathers are perfect guides for the restoration of religious freedom if only they heed to the messages of the Constitution of Medina and the US Constitution.