Values & Beliefs – Ismail Kurun

Ismail Kurun

Going Beyond Religious Tolerance to Tackle the Roots of Religious Discrimination

Islam today is commonly associated more with beliefs (‘aqa’id) than with morals (akhlaq). Contemporary Muslims tend to think that faith is a part of Islam which is somehow more fundamental than morals. Today a Muslim often defines herself or himself as someone holding a certain set of beliefs (and performing certain practices). As there is no consensus on the answer to the question of what these beliefs are, different Muslims have different religious beliefs and hence we get religious diversity. Since discrimination based on religion, particularly when it is conducted by the state, is a bad thing, so the argument goes, religious tolerance as a sociopolitical principle is valuable.

This is of course a well-intended argument for religious tolerance. But it buys into the assumption that a set of beliefs or tenets are somehow more central to Islam than morals and values. A believer has of course every right to think that this assumption is true. But the predominance of faith over morals or works among Muslims is historically a precarious one. In short, it does not seem to exist in the early Islamic period. Early Islam appears to be more of a simple universalist message of ethical monotheism than a set of articles of faith. It is only during the theological debates in the classical period (the first few centuries after the demise of Prophet Muhammad) that the orthodoxy emphasizing faith over morals took shape. There seem to be strong political motivations behind this formation. As a result of this downplaying of ethics in favor of theology, we get in the post-classical period many more books seeking to determine the correct creed (‘aqidah) than books on ethics. This is an unfortunate reduction of religion and hollowing out of its substance which is its ethical message.

What the argument outlined above for religious tolerance takes for granted is this theological position privileging creed over morals, a position which does not stand in light of historical evidence. This of course does not mean that religious tolerance is unnecessary. It is very necessary and Muslims need more of it, as it is unfortunately in short supply in the Islamic world. But I argue that the problem goes deeper than religious tolerance by itself can solve.

Because such beliefs that are often impervious to argument can hardly be discussed rationally, they just need to be tolerated. It is important to realize that showing this kind of tolerance may not prevent the tolerator from attributing some kind of failure to those who do not accept the set of dogmas which he or she accepts. That has often been the motivation behind religious persecution, discrimination, and sectarianism. And even though religious difference is tolerated, the same sentiment of attributing failure may be still there but just not put into effect—fortunately. Thus toleration here seems to be only a band-aid to stop the bleeding. 

Is there a solution more fundamental than religious tolerance as a sociopolitical solution to the problem of religious discrimination? Yes, there is a philosophical solution and there are two aspects of it. First, emphasizing morals over creed. Second, being ready to make religious beliefs, which are commonly private, open to rational discussion. It is foreseeable that taking these two steps will lessen the need for religious tolerance over time.

I think that the first aspect here seems already clear and commonsensical to Muslim liberals, but the second one may not do so. Let me explain it in historical terms. John Locke (d. 1704) is well-known mostly as the father of liberalism and the advocator of religious tolerance, but he is also the father of the empirical theory of knowledge. The connection between his liberalism and empiricism is little appreciated by Muslim liberals, yet I think it is crucial to understanding the healthy functioning of a liberal democracy. Empiricism is the simple idea that we have five senses and that these are our only sources of knowledge about the external world and ourselves. Locke was concerned about the social and political consequences of irrational religious beliefs in his era. He published A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689 against intra-Christian conflicts and argued there that there is no authority among Christians to adjudicate on which of the churches has the right religious doctrine. But this is not his final word on the matter, because he (rightly) did not rest content with this band-aid. Rather, he delved deeper into the foundations of knowledge and wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1689 too. There he effectively argued that empirical epistemology is the judge in everything including religion because we know anything and everything by virtue of empirical epistemology. Empiricism is what makes knowledge public and rationally discussable. Thus he gave an empirical account of basic claims of Christianity such as that God exists and argued that everyone should proportion his or her belief to the evidence. That is, we should hold all our beliefs upon empirical evidence, not as dogmas or creed. Locke was a rational theist and I argue that the emergence of classical liberalism is better understood as the humanist political project of this empirical theism.

This was in fact the very thing that Prophet Muhammad advocated back in the 7th century. He did not ask people to believe in irrational claims without questioning. He brought numerous arguments for his claims. For one, he argued against the Meccan pagans that the idols they had been worshipping could not be divine as they were not even alive. So, belief in basic claims of religion are not dogmas and hence should not be held as dogmas. This is why they can be rationally (i.e., empirically) discussed and not just have to be tolerated and left untouched by criticism. 

Questioning unreasonable religious tenets held by Muslims in the Islamic world which is beset by sectarianism is a risky business and should be conducted with extreme care. Yet it is an effective way to dissolve ossified irrationalities which end up reproducing the very sectarian allegiances in question. Also, in a society where individuals hold many undiscussable private beliefs, the realm of the public sphere gets poisoned with unresolvable debates—unresolvable because of these private beliefs that cannot be rationally discussed. 

What I propose here as a solution to the problem of religious discrimination and sectarianism in the Islamic world more effective than religious tolerance has of course its own complications. Some people may find any kind of religious claim rationally defensible. Further, there are millions of people who make not a religion but an ideology, ethnicity, or other things a matter of personal identity and allegiance. All these identities should of course be respected. There should be tolerance among people having different identities and allegiances. Due to political correctness, having almost any type of identity is almost uncriticizable and it seems unfair to criticize embracing a religious identity. But it needs to be noted that when such collectivistic identities that are embraced wilfully multiply, there will almost certainly be more space for religious discrimination. So, despite these complications, the principle of proportioning our belief to evidence rather than accepting something as dogma, creed, or identity seems to be a more effective way to ensure religious freedom.

Thus, Muslim liberals should not only advocate for religious tolerance but also privilege morals over faith and develop subtle ways to critique irrational religious tenets. In this way it will be possible to go beyond religious tolerance and tackle the roots of religious discrimination and sectarianism in the Islamic world.


I thank Mustafa Akyol, Sajjad Chowdhry, and M. Nurettin Kalkan for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

Ismail Kurun is a PhD candidate in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Ankara University. He is the author of The Theological Origins of Liberalism (Lexington, 2016) and many articles. His research investigates the philosophical foundations of free and virtuous society.