Religiously Arguing for Religion↓

American Muslims: A (New) Islamic Discourse on Religious Freedom by John Musselman

This is the third article from the Summer edition of The Review of Faith and International Affairs.

Musselman, John. “American Muslims: A (New) Islamic Discourse on Religious Freedom.” The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Vol. 9 No. 2 Summer 2011): 17-24.

This article examines three different strands of argumentation that have emerged from Muslim American intellectuals for the compatibility of Islam and religious freedom. These arguments are particularly aimed at the Muslim community. The arguments the author investigates are in three separate strands of thought – theology, philosophy and jurisprudence – but all agree that religion and religious arguments have a place in the public square.

To examine the various strands the author highlights a notable individual in each field as a spokesman for its contribution to the religious freedom discourse.


In theology Musselman focuses on the work of Abdulaziz Sachedina. As a scholar – who at times has been controversial within the Islamic community – Sachedina considers “freedom of conscience and religion as a cornerstone of democratic pluralism and fundamental to the Koranic vision of religiosity.” (Musselman, 18) This has admittedly been absent in various interpretations of Islam and he points to “religious authoritarianism founded upon an exclusive salvific claim” as the fundamental problem. The solution offered is that rather than making exclusive claims Islam should embrace an “inclusive theology grounded in universal moral guidance.”

I disagree with this assessment. To give away the means of salvation within a theology is to essentially strip the theology of all meaning. The issue of of man’s relationship to God is the fundamental question that religion is called upon to answer. If – as Islam, Judaism and Christianity do – you believe that there is a God to whom you are accountable and who will judge your eternal destiny then the criteria required from God is absolutely essential to your beliefs. To call upon people to change from an exclusive theology – One God and One way of salvation – to an inclusive, universal theology – One God but every way leads to salvation – is a massive reinterpretation.

Rather than locate the problem in an “exclusive salvific claim” it is more tenable to confront the “religious authoritarianism” that has emerged. It is completely possible to hold an exclusive view of salvation and yet to engage others who hold differing beliefs and to work for common goals without sacrificing your theological beliefs. (This is where sharing your faith comes in) At this point you can work together with people whom you may disagree with theologically but agree with on societal moral values to articulate those – which are foundational   for creating a forum that allows for the freedom to hold differing theological views.


Islam has a rich tradition of philosophy dating back to the earliest days of its founding. In the modern era there is a movement to use social science methodology to study the social effects within Islamic systems. The thinker that Musselman highlights is M.A. Muqtedar Khan.

Khan argues for a government that draws its political sovereignty from the people rather than from God. This contrasts the viewpoint espoused by Pakistani Sayyid Abu al-A’la Mawdudi who is the inspiration for many Islamists. Khan argues that the political sovereignty lies with the population and thus they need freedom to learn and make choices. It is not a rejection of religion but simply a separation of the church from the state.

A democratic system can provide that freedom, including the freedom to authentically live out one’s faith. In turn, religion serves as an important source of “good citizens” and “good laws” – the two ingredients for good governance. – Musselman, 19

Khan believes this is possible within Islam but requires a rewriting of the traditional role of the jurists who he feels have “colonized” Islamic thought into a medieval legal tradition. This tradition has been abused and in places become anachronistic. It is through ijtihad (independent thinking) that Muslims can make progress in this realm.


The legal tradition of Islam centers on the idea of sharia. For this discourse Musselman highlights Abou El Fadl. El Fadl is a prominent thinker and speaker on Islamic law, Islam and democracy, and issues of pluralism and human rights.

Abou El Fadl insists on the transcendence of sharia from human thought and, thus, human error, while arguing that human understanding of sharia is imperfect and contingent. – Musselman, 20

This understanding of the issue allows for the possibility to reform laws within the Islamic tradition because of the historical context in which they were originally articulated. He argues that this reform then is boiled down the the key question of defining justice.

In the end concerning questions of Islamic legal tradition Musselman concludes:

If sharia can service and promote diversity, pluralism, and individual rights – including the right of conscience and belief – then it will meet its essential concern of improving human welfare.

El Fadl hopes to advance this through preserving the authority of the jurists while advancing democratization of the community allowing the people to more actively shape their own society.


These three strands of inquiry all have a role to play in advancing the cause of individual freedoms – especially those of religious belief and practice – but will they actually be effective? The Muslim world is in a place where they are looking for meaningful authority structures – politically and religiously – and now more than ever before are discarding vestiges that are ineffective. Musselman says that the ebb and flow of democratization is creating new space for discussing religious freedoms.

Contrary to the tendency in the West it is imperative that religious groups are engaged in the re-shaping of societies. It is at this point that the strands of thought Musselman analyzed are most helpful. They remind us that religious freedom and democratic discourse are part of the same discussion.

The immediate entree is not the protection of minority rights (as favored by the original US-led religious freedom campaign in the 1990s), but the promotion of the right for majority and minority citizens to bring their religious values into the public square. – Musselman, 21

While each of the thinkers that Musselman considered approached the issue from a different field and with different arguments they do converge at an important place – one that will resonate in the Muslim world -they made religiously-motivated arguments in favor of religious freedom and democracy.


Part 3 of my review of the Summer edition of the The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Read the introduction to the series.

Part 1: Forced Faith↓

Part 2: Compelled to Tell↓




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