November 235 is celebrated every year in Argentina as "Religious Freedom Day," given that in the historical context, on November 25, 1981, the United Nations Assembly announced their declaration of “Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief." This means, concretely, that all people have the right to hold their own convictions – both religious and ideological – and that no-one can forbid this, nor discriminate against or persecute anyone because of what they believe and think. Hence, I am very grateful as a Muslim to have the right to freely practice my religion in Argentina.
However, based on my personal experience and given the fact that I was born, raised and lived all my life in the West, I feel that "Sharia" is probably the most misunderstood and misinterpreted Islamic term in our societies. We look at events in the Muslim world from our own perspective and often come to a hasty and erroneous conclusion. Whether it is terrorism, fundamentalism, violent persecution of minorities, mistreatment of women or any other social conflict, it is believed that Islam is to blame for all evils. In our country too, there are some who have developed the idea that Islam is incompatible with peace and that Sharia is an obstacle to freedom, democracy and our Western ideals.
However, "Sharia" literally means "way" in Arabic and refers to all the moral and spiritual values that are essential for living in harmony with the Divine Being and his creation. Sharia is based on the following pillars: the Holy Qur'an, tradition and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of the religion.
It should be noted that the followers of Islam today are divided into more than 70 branches, each with its own way of interpreting the faith. It is therefore not only impossible to homogenise the Muslim world, but it is a fallacy to define Sharia by its application in one country or based on the interpretation of a particular sect. It is also worth questioning the attitude of blindly attributing the crimes of an individual Muslim, or the social problems of a largely Muslim society, to the religion of Islam. This ignores the fact that the definition not only of Islam but of any religion should not be based on what a follower or an institution claims in the name of that religion, rather what does the same religion teach according to its own original sources.
Indeed, it is paramount to clarify that Sharia is rooted in the exercise of free will and freedom of religion. Imposing Islamic commandments on others in the name of Al'lah is a contradiction to the basic tenets of Islam. (Qur'an 10:100) For example, while the veil is a Qur'anic command for Muslim women, the same sacred text categorically prohibits the use of coercion in religious matters. (Qur'an 2:257). A Muslim woman may wear the veil as a symbol of her spirituality only by her own choice and conviction. No man and no entity have the right to intervene or impose it in the name of God.
Another common mistake is to blame religion for the mistreatment of women that exists in some Muslim-majority countries. Already 14 centuries ago Islam announced gender equality and women were given the right to freely choose their husbands, to divorce, to manage their property, to inherit, to get an education, to be an active and productive part of society. Prophet Muhammad elevated the status of women to that extent and declared that the best among his followers is the one who upholds the best conduct towards his wife.
In conclusion, Islam is a guardian of religious freedom. Therefore, Prophet Muhammad, in his additional role as ruler of Medina, a pluralistic and multi-faith society, established the separation of state and religion. Now, if there are Muslims who usurp the rights of others, it is only because they reject the teachings of Islam, or ignore them altogether.
Finally, as a representative of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Argentina, whose motto is "Love for all, Hatred for none," I express my position to promote religious freedom.
Marwan Sarwar Gill is Imam (Islamic theologian) and president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Argentina.
by Marwan Sarwar Gill