In the aftermath of one of the most brutal religiously homogenizing regimes of the twenty-first century, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL at the height of its territorial and politically visible power ), international and homegrown efforts are springing up to revive the multi-religious landscape in the Levant. The research intends to address the exclusivist and pluralist interpretations of the Qur’an, compare the historical conditions of sacred spaces and heritage sites in Syria and Iraq during regimes partial to a given interpretation, highlight local and international reconstruction initiatives of sacred spaces in former ISIL strongholds, and comment on the nature, range, limitations, and future of such efforts.

Prior to exploring the aftermath of ISIL’s campaigns and the reconstruction efforts that have taken shape as a response I wanted to ground readers in a broad, universal theological framework before addressing on-the-ground conditions in Syria and Iraq. The framework is useful for understanding the motivations of actors pursuing religious homogenization and those pursuing religious freedom in the Levant. It also offers insight into interpretations of Islam shared by the broader Muslim community and the Salafist undercurrent.

It is always lamentable that research addressing theological questions will always suffer from reductionism due to the limitations of the human brain and the scope of a paper. I decided to apply an epistemological and contextual analysis to two Surahs (Q: 9, Q:109) and a few additional verses (ayat) to explore the Qur’an’s position on retribution and religious freedom. The decision to forfeit the wealth of knowledge that comes from the rich intellectual history of Islam and its scholars in the form of hadith, fiqh, qiyas, and itjihad was done with a heavy heart. The purpose for doing so was to develop for the reader an interpretation based solely on the content, context, and word structure presented in the Qur’an. Although this was a fortuitous decision for a number of reasons, the self-imposed restriction to analyze only the Qur’an 1) left many questions and 2) reinforced just how easy it is for questions that bred different interpretations to arise. For example, one might wonder how restrictive Qur’anic instructions pertaining to retribution are in practice if an individual, tribe, or government is afforded its own faculties to evaluate if an adversary is hostile. In order to flesh out this question one must inquire what entails “hostility” and what is becoming of an “adversary”. So, a curious individual continues to fall deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole. Even when the question: Is religious difference just cause for retribution or retaliation? is resolved one must consider if the character and actions of an individual adhering to a different faith are to be judged within his faith or one’s own. Once these questions have been answered one needs to contend with the converse. Such questions have certainly been taken up by ulama, academics, jurists, and legal scholars but by interacting only with the Qur’an for answers to such questions, my research emphasizes that one must arrive at his own, albeit inconclusive, conclusions.

Another challenge was considering how to convey the nature and extent of the Qur’an’s orientation toward retribution and religious freedom to modern readers more familiar with Western examples and thinkers. I hope that through meticulous comparisons with Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and brief, but self-contained examples of Western moral and legal thought, my research adequately reflects this effort. I felt a comparison with Paine was most adequate because he is a Western thinker familiar with the Qur’an, his work comments on the rights of individuals living under modern governments, and he is known for branding tolerance as “counterfeit intolerance”. I hope in turn that my effort succeeds at showing readers that even if rational, modern positions on justice and religious freedom do not claim to inherit the Qur’an they share many of its fundamental claims on the subjects.

I cannot state how important it is to advance an interpretation of Islam that endorses religious freedom given the many appropriations and misunderstandings generated and inherited by a Western audience, but the purpose of my research is to compel readers to further explore the Qur’an. Another hope is that readers take it upon themselves to access academic and legal commentary in the form of ijtihad, fiqh, etc to arrive at their own conclusions.

Author: Mona Elsaai