This is an open letter written on behalf of a coalition of the following Muslim American organizations: Muslim Advocates, KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, HEART Women and Girls, American Muslim Bar Association, Muslim Wellness Foundation, American Muslim Health Professionals and Muslim Public Affairs Council.
American Muslim women are diverse in race, ethnicity, and cultural background. In fact, American Muslims are the most diverse religious group in the United States. We are united by a belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad, but we are a minority religious community comprising a wide range of spiritual practices and political opinions. In this way, we are true to our Islamic heritage; the “nations and tribes” of Muslims around the world have always followed a diversity of fiqh schools and cultural norms.
Many Muslims today don’t realize this because so much of our collective memory has been interrupted by colonial thinking, but one of the reasons so many fiqh schools could thrive and grow is because premodern Muslim governments did not have the authority to declare a particular fiqh opinion correct over all the others — and even less to enforce it over the entire population. When classical Muslim rulers forced a rule on the people, it had to be justified as serving the general good (“maslaha ‘amma”). This is also what protected non-Muslims living in safety under Muslim rule for so many centuries — they could follow their own religious laws as long as such laws did not conflict with the general good.
Similarly, the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) prohibits lawmakers from giving (“establishing”) one religion priority over another — and that includes favoring a particular religious view over others. In short, the Constitution insists that our public lawmaking stay religiously neutral.
An important principle of valuing religious diversity emerges from both Islamic history and U.S. constitutionalism. When a state takes sides in a religious debate, it can have devastating consequences. From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, history shows us that individual religious freedom — not to mention human lives — can be lost when a regime endorses one religious doctrine to stifle others.
The founders of the United States recognized the same danger. Working in the shadow of the Protestant-Catholic wars of Europe, they paid special attention to protecting religious practice from government overreach. As a result, religious practice in the United States is refreshingly diverse, encompassing a range of religious beliefs and practices about everything from the environment to marriage to abortion. But this may be under attack.
Consider the Mississippi abortion ban, just argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. By defining life as beginning at conception, this law adopts the religious belief of some Christians who believe that all abortion is immoral. But not all American Christians, nor Americans of other religions, share this belief. In other words, by picking one religious belief and enshrining it into law, Mississippi is infringing on constitutional protections for American religious diversity. An interfaith coalition recently made this argument in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, arguing that Mississippi is trying to use state power to impose a particular view of when life begins, thus stifling “the diversity of views within and across religious traditions” on the morality of terminating a pregnancy.
Among the signatories to that brief were several Muslim legal organizations. These signatures followed deep reflection and deliberation by organizations whose members hold a wide range of Islamic beliefs about abortion. Their conclusion is consistent with the lesson from Islamic history that governments should not declare a particular religious view correct. For believers, these decisions, and discussions are best left to individuals in consultation with their muftis, rabbis, priests, or other spiritual advisors, faithful to their respective understandings of scripture.
It is clear that reasonable minds —including pious, God-conscious minds— can differ on the morality of abortion. Sharia itself, with its diversity of fiqh opinions on the topic, allows Muslims to follow different rules about the permissibility and timing of abortion. The centuries-long tradition of Muslim lands hosting religious minorities reminds us that we should not assume that what might be prohibited for Muslims is what the state should prohibit for every inhabitant.
In other words, Muslims who oppose the Mississippi law on these grounds of religious liberty are not compromising Islamic values by doing so. We can look to our own history to see that it is quite Islamic to insist that a state should not select one religious view (even if it is one we happen to hold ourselves) and force it on the very diverse population of the United States. In short, you can be a Muslim who is religiously opposed to abortion and nevertheless think that Mississippi should not impose this view on everyone living in Mississippi.
In our view, Mississippi’s law not only compromises the Constitution’s protection of religious diversity among Americans, but also threatens an Islamic principle of honoring religious diversity. That same principle is consistent with the idea that a secular state should resist enacting laws based solely on the beliefs of one religion. We should applaud, not condemn, Muslims who are fighting against that impulse. Today the crusade to enshrine religion into state law is being fought over abortion rights, tomorrow it will be something else.