Tolerance was regarded as irreligious in the Christian world, but was an essential part of Islam, but it is no longer credited to Muslims.
Nowadays, the more "religious" some Muslims regard themselves to be, the less tolerant they are. The cause is a troubling intellectual decline of the Islamic civilisation.
While Muslims complain about the Western lack of understanding of Islam, this misconstruction in the interpretation of religious texts is unfortunately prevalent in the Muslim mind today.
The conversion to Christianity by Abdulrahman, the Afghan recently pardoned from his death sentence after much pressure from the West, and its repercussions illustrate this confusion.
Pertaining to the Islamic texts and principles, whether the Afghani apostate was mentally ill or not, the whole trial was nonsense.
Killing a person because of his intellectual choice contradicts the essence of Islamic principles of freedom of faith and worship, repeatedly emphasised in the Quran and the practice of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him.
No compulsion in religion
Changing one's Islamic faith is a grave sin. It is a gross violation of the individual covenant with his God, but it does not, in any way, violate Islamic law.
The Quran repeatedly condemns those who change their Islamic faith, and warns them of a severe punishment on the Last Day.
But the Quran never prescribed a worldly penalty for apostasy. Therefore, if a Muslim wants to change his faith, so be it. Belief by definition emanates from the individual's heart. Islam is for brave believers, not fearful hypocrites.
The Quran is unequivocal that faith is a matter of personal choice and conviction; therefore no compulsory power should be used to compel people to adopt a certain belief or prevent them from changing their faith.
The Quran says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from falsehood" (2:256); "Say (O Muhammad): This is the truth from the Lord of you all. Then whoever wishes, let him believe, and whoever wishes, let him disbelieve" (18:29).
Moreover, Muhammad was told in the Quran that his mission was to teach and preach, not to impose or compel: "remind them, for you are only a reminder. You are not a coercer over them" (88:21-22); "You are not one to overawe them by force. So admonish with the Quran those who fear My Warning!" (50:45).
Following this Quranic guidance, Muhammad never punished people for abandoning Islam, even though some of his contemporaries renounced their faith repeatedly, as recorded in the Quranic condemnation of "those who believed, then rejected faith, then believed again, then rejected faith again, and went on increasing in unbelief …" (4:137).
This is clear evidence that Muhammad did not want to punish people on account of their spiritual and intellectual choice.
Had there been a worldly punishment for apostasy in Islam, Muhammad would have been the first one to apply it. But he knew that he had no such authority from God.
Consequently, judgment of the matters of faith should be left to God on the Day of Judgment.
Morality vs legality
One of the most unfortunate phenomena in Islamic culture today is the lack of distinction between morality and legality.
Judging a specific human behaviour in terms of right and wrong is relatively straightforward and easy. But to be comprehensive and practical requires us to go a step further and determine whether that behavior should be categorised as illegal or immoral.
This distinction is very important once people or institutions decide to react to something that they believe to be wrong. An action can be legal but immoral, or vice-versa.
In Sharia (Islamic teachings) there is a clear distinction between morality and legality: nearlly all Islamic teachings fall under the category of morality.
It is the responsibility of the individual believer to adhere to this morality in his personal life - a responsibility before God, not before people. No coercive means are to be used to impose Islamic morality.
This is because any coercion of this kind will have negative consequences; it will corrupt the moral conscience of the individual by transforming him from a God-conscious believer to a state-fearing hypocrite.
Islam wants the individual to be a servant of God, not a slave of the state. In Islam, all matters of faith and most of those of personal behaviours and preferences are of moral – not legal - nature.
Only about one per cent of Islamic teachings fall under the category of legality. This category is a set of laws (family laws, civil laws, penal laws, etc) that the legitimate Islamic government must impose, by exercising the authority of the state.
Only actions that harm other people or represent potential harm are a part of this category.
This includes the punishment for murdering innocent people or stealing their property.
It is generally agreed, in divine and secular laws, that the primary responsibility of governments is to protect people's lives and possessions.
Unfortunately many Muslims today, including some self-appointed "scholars", do not clearly distinguish between morality and legality, a distinction that any keen student of law understands well.
This intellectual confusion allows some Muslim governments to intrude into personal convictions and preferences of their citizens, claiming that they are applying God's law.
By doing this, they simply cover up their illegitimacy and irresponsibility by infringing upon people's rights, and delving into issues that are not within their area of jurisdiction in Islam.
Treason vs apostasy
A question might arise: If the Quran explicitly affirms the freedom of faith, why is there all of this controversy about killing apostates? Good question.
The problem starts with the misinterpretation of a few hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) suggesting capital punishment as a penalty for apostasy.
However, what the Prophet meant by those hadiths had nothing to do with intellectual choices related to faith; rather it is the political treason and military sedition within the community, which Muhammad was concerned about as a part of his political responsibility.
The source of this confusion is that the term "apostasy" (riddah in Arabic) was used in Islamic scripture with two distinct meanings: The first was private apostasy, which is an intellectual choice and has no punishment in Islam. All that Muslims are asked to do with a person who decides to renounce his faith is to remind him of the sacred covenant with his creator (God), and to advise him to repent.
The other use of the term is related to politico-military apostasy, which includes violent rebellion against the social peace of the community and its legitimate leadership.
Any person judged guilty of this crime is punishable under Islamic law, unless he repents and surrenders himself before he is caught by the authorities. This kind of apostasy is the equivalent of what we call high treason today.
Betraying one's society, through acts of high treason and military rebellion against its peace and harmony, is punishable under all divine and secular laws. Islamic law is no exception in this regard.
There are plenty of treacherous politicians and tribal leaders in Afghanistan today who are deservedly eligible for the punishment of high treason in Islamic law.
Some of them are now among the "respected" leaders of the new Afghanistan. Abdulrahman is evidently not one of them.
Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti is a Muslim scholar from Mauritania, living in the US.
The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.