Does God need a police force?

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Hesham A. Hassaballa’s Column

A most unwelcome part of the fallout of the vicious May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was the firing of Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily Al Watan. While it may never be known precisely why he was fired, many speculate it was due to the paper’s increasingly vocal criticism of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment. 

The paper was especially critical of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or so-called “religious police.” This “religious police” has been accused by its critics of harassing Saudis for “un-Islamic” behavior. Recently, Al Watan reported that a man who was detained–with his children–for 12 hours after being caught smoking attempted to commit suicide.

In March 2002, a fire erupted in a all-girls school in Mecca, which killed 15. The March 14 edition of the Saudi newspaper Arab News cited a report on the rescue effort by Mecca’s Civil Defense Department which noted that religious police “intentionally obstructed the efforts to evacuate the girls. This resulted in the increased number of casualties.” Why did they do this? Apparently because the girls were not properly dressed.

Arab News quoted Civil Defense officers as saying, “Whenever the girls got out through the main gate, [religious police] forced them to return via another.” Officers also said that they saw three people beating girls who had evacuated the school without proper dress. Commenting on the incident, Hanny Megally, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said, “Women and girls may have died unnecessarily because of extreme interpretations of the Islamic dress code. State authorities with direct and indirect responsibility for this tragedy must be held accountable.”

I could not agree more. The Taliban in Afghanistan also had a “religious police” charged with enforcing Islamic law among (also read: forcing Islamic law upon) the Afghan people. Where did this concept of a “religious police” come from, anyway? It is a concept totally foreign to Islam and its principles. Islam, as all other religions, has certain rules and regulations that adherents must follow. Yet, no where in Islam does it say that these rules and regulations must be forcibly enforced. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran (and Afghanistan before) claim to be Islamic theocracies, the only true Islamic state in history was that of Medina at the time of the Prophet Muhammd (peace be upon him). The Prophet never formed a “religious police” and unleashed it upon his followers.  

The Prophet Muhammad instilled in his companions a deep love for God and His religion. He taught them how to be truly Muslim through his personal example, and thus those who were around him willingly followed Islam’s regulations. In fact, it is reported that, after announcing the prohibition of alcohol, the streets of Medina were flowing with wine after Muslims destroyed their many, many wine barrels. The Prophet never had companions dispatched among the masses to see if they followed Islam’s laws, measuring the length of men’s beards or garments. No one beat anyone for laughing in Medina at the time of the Prophet.  

The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), and, in another verse, declares “O ye who believe! Guard your own souls: If ye follow (right) guidance, no harm can come to you from those who stray. The destination of all is to God. He will show you the truth of all that ye do” (5:105). God is not threatened when His servants sin against him, so why should we be?

Now, there are crimes, such as theft and murder, where society has a compelling interest to aggressively prosecute their commission. The impetus for personal morality, however, can only come from within; it can not be imposed from without. Whether or not a Muslim wants to follow the tenets of Islam is his or her own business. Islam encourages me to advise him or her, out of brotherly love, but if they do not heed my advice, then I move on. God is the Ultimate Judge, and frankly, I have my own sins to worry about.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and Media Monitors Network (MMN)He is author of “Why I Love the Ten Commandments,” published in the book “Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith” (Rodale Press), winner of the prestigious Wilbur Award for Best Religion Book by the Religion Communicators Council.

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