These views are grounded in three Quran-based principles that are particularly relevant for today’s emerging Muslim democracies.
First, there is to be no compulsion of religious beliefs. While this principle is inspired by the Quran (chapter 2, verse 256), in modern law making it would form the basis for protecting religious freedoms and belief in general, by removing imposition on any type of belief. Or, as the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas has pointed out, there must be freedom of all discourse, including for religious fundamentalists to express themselves.
Second, the guiding principles of “punishment” in the Quran, if read comprehensively, are restoration, mitigation, and forgiveness (Quran, 2:178). In this reading of sharia, capital punishment must be abolished and all forms of cruel, degrading, or inhuman punishment must be replaced with restorative and dignity-based ones.
The third principle is hifzh al-aql, which means the “protection of thought and freedom of conscience.” There is no “apostasy” here, no punishment for those who “leave” Islam or any other faith.
Historically, the concept of apostasy was introduced into Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, during the 7th and 8th centuries by theologians seeking to impose a particularly repressive system of belief. There can be no crime of belief.
Sadly, the vision of freedom-based sharia failed to establish itself in Iran. It was quickly replaced by a violent, power-based version following a coup against President Abulhassan Banisadr in 1981, who advocated these principles. But it set a precedent and represents an unfinished project.
Rising Muslim politicians espousing a democratic interpretation of sharia have a solid foundation to stand on. But they and the supporters of this view will need to work hard for its broader acceptance in traditional Muslim societies.