Pluralistic Dimensions of Islam

Islam and Muslims are not meant for isolation or clash, but for interaction and dialogue
A cop surveys through binoculars as Muslims offer prayers at Taj-ul-Masajid in India's Bhopal. [Representational Image]
A cop surveys through binoculars as Muslims offer prayers at Taj-ul-Masajid in India's Bhopal. [Representational Image] File: ANI

Islam—both as a religion as well as culture and civilization—has been, and can be, viewed at, and interpreted from varied perspectives.

The diversity of the approaches employed in understanding Islam are chiefly because of the diverse interpretations of the sacred Islamic texts—the Quran (Divine Text) and the Ahadith (Sayings/ Reports of the Last Messenger)—as well as the Islamic tradition (history).

However, a dominant interpretation of Islam is that it is not meant for interaction and dialogue, but for isolation and clash: this has intensified, especially with Samuel Huntington’s thesis of ‘Clash of Civilizations’. This has resulted in undermining the “pluralistic dimensions of Islamic teachings”, despite their vital significance.

The fact is that Islam, Islamic civilization and its followers (Muslims) stand for tolerance and recognition of diversity; that Islam and Muslims acknowledge and endorse dialogue; that Islam (as a religion and civilization) is not meant for isolation or exclusion, but for interaction and co-operation; and that Islam, and its primary sources teach  and preach pluralism, tolerance and diversity. This article is a modest attempt to highlight Pluralism in Islam and pluralistic dimensions of Islamic teachings.

It is an undeniable fact that the Quran is the Word of God and it cannot be changed. But as it is meant to be a “guidance for mankind” (as in Quran 2: 185)—for all times, all the people, and all the ages—therefore, it is equally important to highlight that the Divine Text has been, and should be, interpreted and contextualized, with the age we are living in (of course on the condition that the meanings and interpretations should be in consonance with the spirit of the Text not just whimsical); i.e., the Quran (as the Divine Word) should be presented as a ‘Living’ and ‘Lived’ Text. It is equally worth mentioning that this Text has been interpreted and construed in many ways, at various levels, and from different perspectives.

These fundamentally vital texts have been defined and interpreted through numerous angles, approaches and perspectives throughout Islamic history: be it in the pre-modern times or in the modern era. Different sciences and schools of thought developed, as its necessary outcome, within the broader arenas of Islam.

Therefore, amid such a multitude of textual interpretations of the verses of the Quran, it is wrong to assume, as Azyumardi Azra (an Indonesian public intellectual and Muslim scholar) puts it, that “there is a single, monolithic view among Muslims concerning religious pluralism and other issues”.

In Azra’s terminology, the Quranic verses can be broadly divided into two categories: verses highlighting “political disunity” and verses endorsing “diversity” and “tolerance”: the later over number the former. Moreover, the history and tradition of Islam yield many examples, both in theory and practice, which endorse pluralism and pluralistic ethos.

The Quranic proclamations like Q. 4: 163-65 (“Indeed, We have sent revelation to you [O Prophet] as We sent revelation to Noah and the prophets after him...”) indicate that the authorization of previous revelations in present revelation means that all are worshiping the same Lord—the Creator of this whole Universe. This becomes more evident from Q. 16: 36, which states: “We sent a messenger to every community, saying, ‘Worship God and shun false gods’.”

The Quran defines Islam (which comes from the Arabic root S-L-M—Seen, Laam, Meem, from which is also derived Salam, both meaning Peace) ‘as not only peace for and between all’, but also believes in the previous Revelations that were bestowed upon the previous Prophets:

It believes in the Revelations that were “sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord” (Q. 2: 136). This indeed signifies the concept of pluralism, tolerance and co-existence in Islam or in other words, the Divine Text itself “provides the foundation for plurality”, pluralistic ethos and pluralism in Islam.

Furthermore, the Quran demands that the Muslims should not only believe that God has created the whole Universe—heavens, heavenly bodies, earth and whatsoever is in between them—but also must believe in the existence of different nations/ communities and the revelation of various Books/ Scriptures, Messengers, people(s), etc.

This statement itself highlights the necessity of pluralism. The Quran is full of such accounts on pluralism: “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community [Ummatun Waahidah], but He wanted to test you...” (Q. 5: 48).

Besides above cited verses, many other Quranic verses, like 5: 69; 10: 19; 11: 118; 30: 22; and 49: 13 offer a distinctly modern perspective on tolerance, pluralism and mutual recognition in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-community world.

These verses reflect that Islamic civilization is not made for isolation or exclusion, but for interaction and co-operation. Thus, the idea that “All the people were originally one single community...” (Q. 10: 19) is the foundation of theological pluralism, as Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina (George Mason University, USA) puts it, that presupposes the divinely ordained equivalence and equal rights of all human beings.

Martin O’Mallay has rightly said that “We are a people of many different religions and many different faiths. The only way forward in a pluralistic society of diverse faiths…is to have laws that protect and respect the freedom of all, equally”.

Religious pluralism, as Sachedina argues in his The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (2001), can function as a “working paradigm for a democratic, social pluralism in which people of diverse religious backgrounds are willing to form a community of global citizens”.

In the same spirit, Asghar Ali Engineer (an Indian reformist writer and social activist known for his work on liberation theology, religious pluralism, and communal harmony) interprets Q. 5: 48–49 to mean that Allah has purposefully created different religions and different groups of people so that He may test us to see if we can live in harmony and peace and to spur humans to do good works.

Based on the interpretations of the Quranic teachings, a number of modern Muslim scholars—whether based in the Muslim world or in the Europe/America—have advocated pluralism, affirming principles of freedom, difference, and coexistence.

Majority of the Muslim scholars, for example, argue that the Quranic verses like Q. 30: 22 and 49: 13 (which speak, respectively, of the “diversity of languages and colors” and “races and tribes” as ‘Signs’/ Ayaat of the Almighty) communicate that the existence of different nations, ethnicities, tribes and languages is the ‘Divine Will’. Hamza Yusuf has rightly said: “Our world is increasingly interdependent and pluralistic, and in order to ensure a civil future, we must get to know one another”.

Furthermore, many Muslims scholars assert that verses like Q. 5: 48 (which speaks of single origin of humankind as a community) and Q. 5: 69 (“For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians—those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds—there is no fear...”) declare not only the plurality and multiplicity of civilizations, systems and laws but also inspire and encourage people to fortify and reinforce mutual understanding and co-existence rather than engaging in clashes and conflict.

Many Muslim scholars interpret Q. 2: 256 as the Quranic principle serving as the basis for religious/ ideological, cultural and political pluralism in Muslim society.

It will be suffice here to refer to the opinion(s) of Professor Mahmoud Ayoub (a Lebanese Islamic scholar and professor of religious and inter-faith studies in the USA) who argues that Allah has purposely fashioned pluralism by citing Q. 5: 48 and Q. 2: 148 (“Each community has its own direction to which it turns”).

In Democracy in Islam (2006) Sayed Khatab and Gary D. Bouma have devoted one chapter specifically to “Contribution to European law and philosophy” in which they conclude that “When the history of ideas is carefully considered, the relationship between the Muslim world and that of Christian Europe was not one of a clash of civilizations, but of ongoing communication and intellectual sharing” (p. 164). The question is what is there which stops, or can stop, Muslims from such interactions and intellectual sharing in the present times?

From the above mentioned Quranic verses—their meaning, context and (re)interpretation—it is not unfair to state that a number of Quranic verses endorse diversity, tolerance, mutual respect, and above all pluralism. “Tolerance is the price we pay for living in a free, pluralistic society” (Robert Cesay).

BOTTOM LINE: The world has already suffered a lot with conflicts, clashes, violence and extremism. No religion teaches violence, but every religion is essentially peaceful and peace-loving.

However, there have been a number of clashes and conflicts between nations and followers of a religious tradition (due to various reasons, including ‘mis-interpretation’ of religions and religious Texts as well). In other words, all religions, including Islam, preach unity. However, most religions, including Islam, have experienced conceptual divisions and sectarian conflicts.

Therefore, it is imperative that we focus more on—give serious consideration to and make sincere efforts for highlighting—values and concepts of cooperation, coexistence, diversity, tolerance, non-violence, mutual respect and pluralism so that to live a peaceful and harmonious life.

The Islamic tradition shows that all these concepts have full sanction in Islam (and its primary sources), however, the need of the hour is that Muslims not only embrace and endorse these positive values and concepts but also let the people, globally, know that Islam/ Muslims/ Islamic civilization stand for tolerance and recognition of diversity; that Islam and its true followers acknowledge and endorse dialogue, not clash or conflict; that Islam (as a religion and civilization) is not meant for isolation or exclusion, but for interaction and co-operation.

It is time to convey the message that ‘let’s put aside our differences and embrace religious diversity’. It is time to convey that Islam and Muslims are not meant for isolation, conflict or clash, but for interaction, cooperation and dialogue.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam (Lolab), Kupwara, J&K. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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