Based on the interpretations of numerous Qur'anic verses, many modern Muslim scholars advocate pluralism affirming principles of freedom, difference, and coexistence
In lexical terms, 'Pluralism' is defined as the nature of a society within which diverse ethnic, social and cultural groups are present and tolerated which implies to a quality or the 'condition of being multiple and plural'; a belief or principle that various religio-political and ethno-racial groups should be allowed to thrive in a single society; or 'the existence of different types of people, who have different beliefs and opinions, within the same society'.
As a civilization, culture, and religion, Islam can be viewed from many different perspectives. The diversity of the approaches employed in understanding Islam are chiefly because of the multiple and diverse interpretations of sacred Islamic texts—the Qur'an and the Ahadith. The Text has been interpreted in many ways, at various levels, and from different perspectives. These fundamentally vital texts have been defined and interpreted via a multitude of ways, approaches and perspectives throughout the Islamic history. 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 noble Qur'an, it is wrong to assume, as Azyumardi Azra puts it, that "there is a single, monolithic view among Muslims concerning religious pluralism and other issues".
In the noble Qur'an, there are indeed only a limited number of verses that speak, to use Azra's terminology, of "political disunity", whereas there are many verses which point out "the need for diversity of tribes, sects, nations, and peoples as well as races and languages". These "positive verses" of the Qur'an also acknowledge "the natural differences in the intellectual and physical capabilities of human beings and view the different ways of living as a natural and even as a divine aspect of creation". The history and tradition of the Islam yield many examples, both in theory and practice, which recognize pluralism within the human family. The Qur'anic proclamations like Q. 4: 163-65, indicate that the authorization of previous revelations in present revelation means that all are worshipping the same Lord.
The Qur'an defines Islam "as not only peace for and between all", but also believes in the prior revelations that were sent and "bestowed upon Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which has been given to Moses, and Jesus, making no difference between them (Q. 2: 136), thus signifying the pluralism and its roots in Islam. This primary Islamic disposition, thus, "provides the foundation for plurality". In addition to this, the Qur'an demands the Muslims to believe that 'God had created heaven(s) and seven earth(s) and whatever in between them; nation(s), Book(s), Scripture(s), Messengers(s), People(s), … etc.' And this statement itself highlights the necessity of pluralism. The Qur'an is full of such accounts on pluralism, like, "If God had willed, He could have made you one community" (Q. 5: 48).
A number of Qur'anic verses, like Q. 5: 48, 11: 118, and 49: 13, offer a distinctly modern perspective on tolerance, pluralism and mutual recognition in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-community world. These verses reflect that Islamic civilization in not made either for isolation or assimilation, but for interaction and co-operation. Thus, the idea that "the people are one community" (Q. 10: 19) is the foundation of theological pluralism, as Abdulaziz Sachedina puts it, that presupposes the divinely ordained equivalence and equal rights of all human beings. Religious pluralism, as Sachedina argues in his The Islamic Root 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 vein, Asghar Ali Engineer, an ardent advocate of religious pluralism, interprets Q. 5: 48–9 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.
What does the Qur'an exhort Muslims to do in the face of a plurality of religions? Clare Wilde and Jane D. McAuliﬀe (in Encyclopedia of the Qur'an) raise and answer this question as: Although Q. 2: 256 ("There is no compulsion in religion") and 109: 6 ("you have your religion and I have mine") are often cited as "proof texts for an Islamic tolerance of non-Muslims", they have been interpreted variedly over the course of Islamic history, especially in the tafsir literature; but there are other Qur'anic passages that are "not at all ambiguous in their exhortations of Islam as the true religion". Even though verses like Q. 9: 5, 29 "prescribe 'proper' behavior towards non-Muslims", but still there are other verses—like Q. 5: 3; 30: 30 (cf. 30: 43; 39:3; 61:9; 98: 5); 30: 32; 2: 193; 24: 2; 4: 171 (cf. 5: 77); and 40: 26—that shed light on what they describe as the "Qur'anic attitude to non-Muslims".
Based on the interpretations of the Qur'anic teachings, numerous modern Muslim scholars have advocated pluralism affirming principles of freedom, difference, and coexistence. They, for example, argue that Qur'anic verses, such as Q. 30: 22 and Q. 49: 13 communicate that the existence of different nations, ethnicities, tribes and languages is the 'Divine Will'. They also assert that verses like Q. 5: 48 and Q. 5: 69 declare not only the plurality of civilizations, systems and laws but also inspire people for fortifying mutual understating and co-existence rather than engaging in conflict. They also emphasize that Allah created the Muslim community as Ummatun Wasata, a 'middle community'—or 'a fair and moderate nation' (Q. 2: 213)—as a reflection of His favor for moderation and desire to avoid extremes, so that seeking the negation or eradication of the 'religious Other' is not permitted. Such (re) readings and (re) interpretations highly recognize the basis for realizing pluralism as the essence of Islam as revealed in the Qur'an and practiced by the Prophet (pbuh) and the early Caliphs. Thus, pluralism fortifies, in Islamic context, the co-operation, positive and constructive interaction, and understanding among the diverse entities within a society.
Many Muslim scholars interpret Q. 2: 256, as the Qur'anic principle that serves as the basis for religio-ideological and culturo-political pluralism in Muslim society. Similarly, citing Q. 5: 48 and Q. 2: 148 "And each one has a direction towards which he turns", Professor Mahmoud Ayoub argues that Allah purposely fashioned pluralism. There are many such examples and interpretations.
In this context it is apt to conclude with these insights of Asma Afsaruddin (as proposed in her Contemporary Issues in Islam, 2015): "The twenty-first century arguably presents unique opportunities for reimagining historical relations between different religions and cultures" and the "Scriptural hermeneutics remains a vital dimension" in this process; therefore, "Reinterpretations of key Qur'anic verses" acts "as the first step towards imagining a different world based on peaceful coexistence rather than one based on conflict and strife".
The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).