Religious pluralism and democracy on show in Egypt

By Asma Afsaruddin

Religious pluralism is one of the few truly modern expressions. The term refers to the acceptance of a multitude of religions existing in harmony despite internal doctrinal differences and variations in external rituals and practices.
Although the term itself hails only from the 20th century, one might argue that the idea has been around for much longer and has been part of a Muslim ethos from a very early period. This is not to deny that other religious traditions may also have developed such an ethos in the past or that they are capable of doing so in the future; I speak only from my personal observations, which are strictly limited to the religious tradition that I know best: Islam.

Religious pluralism may be inferred from the Koran itself and the abundant commentary literature on it from the early centuries of Islam. The Koran puts value on Judaism, Christianity and Islam equally, on the basis of a shared belief in the one God and righteous behaviour.

It praises righteous practitioners of all monotheistic faiths as belonging to a moderate, balanced and just community. Justice is extolled in the Koran as an ethical principle held in common by righteous believers, a natural correlate of their moral charge on earth to uphold what is good and forbid what is wrong.

The pluralist ethos imparted by these verses was largely endorsed by early Muslim scholars; historical literature indicates that this general principle of inclusion was eventually extended to other non-Abrahamic religious communities, such as the Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists.

However, roughly after the ninth century, this pluralist impulse began to be progressively diluted and compromised in response to various socio-political and theological developments. Over time, many (though by no means all) Muslim scholars came to consider “right” belief and “right” practice as, exclusively, a confessional allegiance to Islam. While other religious and communities were to be tolerated and even granted autonomy in determining their internal affairs, these jurists decided that they were not to be deemed equal to Muslims.

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