ISLAM’S LEGACY OF PLURALISM

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ISLAM’S LEGACY OF PLURALISM

By Moin Qazi, India

Jalaluddin Rumi, in his epic Masnavi 4: 415-18: states

I speak of plural souls in name alone – 

One soul becomes one hundred in their frames; 

Just as God’s single sun in heaven  Shines on earth and lights a hundred walls 

But all these beams of light return to one 

If you remove the walls that block the sun 

The walls of houses do not stand forever 

And believers then will be as but one soul 

Man has all along struggled to ensure human dignity and equity without discrimination and bias. The message of Islam, on the other hand, has consistently and universally promoted human rights and freedoms as fundamental for human development. In Islam, the origins and implications of human rights are supported by the revelations in the Qur’an, God’s promise and message to all of mankind. The Qur’an is meant to be universal, and clearly speaks to all of humanity: “O mankind! We have created you from a single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most pious of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” [QQ49:13].This single Qur’anic verse is alone a testament to the foundation of diversity and pluralism in Islam. It is important to note that in the above mentioned verse, God is addressing all of mankind not just one kind; stating that all of humanity is one, created by the One.

Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message. Muslims are expected to be “witnesses to their message before people”, which means speaking in a decent way, preventing cheating and corruption, and respecting the environment. Integrity in politics and the rejection of usurious speculation in economics are principles that are pushing Muslim citizens and scholars to explore new avenues that bring public life and interpersonal ethics together. More broadly, the Muslim presence should be perceived as positive, too. It is not undermining the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian ethical and cultural roots of Europe. Neither is it introducing dogmatism into the debate, as if spiritual and religious traditions automatically draw on authoritarian sources. They can operate within both the limits of the law and in the open public sphere. On the contrary, the Muslim presence can play a critical role in thinking about our future and shaping a new common narrative. It can help recall and revive some of the fundamental principles upon which the cultures of Europe are based. Islam’s religious tolerance follows   from its recognition of the legitimacy of all revealed faiths. In his last years, to give an example recorded by Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of the Prophet, Muhammad(SAW) received in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah a Christian delegation from Najran in southwestern Arabia. When it was time for the Christians to pray, the Prophet allowed them to do so in the mosque, facing east as was their custom. Before they left, the Christians entered into a treaty with the Prophet that gave them the full protection of the Muslim state for their persons, properties and churches. The Islamic tradition does not inherently commend any particular form of government. The diversity of governance and participation models in both contemporary Muslim-majority nations and in Islamic history attest to this. What the Islamic tradition does commend in the socio-political sphere is the practice and exemplification of certain values, including equality of all individuals, and  respect for diversity and respect for the communal whole. A striking example of these central values is found in Islam’s earliest socio-political context, the city of Medina under the leadership of Muhammad. Muhammad came to Yathrib (later renamed Medina) to act as an arbitrator among various warring factions in the city. His leadership role and socio-political vision was subsequently outlined in the Mithaq al-Madinah, the Contract of Medina. This contract placed all groups within the city into a mutual alliance in which they agreed to protect the city, to come to the aid of allies, and to embrace Muhammad as a political and military leader. Notably, this alliance was in no way contingent upon religious affiliation or homogeneity. There was no obligation to adhere to the religious rites practiced by Muhammad, and in fact, religious communities were explicitly granted rights to autonomy and self-determination. Humanity began as one and must remain one, but it is unity in diversity. This diversity, moreover, is not due to the gradual degeneration of human society from an ideal or utopian state. Nor is it the result of a lack of divine guidance or human understanding. Rather, religious diversity is a normal human situation. It is the consequence of the diversity of human cultures, languages, races and different environments. The Qur’an states: “ Humankind was all one community. Then God sent prophets as bearers of good tidings and warners. He sent down with them the Book with the truth in order that it may judge among men concerning that in which they differ. But none differ concerning it, save those who were given the scriptures after manifest signs had come to them, being envious of one another. God guides aright by his permission those who have faith to the truth, concerning which they differed. God guides whom he wills to the “(Q 2:213)  Here the Qur’an does not use the term “books”, that is to say, the plurality of scriptures, but the Book in general, the Book which is the heavenly archetype of all divine revelations, and of which all true scriptures are but earthly exemplars.  God communicated his revelation to the prophets in order that they may judge on his behalf among human communities concerning their moral and religious differences. But differences, and hence disunity, arose only through one of the most universal human failings: not the original sin of disobedience, but envy and hostility, which are natural human weaknesses arising from insecurity and willful arrogance. The Islamic vision of pluralism is build around the philosophy of tolerance of diversity  in thought and belief. One may, of course, devalue the other person’s beliefs without devaluing the person who holds those beliefs. The tolerant person wills to treat the person with significantly differing beliefs and practices as intrinsically valuable in spite of that person’s rejection of her fundamental human concerns. Tolerance is the cultivated disposition to subdue our natural inclination to distance, reject or persecute others whose beliefs and practices differ from our own. The tolerant person is, rather, disposed to recognise the other as an object of inestimable worth. The tolerant person says, in effect, “Our fundamental disagreement does not diminish my estimation of your worth as a human being and, therefore, though I disagree with your beliefs or practices, still I will endure them.” Intolerance, on the other hand, acceding to the natural inclination to devalue the other, encourages the rejection of the person. .Principled tolerance , bears up the person who holds differing beliefs and practices as being of fundamental human concern and urges us to say, “I will resist the temptation to think of myself as better than you owing to our differing beliefs and practices. I value you as a person, a divine image-bearer. I will work to create a society wherein your beliefs and practices may shape your life as you see fit.” Among all the scriptures of the theistic religions the Qur’an is unique in that it sets its worldview within the context of divine Oneness and human diversity, including the plurality of religions. Furthermore, it regards religious diversity as one of the signs (ayat) of God, second in importance to the “creation of the heavens and earth.”(Q 2:213 and 5:48.] The Qur’an does not directly and categorically deny the validity and truth of any religion. Rather it is concerned with individuals and nations and their faith (Imam), or rejection of faith (kufr) in God, witnessing (shahadah) to His Oneness (taw?id) and acceptance of humankind’s accountability before Him on the Day of Judgment.        The Qur’an presents its view of religious pluralism in a somewhat progressive manner. In a preliminary statement it simply enumerates the religions known to the Prophet’s listeners and leaves the question of their truth for God to judge on the Day of Resurrection. It states: “Surely those who have accepted faith [that is the Muslims], those who are Jews, the Sabaeans, the Christians, the Magians and those who have associated other gods with God, God will judge among them on the Day of Resurrection. God is witness over all things.”(Q. 22:17.It should be observed that the verse under consideration first lists the legitimate religions and then mentions those who associate other beings or things with the worship of God alone as people without a legitimate religion. God says, “We did aforetime send messengers before you. Of them, there are some whose story we have related to you, and some whose story we have not related to you.”  (Q40:78.)The Qur’an mentions only twenty-five prophets. Five of these are called Ulu al-‘Azm (prophets of power or strong resolve). They were sent by God as messengers not only to their own people, but to all of humankind.7There is no great difficulty in identifying such prophets in the monotheistic traditions, namely Judaism, original Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Arabia before Islam The Qur’an and Prophetic tradition only enjoined Muslims as well as the followers of other faiths to engage in meaningful dialogue, co-operation and agreement on basic principles. This is what the Qur’an calls “a word of common assent” (kalimatansawa’), namely, that “we worship no one except God and … we do not take one another as lords beside God”. This important call to a unity of faith across the diversity of religions is far more relevant to our time than it was to the time of the Prophet and his people. It goes far beyond the issue of whether Christians actually worship their monks or not. One of the Companions of the Prophet, ‘Adi b. Hatim, who was formerly a Christian, said to the Prophet: “But the Jews and the Christians do not worship their Rabbis and their monks.” The Prophet said, “Do not they legislate for them and they accept their legislation?” This is tantamount to worshipping them because worship in Islam is obedience and if one obeys anyone other than God it is as though one worships him instead of God.  According to Islam, war can only be characterized as just or unjust, not holy. The Qur’an is categorical in denouncing all wars of aggression. “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression-for, verily, God does not love aggressions.” (Q 2:190) The Qur’an also forbids Muslims from attacking anyone who allows others to live in peace. “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them.” (Q 4:90) The Qur’an lays stress on tolerance and compassion and calls upon its believers to respect the religion and faith of others. It allows freedom of worship to all, even the pagans. The admonition, in this regard, is very clear: “Say: O ye that rejects faith I worship not that which you worship nor you worship that which I worship and I shall not worship that which you worship not will you worship that which I worship unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.” (Q109:6) Several of the Qur’ans principles bear mentioning here.

Six years after creating the Madinah Constitution, Muhammad (SAW) sent a letter to Christian monks at St. Catherine’s in the Sinai, Egypt, to demonstrate his desire to protect vulnerable religious communities. In the letter, Muhammad (peace be upon him) offered the Christians peace and called on his fellow Muslims to ‘defend [Christians], because Christians are my citizens’. Muhammad’s letter to the Christian monks also includes advice on how Christian judges are not to be removed from their offices, nor are the monks to be forced out of their monasteries. “No one is to destroy a house of their religion,” the Prophet reiterated, “or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.” He added: “Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.”

The Prophet was thoroughly devoted to God, but no fanatic: “Woe to those who exaggerate,” Muhammad tells his followers at one point. “Moderation, moderation!” He is a discreet preacher who knows that honey is more effective than vinegar. He wins his followers’ hearts with his flexibility: there are no forced conversions, and Muslims may even leave the faith if they find they do not like it. He welcomes the incorporation of local cultural practices, as enrichment. Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a model of equanimity, guaranteeing “trust and respect of principles” and inviting his fellow Muslims to go beyond tolerance to learn, listen, and recognize others’ dignity. Even when relations deteriorated with the Jews, the Qur’an states that any hatred that may incidentally arise from a war cannot obviate the principles to which believers must remain faithful.

 

Though he loathed violence, the Prophet considered fighting a last resort but would employ force if it meant defending universal religious freedom. Prophet Muhammad’s treaties with Christians contain guarantees for the protection of religious freedom and other rights:

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

(The original letter is now in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul).

Other Muslims leaders, such as Caliph Umar, advised his governors ‘to treat ahl al-dhimmah (Jews and Christians) well, to defend them against their enemies and not burden them with more than they can bear’. Umar also stated: “Treat all people as equal… I advise you not to let yourself or anyone else do wrong to ahl al-dhimmah.” Umar was following in Muhammad’s footsteps in treating Jews and Christians as equal to Muslims.

Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s trusted advisors, is also on record stating, “The most important foundation of a truly Muslim country is justice and equality for all. In fact, a country that is bereft of justice and equality, though it may be inhabited by Muslims, is not really a Muslim country at all”.

The Qur’an and Prophetic tradition only enjoined Muslims as well as the followers of other faiths to engage in meaningful dialogue, co-operation and agreement on basic principles. This is what the Qur’an calls “a word of common assent” (kalimatan sawa’), namely, that “we worship no one except God and … we do not take one another as lords beside God”. This important call to a unity of faith across the diversity of religions is far more relevant to our time than it was to the time of the Prophet and his people. It goes far beyond the issue of whether Christians actually worship their monks or not. One of the Companions of the Prophet, ‘Adi b. Hatim, who was formerly a Christian, said to the Prophet: “But the Jews and the Christians do not worship their Rabbis and their monks.” The Prophet said, “Do not they legislate for them and they accept their legislation?”

(Q109:6)

Several of the Qur’ans principles bear mentioning here.

The Quran asserts that monotheistic religions derive from the Divine: “The same religion He has established for you is as that which He enjoined on Noah — and what We now reveal to you — and enjoined on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, saying, ‘Establish the religion and do not become divided therein'” (Q42:13).

The Qur’an further states, “Say, ‘We believe in God and in that which He has revealed to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, the descendants and that which was revealed to Moses, Jesus and that which was revealed to the prophets from their Lord, We make no difference between one and another and we bow in submission to Him'” (Q2:136).

Diversity and pluralism is integral to the message of the Qur’an :” To each community among you has been prescribed a Law and a way of life. If God had so willed He would have made you a single people, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you differ. (Q5:48) Islamic civilisation is testament to this principle of coexistence and it took pride in combining the geniuses of all races, faiths and backgrounds to shape its success.

Islam’s religious tolerance, another important factor in its rapid and worldwide diffusion, follows naturally from its recognition of the legitimacy of all revealed faiths. In his last years, to give an example recorded by Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of the Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him) received in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah a Christian delegation from Najran in southwestern Arabia. When it was time for the Christians to pray, the Prophet allowed them to do so in the mosque, facing east as was their custom. Before they left, the Christians entered into a treaty with the Prophet that gave them the full protection of the Muslim state for their persons, properties and churches.

In the Islamic history those who did not embrace Islam were guaranteed life, liberty, and property and were called “Ah Al-Dhimma” or “dhimmis” i.e. the People of the Covenant or Obligation.

In the treaties with the non-Muslims executed during the caliphate of Umar it was invariably provided that the life, liberty, and property of the non-Muslims who accepted to pay jizyah was guaranteed.

In the treaty with the Christians of Jerusalem it was provided: “The protection is for their lives, and properties, their churches and crosses. Their churches shall not be used for habitation nor shall these be demolished, nor shall injury be done to their crosses.”

Umar took pains to uphold the principle that there is no compulsion in religion. Those non-Muslims who chose to become Muslims of their own accord were welcome, but there were no compulsory conversions. The Muslims were forbidden to interfere with the religious freedom of the dhimmis.

The dhimmis were treated as full citizens of the State. There was to be no discrimination between a Muslim and a non-Muslim in the eyes of law. If a Muslim killed a dhimmi he was subject to the same penalty as if he had killed a Muslim. The lands of the dhimmis were left in their possession. Umar issued strict instructions that all assessments in the case of dhimmis should be fair.

The dhimmis were required to pay jizyah, but this was in lieu, of their exemption from military duty. Where the dhimmis performed military duty, jizyah was not taken from them. When any non-Muslim was too poor to pay jizyah he was exempted from the levy.  Umar allowed the dhimmis to follow their own personal laws. In order to maintain the integrity of the dhimmis, Umar ordered that they should wear the dress which they used to wear before the conquest of their country by the Muslims. They were required not to imitate the Muslims in the way of dress or otherwise. This order was issued not with a view to humiliating the dhimmis in any way but to maintaining their cultural identity.

The dhimmis were free to follow their religious practices but they were enjoined in their own interest not to carry such practices in any way offensive to the Muslims. The Christians were free to ring bells in their churches but in the interests of enmity between the two communities they were asked not to ring the bells at the time when the Muslims were offering prayers. The Christians were allowed to take out their crosses in processions but they were advised that such processions should avoid routes passing through settlements populated by Muslims. These restrictions did not in any way interfere with the liberty of the dhimmis. These were in their direct interests in as much as thereby the risk of any conflict with the Muslims on sentimental grounds was eliminated.

Umar issued strict instructions to his officers that the covenants with the dhimmis should be enforced in letter as well as in spirit. These instructions provided:

“Forbid the Muslims to do any injustice to the dhimmis. No harm should be done to them in any way.”

Even on his death bed, Umar thought of the State’s responsibility to the dhimmis. In his bequest to his successor he said:

“My bequest to my successor is that covenants with the dhimmis should be observed faithfully. They should be defended against all invasions. No injustice should be done to them. They should be treated as full fledged citizens and should enjoy equality before law. Their taxes should be fair, and no burden should be imposed on them which they cannot bear.”

The Qur’an makes the belief in all the prophets — from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus — incumbent upon Muslims. All those prophets should be respected, as should their followers. Indeed, Islam prohibits oppression in all of its ugly forms, irrespective of the faith, gender, race or economic status of the victim or perpetrator. The Quran instructs, “Help one another in benevolence and piety, and help not one another in sin and transgression” (Q5:2).As such, Muslims are spiritually prohibited from oppressing the adherents of other faith groups. Thus, killings, mutilation, burnings, discrimination and violence against minority religious communities by Muslims is wrong. Neither the Qur’an nor the Prophetic tradition demands of Jews and Christians that they give up their religious identity and become Muslims unless they freely choose to do so.

The Quran asserts that monotheistic religions derive from the Divine: “The same religion He has established for you is as that which He enjoined on Noah — and what We now reveal to you — and enjoined on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, saying, ‘Establish the religion and do not become divided therein'” (Q42:13). The Qur’an further states, “Say, ‘We believe in God and in that which He has revealed to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, the descendants and that which was revealed to Moses, Jesus and that which was revealed to the prophets from their Lord, We make no difference between one and another and we bow in submission to Him'” (Q2:136). Thus, the Qur’an makes the belief in all the prophets — from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus — incumbent upon Muslims. All those prophets should be respected, as should their followers. Indeed, Islam prohibits oppression in all of its ugly forms, irrespective of the faith, gender, race or economic status of the victim or perpetrator. The Quran instructs, “Help one another in benevolence and piety, and help not one another in sin and transgression” (Q5:2).As such, Muslims are spiritually prohibited from oppressing the adherents of other faith groups. Thus, killings, mutilation, burnings, discrimination and violence against minority religious communities by Muslims is wrong. Next, Islamic doctrine provides for religious freedom. The Qur’an states, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Q2:256) and “Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?” (Q10:99) Neither the Qur’an nor the Prophetic tradition demands of Jews and Christians that they give up their religious identity and become Muslims unless they freely choose to do so. The basis of this religious freedom in Islam is the categorical Qur’anic assertion (Q. 2:256), “there is no compulsion in religion.” This is a categorical command, not a statement of fact. The Quran tells us, “We made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other”. In this verse, God is telling us that diversity is His idea. So one must not try to eliminate differences in cultures. We keep hearing of some radical religious groups attempting to homogenize communities. That is not only dangerous but completely against the divine idea of creation. The Quran tells us, “We made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other”. In this verse, God is telling us that diversity is His idea. So one must not try to eliminate differences in cultures. We keep hearing of some radical religious groups attempting to homogenize communities.

That is not only dangerous but completely against the divine idea of creation.   my name with the Lord’s, I saw the Universe as One. I see One, I sing One, I read One and I know One”. What then is the challenge that the Qur’an presents to us today? The challenge is this, that we all have faith in God and compete with one another in righteous works. It follows from this challenge that all people of faith respect one another and that they believe in all of God’s revelations. The Qur’an presents the followers of all three monotheistic religions not only with a great challenge, but with a great promise as well. The promise is this:  “Were the people of the Book to abide by the Torah, the Gospel and that which was sent down to them from their lord [i.e. the Qur’an], they would be nourished with provisions from above them and from beneath their feet” [Q. 5:65-6.]  Maulana Rumi wrote, “I do not know whether I am a Christian, Muslim, Jew or a Zoroastrian. I do not know if I belong to the East or the West. I do not know if I am Indian, Chinese, Bulgarian, Iraqi or Afghani. I do not know if I have an appearance or not; whether I have an existence or not. I do not know if I am a body or soul. But I do know my soul is the soul of souls. When I put my name with the Lord’s, I saw the Universe as One. I see One, I sing One, I read One and I know One”.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Islam, ISLAM, The Muslim Times

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