Islam, Muslims and Pluralism
In Islam, diversity is presented as a requirement of nature and also as beauty. It sees the differences of languages and colours among human beings as among the signs of God.
By Waris Mazhari
In our understanding of God, it is important to remember that according to Islam, God is the Sustainer of all creatures. He loves and protects all of them. He will decide the fate of every person on the Day of Judgment. God has made man as a dignified creature. That is why all human beings—be they Muslims or others—deserve respect and dignity. This point is expressed by the Hanafi jurist Ibn Abidin al-Shami (1783-1836), who says that from the point of view of the Shariah, every man is dignified and respectable, even if he is someone who denies the truth.
No Compulsion in Religion
Islam supports pluralism. In fact, its theoretical and practical structure is based on it. In Islam, diversity is presented as a requirement of nature and also as beauty. It sees the differences of languages and colours among human beings as among the signs of God.
Thus, the Quran (30:22) says:
“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.”
It also says (49:13):
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”
The Quran (2:256) relates, as a clear principle, that there is no compulsion in religion—that people can choose to follow the religion or ideology of their choice:
“There shall be no compulsion in religion”
Elsewhere, the Quran (18:29) says :
“Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”
It is against the Creation Plan of God that everyone should conform to one way of thinking or one way of behaviour. Thus, the Quran (10: 99) says:
“Had your Lord pleased, all the people on earth would have believed in Him, without exception.”
The Quran (64:2) also relates: “He it is Who created you, then some of you are disbelievers and some of you are believers.”
In this way, Islam accepts that along with true believers (momins) there will also be deniers (munkirs), taking the existence of both to be natural realities. Every community has its own mentality, environment, natural capacities and the possibilities of rebutting or accepting Truth. That is why God has established a law (shiratun) and a way (minhaj) for each community. The Quran leaves the choice of one’s religion and one’s action to each person:
“For you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (109:6)
“For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds” (28:55)
Protect People of Other Faiths and Their Places of Worship
Another expression of the importance of pluralism in Islam is the fact that the Quran (22:40) condemns the destruction of places of worship of both Muslims as well as others. In doing so, it mentions churches and synagogues before it mentions mosques:
“If God did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is much invoked, would surely be destroyed. God will surely help him who helps His cause—God is indeed powerful and mighty.”
This Quranic verse indicates that God has taken it as His own responsibility to protect non-Muslims and their places of worship. The treaties that the Prophet entered into with the people of Najran and Hirah, many of whom were Christians, provided for full freedom and autonomy for non-Muslims.
The understanding of Islamic pluralism that emerges from the Quran and the practice of the Prophet indicates that relations between Muslims and people of other faiths and persuasions should be based on joint efforts to promote goodness, justice, and equality. ‘Believers, be strict in upholding justice, the Quran (4:135) says. The Quran (5:8) gives great stress to justice in inter-community relations. Thus, it lays down: “Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.”
On the issue of equality, the Prophet declared that people (and this includes Muslims as well as non-Muslims) are brothers of each other, and that they are the equals of each other, like the teeth of a comb.
Islam aims at enabling people to rise above narrow boundaries of colour and race and work together for welfare and justice and help each other. The Treaty of Medina is a brilliant illustration of this objective. After the Prophet’s demise, Muslim history went through many ups and downs. Yet, even then people of other faiths often enjoyed considerable religious freedom, although not everywhere and at all times. However, as Muslims became politically dominant over a large part of the world, prejudices against people of other faiths did creep in. In this regard, the corpus of fiqh that developed in this period of Muslim political dominance failed to retain Islam’s true universal spirit.
(The writer, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, presently works with the Dept. of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted on [email protected])