Islam and Pluralism

The fact and value of religious and legal pluralism has not been recognized, or accepted, by many Muslims, especially Muslim rulers.

By Asghar Ali Engineer

Listening carefully to what God tells us in the holy Qur’an, we can easily make the case that, fundamentally and clearly, Islam not only accepts the legitimacy of religious pluralism, but considers it central to its system of beliefs. There are numerous Qur’anic statements that are unambiguous. Verse 5:48 is one of the most lucid:
Unto every one of you We have provided a (different) law and way of life. And if Allah had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto Allah you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.

An Open Road
This seminar affirmation of the fact and value of religious and legal pluralism has not been recognized, or accepted, by many Muslims, especially Muslim rulers. Yet commentaries on this verse, by both classical and modern scholars, abound. In the context of this essay’s theme, the most significant and operative words are: “Unto every one of you have We appointed a (different) law and way of life.” The phrase “every one of you” obviously denotes different communities. Every community—that is, religious or religio-cultural community—has its own law (shir‘atan) and its own way of life (minhaj); thus, every community realizes its spiritual growth in keeping with its own law and way of life. The term shir‘ah or shari‘ah signifies, literally, “the way to a watering place” from which humans and animals derive the element indispensable to their life); so in the Qur’an, this word denotes a system of law necessary for a community’s social and spiritual welfare. The term minhaj, on the other hand, denotes an “open road,” that is, a way of life.
So it is clear that Allah sent prophets to different communities (ummah), and these prophets proposed laws and ways of life that corresponded to the people’s genius and promoted their spiritual and material growth. This is further emphasized in the next part of the verse: “And if Allah had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community.” It was not difficult for Allah to fashion all of humankind into one single community. But Allah graced us with pluralism in order to add richness and variety to life. Each community has its own unique way of life, its own customs and traditions, its own law. These laws or ways of life, in all their splendid diversity, are given to ensure the growth and enriching of life. Allah does not want to impose one law on all; Allah creates communities rather than community.

Diversity of Scriptures
But there is a further purpose to the plurality of communities that Allah has brought forth. The diversity of scriptures and laws/ways of life is also meant to try and test human beings by calling them to use this diversity as building blocks for peace and harmony among all communities. Diversity, according to the will of Allah, is not meant to bring about the clash of civilizations, but rather the cooperation and enrichment of civilizations. Allah creates diversity so that humans can live with and learn from their differences—and vie with one another in good deeds!
In the last part of the verse, Allah says that unto Him all will return and it is He who “will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” So it is not for human beings to decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong. This will only lead to conflicts and the breaching of peace. Better, therefore, to leave it to Allah to make such final determinations when all humanity will “return unto Him.” In promoting such an idea, the Qur’an is, I believe, a pioneer. Here we have a practical way to do away with interreligious and intercultural conflict and to promote the acceptance of the religious and cultural other with dignity and grace.
(Source: Extracted from Asghar Ali Engineer’s essay ‘Islam and Pluralism’, in Paul F. Knitter (ed.) The Myth of Religious Superiority, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, USA, 2005)

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