By Parvez Ahmed
30 June, 2015
Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy in a New York
Times article recounted her 2005 encounter with Mohammed Akef, the then
spiritual leader of Muslim Brotherhood. When she suggested to Akef that the
verses in the Quran regarding women's dress have several interpretations, Akef
replied, "...There are no different interpretations. There is just one
interpretation." A 2012 Pew survey indicated that nearly 6 out of 10
Muslims believe that, "there is only one true way to interpret the teachings,"
of Islam, ranging from a high of 78 percent in Egypt to a low of 34 percent in
Morocco. Do such attitudes reflect the core values of the Quran and the
historical diversity among Muslims?
The 2012 Pew survey ("The World's
Muslims: Unity and Diversity"), which was conducted in 39 countries
covering nearly 67 percent of the world's Muslim population, showed strong
consensus among Muslims regarding devotional practices.
Nearly 9 out of 10 fast during Ramadan, 7
in 10 give Zakat (charity), and 6 in 10 pray five times each day. Almost 100
percent declare their faith in God and believe that Muhammad (Salla Allahu
'Alayhi Wa Sallam) is God's Prophet and Messenger. Nearly 9 in 10 believe
in heaven/hell, fate (Qadr) and angels; 8 in 10 believe the Quran to be the
word of God. However, beyond such basic agreements, there is divergence in
thought and actions, particularly as it relates to the religious pluralism.
Attitude Of Muslims Towards Intra-Faith
Pluralism Is Varied And Often Elusive.
The picture for inter-faith pluralism is
also gloomy. A 2006 Pew report ("The Great Divide: How Westerners and
Muslims View Each Other") showed Muslims viewed Westerners as selfish,
arrogant and violent, while Westerners viewed Muslims as fanatical, violent and
arrogant. Examining the fallout from the publication of cartoons about Prophet
Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, the report noted,
"By wide margins, Westerners who had
heard of the controversy believe that Muslim intolerance is principally to
blame for the controversy, while Muslims, by even more lopsided majorities, see
Western disrespect for the Islamic religion as the root of the problem. The
clashing points of view are seen clearly in Nigeria, where 81% of Muslims blame
the controversy on Western disrespect and 63% of Christians say Muslim
intolerance is to blame."
Not taking the time to understand each
other creates the environment for toxic flashpoints.
Who Inherits Heaven?
Theological doctrines on salvation are an
important issue in all religions. How such doctrines are put into practice may
dictate attitudes towards interfaith relations. A2013 Pew survey titled,
"The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society" show that
on average (median) only 18 percent of
Muslims believe that people of other faiths may inherit heaven. In Pakistan,
Egypt, Iraq, and Malaysia 9 in 10 Muslims believe that "Islam is the one
true faith leading to eternal life in heaven." However, in Bosnia,
Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Chad, and Mozambique, nearly 4 out of 10 Muslims
responded that, "many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven."
Among American Muslims ("U.S. Muslims - Views on Religion and Society in a
Global Context"), 56 percent believe that many religions can lead to
On arguably one of the most important
questions that consume people of all faiths there is impressive diversity of
opinions. However, the parochial views in major Muslim-majority countries ought
to elicit concerns.
Although hard-line conservatives often deny
the salvific value of other faiths, Muslim scholars Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim
noted that while heaven is eternal, hell is not. Al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi
inferred that the mercy of God cannot be held in such low estimation as to
conceive that salvation is only attainable by Muslims. Mohammed Hassan Khalil,
in his University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, "Muslim Scholarly
Discussions on Salvation and the Fate of 'Others'," concludes that given
the wide variety of opinions about the salvific fate of people of other faiths,
Muslims should avoid one-dimensional answers to questions regarding salvation.
Verses such as, "If God had so willed, He would have made you one
community,...(5:48)" and "Each community has its own direction to
which it turns... (2:148)," suggests that pluralism is an integral part of
Quranic values. Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of Islamic Studies at George
Mason University, in his book the " The Islamic Roots of Democratic
Pluralism," cites chapter 2 verse 213 to argue about the pluralistic
vision of Islam, "Mankind was a single community, then God sent prophets
to bring good news and warning, and with them He sent the Scripture with the
Truth, to judge between people in their disagreements."
In addition, Kurdish theologian Said Nursi
(1877-1960) and author of the Quranic commentary "Risale-i-Nur,"
asserts that if followers of other faiths perform a genuine worship of God,
then "the manifestations of the unseen and the epiphanies of the sprit,
revelation and inspiration," are not exclusive to Islam and can be found
in other divinely guided faith traditions. Contemporary Turkish scholar,
Fethullah Gulen stressed in a Fountain magazine article titled, "The
Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue," that Muslims cannot remain prisoners of
their history and act out of "political partisanship" while cloaking
it in the "garb" of Islam. He noted that Islam made history's
greatest ecumenical call by stating in the Quran, "Say, 'People of the
Book, let us arrive at a statement that is common to us all... (3:64)." In
his view, this verse provides a big tent under which, "followers of
revealed religions could end their separation."
What Is Pluralism?
Merely accepting diversity is not enough,
asserts Harvard Pluralism Project's Diana Eck. In a multi-cultural,
multi-religious world, it is necessary to "celebrate diversity,"
which requires knowledge of the "other." This does not imply
relativism, often associated with watering down of one's beliefs. Eck notes,
"Pluralism is the process of creating a society through critical and
self-critical encounter with one another, acknowledging, rather than hiding,
our deepest differences" and a commitment to nurture constructive
dialogues. Practicing pluralism holds out hope for a deeper human shared
For many Muslims, religious pluralism
evokes deep-seated fears about Western-inspired secular relativism, given the
absence of exact Quranic or Hadith terms about pluralism. In his 2009 paper,
"Diversity and Pluralism, A Quranic Perspective" (Islam and
Civilisational Renewal, Vol. 1 No. 1, p. 29), Mohammed Hasan Kamali, former
professor of law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, advocates
using al-ta῾ad-dudiyyah as the Arabic cognate for
pluralism. Labelling every heterodox practice as "un-Islamic" erodes
the fabric of the Ummah and is the genesis of the Takfiri attitude (calling
Muslims as kafir or infidel), most violently manifested in terrorist groups.
Decrying that Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the West, and yet
succumbing to easy stereotyping of people of other faiths, leaves Muslims vulnerable
to charges of hypocrisy. The Quran condemns such attitudes, "Do you order
righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the
Scripture? Then will you not reason? (2:44)"
Inclusivism in the Quran
The Quran states La Ikraha Fi-Din, (There
is no compulsion in religion... (2:256) where the use of "la" to
start the verse indicates that the negation is inclusive of the past, present
and future. This is akin to the use of La-Ilaha (there is no god), in the
Shahada (Declaration of Faith), which ends with the emphatic Il-Lal-Lah (but
God). Following la is the word Ikraha, often translated as compulsion. The
trilateral root for the word Ikraha is Kaf Ra Ha, the same root that
produces the verb Kariha, meaning dislike or hate. The word Makruh, which not
only literally means dislike, but is also used as a legal standard to denote
actions that are displeasing to God, also comes from the same root. In other
words, compulsion (Ikraha) is forbidden because it is an action that is
disliked or hated by God. "There is no compulsion in religion,"
cannot then be viewed as merely a philosophical statement but rather a
foundational value and an obligatory practice. Similar to 2:256, another
Madinan verse also informs Prophet Muhammad (SA) that, "..., your only
duty is to convey the message (3:20)" not compel people to convert. Thus,
ideas about pluralism are not alien to Islam. Curtailing the freedom of
conscience for any individual or group will be in defiance of the will of God.
The Quran also acknowledges cultural
pluralism, "Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth,
and the diversity of your languages and colors (30:22)." In addition, the
Quran notes that all Prophets and Messengers were sent to their people to
preach in the tongue of the local population (14:4). The cultural, political,
religious and economic pluralism, which we observe in all aspects of human
civilization, is a purposeful divine action - "If God had so willed, He
would have made you one community...(5:48)."
A contemporary scholar, Reza Shah-Kazemi
noted in his paper "Tolerance" (in Amyn B. Sajoo, ed, A Companion to
Muslim Ethics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2010),
"For Muslims, tolerance of the other
is integral to the practice of Islam. It is not an optional extra, a cultural
luxury. The Quran sets forth an expansive vision of diversity and difference,
plurality and indeed of universality. This is all the more ironic since the
practice of contemporary Muslim states, not to mention extra-state groups and
actors, falls lamentably short of those expectations as well as of current
standards of tolerance set by the secular West."
Kazemi proposes developing pluralistic
attitudes in Muslim societies as a, "principle at the very heart of the
vision of Islam itself: a vision in which the plurality of religious paths to
the One is perceived as a reflection of the spiritual infinity of the
One." InRisale-i Nur, commenting on the oft-cited Quranic verse of
diversity ("People, We created you all from a single man and a single
woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one
another," 49:13) Nursi said, "Being divided into groups and tribes
should lead to mutual acquaintance and mutual assistance, not to antipathy and
Mutual assistance is possible when there is
mutual respect, which is fostered by an unequivocal commitment to engage with
diversity, not just merely tolerating it.
Is The Quran Also Exclusivist?
Muslims who ignore the message of
universality in the Quran often cite 3:19 and 3:85 as evidence that salvation
belongs exclusively to Muslims. In 3:19, the Quran states, "True religion
in God's eye is Islam." Later in the same chapter, verse 85 reads,
"If anyone seeks a religion other than (Islam) complete devotion to God,
it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the
hereafter." Several translations (such as M.A.S. Abdel Haleem's. "The
Qur'an - A New Translation," Oxford, 2004) used the lowercase
"i" suggesting that Islam is being used as a verb, which means submission
or devotion to God. It is not being viewed only as the exclusive name given to
the religion of Islam as it is practiced today. Even if literal exegesis is
given preference, they still do not deny the truth contained in other
religions. Several verses in the Quran present the act of freely submitting to
God as a universal religion. In 10:72, Noah is commanded to submit (Muslimin)
and in 2:131, Abraham is asked to submit (aslim). Abraham and Jacob advise
their sons to not die except in willing submission to God (Muslimun) in 2:132.
Japanese scholar, Toshiko Izutsu in "God and Man in the Koran"
(Islamic Book Trust, p. 199. 2000) asserted that if Islam is meant as
submission and not a distinctive religious identity, then it closes the door of
exclusivism and provides material for, "a very eloquent understanding of
religious pluralism, one wherein all revelations throughout history are seen as
different ways of giving to God that which is most difficult to give - our very
Li-Taa-Rafu (Getting To Know One
The Quran in 2:113 and 2:120 condemns those
Christians and Jews who assert that only their followers will be offered
salvation by God. Why would the same Quran then endorse such exclusivist
attitude by Muslims? Pluralism, as it is understood today, is certainly not a
major theme in the Quran. And yet when placed in the context of state of human
knowledge in the seventh century, the message of the Quran unequivocally
celebrates diversity and encourages engagement (Li-Taa-Rafu in 49:13).
Persian poet Saadi Shirazi best surmises the Quranic ethos of pluralism in his
celebrated poem Bani Adam,
"All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us
drawn/from life's shimmering essence, God's perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of
us, all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another's pain, you
forfeit the right to be called human."
(Gulistan, translated by Richard Jeffrey
Newman (Global Scholarly Publications 2004)
Muslim scholars, political leaders and
civic society must emphasize the pluralistic message of the Quran and urgently
address the pervasive exclusivist attitude among many Muslims. Neglecting the
pluralistic message of the Quran has allowed fringe groups to use anachronistic
stereotypes about fellow Muslims, people of other faiths and entire
nation-states, to unleash a form of violence rooted in extreme interpretations
of Islamic eschatology (the study of end-of-time). From divisive identity
politics to deranged messianic violence, all have their genesis in wilful
disregard of pluralism as a core Quranic value. It is not coincidental that
societies that have embraced pluralism also tend to be more successful and
A version of this article first appeared in
the July/August issue of Islamic Horizons.
Rational says, "i can't let them go. they coerce on every step and everywhere." . . . .
You can spend your life fighting them or you can build a message of love and brotherhood which, if it grows, can drown out their message of obscurantism and of coercion.
Rational asks, "why it is not important?" . . . . .
It is important only if polemics and debate were your main interest. Otherwise your attitude would be, "Let them believe what they believe and I shall believe what I believe." Unless they try to coerce you to their way of thinking.
Rational says, "ask Sufis if they agree with this." . . . .
Why ask anyone? If you agree with it, that is all that should matter.