New Age Islam
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Interfaith Dialogue ( 3 March 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Relationship between the Muslim Religious Self and the Religious Other

By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

Part of an article published in 2010 that can be downloaded here:

In order to understand the normative relationship between the Muslim religious Self and that of the religious Other needs to be said about the revelatory environment in which the Quranic revelation, and the Prophet’s embodiment of it, in reference to the question of the identity of the Self and of the Other occurred, especially in the Medinan period. This is because it was primarily in Medina that Prophet Muhammad’s message-and, therefore, the Muslim identity became more Self-conscious. But, also, it is the Medinan model of the Prophet and early Muslim community that many Muslims consider worthy of emulation in many respects, including that of the relationship with the (religious) Other. Furthermore, even a cursory examination of the Quranic content (and, therefore, of the Prophet’s legacy) was organically linked to this context, especially the dimension of the Quranic content bearing on the relationship between Muslims and the religious “Other”.

Several general points need to be considered in attempting to understand, from a religious perspective, the concept of the identity of Self and Other as understood during the Prophet’s time in light of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s embodiment of it.

First, the Prophet Muhammad’s message arose within the context of well-established religious communities, most important of them being—apart from the pre-Quranic paganism—Judaism, Christianity, and Hanifiyyah.  The Qur’an itself describes several instances of the Muslim community’s attitude toward the non-Muslim Other and vice-versa.

Second, the Quranic attitude (and Muhammad’s conduct) toward the non-Muslim Other is highly contextual in nature and, therefore, possibly ambivalent. Also, during much of the Muslim community’s formative period, in terms of formation of their religious /confessional identity in Medina, a climate of political and theological/religious  friction and hostility between the Muslims, on the one hand, and the mushrikun, large Jewish tribes, Christians,  and hypocrites (munafiqun),   on the other, prevailed. Under these circumstances Muslims were constantly concerned about the survival of their newly founded religious community. These factors converged and can be said to be responsible for Muslims ( as well as various non-Muslim groups) of that time adopting at times reactionary attitudes  as well as antagonistic stances vis-à-vis the religious Other. For example, Watt describes the circumstances and motives behind the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially between the Prophet of Islam and the Medinan Jews:

In Muhammad’s first two years at Medina the Jews were the most dangerous critics of his claim to be a prophet, and the religious fervour of his followers, on which so much depended, was liable to be greatly reduced unless Jewish criticisms could be silenced or rendered impotent . . . . In so far as the Jews changed their attitude and ceased to be actively hostile, they were unmolested. . . .

This is well attested to by the Qur’an itself.  This context-dependency of the scriptures toward the view of the (religious) Other lead Waardenburg to assert that “Looking back at the interaction of the new Islamic religious movement with the existing religious communities, we are struck by the importance of socio-political factors.”  Similarly, Friedmann asserts that the attitudes Muslims formulated towards other communities they encountered was shaped by the historical context in which that encounter occurred as well as, to a certain extent, the nature of the respective non-Muslim religious tradition.

Besides the sociopolitical factors, religious ideas were also significant, since the Quranic progressive consolidation of Islamic religious identity is inextricably linked with the religious identity of the Other, notably of Jews and Christians.  The aspects of religious identity’s continuity and commonality with other faiths   in the Qur’an are intertwined with those of the emergence of, and the emphasis on, the Muslim identity’s originality and distinctiveness.”  Thus, the religious aspects of, and interactions between, various religious communities in the Quranic milieu led to the genesis of the construction of the religious/confessional identity of Muslims and played a very important role in its construction. 

In his study of the extent of the Prophet Muhammad’s and the Qur’an’s emphasis on confessional distinctiveness, Donner has demonstrated that, in the Islamic scripture and in early Islam, “the community of Believers was originally conceptualized independently of confessional identities,” and that

It was only late—apparently during the third quarter of the first century A.H., a full generation of or more after the founding of Muhammad’s community—that membership in the community of Believers came to be seen as confessional identity in itself- when, to use a somewhat later formulation of religious terminology, being a Believer and Muslim meant that one could not also be a Christian, say, or a Jew.

Elsewhere he writes:

As used in the Qur’an, then, Islam and muslim do not yet have the sense of confessional distinctiveness we now associate with “Islam” and “Muslim”; they meant something broader and more inclusive and were sometimes even applied to some Christians and Jews….

Donner adduces a substantial amount of evidence to support the argument that Qur’anically, (some) Jews and Christians would qualify as mu’minun (believers) besides the muslimun (those who submit to God). Friedmann confirms this by averting that some evidence in the Islamic legal tradition exists suggesting that early on when the boundaries of the Muslim community were not precisely demarcated Jews and Christians were considered to be part of the Muslim community. 

Another significant trend in the “historicity” of the development of the Muslim religious Self was the gradual but ever-growing religious self-consciousness of the Prophet of Islam and his early community. Whilst attempts to find common ground and a syncretic base featured more frequently during the earlier periods of Muhammad’s life, later periods stressed “features constituting specific identity and what distinguished one [i.e. Muslims] fundamentally from others.”  Miraly asserts that “Whereas pluralism was an essential foundation of Islam, exclusivism was a later addition. In the centuries following the Revelation, the original pluralist impulse that prompted the Constitution of Medina was usurped by politically motivated factions who propounded exclusivist interpretations of the Qur’an in order to justify warfare and territorial expansion.”  Echoing this observation while discussing the context of the early Muslim view of the Byzantines in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, Shboul says that the attitudes of the Muslims developed from sympathy and affinity, reflected in the early Quranic verses, to awe and apprehension of Byzantium’s military power, scorn of Byzantine wealth and luxury, and, finally, anticipation of open antagonism and prolonged warfare.

Jews and Christians were eventually recognized by Islam as recipients of previous revelations (Ahl-Kitab) and were awarded by it the status of protected/secured minorities (dhimmis).

An additional point to be considered in relation to the question under examination is the Quranic concept of a Hanif/Millat Ibrahim.  Qur’anically, this notion may be called the primordial, monotheistic Urreligion based on the belief in the One, True God as embodied in Abraham’s message (Arabic Millat Ibrahim), considered as the universal belief system and as statusly Muhammad’s final attitude toward the religious Self and the Other.  It is, however, unclear whether the Prophet of Islam himself identified “historical Islam” “as the only or merely one possible realisation of the primordial religion, the Hanifiyyah, on earth.”

Lastly, an “Islamocentric view” of Muslim perceptions of the religious Other stems from a certain interpretation of the Qur’an-Sunnah teachings. This view is based upon the premise that the Qur’an is a source of empirical knowledge of the religious other that is to be applied universally, a historically and without regard to context.

Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.