By Muhammad Ali
20 January, 2012
WHILE Islam stresses on the unity of humanity, it also recognises human diversity and gives valuable principles to deal with ethnic, racial and religious differences in society.
However, this pluralistic dimension of Islamic teachings has received little attention in our time despite its vital significance for society. In today’s globalised and sometimes polarised world, there is a dire need to understand the pluralistic perspectives of Islamic teachings in order to develop an environment of peaceful coexistence and harmony in society. There are many examples in the sources of Islamic teachings and history to understand the pluralistic perspective of Islam.
There are several verses in the Quran that underline human pluralities, such as social, biological and religious differences.
According to the Quran, all human beings are from the same soul but they have been created with differences. The following verse beautifully depicts human plurality: “O humankind We [God] have created you male and female, and made you into communities and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest amongst you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-Knowing and All-Aware” (49:13).
The verse reveals that diversity is a natural part of human society and important for human identity. The nobility of a human being depends on one’s actions and Allah is the only one who can judge the piety and nobility of a human being. The Quran highlights the plurality of religious communities too. It says that Allah has purposefully created different communities, or else, he could have made all humanity one community.
Allah says, “For each [community] We have appointed from you a law [-giver]) and a way. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He might try you by that which He has given you [He has made you as you are]. So vie with one another in good works” (5:48). By recognising the plurality of faith and communities, the Quran teaches us not to impose one’s faith on others; rather, it urges to tolerate the differences: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256); and “To you is your path [religion]; to me mine” (109:6).
Hence the teachings of the Quran are very clear on plurality in human society. The life and the teachings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), too, provide the best examples of the pluralistic approach and practices in Islam. Historically, there are many instances where the Prophet showed exceeding tolerance and respect for the people of other faiths and dealt respectfully with his opponents.
For instance, when a prominent Christian delegation came from Najran to engage the Prophet in a theological debate in Madina, its members were not only invited to live in the Prophet’s mosque but also allowed to perform their religious practices inside the mosque. Similarly, during the famous treaty of Hudaibiya, the Prophet showed a highly pluralistic approach while accepting the apparently bitter demands of the Quraish without the latter’s recognition of his prophethood.
The event of the conquest of Makkah was another instance of the Prophet’s pluralistic and humanistic approach. After the conquest he not only granted amnesty to the people of Makkah but also declared the house of his bitter opponent Abu Sufyan as a place of asylum and peace, regardless of who accepted Islam and who didn’t.
There are many other instances in the life and the teachings of the Holy Prophet which can help us understand Islam’s recognition and respect for pluralism in society. These teachings and practices are a source of inspiration for human civilisation for all time to come. It is evident that in the 1,400-year history of Islam, whenever Muslim societies flourished and set up highly developed societies, pluralism was a key characteristic of those societies.
The Abbasids’ Baghdad, the Fatimids’ Cairo, not to forget the Umayyads’ Cordoba, became centres of excellence by welcoming and nurturing the best minds from different regions, backgrounds, faiths, etc. Consequently, these dynasties through their pluralistic mechanisms developed powerful and vibrant civilisations.
Today, we live in a globalised world where modern communication technology has brought different nations closer; however, this process has also created tensions amongst nations as well as within their respective societies. This situation demands adhering to Islamic teachings and ideals which helped set up pluralistic societies in the past.
Pakistan is a country where diversity of its citizens is a basic fabric of its society in terms of their varied ethnicities, cultures, languages, faiths, interpretations of the same faith and so on. Sometimes this diversity may lead to polarisation and become a challenge to manage. It is, therefore, important to recognise this diversity as a living reality and respect it rather than try to eliminate it under one or the other forced ideology.
To manage the differences inherent in a society there is a dire need to understand Islamic teachings regarding the admissibility of pluralism. Doing so can transform our society’s diversity into a strength and help develop an environment in which differences amongst communities are owned, respected and celebrated rather than denied.
The teachings and the history of Islam give us the best principles and practices. Keeping in view the realities of today’s world and, particularly of our own country, it is imperative that we understand the pluralistic ideals and approaches that have the full sanction of Islam. Sincere efforts are needed to make the pluralistic teachings of Islam a part of the individual as well as social life in order to shape and sustain a peaceful society.
The writer teaches at a community institution in Karachi