By Sheikh Ishaak Nuamah
16 February 2014
Tolerance is one of the most crucial social issues of our time. Lack of its cultivation has led to social upheavals in many parts of the world.
The globalised environment has led to facilitation of human interaction and the clash of ideas emanating from differences which exist in the innate nature of human beings.
The above issues crucially underscore the importance and relevance of the subject of “Tolerance”.
And, additionally, it is against the above background that Islam has strongly called for its cultivation and exhibition, giving Islam the deserved description, “a religion of tolerance”.
Meaning of tolerance Linguistically, the World Book Dictionary (1995) simply defines tolerance as “a willingness to be patient towards people whose opinions or ways differ from one’s own.” And, classically, forbearance is an expression of tolerance.
In this piece, I am focusing on “religious tolerance” which is defined by Encyclopaedia Britanica (1983) as “the intellectual and practical acknowledgement of the right of others to live in accordance with religious beliefs that are not accepted by one’s own”.
Two types of tolerance have been mentioned in the above definition, namely, intellectual tolerance and practical tolerance. This brings into focus the relationship between thought and action; and between concept and deeds.
In exercising tolerance, one has to intellectually accept the fact that others have the right to have beliefs different from one’s own. And, at the practical and empirical level, one does not have to do anything or act in a manner that is at variance with the intellectual component of tolerance, like cases of physical attacks that are visited on others because they have different religious beliefs.
Principles of religious tolerance in Islam The principles of religious tolerance in Islam could be summed up in the following points:
• The Qur’an clearly recognises and prescribes that there should be no compulsion in religion. “There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong …” Quran 2:256 “And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed all of them entirely. Then (O Muhammed), would you compel the people in order that they become believers?” Quran 10:99
• Islam strongly condemns and frowns upon killing one another or meting out oppression to a people on grounds of the difference of creed. Rather, they have to co-operate with another in promoting the cause of good and eradication of vice and evil. “…. And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.” Quran 5:2
However, the Quran contends that the differences that have appeared in religious beliefs and practices shall be judged by the Creator on the Day of Judgement.
“The Jews say,” The Christians have nothing (true) to stand on” and the Christians say, “The Jews have nothing to stand on”, although they both recite the scriptures. Thus, do those who know not (i.e. the polytheists) speak the same as their words? But Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they used to differ.” Qur’an 2:113
• In life, the only yardstick for the measurement of superiority over one another is piety (Taqwa), and that any other element of measurement is untenable. “O mankind, indeed, We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” Qur’an 49:13.
•Difference of creed should not prevent one from meting out kind treatment towards a person of a different faith.
• When differences in creed among people prevail, they may hold debates, disputation with one another, but in ways that are best and civil and border on dignity, serenity and mutual respect.
“And do not argue with the people of the Scripture except in a way that is best……” Qur’an 29:46
• And, finally, the Quran directs Muslims towards avoidance of any conduct that will openly bring their pure faith in the Creator into disrepute, particularly, in dealing with polytheists and their obnoxious acts of idol worshipping. “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge …” Qur’an 6:108
At this juncture, it is imperative to note that religious tolerance does not mean blind submission. Despite the strong and encouraging position taken by the Qur’an on religious tolerance, it gives a different directive when Muslims are attacked and oppressed because of their faith.
The Qur’an opines that Muslims have the right to defend their faith. “And fight them on until persecution is no more and religion in its entirety is for Allah (Alone)”. Qur’an 2:193
Manifestations of religious tolerance throughout the history of Islam, religious tolerance has manifested itself in diverse ways. In the following lines, I intend to cite some incidents which reflect the principles of religious tolerance in Islam.
• When the Prophet of Allah (SAW) migrated to Madinah, it had a fairly large Jewish population. So the first thing he did in connection with the land of the Islamic government was to negotiate a covenant between the Muslims and the Jews, by which it became indispensable for the Islamic state to respect the beliefs of the Jews and to protect them from harm of any kind whatsoever.
And on the other side, the Jews also pledged to stand by the Muslims in case of an attack on Madinah. Through this treaty the Prophet inculcated the principles and elements of religious tolerance in the conscience of the Islamic civilisation from the first day of its inception.
• Some of the people of the Book were also the neighbours of the Prophet (SAW). He always treated them kindly and benevolently, sending gifts to them and accepted gifts from them.
• Once a delegation of Christians from Najran came to Madinah. They too were brought to the mosque for their stay, and were allowed to conduct their service in the mosque in their own way. So they had their service on one side of the mosque and the Prophet prayed with the companions on the other side.
When these people presented their own faith putting forth arguments in its support, the Prophet listened to them attentively and very gently and with due respect and courtesy replied to their religious assertions.
The Prophet accepted the gift sent by Maquqas, the ruler of Egypt, and also the slave girl, who had the honour of giving birth to the Prophet’s son Ibrahim, who lived only a few months. And one advice given by the Prophet is also this, “You should remain well-wishers of the Copts since you have relatives among them.”
• A woman from Egypt lodged a complaint with ‘Umar that ‘Amro-bin-al-‘As had annexed her house for the extension of the mosque against her will.
He explained that the number of the believers coming to the mosque for prayer far exceeded the capacity of the mosque.
The house of the complainant was adjacent to the mosque and she was offered the price for her property which was far in excess of its real worth (as compensation for being dislodged), but she declined the offer.
Therefore, (it had to be acquired in public interest) and was demolished to form part of the mosque, and the costs (and compensation money) were deposited in the Bait-al-mal, so that she might take it whenever she was pleased.
Apparently, the explanation offered by ‘Amro-bin-al-‘As was reasonable, and our present day law also permits it. But to ‘Umar, it was not acceptable and he ordered the demolition of the portion of the mosque built on the site of the woman’s house and construction of her house as of old.
Sheikh Ishaak Nuamahis a Theologian/Educationist