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Speaking Up For Religious Tolerance

By Shad Saleem Faruqi

18 April 2012

Differences of religion should not make people fight one another or commit aggression.  Rather, people of different faiths should cooperate in doing good and warding off evil

 It is a sad reality that around the world many people of faith nurture the mistaken belief that true devotion to their religion necessitates hatred for followers of other faiths.

 The extremists in all traditions believe that their religion is the only true way and that they have a monopoly over God and salvation and that everyone else is condemned to eternal damnation.

 This should not be so. There are many paths to the Truth. Worshipping God in a certain way does not require hating others who love God differently or fail to see God at all.

 The character of faith is not a sense of superiority over others because of what you have and they have not. The character of faith is not violence towards and vitriol for “the other”.

The character of faith is to recognise that love of God and fidelity to religion are manifested in kindness towards all humanity.

 A truly religious person must reject hatred, ill-will and prejudice. At least this is the message of Islam that I was brought up in.

 Religious Tolerance:

In innumerable passages, the Holy Qur’an recognises religious pluralism. In 2:256, it states: “There is no compulsion in religion.” In 109:6, there is the exquisite passage: “Unto you your religion, unto me mine.”

In Surah 11:118, it is declared: “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute.”

In Surah 10:99, there is this admonition: “Had your Lord willed, those on Earth would have believed, all of them together. Will you then compel people against their will to believe?” In 18:29, it is commanded: “Let him who will, believe; and let him who will, disbelieve.”

“Allah alone is the One who will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection” (2:113).

Places of Worship

All places of worship are sacred and must be defended. In Surah 22:40, the Qur’an speaks of monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques “as places in which God is commemorated in abundant measure”.

 Respect for Other Religions

 Islamic civilisation is not hostile towards previous religions. The Prophets of all revealed religions are regarded as brothers. Muslims are obliged to believe in them all.

 Every Nation Has Its Messenger (10:47).

“Nothing has been said to you save what was said to the messengers before you” (41:43). In Surah 2:136, it is stated: “We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been sent down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Yaqoob (Jacob), and to Al-Asbaat (the offspring of the 12 sons of Yaqoob), and that which has been given to Musa (Moses) and Esa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims in submission to Him.”

The Hebrew prophets and Christ are deeply respected by Muslims. The tombs of the Hebrew prophets are revered by Muslims. The Virgin Mary is given an exalted spiritual position in the Qur’an: a whole chapter is named after her.

All Christians and Jews are given the special status of ahl-e kitab (believers in a book). In some schools of Islamic thought inter-marriage with Christian and Jewish women is permissible without any need for their conversion to Islam. 

Peaceful Co-Existence

In Islamic history, the clergy in the churches were given full authority over their flocks with regard to all religious and church matters. When the Muslims conquered Egypt, they gave the Coptic churches back to the Copts and restored their rights.

In the early history of Islam, Muslims and Christians often prayed simultaneously in many churches, e.g. at the Cathedral of Saint John in Damascus. Likewise, Prophet Muhammad allowed the Christians of Najran to pray in the mosque in Madinah.

When Prophet Muhammad migrated to Madinah, one of the first affairs of state that he dealt with was to establish a treaty with the Jews, according to which their beliefs were to be respected and the state was obliged to ward off harm from them. Prophet Muhammad’s Message to the Monks of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai is a shining example of religious tolerance.

Duty of Civility:

 In the book Civilisation of Faith by Mustafa as-Sibaa’ie, it is stated that the Qur’an obliges the Muslim to believe in all the Prophets and Messengers of Allah, to speak of all of them with respect, not to mistreat their followers, to deal with them all in a good and gentle manner, speaking kindly to them, being a good neighbour to them and accepting their hospitality.

“And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best” (29: 46). “And insult not those who invoke other than Allah, lest they should insult Allah wrongfully without knowledge” (6:108).

Cooperation with and courtesy towards other religions is recommended (5:5, 6:108). There is no bar to visiting non-Muslim places of worship. It all depends on the purpose of one’s visit. If the purpose is aesthetic or to seek knowledge or to negotiate goodwill, there is no religious bar. Allah is everywhere, and Muslim texts exquisitely state that “the whole earth is a mosque”.

Differences of religion should not make people fight one another or commit aggression. Rather, people of different faiths should cooperate in doing good and warding off evil.

Shad Saleem Faruqi is a Professor of Law and Legal Advisor to Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam, Malaysia. He is the author of many writings on the Malaysian Constitution, Asian perspectives on human rights, Islam and modernity and interfaith relations.