By Akbar Ganji
The Reality of Pluralism
According to the Quran, pluralism is the pillar of creations by God. Consider the following verses:
“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” (Al-Hujurat, 13).
According to this verse no person is superior to another person except for moral superiority that is a product of piousness, not any particular religion. Thus, no religion is superior over others, and a sort of pluralism has been accepted.
At the beginning of creation there were very few people in a unique group. But, as their numbers grew, differences developed between them, and the masses were divided into various groups.
“And mankind was not but one community [united in religion], but [then] they differed. And if not for a word that proceeded from your Lord, it would have been judged between them [immediately] concerning that over which they differ” (Yunus, 19).
This verse implies that the differences between people cannot be reconciled. Not only is an end to the differences not possible, it is also not desirable, because this is God’s wish. Thus, it is not clear which person or group of people is righteous, and which is not. In other words, pluralism is a required ingredient for this world.
God sent Prophets with [holly] books [Scriptures] to the people, but they could also not end the intellectual and practical differences between them.
“Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it - after the clear proofs came to them - out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path” (Al-Baqara, 213).
This verse states explicitly that being guided to the righteous path is unconditional. Thus, no group of people can claim that because they believe in a particular religion, they are righteous.
The Prophets and their holly texts transformed people into adherents of various incongruent religions. The Quran has emphasized numerous times that pluralism is natural, and God does not want the people to consist of only one group.
“And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ” (Hud, 118).
This is the most explicit statement by the Quran that it is not desirable for all the people to believe in the same religion. The following two verses also lend support to this:
“And if Allah had willed, He could have made you [of] one religion” (An-Nahl , 93).
“And if Allah willed, He could have made them [of] one religion” (Ash-Shura, 8).
The difference between the Quran’s view of accepting pluralism in the comprehensive and reasonable doctrines and John Rawls’ view is that Rawls believes that pluralism is the result of developed cultures of free societies, whereas the Quran considers it as part of God’s creation of mankind, and appropriate for human societies, the evidence for which is the Prophets and religions.
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you” (Al-Ma’ida, 48).
This verse emphasizes again that it is not desirable for all the people to believe in the same religion because, one, God has selected different ways for different groups of people and, two, the differences and arguments will continue until the Judgement Day. Thus, so long as people live in this world, they will have differences. In fact, right after thye above verse the Quran says, “Hurry to do good deeds. You will all return to God, and then He will make you aware of the [truth] about your differences.”
The intellectual and practical differences never end, the people will never reach complete consensus. The Quran describes monopolism and how adherents of any religion consider their beliefs as the absolute truth and those of others as void, and how they consider themselves as blessed and saved, going to heaven [after death], and others as damned. But, the Quran makes it clear that it will be God who will decide this on the Resurrection/Judgement Day:
“But Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they used to differ” (Al-Baqara, 113).
Thus, pluralism is a fact of this world. This reality implies nothing but peaceful co-existence of the adherents of various religions. It is for this reason that the Quran tells the Jews and Christian,
“Say, ‘O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah.’ But if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]’” (Al-i-Imran, 64).
Thus, monotheism is the only basis for peaceful co-existence of adherents of all the religions. Similarly, in the international arena, one must be at peace with all the people - Muslim or not, as well as those that are not people of the “book,” such as Hindus, and adherents of Confucianism, and secular comprehensive doctrines - except against an aggressor enemy.
“Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes - from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly” (Al-Mumtahina, 8).
One may ask why the Quran did not mention non-Abrahamic religions. The reason is that those who were originally addressed by the Quran did not know about non-Abrahamic religions and their adherents. They did not even know Sabians and Zoroastrians. When they became familiar with such religions, the Quranic jurisprudence became applicable to their adherents. When the original Muslims were introduced to Sabians, the following verse was revealed:
“Verily, those who believe [in the Quran] or those who are the Jews, the Christians and thye SAbians, and those who believe in Allah and the Day of Judgement and do righteous deeds shall have their rewards with their creator and nurturer, and there shall be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” (Al-Baqarah, 62).
And, when the original Muslims learned about Zoroastrians, the following verse was revealed:
“Those who believe in Islam, and those who follow the Jewish Law and the Sabians, and the Christians and the Magians [Zoroastrians] and the polytheists, they all will be judged and decided for by Allah on the Day of Judgement. Verily, Allah is the Supreme Witness over all things” (al-Hajj, 17)
This verse indicates that the pluralism accepted by the Quran has gone even further as even polytheists will treated the same way as the adherents of various religions. The differences between the adherents of various religions and non-believers will persist. In other words, even nullity of atheism, which has been rejected by the Quran, will not be demonstrated definitively in this world, and the Quran has included it in its acceptance of pluralism.
Not only does the Quran recognize true diversity and pluralism, it also accepts, with one condition, diversity of religions. Consider the followings:
One, the Quran does not restrict salvation to Muslims only, but states that all adherents of various religions that believe in God, the Judgement day, and do good deeds, will be blessed (Al-Baqarah, 62, 112; Al-Ma’idah, 69; Al-An’am, 48; Al-A’raf, 53; and most explicitly, An-Nissaa, 124). The only unforgiveable sin is polytheism (An-Nissaa, 31, 48, 116), and even that can ultimately be forgiven if the sinner truly repents. But, even polytheism does not take away one’s fundamental rights, as the aforementioned verse from Al-Hajj, verse 17, demonstrated.
Two, the Quran has repeatedly recognized Judaism and Christianity as divine religions. In at least five verses, the Quran has emphasized that God made Jews superior (Al-Baqarah, 47, 122; Al-Jathiyah, 16; Al-Ma’idah, 20; Al-Dukhan, 32).
Three, Islam considers itself as the ultimate evolution of all religions. Hence, it considers itself as the truth. But, Islam is also religiously inclusive in that, it also recognizes the previous religions, which do not more or less have conflict with it, as the truth.
Four, regarding the truth, the Quran points out an important point, which is that the differences and conflicts between the people regarding what constitutes the truth are themselves symbol of the truth that will never end, and that God will judge them in hereafter and reveal the truth to them (Al-Hajj, 17).
Five, critics may point to the verse, “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion - never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers” (Al-i-Imran, 85), as the evidence against our argument. But, we should remember that in Islam’s logic, religion is unique and is called Islam, because all divine religions have the same roots: “Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (Al-i-Imran, 19). The Quran explicitly states that all the prophets had the same religion (Ash-Shura, 13), and that they were all supposed to confirm to each other (Al-i-Imran, 81). Abraham and Jacob were Muslim and invited people to Islam (Al-Baqarah, 128, 132, 133; Al-i-Imran, 67).
God asked Prophet Muhammad explicitly to declare that he was not a new phenomenon among the prophets (Al-Ahqaf, 9). The Quran considers all adherents of other divine religions as Muslim (Al-Baqarah, 136; Al-i-Imran, 84). In the Quran’s view all divine religions are one and the same, but depending on their era had different approaches and laws (Al-Ma’idah, 45-49). It also states that (Al-Hajj, 34, 67) God gave different rites for different religions.
Six, the Quran emphasizes that conversations with other religions must take place under the best conditions: “And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one, and we are [all] Muslims [in submission] to Him’” (Al-Ankabut, 46), and, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best” (An-Nahl, 125).
Most interestingly, even those who believe in no religion, i.e. the atheists, will not be harmed in this world, and only will experience losses in the hereafter. They are still included in the Quranic pluralism in this world, and it is only after they pass away that they will be judged by God.
Thus, the difference between Rawls and the Quran is that the former views pluralism as a result of judgement beliefs, whereas the latter considers it a result of lack of commitment to ethics of belief.
The Inherent Dignity of Human Beings
The Quran has spoken about the dignity of mankind: “And We have certainly honoured the children of Adam” (Al-Isra, 70). Based on this verse, some Muslim commentators have discussed the inherent dignity of human beings. On the other hand, the Quran considers God as the best creator because His creation, human beings, has inherent dignity (Al-Mu’minun, 14).
Respecting the inherent dignity, i.e. human being dignity is unconditional. Thus, being a human being is enough for being respected, and because this is so, all human beings, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, race, and ideology possess inherent dignity.
There is an important issue that deserves separate discussion. To my knowledge, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam have never debated whether dignity is a factual or evaluative concept. In other world, is dignity a fact that only human beings deserve and have, similar to wisdom, free will, search for morality, etc., or is it an evaluative concept, implying that God likes human beings more than other creatures? It appears that Muslim and non-Muslim scholars of Islam view dignity as evaluative.