Pluralism: A Foundational Islamic Value


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


In the twelfth century, the Muslim poet Ibn Arabi, wrote:

“My heart has become capable of every form:it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,and a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kabah, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an.I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.”

In the twenty-first century, such poetic sentiments may seem lost among the drowning voices of religious extremism. Hindu nationalists, Christian and Jewish Identity preachers, and Muslim totalitarians prey on young people’s desire to have a clear identity and make a powerful impact. We see their successes in the headlines of our newspapers every day. For the forces of pluralism to effectively compete with the forces of extremism we need both the energy of young people and sophisticated theological frameworks of cooperation articulated by senior scholars. A theology of interfaith cooperation means interpreting the key sources of a tradition in a way that puts forth a coherent narrative and deep logic that calls for positive relationships with people who orient around religion differently.

My own Muslim theology of interfaith cooperation begins with important stories from the life of the Prophet Muhammad that speak to interfaith cooperation. In fact, the first people to recognize his Prophethood were actually Christian: Bahira, a Christian monk who noticed that Muhammad had the mark of Prophethood on his back as a boy, and Waraqa, who explained to Muhammad and his wife Khadijah that the initial earth-shattering experience Muhammad had on Mount Hira was in fact God’s revelation. The person most responsible for protecting the Prophet Muhammad during the early years of Islam, when he and his fellow Muslims were hounded and harassed in Mecca, was a pagan, Abu Talib. Later, when the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina, one of his first acts was to create what became known as the Pact of Medina, which united the various religious groups and tribes in that area in an alliance of goodwill and common defense.

There are powerful moments from the classical period in Muslim history that affirm the value of interfaith cooperation, from the Prophet Muhammad inviting a group of Christians to pray in his mosque, to the Caliph Ali writing to his governor in Egypt: “All those there are your brothers in faith or your equals in creation.” Many Muslim groups since have followed in this tradition of respecting and protecting non-Muslims. Interestingly, the only country in Europe with a higher Jewish population after the Holocaust was the Muslim-majority country of Albania, because the people made it a part of their public honor to protect Jews during that dark time. Similarly, the Muslims of Rwanda appeared to be the only organized group who protected Tutsis from the machete-wielding Interhamwe militia during the genocide of the 1990s.

Although a theology of interfaith cooperation needs to involve cumulative cultural and historical traditions, it also needs to have an interpretation of sacred scripture that supports and advances such comprehension. For Islamic tradition, the text of the Qur’an is central to any theological discussion and there are key areas that can be interpreted as supportive of diversity. Take, for example, the term “ayat,” commonly understood as “verse of the Qur’an,” but more literally translated as “sign.” God gives us his signs in many places—in his revealed scripture, in our relationships with others, in the natural world, and in the culture of the societies in which we live. In this way, the growing diversity of our societies may be viewed as “ayat” of God, and therefore something sacred.

In a brilliant essay titled “The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” the Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl accomplishes the task of scriptural interpretation in a particularly audacious way. He lists various verses from the Qur’an that are clearly intolerant toward other religions alongside verses that command positive interfaith relationships and essentially asks: why should we follow one set of verses rather than the other?

The verses in question could not be more different. Here is an example on the intolerant side: “Fight those among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) who do not believe in God or the Hereafter, who do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden, and who do not acknowledge the religion of truth—fight them until they pay the poll tax with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (9:29). And an example that calls for interfaith cooperation: “O humankind, God has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous” (9:49).

Such starkly different views not only exist within the same book, but actually within the same chapter. Surah 5, Verse 51 of the Qur’an reads: “O you who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies. They are allies of each other, and he amongst you who becomes their ally is one of them. Verily, God does not guide the unjust” (5:51). A few pages later, also in Surah 5, we find this: “Those who believe, those who follow the Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief” (5:69).

Which view is the “correct” one? When it comes to Christians and Jews (and Sabians, whoever they are), what should a conscientious Muslim do? To answer this question, Abou El Fadl puts forth an interpretive way of approaching the Qur’an that essentially has four parts:

1. The first part of the explanation has to do with the historical context of the text. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed over the course of 23 years—years during which the Prophet Muhammad was not only spreading the message of Islam but also building a Muslim society. As in any real-world movement, there were moments of tension and conflict both within the fledgling Muslim community and between Muslims and other groups—Jews, Christians, Sabians, pagans—in the area. According to Muslim belief, God would reveal Qur’anic verses that helped the Prophet Muhammad deal with particular situations—this specific dispute between two people, that group over there causing problems, and so on. Most Muslim scholars agree that the verses from the Qur’an that are intolerant toward other groups are meant to be specific advice for particular times and places, and not meant to be applied broadly. The verses that speak of interfaith cooperation, on the other hand, contain an ethic that is meant to be understood in a universal and eternal way.


2. The second part of the analysis deals with the overall moral thrust of the Qur’an. Abou El Fadl points out that at the center of the Qur’an is a set of “general moral imperatives such as mercy, justice, kindness, or goodness” and that the entire text must be read “in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message.” Along the same lines, in his essay “Mercy: The Stamp of Creation,” Dr. Umar Abd-Allah affirms this view and states that the core value of Islam is mercy. He writes: “Islamic revelation designates the Prophet Muhammad as ‘the prophet of mercy,’ and Islam’s scriptural sources stress that mercy—above other divine attributions—is God’s hallmark in creation and constitutes his primary relation to the world from its inception through eternity, in this world and the next.” Dr. Abd-Allah highlights what is known as the Tradition of Primacy in Islam, the first lesson that Classical Muslim scholars taught their students: “People who show mercy to others will be shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Be merciful to those on earth, and he who is in heaven will be merciful to you.”


3. The third point addresses the individual reader’s perspective and emphasizes that morality is not only contained in the text but also in the heart or conscience of the reader. After all, according to Muslim belief, God gave all human beings his breath (‘Ruh’). People are required to bring this inner morality to their reading of the Qur’an, and their lives in general. As Abou El Fadl writes, “The meaning of the religious text is not fixed simply by the literal meaning of its words, but depends, too, on the moral construction given to it by the reader. The text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text.” This particular view is probably most associated with Fazlur Rahman, one of the twentieth century’s most important Muslim scholars. In his book Major Themes of the Qur’an, Rahman writes that “taqwa,” translatable as “inner torch” or “moral conscience,” is probably the most important single term in the Qur’an. It is the quality through which people align themselves with God’s will.


4. Finally, the contextual environment of the reader is important to the understanding of the Qur’an. Like all texts, the Qur’an emerges in a particular time and place. And like all people, we read it in particular times and places. In interpreting the Qur’an, both the context of the text and the context of the reader have to be taken into account. To support this view, Abou El Fadl gives the following example: “the Qur’an persistently commands Muslims to enjoin the good. . . . Goodness, in the Qur’anic discourse, is part of what one may call a lived reality—it is the product of human experiences and constructed normative understandings.” In other words, the Qur’an expects readers to not only approach the text with their God-given taqwa, but also with ideas of what is “good” from their own context. For Abou El Fadl, this means that evolving notions in culture and civilization, from progress in science to ideals like universal human rights and the benefits of diversity, ought to be brought to bear when interpreting Islam.

In his essay “Islam and Cultural Imperative,” Dr. Umar Abd-Allah reinforces this view. He emphasizes that the genius of Islamic civilization was its ability to integrate its sacred law in various cultural contexts. In fact, he writes, one of the five maxims of Islamic law is to respect cultural usage and sound custom across time and place. Islam is meant to be a tradition that harmonizes with a range of cultures, not sets out to destroy them. To support his point, he quotes from a renowned thirteenth-century Islamic legal scholar, al-Qarafi: “Persons handing down legal judgments while adhering blindly to the texts in their books without regard for the cultural realities of their people are in gross error. They act in contradiction to established legal consensus and are guilty of iniquity and disobedience before God.” Blindly following scriptural text without understanding context takes away from the rationality and lived reality present in the life and example set by Muhammad as a Prophet as well as God’s words in the Qur’an.

One can understand the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition as a narrow one that compels building bunkers of isolation or barriers of division. On the other hand, as most Muslims do, one can understand the Qur’an and Islamic tradition as one that is inclusive and understanding of religious pluralism as part of the divine decree. Regardless of how the reader interprets the scriptural meaning, the case for religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation, present throughout Islamic history, has long been evidenced.