As I walked into the living room I caught a snippet of a conversation. “The best way to describe it” said the guest “is that it is a way of life.” He went on to add, “It is hard to explain the underlying philosophy for it is esoteric however the daily routines and rituals of a follower are well established.” For this guest “a way of life” meant daily rituals and commonplace attitudes. Being around Muslim scholars all my life I have heard the phrase “a way of life” used often to describe Islam. Frequently the phrase actually used is “a complete way of life.” What caught my attention was that the statement I had stumbled upon to at the dinner was from a guest trying to explain Hinduism to another guest. For followers of every faith their tradition is their “way of life.” Its natural corollary is the conviction that for a believer one's own tradition is superior to others. This is central to understanding the concept of religious pluralism.
In addition to this conviction in the truth of one's own faith followers of most faiths also believe in core concepts like righteous living, the desire to establish a just society and the need to connect with a Supreme Being. Some faiths have little to do with a Supreme Being and may be non-theistic like the Buddhists and others may be atheistic or agnostic. Nonetheless many of the fundamental beliefs in most traditions are similar. This realization of shared desires and needs is clear and apparent to those who live in multi-religious societies and to those that participate in interfaith dialogue. The acceptance of the idea that there is much truth in many faiths and traditions and one's own personal faith is not the exclusive abode of all truth is pluralism.
Tolerance is substantively different from pluralism. Tolerance presupposes that the followers of other traditions are largely if not entirely mislead and deserve compassion. Tolerance is inherently arrogant. Pluralism is born out of humility and aversion to being judgmental.
The concept of pluralism is difficult to get comfortable with. If one accepts the presence of truth in multiple faiths then are we not diminishing our own version of truth? Can there really be more than one truth? Fortunately for Muslims the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad make it easy to understand the theory and practice pluralism.
Pluralism in the Life of Prophet Muhammad: The Constitution of Madinah
One of the chapters on my book “The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad's Life” is titled “The Pluralistic Leader.” The title of pluralistic leader I believe is entirely appropriate because of Prophet Muhammad's conduct when he took over the administration of the city of Yathrib.
Yathrib (later called Madina-tun-Nabi, the city of the Prophet and for short, al-Madinah) was an old city, the second largest in Arabia. Its population consisted mostly of two large Arab tribes and three Jewish tribes who lived in around the city. The two Arab tribes that are later remembered in Muslim history as the "Ansars" (helpers), were the Aws and Khazraj. The political fortunes of the two Arab tribes and the three Jewish tribes of Madinah waxed and waned. Sometimes they were allies, but mostly there was hostility. The Aws and Khazraj had been weakened by internecine warfare, leaving the Jewish tribes as the ascendant group.
During the Hajj pilgrimage, which is a pre-Islamic ritual, Prophet Muhammad used to go to the various tribal groups who were visiting Makkah to personally convey to them the message of the new religion Islam. This practice brought him in touch with the Madinan tribes of Aws and Khazraj. Because of their contact with Judaism, the Madinan Arabs were conversant with the concept of monotheism. Additionally since the Jewish tribes held messianic expectations, the concept of Prophethood was not alien either. The Madinan Arabs were impressed by Prophet Muhammad's personality and message. It appears that they thought that he was the much-awaited Messiah the Jews of Madinah often talked about. They wanted this potential Messiah to be part of their group and not the rival Jewish tribes. Additionally in the tradition of the times they wanted him to administer the strife torn city-state of Madinah as a wise outsider with an impeccable reputation of honesty and no vested interest in the local dispute.
When the Madinan tribes invited Prophet Muhammad to migrate and administer the city he accepted the invitation. Upon arrival in Madinah he set about getting all parties together to sign a covenant, arguably the first of its kind in history, which would set standards for pluralism, tolerance and cooperation between various religious and ethnic communities. This document is popularly known as “The Constitution of Madinah.”
This Constitution set out many of the principles essential to the peaceful functioning of a pluralistic society. It gave equality to all its citizens and accepted the coexistence of different religions in the community. All religious, ethnic and tribal groups had equal protection, rights and dignity. They would live by their own beliefs and judge themselves by their own laws. Prophet Muhammad's inspiration for this pluralistic model was the Qur'an (Koran), which makes it incumbent upon Muslims to accept and respect all of the previous messengers without distinction and honor their communities.
“The Apostle believeth in what had been revealed to him from his Lord, As do men of faith. Each one of them believeth in Allah (God), His angels, His books and His Apostles. We make no distinction between any of the Apostles.” (Qur'an 2:285).
“Say, We believe in Allah (God) and that which has been sent down to us And that which was send down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma'il (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Ya'qub (Jacob) and his progeny. And that which was given to the Prophets from their Lord. And we make no distinction between any of them And to Him we are resigned.” (Qur'an 2:136).
In the Constitution the city of Madinah was to be a sanctuary for all signatories who were expected to be loyal to each other. They would resist outside aggression together. The phrase "loyalty is a protection against treachery" appears many times in the text of the constitution. Pluralism in the constitution presupposes equality amongst various groups, rather than one elite group merely tolerating another inferior group out of charity.
It is essential that Prophet Muhammad's “The constitution of Madinah”, which is the prototype of setting up a pluralistic state be studied, analyzed and emulated in all Muslim majority states. Pluralism is essential for all societies, even those that have a single predominant religion (intra-religious pluralism.)
Religious Pluralism in the Qur'an
The Qur'an's edict of equal respect for all messengers extends to promising salvation to the righteous among the “people of the book”. The Qur'an states on more than one occasion that if the “people of the book” Jews, Christians and Sabeans (a group whose identity is obscured by history) lived by their tenets they would have their just reward.
“Verily they who believe and they who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans Whoever believes in Allah (God) and the Last Day, and does that which is right shall have their reward with their Lord. Fear shall not come upon them and neither shall they grieve. (Qur'an 2:62)
Additionally Qur'an celebrates diversity and insists righteousness should be the only characteristic that distinguishes humans from each other.
“O humankind Allah (God) has created you male and female And made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily the most honored among you is he who is the most righteous.” (49.13)
In other verses the Qur'an appears to be implying that diversity is part of divine intent.
“If thy Lord had willed He would have made humankind into a single nation. But the differences will continue among them even then.” (Qur'an 11.118)
This last verse is clearly the most thought provoking. Most classic exegetes interpret this and other similar verses as referring to humankind's freedom of selecting good or evil. However the phrase “if thy Lord had willed He would have made humankind into a single nation” could be interpreted as recognizing the fact that pluralism is part of the human condition. Verses in the Qur'an are open to many differing yet intrinsically coherent interpretations that are influenced by the context of the times in which they are studied and the background of the exegete. Modern scholars like Khaled Abu Fadl and John Voll would read these verses as a sanction for pluralism. These verses remind me of the analogy Houston Smith uses to describe the ultimate truth that to him is like light streaming in through a stained glass window. The rays of light brake into many differing rich hues and colors but the original source is the same. What really counts are righteous acts.
“To each of you Allah (God) has prescribed a law (shiratun) and a way (minhaj). If Allah (God) had willed he would have made you a single people. But God's purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you. So strive in the pursuit of virtue. And know that you will all return to Allah (God) and He will resolve all matters in which you disagree. (Qur'an 5.48)
To add clarity to a concept Qur'an's journalistic style is to state both the pro and con of an issue. While promoting the concept of pluralism Qur'an categorically condemns its antithesis “particularism” a theological belief that only an elect few who follow a particular faith are eligible for redemption.
“And they say: "None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian." Those are their (vain) desires. Say: "Produce your proof if ye are truthful." (Qur'an 2.111)
(Both) the Jews and the Christians say: "We are sons of Allah (God), and his beloved." Say: "Why then doth He punish you for your sins? Nay, ye are but men, - Of the men he hath created He forgiveth whom He pleaseth, and He punisheth whom He pleaseth: And to Allah (God) belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between: And unto Him is the final goal (of all)"(Qur'an 5:18)
Pluralism in Muslim Societies Past and Present
It is ironical that many Muslims now claim salvation exclusively to themselves. Historically a sense of tolerance was highly prevalent in Muslim societies. Both the second Caliph of Islam Umar (Omar) and the highly admired warrior statesman Salahuddin (Saladin) on arrival in Jerusalem signed contracts with the local Christian groups to allow for personal safety, as well as protection of their places of worship. Both invited extant Jewish communities to resettle in the city of Jerusalem. Jews thrived religiously, intellectually and culturally in Muslim Spain. Christian communities survived and even thrived in many Arab countries and the Balkans. Coerced conversion to Islam was a taboo in these societies. The Qur'an is explicit in prohibiting coerced conversion.
“There is no compulsion in matters of faith.” (Qur'an 2.256, 10.99, 18.29)
Amongst modern Muslim majority states multi-culturalism and a degree of pluralism is commonplace in Malaysia and Indonesia. In other states like Saudi Arabia not only pluralism but also tolerance of heterodoxic groups within Muslims likes Shias and Sufis is hard to find. Where Shia doctrine is prevalent as in Iran intolerance of Sunnis is commonplace. The most egregious expression of particularism is the use by some states of the “religious police” to enforce the prevalent views of the local scholars. This is done with the intent of establishing good and preventing evil (amr bil ma'ruf wa nahi anl munkar). Some form of this edict to set up a just society exists in all traditions. However an attempt to establish a just society by coercion rather than persuasion is inherently unjust, counterproductive and is irreconcilable with the Islamic edict of not using “compulsion in religion.” It is understandable that the particularism seen in current Muslim societies is to a certain extent reactive to the state of siege Muslims find themselves in. However it cannot be rationalized or excused. This type of particularism will change, as Islamic ideology is fundamentally pluralistic.
Pluralism in US Society
Pluralism in the US society is a relatively new phenomenon. A hundred years ago when the “Parliament Of World Religions” was held in Chicago, the only Muslim participant was Alexander Russel Webb the first American convert/revert to Islam. The lone Hindu delegate Vivekananda had to travel from India and a number of other faiths and traditions were absent. Now there are literally scores of faiths and denominations in every large city. However the acceptance of these communities by the majority is uneven. Islam is the subject of uncommonly vicious stereotyping by many prominent religious leaders like Graham and Falwell and neo-conservative political leaders. US analysis of history as well as current problems suffers from a largely Euro-centric bias. This bias is narrow-minded and has at its roots the belief that European race is civilized and others are not. Minorities especially dispersed religious minorities like Muslims suffer from lack of empowerment that is the consequence of the insensitivity of the majority community to pluralism. These minorities need creative tools to make their voices heard in the public square. Pluralism is as essential for the moral health of the majority as it is for the protection of the minorities. Pluralism is a cure for stereotyping, racism and violence. Faith based communities can play a significant role and should take the lead in promoting pluralism for it is essential for the functioning of a civil society.
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