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Islam: The Pluralistic Nature and History

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Islam & Pluralism A Contemporary Approach
Pluralism
If anybody however takes a penetrating look into the revealed text of the Quran, the verses related to the creation, the very pluralistic approach of Allah will be crystal clear. Allah is All Powerful and He created everything to worship Him alone (Chapter 57: verse 1-2, Chapter 51: verse 56). He even then tolerated the rebellion of the Satan and allowed Satan the opportunity to misguide men and women from the worship of Allah (Chapter 7: verses 11-18). When Allah tolerates Satan, how Muslims can be intolerant to some people or powers who do not subscribe their view and way of life? The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent as a mercy on humankind and not to force people to compel (Chapter 3: verse 164, Chapter 21: verse 107, Chapter 50: verse 45). The very principle of Islam is persuasion and not to force. There is no compulsion in religion (Chapter 2:verse 256). How then Muslims can be intolerant and deny other religious communities the opportunity to live with them peacefully?

Prophet (pbuh) was considerate and sympathetic in his attitude and behaviour towards the non-Muslims. Some Jewish families lived in the neighbourhood of the Prophet's quarter in Madinah. If some of their children fell sick, Prophet (pbuh) would visit the sick child. If funeral passed through the streets of Madinah and Prophet was around, he would stand up as a mark of respect for the deceased (1).

The scheme of Islam is basically and essentially plural. Humankind is created into many tribes, races and nations. Humankind speaks many languages and is of many colours and that is to get know each other.(Chapter 49: verse13, Chapter 30: verse 22). Every race is different from the other in their physical appearance and nature which is the reflection of His wisdom. The shariah (Islamic jurisprudence) is very accommodating and gives only a priciple outline and leave the matters of details to scholars.

The essential teaching of Islam is tawheed, unity of Allah. Allah is alone and there is no partner of Him (Chapter 17: verse 111). Still then Allah has ordained Muslims not to criticize even the idols (Chapter 6: verse 108). This precept of Islam has direct bearing to the life and activities of the Muslims. The Quran played and continues to play a major role in forming and maintaining values in Muslim conscience and social system. The Quran shapes Muslim outlook. The Muslim community is therefore by and large tolerant and pluralistic.

The plural nature of Islam can be understood from the fact that Muslims are permitted to eat food of the Jews and Christians. Accordingly Muslims can eat the flesh of otherwise lawful animals Jews and Christians have slaughtered or hunted (2). The Muslim bridegroom can marry Christian and Jew bride without conversion to Islam. Islam has made the marriage of Jewish or Christian women lawful for Muslim men for they being the People of the Book, ahl al kitab (3). And according to Imam Abu Hanifa non-Muslims are not subjected to Muslim legal punishment (hudud) for committing adultery and theft (4).

The Islamic state guaranteed not only the safety of the lives but also the honor of the non-Muslims and the protection of their religious beliefs and rituals but also the protection and maintenance of their personal laws, institutions and endowments (5). In some cases, the expenses for the maintenance and repair of the places of worship of the non-Muslims were met from the public treasury (bayt ul mal). Similarly the salaries of rabbis and priests were often paid from the state treasury (6).

There was no pressure on Jews or Christians to convert to Islam; Muslims continued to uphold the old religious pluralism of the Middle East and learned to coexist with the members of other religions, which according to Quran, were earlier revelations. Karen Armstrong rightly pointed out: “In the Islamic empire, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians enjoyed religious freedom. This reflected the teaching of the Quran which is a pluralistic scripture, affirmative of other traditions. Muslims are commanded by God to respect the People of the Book, and reminded that they share the same belief and the same God” (7).

If we fall back to the history we find that Arab Muslims-Christians-Jews were living together peacefully during the Muslim rule in Jerusalem. The conquest of Jerusalem (637 AD) “put an to the centuries of instability, religious persecution and colonial rule once by the Egyptians, another by the Greeks, a third by the Persians and a fourth by the Romans. … To the natives of Palestine, the Muslims were a new breed of humans, different from all those who conquered their country before. … For both Jewish and Christian inhabitants of the conquered lands, Islamic rule signaled the start of the golden age. The territories under Muslim rule became the safe havens to which many Jews and Christians fled to escape persecution in their own homelands. It was in Muslim metropolis that many Christians and Jews found the opportunity to acquire learning and to excel in various fields of knowledge and expertise. Many of them had become historic figures who benefited from as well as contributed greatly to the Arab Muslim civilization” (8).

Prof. T. W. Arnold in his book 'The Preaching of Islam' wrote : “When the Muslim army reached the valley of the Jordan and Abu Ubaidah pitched his camp at Fhil, the Christian inhabitants of the country wrote to the Arabs saying: ‘O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantines, though they are of our own faith, because you keep better faith with us, and your rule over us is better than theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and hour homes'. The people of Amessa closed the gates of their city against the army of Heracles and told the Muslims that they preferred their government and justice to the injustice and oppression of the Greeks” (9).

Commenting on the visit of Omar bin el-Khattab to Jerusalem, Prof. T. W. Arnold wrote: “In company with the Patriarch, Omar visited the holy places, and it is said while they were in the Church of the Resurrection, as it was the appointed hour of prayer, the Patriarch bade the Caliph offer his prayers there, but he thoughtfully refused, saying that if he were to do so, his followers might afterwards claim it as a place of Muslim worship” (10). This was the attitude of the Muslims and noble example of Muslim's tolerance towards non-Muslims.

History is the testimony that Christians and Jews in Andalusia, Spain under Muslim rule lived very peacefully and therefore non-Muslims could survive in Spain even after 700 years (around 800 to the late 15th century) of Muslim rule. It was however when the Muslim caliphate became weak and the Muslim rule ended that Muslims were systematically killed and massacred. “King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove the Moor Muslims out of Spain, forced everybody to embrace Catholic Christianity or be killed, and promoted the exquisite Christian tortures of the Inquisitions. Under Muslim rule, Christian and Jewish communities generally flourished from Spain to Iraq. On the other hand, until recent times, Christian intolerance prevailed throughout Europe” (11).

We also can see that: “to be a foreigner in the Abbasid court was not really a drawback since the culture encouraged diversity and rewarded people for speaking many languages and bringing the richness of their backgrounds. In fact during that time scholars, artists, poets and litterateurs came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (speaking Aramaic, Arabic, Persian and Turkish), colours (white, black and mulatto), and creeds (Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sabian and Magian).It was this cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism of Baghdad that made for its enduring strength as a great centre of culture” (12). It is therefore evident that today's multiculturalism and pluralism has its roots in the 7th and 8th century Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.

The Muslims ruled India for nearly 800 years. Even then Hindus always remained the majority in the old quarters of Delhi, the seat of Mogul dynasty, all through history. The Hindus held prominent position in Mogul courts, from Emperor Babur to Awrangzib and thrived in all fields of knowledge, from music to military craft. Awrangzib punished the grandson of his Prime Minister Azad Khan, Mirza Tafakhur who outraged the modesty of a non-Muslim woman. Awrangzib wrote: “It is my duty to prevent oppression on the people who are a trust from the Creator” (13).

During Prophet Muhammad's life time (pbuh), he concluded many treaties with the Jews and Christians and the community of the believers lived peacefully with the Christians and Jews as long as the concluding parties remained faithful to the terms of the treaties which are the reflection of the plural nature of Islam and its capacity to live with other communities peacefully and its tolerant attitude. Some misunderstandings have however arisen regarding verses 3-16 of Chapter 9 of Al Quran is “entirely devoted to treaty-breakers” (14). Westerners have however inferred on the basis of Surat At Tauba (Chapter 9) that “Islam teaches the destruction of the non-Muslims” (15). The Westerners, the Christian and Jews particularly took exception to: “… slay those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God wherever you may come upon them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every conceivable place. Yet if they repent, and take to prayer, and render the purifying dues, let them go their way: for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace” (Chapter 9: verse 5).

Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss from Polish/Austria and brought up in a Jewish family) in his monumental commentary of the Quran pointing to this verse observed: “Every verse of the Quran must be read and interpreted against the background of the Quran as a whole. The above verse, which speaks of a possible conversion to Islam on the part of “those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God” with whom the believers are at war, must, therefore, be considered in conjunction with several fundamental Quranic ordinances. One of them, “There shall be no coercion in the matter of faith” (Chapter 2: 256) lays down categorically that any attempt at a forcible conversion of unbelievers is prohibited – which precludes the possibility of the Muslims' demanding or expecting that a defeated enemy should embrace Islam as the price of immunity. Secondly, the Quran ordains, “Fight in God's cause against those who wage war against you; but do not commit aggression, for, verily, God does not love aggressors” (Chapter 2: verse 190); and, “if they do not let you be, and do not offer you peace, and do not stay their hands, seize them and slay them whenever you come upon them: and it is against these that We have clearly empowered you (to make war)” (Chapter 4: verse 91). Thus, war is permissible only in self-defense, with the further proviso that “if they desist – behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace” (Chapter 2: verse 192), and “if they desist, then all hostility shall cease” (Chapter 2: verse 193). Now on the enemy's conversion to Islam – it is expressed in: “if they repent, and take to prayer (lit., “establish prayer”) and render the purifying dues (zakat)” – is no more than one, and by no means the only, way of their “desisting from hostility”; and the reference to it in verses 5 and 11 of this surah (Chapter) certainly does not imply an alternative of “conversion or death”, as some unfriendly critics of Islam choose to assume. Verses 4 and 6 give a further elucidation of the attitude which the believers are enjoined to adopt towards such of the unbelievers as are not hostile to them”. (In connection to this see also Chapter 60: verses 8-9) (16).

Eminent Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutub commenting on the verse “Fight in God's cause against those who wage war against you; but do not commit aggression, for, verily, God does not love aggressors” (Chapter 2: verse:190) quoted above pointed out: “War should not be pursued for glory or dominance, nor for material aggrandizement, nor to gain new markets or control raw materials. It should not be pursued to give one class, race or nation of people dominance over another” (17).

The need of the hour is to identify the real enemies of the tension and conflict and sincerely work to eliminate the existing bitterness – thus rekindling hope among the peace loving people and making this world a safer and happier abode for all of humankind. This would require adopting new policies that would pave the way for a healthy exchange of ideas and creating opportunities for dialogue between civilizations. This calls for the construction of a New World Order where different civilizations could coexist peacefully without resorting to war and mutual destruction.

(1) Momin, Abdur Rahman. 'Pluralism and Multiculturalism: An Islamic Perspective'. American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. IIIT. US. Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 2001, p. 134.

(2) Dr.Yusuf Al Qaradawi. 'The Lawful And The Prohibited In Islam'. American Trust Publications: USA, p 59.

(3) Ibid., p. 183.

(4) Dr. AbdulHamid AbuSulayman. 'Towards an Islamic Theory of International Relations'. IIIT: US, 1994, p 10.

(5) Majid Khadduri. 'The Islamic Law of Nations: Shaybanbi's Siya'r. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore. MD. 1996. Also, Dr. Ismail Raji al Faruqi and Dr. Lois Lamya al Faruqi. 'The Cultural Atlas of Islam'. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1986., p 199.

(6) Abdur Rahman Momin. 'Pluralism and Multiculturalism: An Islamic Perspective'. American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. IIIT. US. Vol. 18. No 2. Spring 2001. p 135.

(7) Karen Armstrong. 'The Curse of the Infidel'. The Guardian. 20 June 2002.

(8) Azzam Tamimi. 'Jerusalem During Muslim Rule'. Al Aqsa Journal. Vol.1. No. 2. April 1999.

(9) T. W. Arnold. 'The Preaching of Islam'. p 55. Quoted in 'Fanaticism, Intolerance and Islam'. Dr. Khurshid Ahmad. Islamic Publications Ltd.: Lahore. 1960. p 44.

(10) Ibid., p 52.

(11) Available at [email protected].

(12) Fatima Mernissi. 'Scheherezade Goes West: Different Cultures-Different Harems'. Washington Square Press. 2001. p. 124.

(13) Sarkar. Anecdotes of Awrangzib. pp 109-111. Quoted in Fanaticism, Intolerance and Islam by Dr. Khurshid Ahmed. Lahore. 1960. p 43.

(14) G. F. Haddad. 'Standard Missionary Islamphobia'. Available in [email protected]

(15) Jerry Vines. Pastor of First Baptist Church. Jacksonville, Fla. Available in www.bpnews.net.

(16) Muhammad Asad. 'The Message of The Quran'. Dar Al Andalus. Gibralter.1980. pp 255-256

(17) In 'The Shade of the Quran'. Fi Zilal al Quran. The Islamic Foundation: UK, Vol. I, 1999. p 209.

Chairman of Islamic Information Bureau--Bangladesh

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