Islamic Stance on ‘Pluralism’

Islamic Stance on ‘Pluralism’

Numerous Quranic verses, as interpreted by many modern scholars, advocate tolerance, coexistence and pluralism

Pluralism, in this age of globalisation, has become one of the most important catch-words, and there have been various attempts, in the recent past and in the present as well, both by Muslims and non-Muslim scholars, to trace its roots in Islam—in its sources (Text and Traditions) as well as in its tradition and history. In this regard, this article attempts to throw some light on the term Pluralism in an Islamic perspective, by tracing its roots in the Sacred Text (i.e., the Holy Qur’an), with the support of some modern (re)interpretations by prominent Muslim scholars.
Pluralism, in lexical terms, is defined as ‘a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special or special interest within the confine of a common civilisation’ or ‘the existence of different types of people, who have different beliefs and opinions, within the same society’. Pluralism, in broader categorisation, can be either political or cultural or religious.
Islam, as a civilisation, culture and religion, has been, and can be, viewed and interpreted from varied perspectives. The diversity of the approaches employed in understanding Islam are chiefly because of the diverse interpretations of the sacred Islamic texts—the Qur’an (Divine Text) and the Ahadith (Sayings/ Reports of the Last Messenger)—as well as the Islamic Tradition (history).
The Text has been interpreted in many ways, at various levels, and from different perspectives. These fundamentally vital texts have been defined and interpreted through numerous angles, approaches and perspectives throughout Islamic history—be it in pre-modern times or in the modern era.
Different sciences and schools of thought developed, as its necessary outcome, within the broader arenas of Islam. Therefore, amid such a multitude of textual interpretations of the verses of the Qur’an, it is wrong to assume, as (late) Azyumardi Azra (d. September 2022; an Indonesian public intellectual and Muslim scholar) puts it, that “there is a single, monolithic view among Muslims concerning religious pluralism and other issues”.
In this context, the verses of the Qur’an can be broadly divided into two categories: verses which speak of “political disunity” and verses that endorse “diversity”. In Azra’s terminology, there are indeed only a limited number of verses that speak of “political disunity”, whereas there are many verses which not only endorse “diversity” but highlight “the need for diversity of tribes, sects, nations, and peoples as well as races and languages” as well. These “positive verses” of the Qur’an also acknowledge “the natural differences in the intellectual and physical capabilities of human beings and view the different ways of living as a natural and even as a divine aspect of creation”. The history and tradition of Islam yield many examples, both in theory and practice, which endorse pluralism within the human family. The Qur’anic proclamations like Q. 4: 163-65 (“Indeed, We have sent revelation to you [O Prophet] as We sent revelation to Noah and the prophets after him…”) indicate that the authorisation of previous revelations in present revelation means that all are worshiping the same Lord. This becomes more evident from Q. 16: 36, which states: “We sent a messenger to every community, saying, ‘Worship God and shun false gods’.”
The Qur’an defines Islam (from the root word S-L-M—Seen, Laam, Meem, from which is also derived Salam, both meaning Peace) ‘as not only peace for and between all’, but also believes in the previous Revelations that were bestowed and “sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him” (Q. 2: 136). This indeed signifies the concept of pluralism in Islam. This primary Islamic disposition, thus, “provides the foundation for plurality” and pluralism in Islam.
Furthermore, the Qur’an demands that Muslims should believe that God has created the heavens and earth and whatever is in between them (the whole universe); nations, Books/ Scriptures, Messengers, people(s), etc. This statement itself highlights the necessity of pluralism. The Qur’an is full of such accounts on pluralism: “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community [Ummatun Waahidah], but He wanted to test you…” (Q. 5: 48).
A number of Qur’anic verses, like Q. 5: 48, 11: 118, and 49: 13, offer a distinctly modern perspective on tolerance, pluralism and mutual recognition in a multi-ethnic,-cultural, -community world. These verses reflect that Islamic civilisation is not made for isolation or exclusion, but for interaction and co-operation. Thus, the idea that “All the people were originally one single community…” (Q. 10: 19) is the foundation of theological pluralism, as Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina (George Mason University, USA) puts it, that presupposes the divinely ordained equivalence and equal rights of all human beings. Religious pluralism, as Sachedina argues in his The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (2001), can function as a “working paradigm for a democratic, social pluralism in which people of diverse religious backgrounds are willing to form a community of global citizens”. In the same spirit, (late) Asghar Ali Engineer (d. May 2013; an Indian reformist writer and social activist) who was an ardent advocate of religious pluralism, communal harmony and liberation theology, interprets Q. 5: 48–49 to mean that Allah has purposefully created different religions and different groups of people so that He may test us to see if we can live in harmony and peace and to spur humans to do good works.
Based on the interpretations of the Qur’anic teachings, numerous modern Muslim scholars have advocated pluralism, affirming principles of freedom, difference, and coexistence. Majority of the Muslim scholars, for example, argue that the Qur’anic verses like Q. 30: 22 and 49: 13 (which speak, respectively, of the “diversity of languages and colors” and “races and tribes” as ‘Signs’/ Ayaat of the Almighty) communicate that the existence of different nations, ethnicities, tribes and languages is the ‘Divine Will’. Furthermore, they also assert that verses like Q. 5: 48 (which speaks of single origin of humankind as a community) and Q. 5: 69 (“For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians—those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds—there is no fear…”) declare not only the plurality of civilisations, systems and laws but also inspire people to fortify mutual understanding and co-existence rather than engaging in conflict.
They also emphasise that Allah created the Muslim community as Ummatun Wasata, a “just community”—or ‘a fair and moderate nation’ (Q. 2: 143)—as a reflection of His favour for moderation and desire to avoid extremes, so that seeking the negation or eradication of the “religious other” is not permitted. Such (re) readings and (re) interpretations strongly recognise the basis for realising pluralism as the essence of Islam as revealed in the Qur’an and practised by the Prophet (pbuh) and the early Caliphs. Thus, in the Islamic context, pluralism fortifies co-operation, positive and constructive interaction, and understanding among the diverse entities within a society.
Many Muslim scholars interpret Q. 2: 256 as the Qur’anic principle serving as the basis for religious/ ideological, cultural and political pluralism in Muslim society. Similarly, (late) Professor Mahmoud Ayoub (d. October 2021; a Lebanese Islamic scholar and professor of religious and inter-faith studies in the USA) argued that Allah has purposely fashioned pluralism by citing Q. 5: 48 and Q. 2: 148 (“Each community has its own direction to which it turns”).
There are many such examples and interpretations; however, these are enough to prove that Islam endorses diversity, tolerance, mutual respect, and above all, pluralism.
It is apt to wrap up with these insights by Professor Asma Afsaruddin (an American Islamic scholar and Professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA) as proposed in her book, Contemporary Issues in Islam (2015): “The twenty-first century arguably presents unique opportunities for reimagining historical relations between different religions and cultures”, especially on the basis of the “Scriptural hermeneutics”: therefore, “Reinterpretations of key Qur’anic verses”, in this process, acts as the first and foremost vital step in “imagining a different world based on peaceful coexistence rather than one based on conflict and strife”.
BOTTOM LINE: The world has already suffered a lot with conflicts, clashes, violence and extremism, therefore, it is imperative that we focus more on—give serious consideration to and make sincere efforts for highlighting—values and concepts of cooperation, coexistence, diversity, tolerance, non-violence, mutual respect and pluralism so that to live a peaceful and harmonious life. The Islamic tradition shows that all these concepts have full sanction in Islam (and its primary sources).

NOTE: The Translations of the Quranic verses are taken from M. A. S Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an: a New Translation (Oxford, 2004).

The writer is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at Govt. Degree College Sogam (Lolab), Kupwara. Feedback at [email protected]


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