InsightJanuary March 2016

Pluralism and the Quran: Possibilities

Prof. Syed Asim Ali

About one thousand four hundred year old text of the Quran belongs to a period when a holy scripture mostly addressed a race, a tribe, a cult or dwellers of certain ‘holy’ lands. Pluralism is rather a modern concept advanced in our day for peaceful coexistence of all humans. If the fundamental features of a modern theory are traceable in an ancient text, it is not only amazing but also reassuring. Though a few verses of the Quran are routinely quoted in the Muslim interfaith discourse, I was amazed to locate around 200 verses scattered throughout the Quran that are actively supportive of the theme of pluralism, most of them directly and some implicitly.

The Quran opens with the words: ‘Praise be to God, the Lord of all the worlds. The Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate’ (1:1-2). The very first verse of the opening chapter of the Quran declares God to be the Lord of all the worlds. No single instance is there in the Quran where God has been identified as the Lord of Arabs, the Lord of Muslims, or the Lord of Muhammadsw. The God of the Quran is not at all the Lord of any one nation or race or group or land in exclusion of the rest. This verse firmly establishes the believer in the attitude of considering the whole humanity as one family with one Sustainer Whose most prominent attributes are mercy and grace. At the very outset, thus, the Quran precludes exclusivist tendencies from emerging among the believers and inculcates in them universal sympathy. The Quran repeatedly addresses humankind as ‘banī Adam’ (children of Adam) and not as ‘banī Ishmael or even ‘banī Abraham’ etc. It holds the entire humankind in equal honour, irrespective of their geographical, racial, or colour orientation. This honour is not restricted to the followers of the Prophet Muhammadsw alone. The Divine blessings and grace extend to all humankind considered the progeny of Adam, as it declares: ‘We have honoured the children of Adam’ (17:70). The Quran is free from the concept of the ‘essentially blessed’ or ‘essentially condemned’ human groups. It rather favours the ‘virtuous’ individual and admonishes the ‘vicious’ individual: ‘the most honoured of you, in the sight of God, is he who is the most righteous among you (49: 13).

The Quran repeatedly asserts that God is the Lord of all directions, naming particularly the East and the West, thus demolishing the East-West divide that prevails in our time to frightening consequences. The Quran shows no preference for the East or the West. The Divine Light, it declares, is neither of the East nor of the West. It is universal (24:35, 2: 177), found in all directions in its fullest intensity. God belongs to all directions and to all people. So, to speak of only the East as the favourite place of God has no basis or support in the Quranic narrative. In its text, ‘The East and the West belong to God’ (2: 115). Virtue is not in the Eastern or Western cultures, but in righteous deeds.

Diversity of faith and culture as a normal, rather desirable, feature is an oft-repeated theme in the Quran. Many verses accentuate the point that it is the Will of God that some are believers and some are not. His Will is to allow this diversity and not to force it out through coercive or artificial means. Had he willed otherwise, He would have imposed uniformity which by implication should not be the desired goal even for the believers: ‘of you are some that are Unbelievers, and some that are Believers’ (64:2), and ‘Do not the Believers know, that, had God (so) willed, He could have guided all mankind (to the right)?’ (13: 31). But, His plan has granted freedom of choice to humankind, the only justification for ultimate individual accountability, so always there would be unbelievers intermixed with believers. It also implies that forcing all members of a society to a common code or faith or culture and forcibly seeking the removal of plurality and multiplicity is not something in line with the planning of God in this world. It rather violates the very spirit of it: ‘will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!’ (10:99-100), ‘but they will not cease to differ, … and for this  did He create them’ (11:118-119).

God has purposely created humans to be different. The Quran therefore is not only asking for tolerating (accepting) plurality and multiplicity in human society but declares it a direct result of the Will of God, something that should and would always be there, something desirable in the eyes of God, because that is what He has created them for.

The Quran frankly acknowledges the virtues of Jews and Christians and thus generates an inclusive attitude among the believers: ‘Of the People of the Book there are upright people’ (3:113, 7:159, 5:82). It also acknowledges the Jewish and Christian scriptures, confirming their high status and position: ‘therein was guidance and light’ (5: 44 and 3:3, 5: 46) and that ‘This (i.e. the Quran) indeed is what is taught in the former Scriptures, the Scriptures of Abraham and Moses (87:18-19).

Besides, the Quran confirms the truth of all the earlier scriptures including even those not extant anymore, which it calls ‘al-Zubur ’ or ‘al-suhuf al-ūla’ (ancient or former scriptures). By enjoining to believe in all of them the Quran seeks to promote interfaith harmony and ensure the existence of a multi-faith and multicultural society wherein all faith groups may flourish in mutual recognition and respect. Such verses would become irrelevant if the future society was meant by the Quran to be strictly homogeneous and purged of all cultural or religious diversity.

The Quran openly recognizes and promises due rewards to all those who are faithful and do the righteous deeds. By name it mentions Jews, Christians, Sābīs, Magians and so on. Strongly and categorically it disapproves of the attitude of regarding all other faith groups utterly unworthy of winning God’s favour except for one’s own. The Quran takes a strong exception to such a tendency (2: 113) and declares that no religious sect, Christians, Jews or others, enjoy monopoly of truth or God’s favour. It asserts that the doors of paradise are open to all who surrender to the Will of God and are righteous in their conduct (2:111-112, 2:62, 4:123-124): ‘Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews or Christians or Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve’ (2:62).

Belief not only in Muhammadsw but in all prophets is stressed recurrently as an essential article of Islamic faith. It is worth noting that his followers are not named ‘Muhammadans’ but ‘Muslims;’ that is, who surrendered to God just as the followers of the earlier prophets did, rather than those who joined the exclusive cult of an individual. Thus, it actively preserves them from the competitive cult psyche and instils in them a sense of belonging to the macro-fraternity of the faithful (2:136, 4:150-152). A society resulting from this belief is meant to be pluralistic in its fabric where all prophets and their followers are given due recognition and none are excluded or marginalized. Pluralism, therefore, remains a necessary outcome of such Quranic teachings emerging from within its text and not something merely externally imposed.

A lot of Quranic verses clarify that the Prophet has been sent to mankind as a warner, a bearer of glad-tidings, a conveyer of God’s message and its explicator and to stand witness over the faithful. The Book he has brought is meant to be a source of guidance and mercy. His duty is to convince but not force people to accept faith. He has been asked to be very kind to them and to refrain from showing any negative responses or attitudes even if they decline to have faith in him or his message (3:20), as the Quran clarifies in the most explicit terms: ‘And say, ‘It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve 18:29.’ The choice is unqualified here. A society of this type, envisioned by the Quran, therefore, is bound to be a multi-faith and multicultural society where only a healthy and peaceful dialogue may go on among different faith groups, but without any element of coercion, intolerance or antipathy (16:125-128). Muslims must always be ready to live happily alongside the people of different faiths and cultures and bringing all people to an absolute uniformity of faith will remain an impossible task, since, in God’s own judgement: ‘most people will not believe, however ardently you do desire it’ (12:103).
 

About the interfaith differences God, in the Quran, has assigned to Himself the responsibility of judging people of different faiths on the Day of Reckoning (42:10, 22:17). In other words, He has not left it to the discretion of a human agency here in this world to do so. The list of faith groups in verse 22: 17 includes not only the People of the Book, but also Sabians, Magians and even idolaters (i.e. Abrahamic as well as non-Abrahamic religions). Believers do not have a duty, or even permission, to take upon themselves to resolve all those faith related differences or suppress them by force. To put it bluntly, those who commit idolatry or reject the Islamic faith will be answerable only to God. They are not answerable to Muslims. And therefore: ‘There should be no compulsion in religion’ (2:256) and ‘you art not one to overawe them by force’ (50:45).
 
The Quran teaches the etiquette of interaction and dialogue with the people of other faiths and instructs to join them in virtuous and philanthropic activities (3:64, 16:125-128). The process involves the use of wisdom, beauty of manners and speech, patience at negative reaction, avoidance of revenge to the highest degree if persecuted or humiliated, avoiding excess if in a state of self-defence, and exercising self-restraint. But, patience has been held in the highest esteem as the most desirable quality of a believer for which God promises the greatest rewards. One wonders what justification could there be for extreme sectarian, intrafaith or interfaith impatience and intolerance of our day leading to deplorable instances of violence!

 

The purpose of prescribing close social interaction and familial ties with the People of the Book (5:5) is also to have the believers forge stronger bonds of friendship and seek closer cooperation in matters beneficial for the society etc: ‘The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them…[and are lawful] chaste women among the People of the Book…’ (5:5).  The level of toleration must be quite high in the Quranic society where couples of different faiths live together under the same roof and share the same food and raise children together.

The Quranic call to agree on common terms with the Jews, Christians and others (3:64, 5:2) and to join one another in altruistic deeds has the potential of facilitating the co-existence of different faith groups in peace and harmony. Now, this kind of close social interaction, dialogue, cooperation and agreement on common terms is attainable only in a multi-faith society. These injunctions would have no relevance if the Quran had sought a homogeneous society to come into existence at the cost of the elimination of the ‘other.’

The principle of tolerance, rather ‘acceptability’, in the Quran is evident at a number of places. The policy taught in the little chapter 109 is that of co-existence in tolerance and mutual recognition. Exclusivist attitude is not recommended here, nor is any threat issued to the unbelievers on behalf of the monotheists if they persisted in polytheism: ‘To you be your Way (life-style), and to me mine’ (109:6). The same theme is further reinforced thus: ‘for us our deeds, and for you your deeds. There is no contention between us and you’ (42:15), ‘we are responsible for our doings and you for yours’ (2:139), My work to me, and yours to you! you are free from responsibility for what I do, and I for what you do!’ (10: 41).

The scenario unquestionably envisions a multi-faith society and the verses above teach etiquette of living together in peace with people of other faiths in mutual tolerance. It is against God’s planning that monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques be desecrated. (Notice that ‘mosque’ occurs last in this list): ‘If God were not to repel some through others, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure’ (22:40). The verse stands unambiguously for an inclusive society wherein people of different faiths live in mutual harmony and full mutual regard. They maintain their places of worship that they visit freely, unhindered and without fear. The Quran does not want religious fanaticism resulting in religious hegemony or monopoly in the human society.

According to the Quran, ‘God does call to the Home of Peace: …’ (10:25) and the sole purpose of sending the Prophet to the world is to make him and the Book a source of guidance, peace and mercy for the entire humankind: ‘And it [this Quran] certainly is a Guide and a Mercy to those who believe (27:77), and ‘We sent you not, but as a Mercy for all creatures’ (21:107).

Peace is a prerequisite for fulfilling coexistence, and for real peace justice is a prerequisite, constantly enjoined in the Quran: ‘let not the hatred of other people to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety’ (5:8-9), ‘even though it (justice) may be against yourselves or against your parents and kinsmen, or the rich or the poor’ (4:135).

Exclusivist or rejectionist attitude is rather identified as a trait of unbelievers in the Quran (36:180). It is the unbelievers who rejected Abraham, Lot, Noah, Shoeb, Jesus, and Muhammad etc., inflicted miseries on them, wanted to banish them from the land and were not ready to tolerate them at all in their midst for their faith and message.

Some sects or groups given to exclusivism in our day apparently draw their misguided conclusions from certain verses of the Quran. Placing some verses outside the context and completely ignoring the others, they read into them their own sectarian and exclusivist agenda.

But, ignoring certain verses or parts of the Quran is an attitude faulted by the Quran itself, incurring ‘disgrace’ in this life and ‘grievous penalty’ in the next (2:85), as this tendency destroys the whole equipoise of things. Since the believers are obliged to embrace the Quran in its entirety, they must also pay due attention to the largely ignored verses that obligate them to live in peace and mutual harmony (without any grudge) with the people of the other faiths. In order to become tolerant, pluralistic and inclusive in their outlook, they do not have to ignore or overstep the fundamentals of their faith, which they actually do when they become rejectionist and exclusive and intolerant in their approach. The balance lost cannot be restored unless the ‘pluralistic verses’ are restored to their active role.

‘Those who listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it: those are the ones whom God has guided, and those are the ones endued with understanding’ (39:18).

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