InsightMay June 2007

Secular Dimensions of Islam for Peaceful co-existence in Pluralistic Societies

Professor Abdul Ali

The term secular or secularism originated in Europe in the later medieval period. In early medieval times there was in Europe a strong tendency among religious person to despise worldly affairs and to meditate on God and on the life hereafter. Reaction to this medieval tendency took the form of a movement which has been in progress during the entire period of modern history. It was also looked upon as anti-Christian and anti-religious.

Later, in the second half of the twentieth century there took place a change in the religious attitude of Christian authorities, who advocated a sort of compromise or give and take. They held that man should not be concerned exclusively with the sacred, metaphysical and other worldly aspects of life. He should rather get an opportunity to promote Christian values in his day-to-day life. To pursue human aspirations was no longer considered as anti-Christian and anti-religious.

In the Indian context as well as in the context of the present-day international scenario, this term is made use of to imply several things such as non-discrimination of the basis of caste, creed and color, absence of dogmatism, bigotry and violence in religious matters, non-imposition of religious doctrines on other in socio-cultural, political and civilizational relations in pluralistic societies.

The secular and ethical framework of Islam for peaceful co-existence in pluralistic societies comprises tolerance, freedom of faith and conscience, the concept of universal brotherhood of mankind, sanctity of pacts and agreements made with others as well as universally accepted principles of humanism. Since, here it is not possible to deal with all the major points relating to the civilizational framework of Islam within the limited scope of this paper, the Islamic basis for socio-political relations with non-Muslim on secular lines is briefly introduced below.

The Qur’anic concept of Universal Brotherhood

One major hurdle in the way of peaceful co-existence is the false notion of racial superiority. It has already caused a great deal of bloodshed among different human races. But the Holy Qur’an demolished the age-old structure of racial superiority by asserting the common origin of all human beings. It recognizes piety and righteousness as the sole basis of nobility and superiority. This concept not only develops in man an optimistic attitude towards life by inspiring him to attain superiority through noble deeds, but also makes possible the realization of the universal brotherhood of Mankind . This point is elaborately emphasized in the following verses:

O mankind! Lo! we have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is the Knower, Aware. (1)

Mankind is one community. (2)

Another important point to be noted in this connection is that the Holy Qur’an is addressed not to a particular people, but to the whole mankind. This is evident from the fact that the word “Muslim” has occurred only 42 times in it, while the words, “mankind” and “man” have occurred as many as 240 and 65 times respectively. This clearly shows that welfare of the whole of Mankind is one of the principal concerns of Islam.

That the Qur’anic concept of the universal brotherhood of Mankind, is not an unattainable ideal, is established by the historical fact that Islam, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed, had already seen that brotherhood which welded the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the white and the black, into one fraternity, members of which forgot their racial differences and worked together as good as Muslims ought to in the service of humanity. Even persons belonging to lower strata of society, of whatever origin, were readily absorbed as equal member of the fraternity. The history of Islam is replete with examples of such persons reaching high places in society. They were entrusted with prestigious offices as governors and military commanders. The Prophet Muhammed himself appointed Zaid, earlier a slave, as the commander of the Muslim army. With a view to making such leadership effective, the Prophet addressed his followers, saying:

Hear and obey (the orders of your leaders) although the man appointed above you as your leader be a negro-slave with a raisin-like hand so long as he continues to enforce among you the laws of Allah.(3)

It was the exemplary realization of this objective of Islam that prompted the noted historian Arnold Tynobee to write in his Civilization on Trial, “The extinction of race consciousness between Muslim is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world, there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue…”

Peace-loving Aspect of Muslim Behavior

Another important measure taken by Islam in preparing the ground for communal harmony, an essential precondition for socio-culture cohesion and understanding, is that it enjoins its followers to be peace-loving and non-aggressive. One distinctive sign of the muslims is that whenever they meet, they greet one another by exchanging the massage of peace, i.e., by calling assalamu ‘alaikum (Peace be upon you).Besides, the Holy Qur’an has sought to impress upon them the importance of peace in life by describing it in the following verses as one of the highest rewards that await virtuous men in paradise:

They will be awarded the high place for as much as they were steadfast, and they will meet therein with welcome and the word of peace(4)

There hear they no vain speaking, nor recrimination, naught but the saying : Peace and again peace(5)

It is with a view to restraining their aggressive temper that mankind in general and and Muslims in particular have been urged time and again through numerous Qur’anic verses to shun all kinds of aggression and oppression. Even in the event of being addressed and confronted by foolish and mischievous people they are advised to maintain peace by disposing of them in a polite manner. This is exactly what the following verse impresses upon Muslims:

The Faithful slaves of the beneficent are they who walk upon the earth modestly, and when the foolish ones address them, answer: peace (6).

The Holy Quran not only exhorts Muslims to be just, humane, tolerant and sociable, but also warns them against the evil consequences of practicing injustice and transgression by narrating to them tales of the ancient people who were destroyed by natural calamities because of the evil deeds practiced by them. It is significant to note that the Holy Quran has put the responsibility of causing destruction of civilization upon the shoulders of man himself, instead of ascribing it to the mysterious forces of nature. This is evident from the following verses:

Corruption doeth appear on land and sea because of the evil which man’s hands have done, that He (Allah) may make them taste apart of that which they have done, in order that they may return. (7)

In truth thy Lord destroys not the township tyrannously while their folk were doing right.(8)

The above verses clearly show that providential destruction of people and their civilization is closely related to man’s actions. Faith in, and practice of, these Qur’anic teachings will not only make man virtuous, just and peace-loving, but also guarantee contentious growth of human civilization.

Respect and Courtesy for other religions

The lack of tolerance and courtesy on the part of one religious community towards the followers of other religions often causes communal disturbances. This also stirs up enmity between nations. But the Holy Quran has struck at the very root of this problem by asking its followers not only to tolerate other religions but also to refrain from showing any disrespect to their religious authorities. Islam recognizes and respects prophets of all religions, both known and unknown. Consider, for example, the following verses in which Muslims have been enjoying to widen their horizon of faith as well as to respect the religious authorities of other religions:

Say (O Mohammed): we believe in Allah and which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ismael and Ishaq and Jacob and the tribes, and that which was vouchsafed unto Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between, and unto Him we have surrendered. (9)

And they say: None entereth Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. These are their own desires. Say: Bring your proof (of what ye state) if ye are truthful. Nay, but whosoever surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing good his reward is with his Lord; and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (10)

Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Mohammed) and Sabean – whoever believeth in Allah and the last day and doeth right surely their reward is with their Lord and there will no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (11)

Revealed not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully reveal Allah through ignorance ….(12)

It is worthy of mentioning in this context that the prophet Mohammed himself meted out a kind and gentle treatment to non-Muslims not only in the early years of his prophet hood, but also in the latter years when he was at the height of his power and at the head of a large army. Numerous instance can be quoted in support of this point,. Here it will suffice to mention that the way he treated the delegation of the Christians of Najran has no parallel in the history of other conquerors. He not only played host to them and lodged them in the prophetic mosque in Medina but also permitted them to offer prayers on Christian lines in the same mosques. (13)

Formation of Muslim Prophetic Attitude

Islam is basically a unifying and pacifist religion. It taught man how to agree to live together in peace and harmony even while disagreeing on religious matters and belongings to different racial stocks and schools of thought. It not only permits Muslims to become full-fledged citizens of a secular nation, but also makes it binding upon them to remain loyal to it as well as to contribute to its welfare, provided it grants freedom of faith to all the constituent communities, and is based on the lofty principles of healthy nationalism. This is in complete agreement with Islamic ethics for political behavior and cooperation, three main features which may briefly be mentioned here in order to further illustrate this point.

First, the general Muslim political attitude is governed by their passionate desire to live together and cooperate with others for the welfare of the whole human race on as large a scale as possible. The same idea is conveyed in the following verse:

Say: O people of the scripture! Come to an agreement between us and you that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for Lord beside Allah. And if they turn away, then say: bear witness that we are they who have surrendered unto Him. (14)

Secondly, rightness of purpose and justness of cause are important factors in determining Muslim political behavior. Therefore Muslims are prohibited to form any organization, political or otherwise, for the inhuman purpose of committing aggression on any people or for other destructive purpose. This is clearly evident from the following verse:

But help ye one another unto righteousness and pious duty. Help not one another unto sin and transgression. (15)

Thirdly, with a view to ensuring political stability, Islam attaches the greatest possible sanctity to pacts and agreements made with others. The Prophet Mohammed himself gave a concrete shape to the accommodating political spirit of Islam by concluding a number of pacts and treaties with non-Muslims, namely, the Meccan disbelievers, the Jews, the Christians and Zoroastrians. Of them the treaty signed by him with Christians of Najran, quartering them protection and freedom of conscience, at a time when Islam had firmly established itself in the Arabian peninsula, is very significant. The English version of this pact which became a permanent legislation for the treatment of non-Muslim subjects in Islam is given below:

To the Christian of Najran and the neighboring territories, the security of Allah and the pledge of His prophet are extended for their lives, their religion, and their property to the present as well as the absent and others besides; there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith or their observances; nor any change in their rights or privileges; no Bishop shall be removed from his bishopry; nor any monk from his monastery; nor any priest from his priesthood; and they shall continue to enjoy everything great and small as heretofore; they shall not oppress or be oppressed; they shall not practice the rights of blood-revenge as in the days of ignorance; no tithes shall be levied from them, nor shall they be required to furnish provisions for the troops. (16)

Here it is noteworthy that fulfillment of promises and agreement is one of essentials of civilizations. It is vital to world peace and social security as non-fulfillment of them is bound to breed mutual distrust as well as to lead the world to a terrible state of disorder and unrest. A number of Qur’anic verses can be cited in support of this point. A few of them are quoted below:

Fulfill the covenant of Allah when ye have covenanted, and break not your oaths after the asseveration of them (17).

And keep the covenant. Lo! Of the covenant it will be asked. (18)

And if they the Muslim seek help from you in the matter of religion, then it is your duty to help them except against a folk with whom you have a treaty. And Allah is seer of what ye do. (19)

It is remarkable to note that: Abdul Raman Azzam, a distinguished Arab scholar and thinker has maintained in the light of above verses that the sanctity of a treaty in Islam is above that of religion, as the Islamic law forbids the Muslims to aid their co-religionists against such non-Muslims, with whom they happen to have signed a treaty of peace. In view of this fact it may be asserted that Muslims are bound by their religion not to betray their respective nations, for their citizenship of a particular nation is based on their will and agreement to remain loyal to it.


In conclusion it may be said that with such a model, accommodating an ethical framework of Islam for peaceful co-existence at their disposal Muslims need not worry while living even in non-Muslim pluralistic societies. What they need most is that they should Islamize themselves thoroughly more internally than externally, more in terms of the spirit of Islam and its high ethical standards required and expected of Muslims in their individual and social as well as their private and public life. That way they can serve not only as better ambassadors of Islam to the outside world, but also effectively remove the barriers of mutual misunderstanding and unfounded stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that have unfortunately developed through the ages. By doing so they can simultaneously make themselves more lovable, more useful, indispensable to the spiritually and ethically retarded society at large. Thus they can convert the position of their being a minority into an opportunity to reassert themselves as servants and friends of Allah by displaying and practicing the inherent niceties and beauties of Islam in the light of the essence of its teachings encapsulated by the prophet Mohammed as follows:

I was sent as prophet to bring to perfection the noble qualities of good behavior and good characters.

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