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Pluralism (Religious)

John L. Esposito
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Pluralism (Religious)

The Qurʿān contains many passages that support a pluralistic approach to religious diversity: “We believe what has been sent down to us, and we believe what has been sent to you. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit” (28:46), and “We have sent revelations to you as We sent revelations to Noah and the prophets who came after him; and We sent revelations to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring, and to Jesus and Job … and to Moses God spoke directly” (4:163–164).

The Qurʿān states that God deliberately made humanity into different nations and tribes so that “you may know one another. The most honored among you in the eyes of God is the one who is the most righteous” (49:13). Muslim scholars like Fathi Osman have argued that diversity is a part of divine creation. Rather than abolishing diversity, he believes that this passage encourages people to learn to handle their differences intellectually, morally, and behaviorally, both within a single community and among multiple communities. Verses 11:110 and 41:45 are also cited in support. Osman also points to the Qurʿānic title of “Children of Adam” (17:70) given to all people as a sign that God confers honor and dignity on all of humanity. He believes that this honor and dignity must be assured through guarantees of freedom of faith, opinion, and expression for all people. He also cites ayahs 2:256 and 2:282 as proof in support of this interpretation. Finally ayahs 30:22 and 49:13 recognize ethnic and racial pluralism, which Osman interprets as a call for cooperation among different races, ethnicities, and social ranks. Because “every human being has his or her spiritual compass and has been granted dignity by God” (7:172–173), Osman contends that scripture supports the development of universal relations and global pluralism, including not only Jews and Christians, but also Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and people of other faiths:

"For of the People of the Book, there are the upright who recite God's revelations throughout the night, while prostrating themselves. They believe in God and the Last Day, bid the right and forbid the wrong and hasten to do good deeds. Those are among the righteous people. And whatever good they do, they will not be denied it (Osman, p. 65)."

Contemporary Islam and Pluralism.

During the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of European colonial domination of the Muslim world, many Muslim activists advocated the reassertion of Islam as the dominant faith and ideology and offered it as an alternative ideology to prevailing forms of secular Arab nationalism, socialism, and Marxism. Many of these “Islamists” dismissed pluralism as little more than relativism. Interpreting Qurʿānic passages such as ayah3:110 (“You are the best of all people”) as evidence of Islam's superiority to other religions, many were intolerant or leery of any “compromise” with non-Muslims. This situation has changed considerably.

The political realities of the 1980s led to greater calls for government accountability, political participation, and human rights, setting in motion a growing discussion and debate among Muslims of all orientations regarding democratization, pluralism, civil society, rule of law, and human rights. Mainstream Islamists became prominent leaders in social and political reform, emphasizing civil society and the opening up of the one-party and authoritarian political systems in the Muslim world. Theory and practice, theology, and electoral politics in the Arab and Muslim world reflected the debates over democratization and pluralism, both religious and political. By 1990, the term “pluralism” (taʿaddudīyah) had become common to explore conflict and differences in Muslim society as well as the legitimacy of a multiparty system in an Islamic state. Although exclusivist revolutionary Islamist movements continued to refuse compromise and peaceful coexistence, a new Islamic methodology of dialogue and conflict resolution was introduced by moderate Islamists in a literature that emphasized differences of opinion (adab al-ikhtilāf) in Islam. Major discussions and debates focused on the possibility of normal relations between Islamic and non-Islamic states, the toleration of political and religious differences within an Islamic state, the creation of opportunities for religious minorities, and public roles for women within an Islamic state.

Muslim scholars of diverse orientations have advocated a pluralism that affirms principles of freedom, difference, and coexistence, based on interpretations of Qurʿānic teachings regarding the equality of all humanity. Thus, for example, many argue that the Qurʿān (30:22 and 48:13) teaches that God deliberately created humanity to consist of different nations, ethnicities, tribes, and languages. This interpretation is bolstered by ayah2:251, which states that God created difference in order to foster competition between nations and to guarantee progress. Qurʿānic passages regarding the plurality of civilizations, systems, and laws (5:48 and 5:69) are interpreted as encouraging people to understand one another better and co-exist rather than engage in conflict. Moderate Islamists also assert that God created the Muslim community as a “middle community” (ummatan wasaṭ) as a reflection of His favor for moderation and desire to avoid extremes, so that seeking the negation or eradication of the religious Other is not permitted. These interpretations or reinterpretations provide the foundations to support the belief that pluralism is the essence of Islam as revealed in the Qurʿān and practiced by the prophet Muḥammad and the early caliphs.

Many Muslim pluralists point to ayah2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion,” as a challenge and contradiction to religious worldviews that divide the world into the two mutually exclusive spheres of Islam and either war or unbelief. Focusing on freedom of religion not only permits greater levels of peace and tolerance, but also opens the door to protect the rights of religious minorities and approach missions from the perspective of partnership, rather than of competition. For example, Tunisian scholar and leader of the Renaissance Party, Rāshid al-Ghannūshī, believes that the Qurʿānic principle that there is no compulsion in religion should serve as the basis for religious, cultural, political, and ideological pluralism in Muslim society. As evidence of pluralism forming part of Islam's heritage, he looks to the Middle Ages when Jews lived peacefully in Muslim countries and were free to choose their work on the basis of skill, rather than religious affiliation.

American scholar Mahmoud Ayoub has worked to discredit visions of religious exclusivism in Islam. Citing ayah5:48 (“To everyone we have appointed a way and a course to follow”) and ayah2:148 (“For each there is a direction toward which he turns; vie therefore with one another in the performance of good works. Wherever you may be, God shall bring you all together [on the Day of Judgment]. Surely God has power over all things”), Ayoub argues that God created pluralism. He notes that there are two different levels of Islamic identity in the Qurʿān—one based on membership in the institutionalized religion and legal system and the other based on individual faith. Because the truth or falsity of a person's faith is known only by God, Ayoub believes that fighting people on the basis of their faith is not permissible in Islam. He has specifically challenged literal and militant interpretations of ayah9:29 (“Fight those among the People of the Book who do not have faith in God and the Last Day, and do not prohibit what God and His Messenger had prohibited, and do not abide by the true faith, until they give the jizyah with their own hand, humbled”) by noting that two of the three conditions laid out for fighting—not having faith in God and the Last Day and not abiding by the true faith—cannot be verified by human beings.

Protected People of the Book—Dhimmī Revisited.

The Qurʿān teaches that the “People of the Book” are to enjoy a special relationship with Muslims because they share a common tie to both monotheism and divine revelation that is believed to come from the same “Mother Book” in Heaven. Islam requires submission to the will of God, rather than conversion, as the criterion for faith. Jews and Christians are therefore particularly recognized as People of the Book because they share belief in God's revealed will through prophets common to all three faiths, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The Qurʿān recognizes the potential for salvation for People of the Book in ayah2:62, which states, “Those who believe—the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans—whosoever believe in God and the Last Day and do good works, they shall have their reward from their Lord and shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they come to grief.” Other religious groups—Magians, Samaritans, and Zoroastrians—also came to be regarded as protected religious minorities (dhimmīs) because they believed in one God, although they did not accept Muḥammad's prophethood. However advanced compared to Christianity this early Muslim teaching was, by modern standards it amounts to second-class citizenship and a limited form of pluralism and tolerance.

A cross section of diverse Muslim voices and Islamic scholars from North Africa to Southeast Asia, Europe to America, Sunnī and Shīʿī, traditionalist, Islamist, and liberal reformist, have championed new understandings and interpretations (ijtihād) of pluralism and tolerance. A starting point for many contemporary Muslim thinkers has been the reinterpretation of the “protected” status, dhimmī, of non-Muslims. Among the earliest and most prominent reformers, Mahmoud Ayoub has reinterpreted the term dhimmah, noting that the term, which is found only in the ḥadīth, refers to those who are entitled to a protective relationship with Muslims in exchange for payment of the jizyah (tax paid by non-Muslims). He does not believe that the term was intended to imply second-class status. Rather, it referred to a relationship. Similarly, he believes that the Arabic phrase ahl al-kitāb, normally translated into English as “People of the Book,” ought to be translated as “Family of the Book,” because ahl always signifies a family relationship. Because the Qurʿān enjoins Muslims and all people of faith to love and be kind to their families, he believes that the injunction to love and be kind ought to carry over to the Jewish and Christian communities as well, a practice that encourages pluralism.

Indonesian scholar Nurcholish Madjid was a major Southeast Asian voice for religious pluralism. Writing in the context of the ethnically and religiously pluralistic societies of Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Madjid has identified the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in Indonesia as contemporary evidence of Islam's historical practice of religious pluralism. He calls for a reexamination of the Qurʿānic order of the plurality of human communities, in which God prescribes a Law and an Open Way to each people. For Madjid the Qurʿānic concept of the unity of God (tawḥīd) is evidence that universal Truth is naturally one, although physical manifestations of that Truth may vary. Because God requires exclusive submission (islām) rather than Islam, the specific faith path, Madjid believes that islām encompasses the common principles of all messengers and prophets. Thus, all followers of those messengers and prophets constitute a single community. Recognition of this understanding of islām as the key to genuine and legitimate religion makes religious pluralism a Qurʿānic obligation. It should be noted that pluralism does not affirm the truth of all religions in their actual practice, but requires that all religions be free to be practiced. Individuals are then responsible for finding truth and a meeting point with other people of faith based only on submission to God.

Because Islam recognizes that true faith can exist in forms other than Islam, Madjid believes that the critical issue of faith is whether a person is sincere in his or her faith and engages in righteous conduct, not whether he or she believes in the prophecy of Muḥammad. He cites ayah2:62 in support, noting that salvation depends on “faithfulness to God and the Day of Judgment and the carrying out of good deeds,” not on “factors of descent.” He includes in his definition of People of the Book anyone who follows “teachers of moral law,” including Jews, Christians, Sabaeans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, because the Qurʿān states that God has sent a Messenger to every community. Some of these Messengers are described while others are not, yet all had the same duty—teaching monotheism.

Based upon both religious teachings and examples from Islamic history, Madjid maintains that Muslims have a particularly important role to play in pluralism. He cites as primary examples the Constitution of Medina during the prophet Muḥammad's lifetime, which was the first known political document asserting religious freedom; the historical track record of fairness and justice that occurred under Muslim rule, including the Jewish Golden Age; and the second Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab's guarantee of Christian personal and property rights and safety for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Madjid argues that these examples serve as a divine command to accept the natural plurality of human society, a command that needs to be heeded more than ever at a time when the tolerance and pluralism of classical Islam appear to be disappearing in the course of globalization.

Pluralism and Social Justice.

Islam emphasizes both the faith and deeds of the individual and the community. Muslims are expected to be just, honest, and charitable and to fight oppression of the poor and powerless. The Qurʿān and Prophet Muḥammad regarded societies that failed to exhibit these characteristics—that is, societies that exploited the poor, orphans, and women or were corrupt and oppressive—as being in a state of sinful disobedience to God. Because God's kingdom was to be based upon unity, equality, justice, and peace, Muḥammad taught that anyone who worked toward the establishment of a just society was considered to be in submission to God's will. Some Muslim advocates of interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism regard this tradition as providing the blueprint for interreligious dialogue, one that focuses on cooperation based on social ethics and social justice, rather than on differences in beliefs.

One of the more prolific and outspoken advocates of pluralism and social justice is South African scholar Farid Esack, a prominent Muslim intellectual and activist in the struggle to end apartheid who is now teaching in the United States. Esack has defined religious pluralism as the creation of an environment in which everyone is safe and free to be human and to serve God. Arguing against a vision of pluralism that creates a value-free post-modernity, Esack calls instead for a more consistent application of morality that asserts the right of every human being to experience justice and be free from oppression, tyranny, and conflict. He does not unequivocally call for peace, defined as the lack of conflict, because of his experience in South Africa where the ruling government used peace to preserve a social order that was inherently unjust and oppressive.

Esack's vision of religious and social pluralism embraces all marginalized groups. More than a matter of tolerating or co-existing with the Other, this vision calls for valuing and being enriched by the Other without establishing boundaries, whether legal or ritual. The goal is to free people from injustice and servitude to other human beings so that they are free to worship God. Esack assigns a special role to Muslim intellectuals in this struggle, encouraging them to set aside arguments about how to sight the moon or slaughter a cow correctly in favor of working on important issues, like fighting tribalism and racism within the Muslim community. This vision of pluralism is more than functional or utilitarian; it embraces the theological legitimacy of other faiths based on the Qurʿānic proclamation of the single brotherhood of all people.

India's Asghar Ali Engineer shares with Esack the belief that God's original vision of pluralism for humanity has been corrupted over time by theologians who have sought to promote and legitimate the domination and exploitation of the powerless. Observing the critical importance of the Qurʿān's teachings on justice and sympathy for the oppressed, Engineer has called for less emphasis on theology, popular religious practices, customs, and traditions, which are all products of human interpretation, and greater attention to divine revelation itself, the Qurʿān.

Engineer's vision or theology of pluralism is rooted in the Qurʿānic and prophetic values of justice (ʿadl), human dignity (karāmah), compassion (raḥmah), and permission to religious Others, such as Jews and Christians, to practice their religion freely. Because the Qurʿān obligates Muslims to respect all prophets and include all persons respecting those prophets within the faith community, Engineer believes that pluralism is a Qurʿānic obligation. Engineer concludes that “[t]hose who are committed to [the] true spirit of religion should cultivate tolerance and respect for different religions and see to it that religious differences are solved through dialogue rather than through confrontation” (Engineer, p. 6). Pluralism is necessary for the creation of this reality because only pluralism asserts the equal validity of all religions.

One of the most prolific and insightful proponents of pluralism is the American scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina. Sachedina emphasizes the centrality of the Qurʿān and of ijtihād. Although he considers the ḥadīth to be important in determining the historical and cultural context of the Qurʿānic revelation, Sachedina does not believe that the timeless and universal message of the Qurʿān can or should be bound by that context. His vision of pluralism is rooted exclusively in the Qurʿān because of its unique authority among Muslims, because its spiritual space is shared by other monotheistic traditions, and because it recognizes the salvific value of other religions. In support, he cites the Qurʿān's discussion of  “The Book,” emphasizing the unity of the Message while acknowledging the plurality of the prophets.

Sachedina believes that the essential message of the Qurʿān is the unity of humanity as evidenced by the common origins of all human beings and their right to God's mercy and forgiveness. ayah2:213 states that humanity is a single community that God has the power to unite, making religious pluralism a necessary corollary to the diversity that characterizes human existence on earth. Thus, he concludes, although differences between religious traditions and the specifics of worship exist, greater attention should be given to the common human experiences of God, including judgment on Judgment Day, the requirement to be moral citizens, and the need to acknowledge God as the Creator of all of humanity.

Sachedina has called for religious inclusivity that recognizes both multiple and unique truths. This vision of pluralism permits each religion to maintain its specificity and differences from other religions in matters of belief and practice while recognizing the oneness of humanity and the need to work toward better understanding among faiths. In other words, although human beings are free to have their own internal convictions, this should lead to coexistence and negotiation of spiritual space, rather than conflict.

Sachedina's definition of religious pluralism requires recognition of the religious Other as a spiritual equal entitled to salvation within the Other's own belief system. He does not allow for the supersession of one religion by another or the inferiority or superiority of one religion over another, as this would be incompatible with God's justice. “God's justice does not allow favoring one group while ill-treating another. All peoples who believe in a prophet and in the revelation particular to them, ‘their wages await them with their Lord, and no fear shall there be on them, neither shall they sorrow’ (2:62)” (Sachedina, p. 23). Thus the potential for salvation through other revelations, including the Torah and Gospels, is recognized, and the rationalization of aggression against and exploitation of religious Others because of the supposed “flaws” of their religion is denied.

The desired outcome of religious pluralism, according to Sachedina's construct, is the creation of an ethical public order that requires human beings to live and work together for justice and peace for the entire world. Broad human acceptance of this order would be possible because every person possesses fitrah, or a primordial nature that allows each person to deal with others in fairness and equity. Sachedina believes that this moral ability should lead to the development of a global ethic of pluralism that embraces understanding and active engagement with the religious Other.



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