Thursday, September 18, 2008

Islamic Pluralism as a tool for understanding others.

(a paper presented by Yusuf Roque Morales in the Interreligious conference held last August at the Dela Salle University Manila)


In the Name of God, Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, Lord of Humanity.

The people were one community(Ummah); then God sent forth the Prophets, Good Tidings to bear and warning, He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide the people touching their differences.”

(Surah al-Baqarah :213)

I would like to quote words from a former Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Barrister Abdul Rehaman,”During my researches, false ideas about Islam are still popular... and that misunderstanding and misinterpretations has added to the further ignorance about Islam. Essentially a system of peace, Islam presents a non-antagonistic view of all religious systems.”1

The Potential problems of Inter-Religious and intercultural Dialogue intensify in proportion to the exclusivity of the religious doctrine. Exclusivist Religious orientations and belief system can become divisive forces that can aggravate religious conflicts that can rip the fragile national psyche of a nation and in the context of multi-cultural societies retard the emergence of a national identity of a people. We have seen these things happen countless times.

We have seen that not only in the Muslim world alone that whenever religion permeates the national culture, Religious tradition maintains an active interest in issues of national politics and social justice. In the Muslim context the limit of strictly religious values in determining the national policies of a Muslim Nation state have never been fully explained or generally accepted by Muslim communities, thus creating a gray area in relating to current issues.

Currently there has been in existence Muslim nation states that seek to manifest the “Islamic or Muslim “ character of their country and thus in the process may seek to express their particular world-view on particularly religious moral precepts.

The Fear of Westoxification (Ghrabzadeghi) still exists around although this is manifested in diverse forms. And since classical Islamic Juridical thought is being taught still up to the present, the dual world-view of Darul Harb and darul Islam is still being perceived by the Western media as the dominant world-view of Muslims globally.

However it would be meritorious to note that although this is true to some extent that due to the existence of groups who try to fossilize Islamic thought, notably there are indeed evidences that indeed even in our own sacred texts, there are divine ordinances that order us to talk or do dialogue with other faiths, and that even the Beloved Prophet Muhammad (Salawatullahi alayhi) has conducted dialogue or has ordered his companions to do dialogue.

In the last three decade, religion has re-emerged as an important source of moral imperative needed to maintain social cohesion. Religious commitment has not only mobilized peoples sense of outrage in resisting abuses but it also has played a very constructive role in national reconciliation and nation building.

It is indeed in this tradition that we wish to lay a humble wreath of acknowledgement and that we would like to continue in that path of dialogue as well.

Because of the rise of the political doctrine of both the “clash of civilizations “ of Huntington and the “Preemptive strike doctrine” there was a rise of Islamic thinkers who have become alarmist, mistakenly possessing a conceptual continuity with the traditional views on Jihad and the increasing dangerous quandaries today. This has become the oft-cited” clash” with religiously inspired militancy massed against the liberal and democratic values of the West.

In the conventional view of the academe and the media (largely the media), not only are Muslims engaged in destabilizing the regional security arrangements they are also zealously opposed to anything that smacks of western liberal and democratic values.

This skewed viewpoint has been perpetuated by scholarship that treats Muslim fundamentalism as qualitatively distinct and irreducible to any common ground, representing an image of Islam in abstraction. Add to this the very vocal and visible image of minorities that present this idea.

Given the deepening global crisis arising from the misuse of religion by highly vocal minorities, it is indeed important for Muslim thinkers to rediscover and promote a common concern for peace with justice. No Muslim scholar could undermine the existing international order without taking a critical reassessment of the religious and ideological landscape that he lies thiamin. After all, in Islam, all human endeavours are distinct aspects of a total dialectic whose aim is the establishment of a global community under God.

Therein lies that distinct need for pluralism.

The Basis of Islamic Pluralism

Before justifying Islamic Pluralism, we may need to define it. What entirely is Islamic Pluralism?

Islamic pluralism is defined as the concept of maintaining peaceful relations between different religions, that is manifested in a number of related ways:

  • Islamic Pluralism may describe the Islam's worldview that it is not only one's religion as not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus recognizes that some level of truth and value exists in at least some other religions.

  • Islamic pluralism often is used as a Basis for interfaith dialogue. At a minimum, This leads promotion of unity, co-operation, or improved understanding between different religions, or denominations within the same religion

This is normally a synonym for religious tolerance, which is a condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

Beyond the particularist domains of the church, mosque, temple and synagogue, the ecumenical sensitivity of having pluralism as a common ground has drawn the attention of the people around the world, influencing their lives beyond the confines of their faith communities. It is the non-institutional of pluralism that has attracted a substantial majority of the world population. It manifests the universal social dimension of ones personal and private faith in order to project them in the world. This furthers inter-human understanding beyond an exclusionary and consequently intolerant institutional religiosity.

Islamic revelation presents a theology that resonates with the modern pluralistic belief that other faiths are not merely inferior manifestations of religiosity, but variant forms of individual and communal responses to the presence of the Transcendent in human life. All people are created in same divine nature (fitrah Allah) with a disposition that leads to the knowledge of God, the Creator to whom all worship is due simply because of the creation.2

This universal knowledge of the being in creation holds equally for the believer or non-believer, the worshiper of one being or of idols. More important, both a monotheist and an idolater can understand God by inspiring faith in divine mercy and forgiveness, can guide anyone who He wills to save.3

The term pluralism is one of the catchwords of a new order whose diversity of cultures, belief systems and values inspires both exhilaration at the endless shadings of human expression and dread of irreconcilable conflict.

This need to acknowledge the existence of the other may be due to the technological advances pushing the world into a global community where unlike before were nations isolated by physical , cultural and ideological boundaries. And this context they have been relatively isolated from one another and previous encounters with diversity were not as always friendly and warmly received. And in the end, conflicts and clashes occur as a result of cultural and civilizational differences, becoming a major source of dehumanizing others.

Recognition of religious pluralism within a community of faithful promises to advance the principle of inclusiveness, which would counsel accommodation, not conflict, among competing claims to religious truth in religiously and culturally heterogeneous societies. This could lead in a way to sense of multiple and unique possibilities for enriching the human quest for spiritual and moral wellbeing.

The Quran in recognizance of the universality of man has always been clear in its declaration that:

O Humankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the Noblest among you in the sight of God is the Most Godfearing among you. God is All-knowing and All-Aware.”

(Surah al-Hujurat:13)

The Qur'an has used the word li Ta'arafu (you may know/comprehend) whose root word, arif means to fully understand. For by understanding yourselves only that you can talk with each other.

In looking at Pluralism in the Islamic tradition,we shall look at the context of the Qur'an, being the Primal source of Muslim creed and law.

The Muslim pluralist creed is further elucidated in Surah al-Baqarah Ayah 285 which states:

The Messenger (Muhammad PBUH) believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, and so do the believers. Each one Believes in Allah, His Angels, His Books and His messengers.(they say) WE make no distinction between any of His messengers and they say 'We hear and obey.'”

(Surah al-Baqarah: 285)4

It is part and parcel of being Muslim to accept several general facts:

First, that before the advent of Muhammad (PBUH) there were other Prophets sent before him,

Second, and that some of these Prophets brought scriptures or revelation as a proof of their tasks.

Ans thirdly it is part and parcel of their faith that they must acknowledge these Prophets saying “La nufariqu bayna Ahadin min Rusulih” We make no distinction between any of them. What is clear therefore is that from the very start Muslims are ordered to be open and welcome to other faiths.

This ayah merely reinforces in an earlier ayah of the universality of revelation and that God has sent his mercy to all of mankind. As it runs states:

The people were one community (Ummah); then God sent forth the prophet, Good Tidings to bear and warning, He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide the people touching their differences.”

(Surah al-Baqarah :213)

And of course the universality of prophets sent by God to all nations is mentioned many times in the Qur'an and among them I would cite these from the many l ayahs (verses) from the Holy Qur'an , :

And verily We have sent among every Ummah (community/nation) a messenger (proclaiming) worship Allah (alone) and avoid (keep away from) Taghout (all false deities/beliefs)5

(Surah an-Nahl: 36)

And for every Ummah (a community or nation) there is a messenger; when their messenger comes, the matter between them will be judged with justice, and they will not be wronged”

(Surah Yunus: 47)6

And we have sent Messengers before you (O Muhammad) of some of them we related you (the Muslims) their story and some of them we have not related.”

(Surah al-Ghafir: 78)7

What is clear from these verses that God has sent Messengers to all peoples and communities which means that each community has a distinct part of the truth. According to Prophetic Traditions, God has sent 120,000 prophets and that in that Muslims acknowledge that they have been divinely sent.

As a part of the Abrahamic traditions the Qur'an speaks of a group of believers known as Ahlul Kitaab (people of the book) of which the Qur'an speaks of them and at certain times, God revelations in the Qur'an are addressed to them.

The Qur'an describes them in a manner as :

And you will find nearest in love to the believers those who say “we are Christians” that is because among them are monks and priests and they are not Proud”

(Surah al-Maidah :82)8

The Qur'an also sets a standard on how dealings with People of the Book (Ahlul Kitaab) should be conducted:

And argue not with the People of the Scriptures unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them that do wrong: and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you: Our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender. “

(Surah Ankabut:46)9

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which hath come unto thee. For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had Allah willed he could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are.) So vie one with one another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then by that wherein ye differ. ”

(Surah Al Maidah :48)10

We could go on and on, describing ayah after ayah that clearly mandates each and every particular rule that tells us that as Muslims, it is but part and parcel of our faith to be pluralism and open to dialogue but then what?What does this mean for us Muslims in today's globalized world?

There are several realizations to this questions. I would like to point out that the major argument for religious pluralism in Islam which is expressed in the Qur'an is clearly based on the relationship between private faith and its projection to the Islamic Polity.

  1. It is clear that in matters of private faith, the position of the Qur'an vis-a-vis other faiths is non-interventionist. In the Public projection of that faith, Islam is based on the principle of peaceful coexistence, the willingness of a community(in a Muslim country) to recognize religiously independent communities to ruin their affairs and peacefully co-exist with Muslims. Though this may not find immediate acceptance in todays world but this principle has always existed from the time of our Prophet (SA).

  1. The universal message of the Qur'an reveals that without subordination to a limited historical context, that the revelation therein accepts religious pluralism as given and even necessary, requiring Muslims to continually negotiate, transform and emphasize the fundamental unity of humankind in its origin and creation by the Divine Being. And despite the fact that there are gloomy predictions being circulated elsewhere in the name of theology and faith in a way that religious ideas are being used to promote hatred, destruction and mutual distrust in human societies the affirmation of diversity is one of the cornerstones in the creation narrative in the Holy Qur'an, and instead of regarding this diversity as a source of evitable tensions, it suggests that human diversity is indispensable for a particular tradition to define its common beliefs practices, values and traditions for its community life.11

  1. The idea that “The people are one community” is the foundation of a theological pluralism that presupposes that the divinely ordained quivalence and equal rights of all human beings.This unity may be justified theologically within the activity of the divine; it is best sought in the the sphere of ethics, which actually sustains people of faith. through this innate ethical nature, through “Fitra” (the primordial nature of every human being) which is given by Allah to all, humankind then acquires the ability to deal with others on the basis of equity and fairness. This as a result would allow the development of a global ethic that can provide the pluralistic basis for mediating interreligious relationships among peoples of diverse spiritual commitments, enabling them to build a working consensus of values and goals.

Whats therefore in the place of Islamic Pluralism in Dialogue?

What the Qur'an pushes forward as a paradigm is plain and simple; Islamic Pluralism is a process by which it could provide both a ethical,theological and spiritual basis for dialogue, mediation and the forging of interreligious relationships to build a global community of diverse spiritual traditions.

May this humble article be a wreath of flowers that I lay before my spiritual teachers Marhumin Prof Amilussin Jumaani and Mufti Abdulghani Yusuf, foremost teachers and pioneers in dialogue and peace in Mindanao and to my master, Hazrat Baqiyatullah Muhammad al-Muntadhar Ibn Al-Hassan Al Mahdi.


Scriptural :

The Meanings of the Glorious Qur'an, Marmaduke Pikthall, Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an Inc.,New York,1994

The Qur'an: Arabic Text with corresponding Meanings, ed. by Saheeh International,AbulQaseem Publishing House, Riyad KSA,1997

Translation of the Meanings of the Holy Qur'an in The English Language,Hilali and Khan, King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur'an, KSA, 2000

Scholarly Books:

Islam in a Changing World, ed by Jerichow and Simonsen . Curzons press, Great Britain, 1997

Religious Freedom,Minorities and Islam: am inquiry into the Malaysian Experience. Yousif,Ahmed. Thinkers Library BHD,Selangor Malaysia,1998

The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, Sachedina, Abdulaziz, ,Center for Strategic and International Studies,2001, Oxford University press.USA

The Peace”; Rehaman, Abdul,Dubai Publishing. UAE, 1999

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