Many, Together: Pluralism in the Qur’anic Verse

In the 2016 US Presidential election, there was a considerable amount of negative rhetoric about Muslims from the Republican ticket. It was the continuation of building discrimination and fear that began in earnest after the events of September 11, 2001, and has impacted the lives of millions of American Muslims in the almost two decades since. Much of it made the Qur’an and those who follow it out to be violent and dangerous, as well as hateful of those different than themselves—especially the United States. But millions of Muslims live peacefully around the world in Asia, the Middle East, and throughout the Western world. Many of them engage in the western culture and are friends and family with those other religions which some say that the Qur’an preaches that they’re required to hate. So how does this rhetoric square with the real lives of millions of people? Does the Qur’an really preach intolerance? In an increasingly xenophobic American culture, many would say that it does, but they are misinformed. On the contrary, the Qur’an has many verses which encourage pluralism and the coexistence of Islam with the other people of the world, including upholding diversity as an important attribute of humanity. In the end, those who argue that Islam is an exclusionary religion are twisting the scripture and the actions of few to justify their preconceived ideas and to motivate their political aspirations.

 

Pluralist Verses in the Qur’an

Pluralism is defined as, “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”1 However, pluralism cannot just be the tolerance of multiple traditions within a society, but also requires members of the society to respect multiple viewpoints. Everyone in said society must accept the other ways of life around them as legitimate, so that resentment and superiority do not fester. There many verses in the Qur’an that encourage pluralism in society, but the one often cited as the most all-encompassing advocacy says:

“To each among you, We have prescribed a law And a clear way. If Allah had willed, He would have made You one nation, but that (He) may test you in what He has given you; so compete in good deeds. The return of you (all) is to Allah, and then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ”2

 

In this verse, the Qur’an clearly says that God intentionally created humans to be diverse, specifically in the separations between nations and cultures. It is implied that rather than attempt a singular homogenous society, humans were made to be pluralistic and differing in way of life, which then further implies that diversity is a positive god-given attribute that ought to be maintained.3 It also implies that everyone is the same in the afterlife. A particularly interesting part about this verse is the implication that people of many cultures should “compete in good deeds” and “return…to Allah”, which seems to suggest that Islam is not the only creed which can lead someone to salvation.

This naturally leads to the question of Islamic tolerance for other religions. In particular, the Qur’an is very expressive about God’s wish that Islam be cooperative and respectful of other al-kitab, or “People of the Book”. This is generally taken to mean others who follow the scripture as originating from Abraham, which would be Christianity and Judaism.4 There are many verses concerning interactions with other People of the Book, including, “And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit.”5 These verses in Islam order that Muslims hold respect and camaraderie with other Abrahamic religions. This respect grows from the fact that all three have the roots in the same history, and the same scripture. In the Qur’an, Muslims are instructed to respect in the prophetic line that began with Abraham, the same prophetic line followed by the other People of the Book,

“Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to Him [God] do we submit.”6

 

All three of the Abrahamic religions believe the basic statement above, and are subsequently ordered that if they do believe that, they should “make no distinction between one another” who believe the same. They are all different forms of the same worship, and their beliefs differ more at a surface level than in deep substance. In the end, they all believe deeply in the one and all powerful God, and in the prophetic line that is his communication on earth.

While there have been attempts to expand the meaning of “People of the Book” to include religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, the most generally accepted meaning is Christianity and Judaism, which are listed in the Qur’an and which hold many of the same beliefs.7 However, this does not mean that the Qur’an instructs that Muslims should be intolerant to all those who have faiths other than Abrahamic. On the contrary, imbued in the very essence of the message of God is respect for all humankind. The Qur’an establishes respect for humans in verses such as, “Now, indeed, worthy of esteem because of all creation they alone chose to accept the “trust” of freedom of will.”8 So established by the Qur’an as a baseline is a human’s right to respect based on their humanity alone, without any other attribute.9 From there, the Qur’an encourages respect for various beliefs, saying, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.”10 This might be read simply as an encouragement not to use force to coerce people into the Muslim faith, but that it an overly simplistic reading of the text, as it assumes that violent means is the only method of compulsion that exists. Compulsion also can and should include social pressure such as ostracization, peer pressure, and guilting; it can include threats, intimidation, and bribery. Any means by which a person may feel required to believe in Islam is a form of compulsion. According to the Qur’an, the choice to belief must be a free and personal choice, which would seem to imply that if an individual were to choose something other than Islam, it would be against the Qur’an to treat them differently than a Muslim.

In fact, the Qur’an even goes as far as to suggest that you don’t need to be Muslim to achieve salvation. The Qur’an says, “Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief.”11 This would seems at first glance to only apply to People of the Book, but I think it can be extrapolated to include any who believe in a central higher power and a life after death, and who do good in this life. This verse does not require one to believe in Muhammad as a prophet, nor specifically any prophets at all, nor any of the holy books. It would seem to me that a scripture that does not require belief in it to achieve the ultimate reward would be the most pluralist, as it definitively places Islam on the level of every other devote faith, and allows it no room to claim superiority over anything else.

All of these verses taken together spell out one main message: the Qur’an tells its followers that God made the world intentionally diverse, that they walk the same path as those of the Abrahamic faith, and that they should respect everyone else as well because they are people. Throughout their history, Islam has often followed these rules, despite the impressions many have of Islamic society today. The Islamic rule of Spain, the Ottoman Turks, and the Fatimids in north Africa all gave large amounts of religious freedom to those non-muslims living under their rule.12 For example, while the Ottoman empire spanned three continents and countless cultures, they managed to reconcile the large number of cultures that were encompassed by their rule by recognizing both the political and religious necessity of allowing them the freedom to practice their culture and religion, which contributed to the Ottoman empire lasting for more than 600 years.13 While sometimes religions were not accepted as much as grudgingly tolerated, widespread discriminatory violence like that seen against Jews in Europe was significantly less common in early Muslim civilizations due to the Qur’an’s pluralist teachings.14 However throughout history, those interpretations within societies have not always been the standard.

 

The Origins of Exclusionary Islam

In modern times many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, think not of the pluralistic societies of the past, but of the Islam most commonly represented in popular culture in the world today. That Islam is an Islam of exclusion, to the point not only of lacking respect for diversity, but to believing in the removal of all non-Muslim elements from society—including the traditions, interpretations, and the people themselves. While this version of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism is extremely misunderstood and misrepresented in the West, it is true that there has been and are today powerful segments of the Islamic community which preach exclusion and the supremacy of Islam as being superior to pluralism and mutual respect. This includes exclusion of multiple interpretations of the faith within Islam, as intra-religious diversity is also a form of pluralism. Unfortunately, these interpretations have become the dominant interpretation in many modern Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia.15 It is taught in Muslim schools, and in this way becomes the primary method of interpreting the Qur’an, becoming imbedded in Islamic society.16 But how do they take the pluralist scripture of the Qur’an, as demonstrated above, and make the only acceptable reading one of exclusion? The answer is an intentional reinterpretation for political gain, mostly by removing Qur’anic verses from their historic context and claiming negation of previous verses.

Fundamentalist Muslim theologians abide by the laws exactly as they are written, but often times Qur’anic scriptures contradict. In these cases, fundamentalist Muslims say that the harsher verses cancel the more lenient verses, so that those verses should no longer be implemented in any situation.17 This often takes the form of earlier Meccan verses being cancelled by later, more severe Medinan verses.18 Many of the exclusionary verses that these fundamentalists cite as evidence of a militantly exclusionary Islam fall into this category of harsh Medinan verses, such as:

“Then when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolators wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and perform the prayer and pay zakat [the alms tax] , let them go their way. Surely God is forgiving and merciful”19

 

This verse is completely at odds with more lenient verses, such as: “…If any one slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land—It would be as if he slew the whole people.”20, which provides for the individuals right to life and speaks out in the firmest tones against killing accept as a response against aggression.21 In the fundamentalist interpretation, this verse is trumped by the harsher, more exclusionary verse which calls for the killing of the idolaters. This ideology did a similar reinterpretation around the Islamic idea of jihad, which translates to to struggle or to strive. Jihad was originally the idea of personally struggling or striving in the way and name of God, and was not connected to war. It could be standing up for what is right, striving to be pious and good, or any other challenge or struggle that is done for God. However, due to its definitional ambiguity it was relatively easy to twist to justify and motivate imperialist goals by the state. It was used, as religion often is, as the persuasion to convince subjects of a state to serve a greedy country, supposedly “in the name of God”. Today, jihad is not associated with personal devotion or struggling in the way of what is right, but is deeply connected in the minds of many to violent extremists who commit acts of terror in the name of God.

These reinterpretations were very successful. It is most obviously advantageous to promote these views for the sake of power because a monolithic uniting force is considerably easier to unite people around than many individual entities. The idea of correctness and fighting for a singular sacred ideology is much more inspiring, and many men can be driven to die for the name of God. In addition, it is much easier to form social cohesion and nationalism around a sense of shared identity. Adding these together, one can see why in the expansion and maintaining of a state or of any regime it might be initially desirable to promote an exclusionary viewpoint.22 And to effectively promote, it is necessary to convince the populous that it is the right thing to do. For Muslim nations, it was easiest way to do this through Qur’anic scripture.

 

Reconciliation

The more militant verses of the Qur’an may seems unavoidable in their implications, but the Qur’an is an extremely complicated and interpretable text. Many, including myself, would argue that rather than Meccan verses being trumped by Meccan verses, they must both be taken in their historical context and implemented accordingly. In modern times, there are a variety of Qur’anic exegesis involving the inclusion of conflicting verses, and I find the most convincing one to be the ideas included in the theology of the Inclusive Reformist, which states that Islam must be inclusive of both the Medinan and Meccan verses, and apply them using reason.23 For example, the verses describing violence above can be considered in a more inclusive way. The Meccan verse of the nonviolent doctrine was revealed at a time of relative peace, when Muhammad was still attempting to build his following in Mecca and before he was driven out to Medina.24 Here, Islam needed to coexist and cooperate. Therefore, in a time of peace there should be no violence against non aggressors. However, the historical context of the Medinan verses are different, as they were revealed at a time of war and uncertainty for a small and besieged Muslim community. These verses were written by an Islam under attack, and therefor give permission for violence as there are aggressors at all quarters.25 If you include the historical context, it gives you a guide for when you should use each over the other; the more brutal verse when the circumstance and society require, and the more lenient when it doesn’t. I would argue that today in our modern society, the stricter Medinan verses revealed while in the midst of attempt to survive clan warfare are no longer applicable, and hopefully they will never be applicable again. Today, there is no existential military threat to the existence of Islam. Instead, in our extremely populated and connected world the need to cooperate and coexist is stronger now more than ever, and the Meccan verses of tolerance and respect in a multicultural society are more relevant now perhaps than they were even when they were written. In fact, I think the larger threat to Islam lies in a continuation of some Islamic states to keep on the path of exclusionary Islam, both of other Muslims and the rest of the world.

Overall, Islam is a religion that teaches acceptance and respect for diversity in our society, and attempts to narrow it to an exclusionary religions ignore important Qur’anic verse in favor of political power. While some who claim to represent it are intolerant of the variety in the human experience, this is not representative of Islam around the globe as billions of Muslims live and practice peacefully, surrounded by those of all creeds, both Muslim and non-Muslim. In the end, the stereotype of Muslims having a vendetta against the “infidels” is not representative of the religion they follow, and is just as small minded as those who would preach the hegemony of Islam itself. In a time of divisive rhetoric, it is more important than ever to think past the fear and take the time to investigate if there is any truth behind the othering that our society continues to participate in, rather than blindly engaging in it. Rarely is something as large and complicated as a global religion able to be simplified to a singular interpretation, and if someone attempts to simplify it as such, deeper thought to the plausibility of that claim is always justified.

 

Endnotes

  1. Pluralism.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed May 19, 2018.
  2. Qur’an 5:51 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  3. Asani, Ali S. “”So That You May Know One Another”: A Muslim American Reflects on Pluralism and Islam.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 40-51
  4.  ASANI, ALI S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60. pg.55
  5.  Qur’an 29:46 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  6. Qur’an 3:84 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  7.  ASANI, ALI S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60. pg.55
  8. Qur’an 33:72 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  9. Hassan, Riffat. “The Qur’anic Perspective on Religious Pluralism.” In Peace-building By, Between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians, edited by Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David W. Augsburger, 91-101. 1st ed. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010. Pg. 95
  10.  Qur’an 2:256 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  11. Quran 5:27 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  12.  Asani, Ali S. “”So That You May Know One Another”: A Muslim American Reflects on Pluralism and Islam.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 40-51
  13.  Barkey, Karen. “Islam and Toleration: Studying the Ottoman Imperial Model.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 19, no. 1/2 (2005): 5-19.
  14. Asani, Ali S. “”So That You May Know One Another”: A Muslim American Reflects on Pluralism and Islam.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 40-51
  15. ASANI, ALI S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60. pg.55
  16. ibid.
  17. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018.
  18.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an and Modernist Social Reform:Sharur and Shabestari.” Lecture, May 1, 2018.
  19.  Qur’an 9:5 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  20. Qur’an 5:32 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  21. Hassan, Riffat. “The Qur’anic Perspective on Religious Pluralism.” In Peace-building By, Between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians, edited by Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David W. Augsburger, 91-101. 1st ed. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010. Pg. 95
  22.  ASANI, ALI S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60.
  23.  Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018.
  24.  Asani, Ali S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60.
  25.  ibid.

 

Citations:

Asani, Ali S. “Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Qur’an.” The American Scholar 71, no. 1 (2002): 52-60.

Asani, Ali S. “”So That You May Know One Another”: A Muslim American Reflects on Pluralism and Islam.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 588 (2003): 40-51

Barkey, Karen. “Islam and Toleration: Studying the Ottoman Imperial Model.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 19, no. 1/2 (2005)

Heck, Paul L. Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press, 2009.

Hassan, Riffat. “The Qur’anic Perspective on Religious Pluralism.” In Peace-building By, Between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians, edited by Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David W. Augsburger, 91-101. 1st ed. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.

The Qur’an (Khalidi, Tarif)

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an and Modernist Social Reform:Sharur and Shabestari.” Lecture, May 1, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Spectrum of Various Approaches to the Qur’anic Exegesis” Lecture, May 3, 2018.

Pluralism.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed May 19, 2018.