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Islam & Pluralism

by Hashim Ali (India)

Pluralism and Tolerance

Pluralism is defined as “a condition of society in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious or cultural groups co-exist within a nation. It also means that reality is made of many ultimate substances. And also the belief that no single explanatory system or view of reality can account for all the phenomenon of life."

Intolerance to other religions is exhibited by refusing to accept or by denigrating other prophets and their scriptures. While the Jews and Christians did this for centuries, there is not a single instance of such intolerant behavior by the Muslims towards prophets Moses and Jesus (Peace be upon them), in the whole history of Islam. Mary (Peace be on her) according to the Qur’an is the most exalted of women.

O Mary! God has selected thee and sanctified thee and chosen thee above all the women of the World. (3:42)

Muslims are asked to make no distinction between any of the earlier prophets. Only a few with whom the Arabs of the Prophet’s time were familiar, have therefore been mentioned in the Qur’an. The Qur’an repeatedly confirms the earlier scriptures but also mentions that they have undergone some changes. A fact that has been accepted by modern researchers of the concerned religions.

There have been no people among whom a Warner has not passed. (35:24)

And We have certainly sent apostles before you; of some We have told you and of others We have told you nothing. (40:78)

We have not sent any apostle to any people except one born to their language so that he could explain to them in a manner clear to them. (14:4)

He has sent down to you (Muhammad) the Book of truth confirming the Scriptures which have preceded it. Hitherto He sent down the Torah and the Gospel for mankind’s guidance. Now He has sent down the Criterion (The standard by which to discern the true from false). (3:3)

Verily, We have sent down the Torah affording guidance and light. It was in accordance with it that the prophets dutifully administered the Law to the Jews even as did their Rabbis and those learned in law who were to safeguard its integrity and interpret it properly. Therefore (You Jews) none but heed Me and do not barter away My Commandments for a pal[MC1] [MC1]try price. And they who do not judge by what God has sent down, they are d rebels. (5:44)

In the line of prophets We caused Jesus, son of Mary to confirm that which was already in the Torah and We gave him the Gospel with guidance and light afforded therein and confirming what was already in the Torah-- a guidance and admonition to those who are God-conscious. (5:46)

Let the followers of the Gospel administer justice in accordance with what God has revealed therein. Those who do not judge by what god has revealed -- they are indeed reprobates. (5:47)

To you (Muhammad) also We have sent down the Book in proper form confirming the scriptures already delivered. Judge therefore between them by that which God has revealed and follow not their desires by setting aside the truth that has come to you. To every people We have given a law and a ritual, and if God had so willed He would have made of you all but one society; but it was His wish to test you by what He has given to each of you. Be emulous then in good deeds. To God you shall all return and He will make you realize the evil of wrangling over what were mere variations (in law and rituals).(5:48)

Say: O people of the Book! Nothing will avail you unless you uphold the Torah and the Gospel and that which has been sent down to you by your Lord.

Yet all that has been bestowed on you (O Prophet) is bound to make many of them yet more stubborn in their overweening arrogance in their denial of truth. But sorrow not over people who deny the truth. (5:68)

The basic cardinal doctrine of Islam is none other than the unity of God, proclaimed and preached by all the prophets of old, only restated, reinstated and restored, not initiated by

the prophet of Islam. Intolerance can only be against anything that is different from what one believes in. The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes on the unity of revelations to all the prophets.

Say, “We believe in God and in what has been sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac and Jacob and his descendants and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. No distinction do we make between any one of them and to Him we are all resigned.” (3:84)

To you We have commended a faith which We commended to Noah and which We have revealed to (Muhammad) and which We commended to Abraham, Moses and Jesus saying: observe this faith and do not divide yourselves into sects therein. (42:13)

Say to them (O Prophet) as one of the messengers, I deliver no novel doctrine and I know not what will be done (by God) either to me or to you. I only follow what is revealed to me, and I am but a plain Warner. (46:9)

Was this not a clear indication that all those who believe in God should constitute a common- wealth of believers in God, following their own forms of worship and rituals and their own laws as prescribed by their own prophets? The following verses indicate that this privilege is not confined only to Abrahamic religions but to followers of all other Scriptures throughout the world.

To every people We have appointed ceremonial rites that they observe, therefore let them not wrangle over this matter with you but bid them to return to your Lord (since that is the main objective of religion). You are indeed rightly guided. (22:67)

(We had sent the earlier prophets) with clear proof and the scriptures. And to you also have We sent a scripture (the Qur’an) that you may bring afresh to their minds what has already been sent down to them; so that they may reflect over it.(16:44)

The above verses of the Qur’an clearly show that even among those who believe in God, through the scriptures of earlier prophets, there are differences of law and ritual that should not come in the way of mutual understanding and cooperation in the cause of God.

The Qur’an has mentioned only those prophets with whom the people of Arabia or the Arabic speaking people of the time of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) were acquainted. The prophets of other areas in the world have not been mentioned by name.

The survey of the relevant material in the Qur’an brings out the following points.

  1. · Revelation is universal and for every nation there is a messenger.

  2. · Every messenger is born to the language of the concerned people.

  3. · All messengers and prophets must be universally respected.

  4. · The infallibility of other scriptures is doubtful as their followers did not preserve them as they should have.

  5. · The Qur’an confirms the essential truths still preserved in them. However Qur’an as the final scripture clears up all uncertainties and corrects the aberrations that have crept in these Scriptures.

  6. · In the light of these general doctrines Muslims have to respect all scriptures considered holy by the followers of those religions even though the scriptures are not mentioned in the Qur’an. They may however not accept them as infallible.

  7. · The Qur’an regards the different scriptures as only parts of one heavenly Book (3:23). In view of this the Qur’an criticizes the Jews and Christians who put themselves in a false position by rejecting one another though they both claim to study the Book. (2:113).

  8. · The Qur’an expects followers of all scriptures believing in God not to divide themselves in to sects of each prophet.( 42:14) and also blames them for having divided into sects within the same religion (6:159). This applies to all other religions not specifically mentioned in the Qur’an where sects and castes are numerous.

The Qur’an describes Prophet Muhammad as


In spite of this repeated assertion that the same God has sent the same message for those who still are not aware of Him or do not believe in Him, the attitude of extreme tolerance is exhibited in the following verse:

So if they dispute with you (O Muhammad) say: I have entirely surrendered myself to God and so have those who follow me, and say to those who have received the Book and also to those who have not; do you also surrender yourself to God? and if they do they will be regarded as rightly guided; but if they decline, your function is but to deliver the message, and God is cognizant of what his devoted servants do .(3:20)

Was it not an indication of the highest level of heed tolerance, an indication that all those followers of earlier prophets, or even those who believe in Him without a scripture are rightly guided?Is it also not a clear injunction that even a prophet of God can not compel anyone, his job is only to deliver the message?

No compulsion in religion

The point that there is no compulsion or coercion in matters of faith is repeatedly asserted in the Qur’an. A few verses are given below.

There is no compulsion in religion: for the right way is clearly distinct from the wrong way. Whoever therefore rejects the forces of evil and believes in God has taken hold of a support unfailing, which shall never give way, for God is All Hearing and knowing. (2:256))

Yet if God had so willed, they would not have ascribed divinity to aught besides Him, hence We have not made you their keeper, nor are you a guardian over them. (6:107)

And so, (O Prophet!) exhort them; your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe. (88:21,22)

We have not sent you (unto men O Prophet!) with power to determine their faith. (17:54).

But if they turn away (do not grieve); for We have not sent you to be a keeper over them: your function is just plain preaching. (42:48)

The above verses of the Qur’an clearly show that Islam accepts the existence of other religions and also of those who do not believe in God and even the Prophet is restrained from the thought of compelling others by a rather clear reminder that he is not appointed as a keeper or guardian over people who do not heed him. In spite of this extremely clear injunction if any one is intolerant and believes in compelling others he is not following Islam.

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