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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Islam And Pluralism

By Javeed Akhter

One of the chapters on my book The Seven phases Of
Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) Life is titled “The Pluralistic Leader.” The tile
of pluralistic leader I believe is appropriate because of his conduct
when he took over the administration of the city of Yathrib.

Yathrib (later called Madinat an-Nabi, the city of the Prophet, and for
short, al-Madinah) was an old city, the second largest in Arabia. Its
population consisted mostly of two large Arab tribes and three Jewish
tribes who lived in small forts around the city. The two Arab tribes are
later remembered in Muslim history as the "Ansars" (helpers), were the
Aws and Khazraj. The political fortunes of the two Arab tribes and the
three Jewish tribes of Madinah waxed and waned. Sometimes they were
allies, but mostly there was hostility. The Aws and Khazraj had been
weakened by internecine warfare, leaving the Jewish tribes as the ascendant
group.

During the Hajj pilgrimage, which is a pre-Islamic ritual, Muhammad r
used to go to the various tribal groups who were visiting Makkah and
personally convey the message of the new religion Islam to them. This
practice brought him in touch with the Madinan tribes of Aws and Khazraj.
Because of their contact with Judaism, the Madinan Arabs were conversant
with the concept of monotheism. Additionally since the Jewish tribes
held messianic expectations, the concept of a new Prophet was not alien
either. The Madinan Arabs were impressed by Prophet Muhammad's r
personality and message. They may have thought that he was the Messiah the
Jews of Madinah often talked about. In the tradition of the times they
wanted him to administer the strife torn city-state of Madinah as an
outside person with wisdom and no vested interest in the local dispute. They
also wanted this potential Messiah to be part of their group and not
the rival Jewish tribes.

The Madinan tribes invited Prophet Muhammad r to migrate and administer
the city. Muhammad r accepted the Madinan invitation. Upon arrival in
Madinah he set about getting all parties together to sign a covenant,
arguably the first of it's kind in history, which would set standards for
pluralism, tolerance and cooperation between various religious and
ethnic communities.

The Covenant (Constitution) of MadinahThis covenant set out many of the
principles essential to the peaceful functioning of a pluralistic
society. It gave equality to all its citizens and accepted the coexistence
of different religions in the community. All religious, ethnic and
tribal groups had equal protection, rights and dignity. Muhammad's r
inspiration for this pluralistic model was the Qur'an (Koran), which makes it
incumbent upon Muslims to accept and respect all the previous
messengers without distinction and respect their communities.


The Apostle believeth in what had been revealed to him from his Lord,
As do men of faith. Each one of them believeth in God, His angels, His
books and His Apostles. “We make no distinction between any of the
Apostles” (Qur'an 2:285).

“Say, We believe in Allah (God) and that which has been sent down to us
And that which was send down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma'il (Ishmael),
Ishaq (Isaac), Ya'qub (Jacob) and his progeny. And that which was given
to the Prophets from their Lord. And we make no distinction between any
of them And to Him we are resigned.” (Qur'an 2:136).In the Covenant the
city of Madinah was to be a sanctuary for all signatories. Loyalty to
the constitution was encouraged. The phrase "loyalty is a protection
against treachery" appears many times in the text of the covenant. The
concept of religious pluralism emphasized in the Covenant differs
substantially from tolerance alone. Pluralism presupposes equality amongst
various groups, rather than one elite group merely tolerating another
inferior group out of charity. The Covenant of Madinah allowed for
coexistence of different religious communities that would live by their own
beliefs, judge themselves by their own laws, and help each other against
any
outside threat.

Religious Pluralism In The Qur'anThe Qur'an is quite explicit in
promoting pluralism and condemning its anti-thesis “particularism” (a
theological belief that only an elect few who follow a particular faith are
eligible for redemption). The Qur'an states on more than one occasion
that if the “people of the book”, Jews, Christians and Sabeans (a
religious group whose identity is obscured by history) lived by their tenets
they would have their just reward.


“Verily they who believe and they who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans
Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does that which is right
shall have their reward with their Lord. Fear shall not come upon them
and neither shall they grieve. (Qur'an 2:62)

Qur'an Supports Ethnic Diversity And Tolerance“O humankind God has
created you male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so
that you may come to know each other. Verily the most honored among you
is he who is the most righteous.” (49.13) In other verses the Qur'an
appears to be implying that diversity is part of divine intent and
purpose of creation:
“To each of you God has prescribed a law (shiratun) and a way (minhaj).
If God had willed he would have made you a single people. But God's
purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you. So strive in the
pursuit of virtue. And know that you will all return to God and He will
resolve all matters in which you disagree. (Qur'an 5.48) And again,
“If thy Lord had willed He would have made humankind into a single
nation. But the differences will continue among them even then.” (Qur'an
11.118)

Tolerance And Pluralism In Muslim SocietiesHistorically a sense of
tolerance was prevalent in Muslim societies. Both the second Caliph of
Islam Umar and the well-known and highly admired warrior Salahuddin
(Saladin) on arrival in Jerusalem signed contracts with the local Christian
groups to allow for personal protection, as well as protection of their
places of worship. Both invited extant Jewish communities to resettle in
the city of Jerusalem. Jews thrived religiously, intellectually and
culturally in Muslim Spain. Christian communities survived and even
thrived in many Arab countries and the Balkans. Coerced conversion to Islam
was a taboo in these societies. The Qur'an is explicit in prohibiting
coerced conversion to Islam:

“There is no compulsion in matters of faith.” (Qur'an 2.256, 10.99,
18.29)Amongst modern Muslim majority states pluralism is the norm in some
like Malaysia and Indonesia. In other states not only pluralism but
also tolerance of heterodoxic groups within Muslims like Shias and Sufis
is non-existent.

Summation
Islamic ideology is fundamentally pluralistic.
Prophet Muhammad's r example in setting up a pluralistic state in
Madinah “The constitution of Madinah”, needs to be studied, analyzed and
emulated.
Pluralism is essential for the health of all societies, even those
that have a single predominant religion (intra-religious pluralism.)
Pluralism is as essential for the moral health of the majority as it
is for the protection of the minorities.
Pluralism is a cure for stereotyping, racism and violence.
Pluralism in the US is a relatively new phenomenon and needs much
improvement. For example US educational system and analysis of history as
well as current problems suffers from a largely Euro-centric bias.
Minorities, especially dispersed religious minorities in the US and
elsewhere, suffer most from insensitivity of the majority community to
pluralism. These minorities need creative tools to make their voices
heard in the public square.
All of us may learn from the life and writings of a religious leader
like Paulos Mar Gregorios who not only preached but also practiced
pluralism in this century.
Faith based communities can play a significant role and should take
the lead in promoting pluralism.

http://www.ispi-usa.org/currentarticles/islampluralism.html

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