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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tolerance and Diversity in Islam

By: Asma Afsaruddin

In the thirteenth century, when the non-Muslim Mongols had taken possession
of Baghdad, their ruler Hulegu Khan is said to have assembled the religious
scholars in the city and posed a loaded question to them: according to their
law, which alternative is preferable, the disbelieving ruler who is just or
the Muslim ruler who is unjust? After moments of anguished reflection, one
well known scholar took the lead by signing his name to the response, "the
disbelieving ruler who is just." Others are said to have followed suit in
endorsing this answer.

Just and accountable government has long been considered essential in
Islamic political and religious thought. The Qur'an states that the
righteous "inherit the earth," righteous in this case referring to the
morally upright rather than the members of any privileged confessional
community. A righteous and just leader ruling by at least the tacit consent
of the people and liable to being deposed for unrighteous conduct remained
the ideal for most Muslims through much of the Middle Ages, even though
dynastic rule replaced limited elective rule only about thirty years after
the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 CE. That thirty year period of
non-dynastic rule became hallowed, however, in the collective Muslim memory
as the golden era of just and legitimate leadership.

The consequences of this memory could have potentially far-reaching
repercussions for the reshaping of the Islamic world today. The Qur'anic
concept of shura refers to "consultation" among people in public affairs,
including political governance, and was practiced in particular by the
second caliph Umar during the critical thirty year period. It is a term that
resonates positively with many contemporary Muslims who wistfully recognize
the intrinsic value of this sacred concept but find it rarely applied in the
polities they inhabit today. Contrary to certain popular caricatures,
Muslims are not somehow genetically predisposed to accept tyranny and
religious absolutism. There is a healthy respect for honest, reasoned
dissensus within the Islamic tradition; this attitude finds reflection in
the saying attributed to the Prophet, "There is mercy in the differences of
my community."

With the historical insight and interpretive rigor, one can discover common
ground between the modern Western ideal of democratic pluralism and the
praxis of various pre-modern Muslim societies. Long before the first ten
amendments to the United States Constitution were formulated, medieval
Muslim jurists developed what may be called an Islamic bill of rights meant
to ensure state protection of individual life, religion, intellect,
property, and personal dignity. Non-Muslims such as Jews and Christians
(later Zoroastrians and others as well) also had specific rights in the
Muslim community. Above all, they had the right to practice their religion
upon payment of a poll-tax to the Islamic state (from which priests, other
clerics, and the poor were exempt) and were consequently freed from serving
in the military. The Qu'ran after all counsels, "There is no compulsion in
religion." Within roughly twenty years after the Prophet's death, Islam lay
claim to the former domains of Byzantine and Persian empires in Persia,
Syria-Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt.

It is important to point out that territorial expansion did not mean
forcible conversion of the conquered peoples. The populations of Egypt and
the Fertile Crescent, for example, remained largely Christian for about two
centuries after the early Islamic conquests. Individual Christians and Jews
sometimes obtained high positions in Muslim administrations throughout the
medieval period. Syriac speaking Christians were employed by their Muslim
patrons in eighth and ninth century Baghdad to translate Greek manuscripts
into Arabic; their inclusion in the intellectual life of medieval Islam
helped preserve the wisdom of the ancient world. Centuries later, Jews
fleeing from the "excesses" of the Spanish Reconquista would find refuge in
Muslim Ottoman lands and establish thriving communities there. Clearly, the
Qur'an's injunction to show tolerance towards people of other, particularly
Abrahamic, faiths was frequently heeded by those who revered it as sacred

To deny these lived realities of the Islamic past, which point to what we
would term in today's jargon a respect for pluralism and religious
diversity, is to practice a kind of intellectual violence against Islam.
Muslim extremists who insist that the Qur'an calls for relentless warfare
against non-Muslims without just cause or provocation merely to propagate
Islam and certain Western opinion makers who unthinkingly accept and report
their rhetoric as authentically Islamic are both doing history a great
disservice. Muslim extremist fringe groups with their desperate cult of
martyrdom are overreacting to current political contingencies and
disregarding any scriptural imperative. It is worthy of note that the Qur'an
does not even have a word for martyr; the word "shahid," now commonly
understood to mean "a martyr," refers only to an eyewitness or a legal
witness in Qur'anic usage. Only in later extra Qur'anic tradition, as a
result of extraneous influence, did the term "shahid" come to mean bearing
witness for the faith, particularly by laying down one's life, much like the
Greek derived English word "martyr."

*The question thus remains: if there is much in the history of Muslims that
may be understood to be consonant with the objectives of civil society, how
and why did it go awry? Zeal for political power and corruption on the part
of many ruling elites throughout history, and debilitating encounters with
Western colonialism and secular modernity in recent times are prominent
among the constellation of reasons advanced to explain this current state of

There has in fact never been a better time for collective introspection and
moral housecleaning. A contrite Christian Europe after the debacle of the
Holocaust was forced to question some of its interpretive traditions and
their moral and social consequences. After the atrocities of September 11,
the virulently militant underbelly of political Islam can and should be
eviscerated by debunking the interpretive strand that is in clear violation
of the most basic precepts of Islam, fosters the glorification of violence
and self-immolation. In its stead, reflective Muslims must engage in a
process of recovery and revalorization of genuine Islamic core values, such
as consultative government, religious tolerance, respect for pluralism and
peaceful coexistence with diverse peoples. The compatibility of these core
values with those of civil society imparts both urgency and legitimacy to
this process.

*Asma Afsaruddin is Assistant Professor of Classics at Notre Dame and a
Fellow of the Kroc Institute. Her scholarly research focuses on the early
religious and political history of Islam, Qur'an and hadith studies, and
classical and modern Arabic literature. She recently published Excellence
and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership (Leiden:
E.J. Brill, 2002). This article is adapted from "Recovering the Core Values
of Islam," published in Muslim Democrat, vol.4, no. 1, January 2002*


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