The moral advantages of religious diversity


Islam recognises God’s profound wisdom in creating various genders, nations and races, so that they may know one another and participate to attain noble thoughts and good conduct.

IN the Quran, God presents a simile of human life being a race or competition. In it, each individual employs his whole power to zealously run forward to the one goal.

The one goal, however, ought to be the goal of good, which unites diverse ethnic groups, traditions and temperaments. God’s command is fastabiqu al-khayrat, or “Strive together, as if in a race, in doing good works” (al-Baqarah, 2:148; al-Ma’idah, 5:48).

The advantage of our nation consisting of different religious communities is thus that they may compete with each other in moral goodness for upward development.

This requires them to be respectful of diversity. The natural diversity of human languages and skin colours is understood as signs of God for wonder and admiration of His unity, power, and mercy, just as the creation of the heavens and the earth are among the wonderful signs of God (al-Rum, 30:22).

In the words of an English philosopher, Alfred Whitehead, “Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration.”

Notwithstanding different human tongues and shades of complexion, human basic unity remains constant. Islam recognises God’s profound wisdom in creating various genders, nations and races, so that they may know one another and participate to attain noble thoughts and good conduct.

In a Quranic verse addressed to all, God says, “O mankind! We have created you all from a single pair of a male and female, and made you into nations and races, that you may know each other. Verily, the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct” (al-Hujurat, 49:13).

Islam teaches that, as human beings, all of us belong to one human family, without any inherent biological superiority of one over another.

The Prophet Muhammad was quoted to have said, “Man is but a God-fearing believer or a hapless sinner. All people are the children of Adam, and Adam was created out of dust.”

All racial prejudices are thus strongly condemned by Islam. Our “natural” outward differentiations – whether in terms of gender, races, languages and skin colours – are deemed by Islam merely as superficial stickers.

It is a person’s inward goodness; it is his “nurtural” ethical quality – measured according to universal religious values – that should be the basis for our esteem for others.

We should never ridicule or insult or unnecessarily be suspicious of one another, just because the other is of a different gender, race, language or hue. Racial quarrels must by all means be avoided, through proper understanding of one’s own religion.

Throughout the Quran, God explicitly emphasises the common origin of the humanity and, thus, the brotherhood of the human race.

According to this teaching, we are, biologically, from one living entity. It is one of the wonders of God’s creation, that from one person we have grown to be so many; each individual has so many faculties and capacities, and yet we are all one.

In other words, this common origin should appeal to the solidarity of mankind, as all of them are brothers and sisters whose mutual rights and dignity must therefore be treated with the full respect they deserve.

Saadi of Shiraz, one of the greatest classical poets, has this to say on universal brotherhood (translated by Hamid Vahid Dastjerdi):

Adam’s sons are body limbs, to say;

For they’re created of the same clay.

Should one organ be troubled by pain,

Others would suffer severe strain.

Thou, careless of people’s suffering,

Deserve not the name, “human being”.

In another universal verse, God says, “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain has spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward God in whom you claim your rights of one another” (al-Nisa’, 4:1).

This is the overriding fact which is always valid, even if each of us has our own religious communities. Since there are very broad opportunities for various religious communities to compete with each other towards all that is good, it is imperative to explore this model to its fullest potentiality.

For example, in the field of commanding what is good, and forbidding what is evil. When we say “commanding what is good and forbidding what is evil”, good and evil must not be evaluated according to anti-religious, secularised values. Rather, good and evil there must be judged according to universal religious values and good traditions of man and his society (al-ma‘ruf).

Commanding what is good and forbidding what is evil, towards establishing a just moral-social order, must also be done by religious adherents in a proper, gracious, honest and sincere way.

The inter-faith relations that we must promote are the relations in which the elements of affection and compassion are intrinsic. Such kindness and honesty is already couched in the Malaysian founding fathers’ term muhibah, which comes from mahabbah (love or affection) leading to mutual help, kindness and respect.

In this context, the Prophet Muhammad states that, “All creatures are equal dependents upon God (‘iyalullah), and those dearest to God are the ones who treat His dependents most kindly” (narrated by al-Bayhaqi).

Indeed, the Prophet highlights the fact that all humanity is equally under God’s care, He Who feeds, nourishes and sustains them. And those dearest to God are the ones who are of benefit to others.

Dr Mohd Sani Badron is principal fellow/director of Ikim’s Centre for Economics and Social Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Ikim , columnist