What pluralism means to Islam

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 18 Jun 2006

I was perplexed – and perturbed – by the remark attributed to the State Mufti of Perak, Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria, that pluralism was an attack upon the faith of the Muslims (Star, June 14, 2006). 

What does pluralism mean in the Mufti’s dictionary? Pluralism in the social sciences refers to “the existence of different types of people, who have different types of beliefs and opinions, within the same society”. There are different dimensions to pluralism.  

Political pluralism, for instance, is characterised by a diversity of political ideas often expressed through a multitude of political parties. The presence of different cultures and traditions within a society signifies cultural pluralism. When different religions co-exist within the same polity, it is religious pluralism. 

No civilization in history has demonstrated a more resolute commitment to pluralism than Islam. The principles of pluralism are anchored in the Quran itself. A number of verses attest to this, among them Surah 5:48, Surah 11:118, Surah 22:67, Surah 30:22 and Surah 49:13. 

The Quranic message on pluralism and diversity was also reflected in the Charter of Medina which the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) formulated.  

It brought together different religious and ethnic communities, bestowing upon each of them equal rights and responsibilities. The treaty which the Prophet forged with the Christian monks of Najran, protecting their monastery and guaranteeing them freedom of religion, was yet another testimony to pluralism. 

It was largely because of the inclusive, accommodative approach to religious and cultural diversity embodied in the Quran and the Sunnah that generations of Muslim scholars and philosophers from the 9th to the 14th centuries opened their minds to the vast corpus of knowledge found in all the other religious and cultural civilizations, be it Hindu and Confucian or Greek and Roman.  

A positive attitude towards “the other” was undoubtedly a major factor in the emergence of Islamic civilization as the fount of learning and the harbinger of the modern scientific method. This was further evidenced in the enthusiasm that some of the scholars showed for the study of other religions and religious communities.  

It was a Muslim, Abu Rahyan Al-Biruni (died 1051), who undertook the first comprehensive scientific analysis of another religion and community in his magnum opus Kitab Al-Hind. The empathy that he displayed for the Hindus of India was echoed in the writings of other Muslim savants such as Ibn-a-Nadim (died 995), Al-Shahristani (12th century) and Rasheeduddin Fadlullah (14th century) in their studies of Buddhism and Buddhist communities. It was Shahristani who authored the first encyclopaedia of religions. 

None of these illustrious scholars felt that their faith (aqidah) was threatened by their attempts to understand other religions.  

On the contrary, many of them were revered by the people for their piety. It was because openness was an outstanding characteristic of the early Islamic intellectual tradition that famous Muslim kingdoms from Granada in the west to Malacca in the east were homes to diverse religious and cultural communities. Pluralism in that sense was synonymous with the splendour of Islamic civilization. 

If pluralism was such a cherished principle and practice, how does one explain the narrow, exclusivist attitude of a section of the ulama today who project themselves as defenders of the purity of the faith?  

In Islam, as in other faiths, there has always been a segment of the religious elite who regard an inclusive, universal, rational outlook as a challenge to the integrity of their religion.  

It is not widely known for instance that even in the past, a section of the ulama reviled and derided illustrious scholars such as Ibn Sina (980-1037), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) for their rational, cosmopolitan thinking which sought to highlight the quintessence of Islam.  

It was this type of ulama that insisted upon closing the door to “ijtihad” (creative intellectual effort guided by the Quran and the Sunnah) and perpetuating their own monopoly upon the divine truth.  

However, they failed to stifle the intellectual dynamism of Islamic civilization in the early centuries largely because of a whole string of enlightened Rulers like Harun Al-Rashid and Al-Mansur who were willing to provide patronage for scholarship inspired by a rational, universal vision of the religion. 

But when the centres of Islamic civilization in Central and West Asia were devastated and destroyed by Mongol invaders in the 12th and 13th centuries and when Muslim kingdoms in Andalusia were defeated and demolished by Christian conquerors in the 15th century, the influential strata within the ummah lost its vigour and vitality, became inward looking and began to develop a siege mentality.  

It was this mentality that the conservative ulama exploited as they sought to promote an exclusive worldview obsessed with a narrow notion of religious purity. If anything, the long centuries of Western colonial domination that followed from the 16th century onwards reinforced this mindset within the ulama and the ummah. 

It is this huge historical baggage that the Muslim world carries on its shoulders in the present post colonial decades. It explains why for a significant segment of the ummah a narrow, exclusive idea of Muslim identity defined in terms of forms and symbols, rites and rituals has such a powerful appeal while the substance of the faith expressed through a Tauhidic (oneness of God) worldview embodied in perennial values and principles has limited attraction.  

The situation has been worsened by the double standards and gross injustices prevalent in the existing Washington helmed hegemonic global system, vividly mirrored in the sufferings of the Palestinians and Iraqis.  

It has heightened the siege mentality within the ummah and consequently tightened the grip of the narrow-minded defenders of a pure, exclusive religious identity.  

It is a notion of identity which has been promoted aggressively for a few decades now at the doctrinal level by the bigoted, dogmatic Wahabi oriented interpretation of Islam.  

There is no doubt at all that many Malaysian Muslims under the tutelage of the ulama subscribe to such interpretations of the religion. It is reflected in their blind adherence to certain aspects of the Fiqh (jurisprudential) tradition which have been discarded in other parts of the Muslim world.  

If a narrow interpretation of text and tradition in order to bolster an exclusive notion of religious identity has tremendous pull among Malaysian Muslims, it is partly because of the country’s delicate ethnic balance which reinforces the siege mentality on all sides.  

Nonetheless, narrow thinking has been kept in check by a variety of factors, including a national leadership which since Independence has opted for a more inclusive, rational and contemporary approach to Islam. 

Let us hope and pray that this remains so for all times.  

  • Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World.  

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