Islam and Respect for Pluralism. By Waris Mazhari


Islam is the religion of nature. It is also the answer to man’s inner quest. It aims at establishing the right relationship between the Creator and His creatures and at maintaining this relationship on a firm basis.
An important aspect of this relationship between the Creator and human beings relates to relationships among human beings themselves. If these relationships are not structured on their natural basis, the relationship between the Creator and human beings, too, cannot be as it ought to. This is because, as the Prophet of Islam has said, all creatures are members of God’s family. It is simply impossible that if one harbours hatred and enmity for members of God’s family he can establish a relationship of closeness and love with God, the Head and Overseer of this family.
Islam is not a new religion. It is the very same religion that was taught by all the prophets, from the first prophet, the Prophet Adam, to the last prophet, the Prophet Muhammad. It was the religion of all the prophets of God. That is why, logically, it cannot contain anything that is against the collective welfare of humanity. According to a hadith report recorded in the Fath al-Bari, the Prophet of Islam remarked that religion is well-wishing. One is required to wish well for the whole of humankind. Another hadith, recorded in the Sahih al-Bukhari and the Sunan an-Nasai, relates that every person must like for others what he likes for himself. Islam requires that people should live peacefully with the rest of God’s family (ayal lullah). A hadith report, contained in the Sunan an-Nasai says that a Muslim is one from whose tongue and hand other people are safe.
If a Muslim does not conform to the expected standards mentioned above—of considering himself a member of God’s family and relating to the rest of the members of this family with genuine concern for their well-being, making no distinction between his likes and that of others, and living in God’s Kingdom as a completely peaceful citizen—he cannot be a true Muslim.
Lessons from the Life of the Prophet
The Prophet of Islam exemplified the highest level of virtues and spirituality. He was sent to the world to teach virtues and spirituality. The Prophet spent 13 years in Makkah after having received prophethood, during which he quietly worshipped God, engaged in conveying God’s message and patiently faced persecution at the hands of his opponents. In Madinah, he received, as a reward from God, the opportunity to establish a polity, which he set up on the basis of pluralism and common values and principles. Accordingly, at the Constitutional level, Jews and the polytheists (mushrikeen) were given the same rights as Muslims. In this way, the state of Madinah, headed by the Prophet, was the first regularly-established polity to be based on the concept of multiculturalism.
The Charter of Madinah that outlined the structure of this polity was the first written Constitution in the history of Islam. According to this treaty, all those who were bound by it, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, enjoyed equal rights. Muslims and Jews (there were no Christians in Madinah) were given the status of a united ummah. Ibn Hisham relates in his biography of the Prophet that according to the Constitution of Madinah, the religion of the Muslims was for the Muslims, and the religion of the Jews, for the Jews (lil muslimeen dinuhum wa lil yahud dinuhum).
According to the Quran (5:47), every religious community should be given complete internal autonomy:
Therefore, let those who follow the Gospel judge according to what God has revealed in it. Those who do not judge by what God has sent down are rebellious.
Not only should every religious community have full freedom of belief and worship, but it should also have the freedom to judge its own affairs according to its laws, administered by its own judges. That is why the Prophet could not limit the range of rights and freedoms given by the Quran to non-Muslims in a Muslim polity.
In the course of his peaceful mission of dawah or inviting people to Islam, the Prophet had to engage in armed confrontation with some of his opponents on some occasions. These were battles of a defensive nature, as the Quran (2: 192; 9: 36) clarifies. These battles aimed putting an end to the religious persecution that was a legacy of the age of imperial despotism and that was the biggest barrier to the exercise of freedom of belief and thought. This is what is meant by the term fitna in the Quran. This fitna was ended during the time of the Prophet.
The Prophet’s movement was not a political one. Rather, it was a purely religious and ethical movement. However, in the early biographies of the Prophet that came to be compiled after his demise, the battles in which the Prophet had been engaged were given particular focus, and so these biographies themselves came to be known as maghazis or battle-chronicles. In the medieval period, some Muslim rulers who were confronted by non-Muslim powers, such as the Byzantines, and others who wanted to expand the sphere of territories under their rule and to be known as great crusaders of the faith sought to portray Islam as a political project. And so, in this environment of confrontation and conflict with people of other faiths, a certain political image of Islam came to be constructed that did not reflect Islam’s true spirit. The crystallization of Islamic law in the form of fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence in the fourth century AH was also greatly influenced by this environment, as reflected, for instance, in the division of the world into dar ul-Islam (‘abode of Islam’) and dar ul-harb (‘abode of war’), the notion of offensive jihad, and several rules about dhimmis that the world—and even basic reason—simply cannot accept today.
The Islamic Understanding of Politics
Islam does not make a distinction between religion and politics. It considers the two as necessary for each other as well as complementary to each other. The Quran (28: 77) explicitly says: ‘do not forget your share of the world’. A hadith report, contained in the Sahih al-Bukhari, terms the world as the field of the Hereafter. In this way, religion and worldly affairs are necessarily interlinked in Islam.
Politics is a necessary part of worldly affairs. It relates to the regulation of life at the collective level. Hence, any ideology that relates to life cannot remain without reference to politics. This is a basic reality. But another aspect of this reality is that politics has its own particular sphere in its relationship with Islam. It is certainly part of the overall understanding of the deen of Islam, but it is not part of the basic or foundational understanding or conception of the deen. In other words, the deen is as complete without politics as it is with it.
The fact is that Islam is a pragmatic religion, and pragmatism is a basic condition for success in politics. That is why Islam cannot make it binding on its followers to engage in forms of actions that are generally not possible for them. The Quran (2: 286) clearly makes this point.
Islamic commandments (ahkam) are of two kinds: those that are fixed and unchangeable—or what the ulema term as ghayr mujtahad fih, commandments with regard to which there is no scope for ijtihad; and those in which change is possible in response to changing contexts and conditions—or what the ulema term as mujtahad fih. The first sort of commandments are integral to Islam’s belief-system, while the latter are a practical aspect of the deen. Many Islamic rules about politics come under of this second category of commandments.
At the level of belief, politics is part of Islam. Unlike some other religions, Islam does not make a distinction between religion and politics. But at the practical level, it is not necessary for politics to be a part of Islam. That is why Islam is present across the world along with its religious and spiritual system, but, with just a few exceptions, nowhere is it present along with its political system. This definitely does not mean that Islam, in this form, is incomplete and faulty, as some radical ideologues allege. This is because it has never been at all possible—and nor can it be—that wherever Islam is found, it is found along with its political system, and that too with this system becoming dominant over other systems.
All of God’s prophets taught one and the same religion. All of them invited people to the deen of God in its entirety, and they themselves lead their lives according to it. But from the Quran and Hadith it is amply clear that many prophets did not get the chance to establish themselves in their own communities, leave alone exercising political power. Only a relatively few prophets, such as the prophets Moses, David, Solomon and Muhammad, were bestowed with political power by God. The prophets who did not receive political power focused simply on conveying to people the essentials of the deen, such as faith in the one God and prophethood and belief in the Hereafter, as well as moral values, because this was what God expected of them. The mission of the Prophet Jesus, for instance, did not go beyond conveying the Divine message. Many prophets were killed by their opponents. But every Muslim believes, as a matter of Islamic faith, that these and all the other prophets were fully successful in the mission for which they were sent by God—that is, to teach people about realization of God (marifat), to enable them to establish a connection with God and to show them the way to purify their souls and make them eligible to enter and inhabit heaven.
The deviation that has come about in Muslim political thought actually owes to deviation in the very understanding of the deen. Changes in the understanding of the deen have led to deviation in the understanding of the relationship between God and man, too. The deen, from the very beginning, has remained one for the whole of humankind. Its basic values and conceptions have remained the same. Islam is not a separate religion, but, rather, a continuation of the one and the same primordial religion, the first prophet of which, the Prophet Adam, was the first man. Therefore, it is not possible that Islam should depart from the basic values of the primordial deen, for the Quran instructs the Prophet Muhammad to follow the prophets who came before him. Thus, it says (6: 90):
Those [the previous prophets] were the people whom God guided. Follow their guidance then and say, ‘I ask no reward for this from you: it is only a reminder for all mankind.’
In our understanding of God, it is important to remember that according to Islam, God is the Sustainer of all creatures. He loves and protects all of them. He will decide the fate of every person on the Day of Judgment. God has made man as a dignified creature. That is why all human beings—be they Muslims or non-Muslims, including polytheists—deserve respect and dignity. This point is expressed by the Hanafi jurist Ibn Abidin al-Shami (1783-1836), who says that from the point of view of the Shariah, every man is dignified and respectable, even if he is a kafir—someone who denies the truth.
Islam and Pluralism
Islam supports pluralism. In fact, its ideological and practical structure is based on it. In Islam, diversity is presented as a requirement of nature and also as beauty. It sees the differences of languages and colours among human beings as among the signs of God.
Thus, the Quran (30:22) says:
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.
It also says (49:13):
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.
The Quran (2:256) relates, as a clear principle, that there is no compulsion in religion—that people can choose to follow the religion or ideology of their choice:
There shall be no compulsion in religion
Elsewhere, the Quran (18:29) says :
Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.
It is against the Creation Plan of God that everyone conforms to one way of thinking or one way of acting. Thus, the Quran (10: 99) says:
Had your Lord pleased, all the people on earth would have believed in Him, without exception.
The Quran (64:2) also relates:
He it is Who created you, then some of you are disbelievers and some of you are believers.
In this way, Islam accepts that along with true believers (momins) there will also be deniers (munkirs), taking the existence of both to be eternal and natural realities.
Every community has its own mentality, environment, natural capacities and the possibilities of rebutting or accepting the Truth. That is why God has established a law (shiratun) and a way (minhaj) for each community. The Quran leaves the choice of one’s religion and one’s action to each person:
‘For you is your religion, and for me is my religion’ (109:6)
‘For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds’ (28:55)
Another expression of the importance of pluralism in Islam is the fact that the Quran (22:40) condemns the destruction of places of worship—of both Muslims as well as others. In doing so, it mentions churches and synagogues before it mentions mosques:
If God did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is much invoked, would surely be destroyed. God will surely help him who helps His cause—God is indeed powerful and mighty.
This Quranic verse indicates that God has taken it as His own responsibility to protect non-Muslims and their places of worship. The treaties that the Prophet entered into with the people of Najran and Hirah, many of whom were Christians, provided for full freedom and autonomy for non-Muslims.
The understanding of Islamic pluralism that emerges from the Quran and the practice of the Prophet indicates that relations between Muslims and non-Muslims should be based on joint efforts to promote goodness, justice, equality. ‘Believers, be strict in upholding justice, the Quran (4:135) says. The Quran (5:8) gives great stress to justice in inter-community relations. This, it lays down:
Believers, be steadfast in the cause of God and bear witness with justice. Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing.
On the issue of equality, the Prophet declared that people (Muslims and non-Muslims) are brothers of each other (an al-ibad kulluhum ikhwa), and that they are the equals of each other, like the teeth of a comb (al-nas sawasiyatun ka asnan al-musht).
Islam aims at enabling people to rise above narrow boundaries of colour and race and work together for welfare and justice and help each other. The Treaty of Madinah is a brilliant illustration of this objective. After the Prophet’s demise, Muslim history went through many ups and downs. Yet, even then non-Muslims often enjoyed considerable religious freedom, although not everywhere and at all times. However, as Muslims became politically dominant over a large part of the world, prejudices against non-Muslims did creep in. In this regard, the corpus of fiqh that developed in this period of Muslim political dominance failed to retain Islam’s true universal spirit.
Islam seeks at the true welfare of humankind. It seeks to connect man with God as well as to promote good relations between and among human beings. In this regard, then, one can safely say that radical political (mis-)interpretations of Islam, that have unfortunately become quite prominent in our times, are totally counter to Islam and its underlying spirit and values. These misinterpretations of Islam wrongly project Islam as a sort of political party, negating completely its reality as a spiritual tradition based on concern for universal welfare and goodness.
(Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband. He did his Ph.D from the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and is presently teaching Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Several of his writings can be accessed on his blog: He can be contacted on

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