Islam and Diversity

Sayyid Fadhel Milani - March 2002

In the view of Allah, the whole of humanity comprise one single community. And it is only through His power that people may unite into one community.

"Humankind were one community, so Allah sent Prophets, as bearers of good tidings, and as Warners. He sent down to them The Book with the Truth so that He could judge between people." Qur’an 2:213

Three facts emerge from the above ayah:
1- The unity of all humanity under One God
2- The distinctiveness of the different religions brought by various prophets
3- The role that revelation (The Book) plays in resolving differences which occur between people.

The Qur’an does not deny the variety of religions, nor that contradictions might exist between them regarding beliefs and practices. At the same time, it emphasises the need to recognise the ‘oneness’ of humanity created by Him, and the need for all to work toward a better understanding between the followers of the different faiths.

This is illustrated by history. For example, when conditions in Makkah were unfavourable to the early Muslim community and a challenge to the inhabitants of that city, Allah commanded His Messenger (PBUH) to say, "to you your religion and to me my religion." Qur’an 109:5.

This was even more relevant, when real issues of coexistence arose between the followers of Divine scriptures in Madinah.

The universal message of the Holy Qur’an thus reveals that, without subordination to a limited historical and cultural context, revelation accepts religious pluralism as a necessity. It teaches Muslims to continually negotiate the transformation of society via emphasis on the fundamental aspect of the unity of humanity, that is, its origin and creation by the Divine Being.

This affirmative principle of diversity is the cornerstone of the Creation Narrative in the Qur’an and serves to remind people,
"Surely this community of yours is one community, and I am your Lord so worship Me." Qur’an 21:92

Rather than regarding diversity as a source of inevitable tension, Qur’anic teaching underlines the indispensability of variety in defining the common beliefs, values and traditions for community life, of the various specific traditions.

"O humankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes so that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing of you." Qur’an 49:14

The unique characteristic of Islam, is the conviction that belief in the Oneness of God unites the Muslim community with all of humanity, because He Created every human being, irrespective of their religion, tradition or background. And on the Day of Judgement, all the inhabitants of the world are to be judged, regardless of their sectarian affiliation or moral performance.

In his letter to his governor in Egypt, Imam Ali (A.S) wrote that, "Humanity is made up of two kinds of people: those who believe that they are like others because all have been similarly created, and those who only believe that they are like those who follow the same faith."

The Persian poet Sa’di (d. 1292 CE) elaborated, "Human beings are members of a body in which every part is related to every other part, and each of those parts have been created from a single essence."

Divine gift requires humans, regardless of their particular religious affiliations, to live harmoniously together and to strive toward justice and peace throughout the world. In the Qur’an, Allah urges humanity to, "… compete with one another in doing good." Qur’an 5:48

Islam does not claim that revelation was limited to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) alone, for it is known that other prophets also received the truth.

"We have revealed to you, as We revealed to Nuh, and the prophets after him. We revealed to Ibrahim, Isma’il, Ishaq, Yaqub and the Tribes, Isa and Ayub, Yunus, Harun and Sulayman and We gave to Dawud Psalms, and messengers We have mentioned to you before and messengers We have not mentioned to you, and Allah spoke to Musa. Messengers who gave glad tidings and warnings in order that people may have no argument against Allah." Qur’an 4:163-5

Islamic recognition of the variety of communities, each with its own laws, attests to the validity of Jewish and Christian communities, even though Islam, which avoids extremes and cautions moderation in everything, remains the ideal for ‘the best community’.
The Qur’anic notion of religious pluralism, even when the right path is conceived as being the only basis for the success of humanity, objects to intolerant claims that many religious communities sometimes make. The Qur’an refers to moral as well as to religious obligations. While universal guidance indicates that moral standards underpin human well-being, specific guidance indicates the necessity for human beings to exercise their volition in matters of personal faith, if for no other reason than because any attempt to enforce it, would lead to its negation.

Justice is Islam’s most sacred concept. Many ayat in the Qur’an emphasise its significance for all of humanity. Qur’anic injunctions stipulate the action to be taken whenever justice is violated:
"If two parties of believers fight one another, make peace between them (by trying to minimise the causes of the conflict), then, if one of them transgress against the other, fight the transgressor until they comply with Allah’s command. However, when the transgressor once again submits to Allah’s law, make peace between them with fairness and justice and act equitably. Truly Allah loves those who are just." Qur’an 49:9

It is obvious that no lasting peace can ever be established without the elimination of the causes of conflict, violations of justice and equity. Consideration of the universal and absolute nature of the moral categories of justice and equity, indicate that the Qur’anic answer to conflict resolution is not limited to believers only. Rather, it conveys universal significance and application to the demand for peace between conflicting parties be restored by them both behaving justly and equitably towards each other. "Truly Allah loves those who are just."

In another Ayah, Allah tells us in the Qur’an,
"O you who believe, always remain upright before Allah, bear witness with justice and do not let the repugnance of others provoke you into not behaving equitably. Behave equitably, that is nearer to piety." Qur’an 5:8

Islam orders just behaviour, even when ‘being just’ does not advantage one’s own case. Qur’an 4:135.

The obvious conclusion of all of the above is that justice is an absolute concept and one which is not limited to any one religion or race.

During Imam Ali’s caliphate, a dispute arose between the Caliph and a Jewish citizen over the ownership of a shield in the caliph’s possession. Imam Ali (A.S) attended the court but when the judge addressed him by his title and addressed the claimant by his name, he reminded the judge to observe equity between both parties in the manner with which he addressed them.

It is interesting to note how Allah addresses humanity, regardless of their beliefs, compared to the way in which He addresses believers. The Qur’anic expression for the first group is, ‘Ya ayuha al-Naas’ - ‘O humanity’, while the term used for the second group is ‘Ya ayuha al ladhina Amanu’ - ‘O you who believe.’ The above mentioned ayah, ‘O humanity, We created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes so that you may know one another’. Qur’an 49:14 is an example of the former group.

Directives related to justice, fairness and all aspects of moral and spiritual values are addressed to humanity at large. Those which refer to acts of worship and Islamic law are addressed to those who believe in Islam.

Life is a gift of our Almighty Creator, and none may take it from any of His creation. Taking the life of one individual is considered equivalent to taking the lives of the whole of humanity. On the other hand, saving the life of one individual is regarded as being as noble as saving the lives of all of humanity. Qur’an 5:32. In this ayah, Allah doesn’t limit sacredness of life to Muslims only. The behaviour of all who arrogantly ignore this, is not acceptable to humanity, and nor is it acceptable to those who believe in Islam.

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