ataullah siddiqi
Dr Ataullah Siddiqui
Academic Director at Markfield Institute of Higher Education.

Pluralism and its implications for Muslims

“And indeed We have honoured the children of Adam…” (Quran, 17:70)

“If your Lord so willed, He could have made mankind one people.” (Quran, 11:118)

Pluralism is a buzz-word in the world of politics, economics, ideas and thought, as well as in religion and many other socio-ethical fields. The word ‘pluralism’ indicates a relationship between a group on the one hand, and on the other a larger society of which the group is a part. Such a contrast may take various forms such as mosques, churches, political parties or voluntary groups, and the state or the wider society of which they are a part. The important question is how these cultural or religious differences could be respected and their identity safeguarded while they are encouraged to contribute positively to the society, but at the same time without undermining that very free ‘space’ that allows them to operate freely. Pluralism presupposes ‘multiple’ views and realities and ‘multiple truths’. In effect it denies an ‘ultimate principle’.

Though pluralism is about plurality, it is more than that; it is about a ‘response’ to plurality. The pluralist ideal is that we should find, after debate and discussion with various groups, a life that is good for all of us. In fact it demands to ‘construct’ a good life out of available plural possibilities. Of course it recognises the necessity of imposing limits and boundaries.

It is important to note that differences in belief are the plan of God. The abolition of such differences is not the purpose of the Quran, nor is the Prophet Muhammad sent for that purpose. The Quran also emphasises that such differences do not suggest that their origin is different, rather it emphasises that human beings have a common spirituality and morality (7:172, 91:7-10).  The differences exist because God has given human beings the freedom to choose: “And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have believed to faith altogether: would you force people against their will to believe!”(10:99).

In this Quranic vision of unity and diversity, the human task is to find a way to handle the differences. In society matters should be discussed and debated and a consensus should emerge, and no force be allowed to countenance aggression and violence (Quran, 22:39-40). In all these processes Muslims are bound by their belief to co-operate with all – Muslims or not – in securing peace and justice. Even if that justice points to the guilt of one’s family – let alone the community – the Quran instructs that justice must prevail (4:135). This was the motivating factor when the Prophet arrived in Madina and invited all concerned – Muslims and Jews in particular – to form a Covenant to avoid ruthless tribal conflicts and the exploitation of people.

The Covenant dealt with the concerns of those who had left their home and had nowhere to live, and the concerns of those who, like the Jews, wished that their culture and norms should not be impeded. This document provided a basis for participation in the social life of the society. There was recognition that each party had a right to pursue their way of life and livelihood without encroaching upon others’ rights, and that each party had a duty to help and protect the other in times of crisis and aggression from outside. It also recognised and established an acceptable pattern of compensation for the loss of life and property for all the people of Madina. It clearly stated that the God-fearing believers shall be against rebellions or him who seeks to spread injustice, or sin or enmity, or corruption between believers; the hand of every man shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them.” Such recognition of ‘differentness’ in later political development was gradually institutionalised, and faith-based identity subsequently emerged. Each faith group was responsible for their flock in their socio-cultural, religious and family affairs. Each religious group was expected to contribute to the public purse for defence and other collective concerns of the country.

This is how the terms dhimmah (protected minority) and jizya (taxes collected from the dhimmah) emerged. Furthermore, the Muslim world was largely divided between those who lived in Muslim territories (Dar al-Islam) and those who lived outside that domain, sometimes considered as the territories of War (Dar al-Harb), but such descriptions were human constructs in order to address the socio-political conditions of the time. The peak of application of such a faith-based identity was the Ottoman Caliphate. By 1839, the Tanzimat reforms removed faith-based identity and replaced it with citizenship.

Today, the nation state and the concept of citizenship have forced Muslims to rethink their idea of faith-based identity. There is no world-wide caliphate, nor is faith the centre of identity of Muslim countries. The concept of dhimmah (and consequently jizya) is no more and the differences between Dar al-Islamand Dar al-Harb have become irrelevant. Furthermore, a large part of the Muslim population lives as a minority, and increasing numbers of Muslims are migrating to Western countries and facing new challenges. Their arrival in European countries not only brought Muslims of various ethnic and denominational groups face to face (facing internal plurality) but also they encountered other beliefs, and those with no beliefs (facing external plurality).

Pluralism, as a response to all such differences, does not provide ‘an official interpreter’, but instead gives weight to diversity of viewpoints. Muslims who are used to decisive fatawa (rulings) are facing the challenging phenomena of the tension between conformity and dissent, collective narrative versus individual interpretation. Given all of this, what is the future? The future lies in how Muslims can find a way to honour the dignity and differences of people without losing the core values of their faith. We have an interesting time ahead.