Society: Islamic tradition and religious pluralism

Accessible holiness?

There is a pervasive view in the media today that Islam does not support pluralism. Sadly, we often hear how difficult it is for non-Muslim minorities to live in peace and harmony in Muslim countries. Violent extremists who misuse Islamic theology to justify terrorist attacks have exacerbated prejudices against Muslims and today many people think that Muslims do not believe in pluralism and diversity. By contrast, history reveals that Islam — as preached in the Qur’an and exemplified by the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions — actually accepts, celebrates and even encourages diversity.

It should be noted that the term “minority” has no place in Islamic law. It has no place in sharia (a legal system based on Islamic principles) and jurists have never used the term. Rather, it emerged from Western societies, which use it to distinguish between ethnic groups. According to Islamic principles, everyone who lives in a Muslim state is entitled to enjoy the same rights of citizenship, despite the differences they may have in their religion or population size.

In 622 CE, when the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and started to build the first Muslim state, he ensured that its Muslim and non-Muslim inhabitants could coexist in harmony. There was a substantial Jewish community in Medina, and the Prophet proposed an agreement of cooperation — between Muslims and the 11 Jewish tribes — called the Constitution of Medina, which Muslim historians and scholars generally accept as the first written state constitution.

This constitution spelled out Jews’ rights as non-Muslim citizens in the Muslim state. As a result, the Prophet managed to establish a multi-faith political community in Medina based on a set of universal principles. The rules set out in the constitution were meant to maintain peace and cooperation, protect life and property, prevent injustice and ensure freedom of religion and movement for all inhabitants— regardless of tribal or religious affiliation. Allegiance to the community superseded religious identity, as spelled out in the rules for joint defence: “each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this document”.

The Prophet’s treatment of the “People of the Book”, in this case Jews, showed religious tolerance as well as prudence. The constitution established the pattern for the future relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, specifying non-Muslim citizens as equal partners with Muslim inhabitants.

Almost 15 years later, when Muslims conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines, Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab granted its people, who were mainly Christians, safety for their persons, property and churches. As well-known British historian Karen Armstrong writes, “…[Umar] was faithful to the Islamic inclusive vision. Unlike Jews and Christians, Muslims did not attempt to exclude others from Jerusalem’s holiness”.

Umar’s assurance of safety to the people of Jerusalem stands as an important example for leaders in multi-faith societies today, and history has proven that when these examples were put into practice, non-Muslims were treated kindly and justly.

These examples of Muslim and non-Muslim coexistence are not confined to a specific time or place, but are meant to be applied in all times and places. Today, for example, Jordan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief. Christians in Jordan, who form the majority of non-Muslims, enjoy by law nearly ten per cent of the seats in parliament and have similar quotas at every level of government and society. Their holy sites, property and religious practices are protected from any kind of interference by the state.

Cultural and social realities in many Muslim-majority societies have led to violations of the rights of non-Muslims in contemporary times. Looking at Islamic history, however, demonstrates that the path towards mutual understanding and tolerance does not deviate from the essence of Islam. On the contrary, to revive the spirit of inclusivity, Muslim societies should look to the Qur’an, and emulate the model it lays out.

An inclusive vision is, and always will be, the only safe haven for followers of other religions in an Islamic society.

(Photo: Hadar Naim)

Dr. Maher Y. Abu-Munshar is a lecturer in Islamic Jerusalem studies, ALMI, University of Aberdeen and author of Islamic Jerusalem and Its Christians: A History of Tolerance and Tensions (IB Tauris, 2007). This article is part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


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