Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

Pluralism has been a guiding principle of Islamic behavior since the medieval period. Muhammad himself had relationships, some more controversial than others, with Christian and Jewish communities. The expansion of the Islamic state meant that as a community, Muslims encountered and governed over various other religious groups. A principle of tolerance and a "live and let live" maxim - derived from verses of the Quran in which Muhammad is told to inform other communities that "to you is your religion and to me is mine" -- was developed early in the Muslim community. This is not to say that there were never persecutions against non-Muslims, or that tolerance was universally applied.

It is occasionally said, although the idea has less currency now than in previous generations, that Islam initially spread by force or by "the sword." Most scholars agree that this is a mischaracterization of the early period of Islamic conquests. Nonetheless, the topic deserves some clarification here.

The initial concept or vision for an Islamic society held by the early community of Muslims was actually not focused on converting the world to Islam. In the first decades of expansion, non-Muslim subjects provided an important tax base for the new Islamic state. In fact, the early caliphs were reluctant to extend the financial privileges afforded to Muslims to their non-Muslim subjects.

It is impossible to gauge levels of conversion, but it's clear that during the conquests and shortly thereafter, that is, over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, more and more people began to convert to Islam. The fact that these new subjects embraced the faith but were not from an Arab background presented social and intellectual challenges to the leaders of the Muslim community who were forced to reconsider the shapes and contours up society.

Sunni Islam distinguished itself from other denominations in its view about who was fit to lead the Muslim community. Unlike Shiite Islam, which places moral authority in the person of the imam, Sunni Islam has a vision for society that is not invested in a single lineage. This is not to say that government leaders and religious scholars always behaved in ways that were unified or consistent. In fact, conflicts between religious scholars and those who held political power were common in the medieval era. On the other hand, occasionally scholars and rulers worked hand-in-hand to put forward their own vision for Islamic society. In the 12th century, for example, Syria had a special place in the Islamic world within the context of the Crusades. Its sultan, Nureddin, launched a campaign that was both military and intellectual with the aid of prominent scholars who helped craft a vision of what the Sunni world should look like.

In the modern era it is much more difficult to pinpoint a single vision for Sunni society. It is impossible to overstate the diversity of views regarding what constitutes Islamic society in the Sunni world. Geographical and ethnic diversity, on the one hand, and linguistic and cultural differences on the other, have meant that various people will have established their own understandings of what social structures, family structures, and political ideologies should influence their vision for society. That said, the real-time technology with which various parts of the Sunni world communicate and a deeper global society have enabled enormous cross-fertilization. That is to say, segments of society that were never before connected now have rapid communication and an international reach due to the Internet.

It remains to be seen how this type of technology will affect communication, learning, and the spread of ideas throughout the Sunni world. This may not be a universally positive set of developments. Without the relevance of local attachment, it can be easy for dogma to replace doctrine, for one financially or economically dominant group to disproportionately affect the education and learning of the broader society.

It has already become evident how images of and from Saudi Arabia have come to dominate Western perceptions of the Islamic world, in spite of a numerical minority of Muslims from the Arab world.  Technology could just as easily facilitate the imposition of a single vision for society as it does the availability of a number of visions.  Much as Iran is the cultural heart of the Shiite world, Saudi Arabia has been the largest producer of pedagogical and educational materials for the Sunni Muslim world. The fact that in many Muslim countries, the great bulk of populations are comprised of young people mean that these types of cultural centers are especially significant for the generations coming-of-age in the 21st century. There is no doubt that the vision for society that is being formulated in the contemporary world is enormously affected by the intensity of globalization, and by particularly volatile political situations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Study Questions:
     1.     How does Islam interact with other faith traditions?
     2.     Islam is often characterized as spreading by “the sword.” Why has scholarship determined this was not entirely true?
     3.     Why is hard to develop a single vision for Sunni Islam society?
     4.     How has technology helped Islam spread in contemporary society?

Back to Religion Library