The Shoe Is On the Other Foot: Pluralism and the Qur'an

Jane SmithBy Jane Smith

The raging fires of the immigration debates in the U.S. illuminate what Muslim immigrants have known for a long time -- America is not and really never has been a melting pot. The ugly rhetoric surrounding the plan for a mosque and community center near Ground Zero, and recent assaults such as those on the Bridgeport, CT mosque in my neighborhood, illustrate well the difficulties Muslims face on a regular basis. Nonetheless, Muslims have actually managed to survive quite well in the West and have even succeeded in persuading many American citizens of the right of Islam to exist as a legitimate partner in the complex balance of religious life in this country.

For many Muslims the shoe is now slipping onto the other foot. The issue is becoming not only whether they and their religion are accepted by other Americans, but whether Islam itself can find a way to live out the pluralism that many are persuaded is at the heart of the Qur'an's message. Studies now show that while early generations of Muslims tried to honor that pluralism in relation to other religious groups, more exclusivist views came to prevail and communities such as Christians and Jews found themselves increasingly discriminated against by Islam. Exegetes turned from verses of the Qur'an that insist that God willed different religious communities rather than a single one, and emphasized those verses that affirm that the only true religion in the eyes of God is Islam.

It seems to me that the future of Islam, at least as I understand it in the American context, has much to do with the way that Muslims figure out how they are going to position themselves on the question of pluralism. That we all live in a religiously differentiated society is a given. But is that a good thing in the Muslim perspective? While Muslims struggle to be truly accepted by Christians, Jews, and other groups in America, can they promise the same in return? And if so, at what level?

The literature from American Muslims on the question of pluralism is burgeoning. Pluralism is the reality in which they must live and in response to which they must make their decisions about their lives and the lives of their children. The crux of the matter, however, is whether an ideology of pluralism can be accepted as a response to the fact of a multi-religious society. Some Muslims understand pluralism as a socio-ethical concern, dealing primarily with human rights and freedom of choice. Others address it as an "inside" concern. Is Islam truly flexible enough to include the range of experiences and interpretations brought by all of its members, including African Americans? How do moderate Muslims speak loudly enough to drown out the persistent interpretations of certain conservative ideologies? If Qur'anic analysis shows without doubt that women are in full partnership with men, why does gender discrimination remain ingrained in so many, including Western, Muslim cultures? These questions still beg for answers.

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Another kind of pluralism to which a number of Muslims are turning looks beyond internal Islam to the recognition of other religions. If my religion is the best and the only true faith, reason some Muslims, what need do I have to concern myself with pluralism and an acknowledgement of faiths that are inherently misguided? Others wonder this: If Islam is to survive as a fully acknowledged religion in America, what are the demands placed on Muslims themselves to accept Christianity and Judaism, or other faiths, as divinely revealed religions not only as they are portrayed in the Qur'an but as they are lived out by their adherents today? As in all things, the Qur'an is the basis of the faith and the starting point for looking at such issues.

If the Qur'an indeed supports pluralism, despite years of interpretation to the contrary by traditional exegetes, how far is it legitimate to go in acknowledging the truth claims of religions other than Islam? I predict that this conversation increasingly will occupy the thoughts of scholars, philosophers, and social activists in the coming years as Muslims continue to grow in numbers in the West and continue to face the challenges of living where Islam is not the norm but only one of a number of competing claims in a vast market of religious wares.


Jane Smith is Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs and Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of numerous books and articles on American Muslims, including most recently Islam in America (rev., NY: Columbia University Press, 2009); Educating the Muslims of America, co-edited with Farid Senzai and Yvonne Haddad (NY: Oxford University Press, 2009); Muslims, Christians, and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today, with Yvonne Haddad and Kathleen Moore (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).

8/16/2010 4:00:00 AM
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