WASHINGTON, D.C. - When the principles of faith itself are under threat, as during the apartheid era in South Africa, doctrinal differences among faiths become insignificant, said Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa's ambassador to the United States, during a May 14 Symposium on Religious Freedom and the Rights of Minorities in Islam at Georgetown University.
While other scholars and academics at the event, co-sponsored by Georgetown's Alaweed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding and the Islamic Society of North America, described both the mandates of Islamic law, Shari'a, and the historical treatment of non-Muslims in majority Muslim societies, Rasool, a follower of Islam from a majority non-Muslim country, provided a counterpoint.
In South Africa, Muslims make up less than 3 percent of the population, and were long denied basic religious rights, Rasool said, noting that Muslim marriages were not recognized until 1990.
"We established ourselves in South Africa without the silver spoon in our mouths," he said. Yet this community of less than 1 million nevertheless managed to produce "anti-apartheid warriors who went to jail with Nelson Mandela" and have since achieved significant representation in government.
Rasool said the Islamic principle of Al-Amin, or trustworthiness, was a factor. (Al-Amin, The Trustworthy, was a nickname given to the Prophet Muhammad.)
"The deficit of trust always detracts from the message," he said. "Muslims had earned their trustworthiness because they were prepared to die with the majority, to take their hard knocks with the majority."
Interfaith services during the apartheid era were "places of great danger," he said. Police were outside, shooting teargas, as the gatherings posed a threat to the existing system of government.
In these situations, "your interpretation [of scripture] has to take second place to the preservation of faith itself, because it's under siege," Rasool said. "What binds you is the common faith that you have in the face of enormous danger."
South Africa was less divided by religious beliefs than by apartheid, he said. Therefore it was people of all faiths who were struggling to follow the Aquaba, the steep path of righteousness, (described in the Sūrat al-Balad, the Quran's 90th Sura) who found themselves in the streets protesting apartheid.
"What you demand as a minority, you've got to advocate for, were you a majority," he said - noting that if you demand a mosque in New York, you need to make similar concessions in Mecca. "If you open the door to discrimination to anyone else, you open it to yourself."
Speaking in Arabic through a translator, Shayk Abdallah bin Bayyah, professor at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and president of the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance in the U.K., said the Quran teaches that all races are equal: All are descended from Adam and created from dust.
He quoted the Quran's Surah 49:13, which calls on the world's nations and tribes to know each other, not despise each other, and said that using religion is like using energy, in that it can be used to grow fruits or create bombs. (He advocated the former!)
Other panelists - Imam Mohamed Majid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, John O. Voll, professor of Islamic History at Georgetown, Jamal Badawi, professor emeritus of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jonathan Brown, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown, Tamara Sonn, professor of humanities in the department of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior peacemaking officer in the Religion and Peacemaking Center and a scholar of Islam at the U.S. Institute of Peace - detailed the treatment of non-Muslims in Islamic societies throughout history, from the Medina Constitution of 622 CE to the present-day treatment of non-Muslims in post-revolution Egypt.
Brown described the story of Islam as a vast narrative that stretches from "Senegal to Malaysia and from Sudan to the Steppes of Russia."
"It's not one story at all," he said. "We need to stop treating this history as one that can be told quickly."
Badawi stressed the importance of looking at that history with clear eyes -neither romanticizing it nor denigrating it, but learning from it.
Lucy Chumbley is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.
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