Tolerance and Diversity in Islam

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Life & Society Topics: Diversity, Islam Values: Mercy, Patience, Tolerance Views: 21041

In the thirteenth century, when the non-Muslim Mongols had taken possession of Baghdad, their ruler Hulegu Khan is said to have assembled the religious scholars in the city and posed a loaded question to them: according to their law, which alternative is preferable, the disbelieving ruler who is just or the Muslim ruler who is unjust? After moments of anguished reflection, one well known scholar took the lead by signing his name to the response, "the disbelieving ruler who is just." Others are said to have followed suit in endorsing this answer.

Just and accountable government has long been considered essential in Islamic political and religious thought. The Qur'an states that the righteous "inherit the earth," righteous in this case referring to the morally upright rather than the members of any privileged confessional community. A righteous and just leader ruling by at least the tacit consent of the people and liable to being deposed for unrighteous conduct remained the ideal for most Muslims through much of the Middle Ages, even though dynastic rule replaced limited elective rule only about thirty years after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 CE. That thirty year period of non-dynastic rule became hallowed, however, in the collective Muslim memory as the golden era of just and legitimate leadership.

The consequences of this memory could have potentially far-reaching repercussions for the reshaping of the Islamic world today. The Qur'anic concept of shura refers to "consultation" among people in public affairs, including political governance, and was practiced in particular by the second caliph Umar during the critical thirty year period. It is a term that resonates positively with many contemporary Muslims who wistfully recognize the intrinsic value of this sacred concept but find it rarely applied in the polities they inhabit today. Contrary to certain popular caricatures, Muslims are not somehow genetically predisposed to accept tyranny and religious absolutism. There is a healthy respect for honest, reasoned dissensus within the Islamic tradition; this attitude finds reflection in the saying attributed to the Prophet, "There is mercy in the differences of my community."

With the historical insight and interpretive rigor, one can discover common ground between the modern Western ideal of democratic pluralism and the praxis of various pre-modern Muslim societies. Long before the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were formulated, medieval Muslim jurists developed what may be called an Islamic bill of rights meant to ensure state protection of individual life, religion, intellect, property, and personal dignity. Non-Muslims such as Jews and Christians (later Zoroastrians and others as well) also had specific rights in the Muslim community. Above all, they had the right to practice their religion upon payment of a poll-tax to the Islamic state (from which priests, other clerics, and the poor were exempt) and were consequently freed from serving in the military. The Qu'ran after all counsels, "There is no compulsion in religion." Within roughly twenty years after the Prophet's death, Islam lay claim to the former domains of Byzantine and Persian empires in Persia, Syria-Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt.

It is important to point out that territorial expansion did not mean forcible conversion of the conquered peoples. The populations of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, for example, remained largely Christian for about two centuries after the early Islamic conquests. Individual Christians and Jews sometimes obtained high positions in Muslim administrations throughout the medieval period. Syriac speaking Christians were employed by their Muslim patrons in eighth and ninth century Baghdad to translate Greek manuscripts into Arabic; their inclusion in the intellectual life of medieval Islam helped preserve the wisdom of the ancient world. Centuries later, Jews fleeing from the "excesses" of the Spanish Reconquista would find refuge in Muslim Ottoman lands and establish thriving communities there. Clearly, the Qur'an's injunction to show tolerance towards people of other, particularly Abrahamic, faiths was frequently heeded by those who revered it as sacred scripture. 

To deny these lived realities of the Islamic past, which point to what we would term in today's jargon a respect for pluralism and religious diversity, is to practice a kind of intellectual violence against Islam. Muslim extremists who insist that the Qur'an calls for relentless warfare against non-Muslims without just cause or provocation merely to propagate Islam and certain Western opinion makers who unthinkingly accept and report their rhetoric as authentically Islamic are both doing history a great disservice. Muslim extremist fringe groups with their desperate cult of martyrdom are overreacting to current political contingencies and disregarding any scriptural imperative. It is worthy of note that the Qur'an does not even have a word for martyr; the word "shahid," now commonly understood to mean "a martyr," refers only to an eyewitness or a legal witness in Qur'anic usage. Only in later extra Qur'anic tradition, as a result of extraneous influence, did the term "shahid" come to mean bearing witness for the faith, particularly by laying down one's life, much like the Greek derived English word "martyr." 

The question thus remains: if there is much in the history of Muslims that may be understood to be consonant with the objectives of civil society, how and why did it go awry? Zeal for political power and corruption on the part of many ruling elites throughout history, and debilitating encounters with Western colonialism and secular modernity in recent times are prominent among the constellation of reasons advanced to explain this current state of affairs.

There has in fact never been a better time for collective introspection and moral housecleaning. A contrite Christian Europe after the debacle of the Holocaust was forced to question some of its interpretive traditions and their moral and social consequences. After the atrocities of September 11, the virulently militant underbelly of political Islam can and should be eviscerated by debunking the interpretive strand that is in clear violation of the most basic precepts of Islam, fosters the glorification of violence and self-immolation. In its stead, reflective Muslims must engage in a process of recovery and revalorization of genuine Islamic core values, such as consultative government, religious tolerance, respect for pluralism and peaceful coexistence with diverse peoples. The compatibility of these core values with those of civil society imparts both urgency and legitimacy to this process. 

Asma Afsaruddin is Assistant Professor of Classics at Notre Dame and a Fellow of the Kroc Institute. Her scholarly research focuses on the early religious and political history of Islam, Qur'an and hadith studies, and classical and modern Arabic literature. She recently published Excellence and Precedence: Medieval Islamic Discourse on Legitimate Leadership (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002). This article is adapted from "Recovering the Core Values of Islam," published in Muslim Democrat, vol.4, no. 1, January 2002.

  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Life & Society
  Topics: Diversity, Islam  Values: Mercy, Patience, Tolerance
Views: 21041

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Older Comments:
Salam Br. Asgher,
Thank you for your beautiful reply to Mr. Paagle's post and for your warning to the Muslims not to be aggressive against anyone who oppose us. It is not the preferred way for a Muslim any way. Now I would like to share a few of my thoughts about Mr. Paagle's comments.
Mr. Paagle, about your comment "All this (and more) go to the "peaceful" transformation from non-Muslim majorities to Muslim majorities in Islamically ruled countries. While many adults are too set in their ways to adopt a new religion, newer generations see how much easier it is to be a Muslim in an Islamic state and make a practical conversion. Over time this practical conversion becomes a very real conversion." - you are absolutely right in your analysis. But you have missed one very important point like many people do. Islam is a complete system unlike other religions. It not only provides guidelines for individual spirituality and morality, but also dictates the daily economic, political, and foreign affairs of a nation, of a country. Therefore it is on the same category as Democracy, Socialism, Capitalism etc. And it is only natural for Islam to have necessary steps defined in it to ensure its survival and propagation. If it did not, then it couldn't be a good system. Any system does this. Heck, we Americans constantly trying to force our demoratitc ideas on others, sometimes using undue violence. A recent example is Iraq. And don't forget how Communists were labeled as terrorists, unpatriotic just because they thought America would have been better of with it. Lucky for non-Muslims is that Islam regulates its own propagation through more peaceful means such as Poll tax, from which poor people are exempted anyway.
Also, any system, nation, or country favors its own over others. Didn't we kill millions of Japanese men, women, children in the name of saving American way of life and its followers? Islam does not allow such indiscriminate killing.


Paagle. You could replace the words Islam and Muslims with Christians and Christianity and transfer what you said to Native Americans, South America, Africa, Crusaders, recent Aborigini cleansing, etc. and you would have a bloody scenario which makes Islamic pole tax look like a picnic. Pint is for a man of peace the past is immaterial and we can talk about injustices till the cows come home and no system is blameless including your current Christo-Zionists who rule America and keep pushing for warring in places you never heard of before. What matters now is how the individual can bring peace to another person regardless of faith, race or sex? Let me give you a clue: One can not give out a dime before one has such a dime in one's pocket. Peace and love is the same: If you have no inner peace or have not been touched by love then it is hard for you to pass it on to another, especially a stranger. This is what all prophets came to bring to us yet their teachings were distorted through the ages by tribal, cultural and other desires for domination, power and control. Question is: Can we make a difference by putting the past behind? Do you have such a dime in your pocket now?
Hudd: pardon me but your response to Schipf is full of rage and anger. The Quran teaches the moamin to excercise peace/kindness towards those who do not agree with us. Hold your peace if you can not find a good word to say to those who oppose you, for it is of a better iman to do so. We are all products of our own upbringing and only God can be the arbitrator. Peace brother.

Afsaruddin claims that denying the pluralistic aspects of Islam's past is a type of intellectual violence against Islam. There may be some truth to this, but with this article she is practicing a type of intellectual deception. I suspect its self-deception, and it is common amongst decent, well-meaning Muslims I have engaged with.

The deception consists of over-emphasizing the pluralistic aspects of Islam, and under-emphasizing the domineering, authoritarian aspects. For example, religious freedom is possible with the payment of the "poll-tax," which exempts the non-Muslims from military service. That sounds lovely on the surface, but along with this religious "freedom" are laws against building new non-Muslim places of worship and even repairing existing ones. This reduces the long-term viability of the infidel religions in Islamic countries. Along with the exemption from military service comes the prohibition from having weapons. This makes the non-Muslims completely beholden to the good behavior of the Muslims. While this might work out in an ideal Islamic state, practically there will be some friction between comunities. This is especially likely in the case of an Islamic country, where many of the laws regarding authority (non-Muslims cannot be superior to Muslims) and justice (non-Muslim witness worth less than Muslim witness) grossly favor Muslims. It is also especially likely when the Muslims are continuously told in the holy Koran what a horrible sin unbelief is. So when this inevitable friction occurs, the non-Muslims are completely defenseless.

Of course many of these laws were established because non-Muslims in recently conqured territories remainde loyal to their co-religionists in nearby nations. The laws are understandable from the conquerer-to-conquered perspective. The pluralistic aspects simply limit revolution and preserve the economies required to maintain the Islamic state - hardly sign of divine inspiration.

RG Schipf. You need not make excuses for Islam. Just try to seek the truth within yourself. The media portrays Islam in a negative way. Western world is full of this bias for a lot longer than 911. Do you truly believe that this idiot on the screen wanting to kill anyone who does not conform to his own form of Islam actually represents the silent majority of over a billion Mulsims? Other religions have their fanatics and history is full of it but I for one do not believe they represent the majority within that group unless we gave the front news day-in day-out to drive a certain agenda. You do not find Muslim miltary camps in the world but US military camps are all over the world and if the ruling parties of any country do not want them then the US uses brute force or political backmail to achieve its aim. Do you no think that this sort of behaviour eventually spawns retaliation or do you just believe that current Muslim portrayed rage is a result of their fanaticism? and has no justification whatsoever. Bear in mind that I do not codon violence AT ALL. This is just for you to challenge yourself to seek the truth. It takes two to tango, for sure. We all must take a deep look inside of ourselves. Peace.


Mr. Schlpf I am sure you are quite aware of lot of grievous
atrocities conducted systematically against the Muslims all over
the world at different time and reign to eliminate Islam from
the face of the earth. In Spain after the end of Muslim rule
Muslims were systemically killed and forced to convert to
Christianity. In Eastern Europe even during the communist rule
Muslims were forced to and made mandatory for Muslims to
have local Christen name, the Bosnian ethnic clinging, Kosovo
ethnic clinging, Somalia Islamic fundamentalist, in Russia during
the communist rule all the Mosque were closed and Muslims
were not allowed to practice the religion, even to day Muslims
are not allowed to build a New Mosque and do the extension of
the existing Mosque to meet the increasing demand of Muslims
to have a decent place to say their prayer. The Chechnian
movement have been crushed by strong Russian army and the
freedom movement of Kashmiri people are being systemically
suppressed for ages with out being noticed by Western
democratic, idealistic, free society. But had this been done in any
part of the world with other ethnic back ground the Western
World would have gone up to any extend to stop and
liberate those regions. For example East Timor, South of Sudan
etc. Why this double standard? Saddam has been hanged for
killing the Kurds, Shia ( No doubt he was dictator) but ironically
how many peoples are getting killed every day, how many
wome'sn are being raped , how many children's are dying now.
The war waged against Iraq was to destroy weapons of mass
estruction. Where is the weapon of mass destruction? Now
another excuse is to attack Iran. Is this call war on terror or as
an step to eliminate terrorist act?


While all revisitation of the pluralistic form of governance and society according to our history ought to be amulated but there is a fundamental flaw in Ms. Asfaruddin's beginning argument. The analogy with the Halagu Khan and the the consent given to him by Ulema is debatable. She does not give a historiacal background to the then prevaling Abbasid rule as to how it was unjust and the alternative offered by Halegu Khan. The council of Ulema may have signed the document but we know if it was on matters of principle or realism to spare Baghdad any more slaughter. How is the just and righteousness of an invading army to be judged when they have thier war machine outside your city gates? Democracy is just and righteous isn't it ? Then does that make the American occupation of Iraq a moral step? Is this a post defacto justification of Bush's conquest of Iraq by Ms. Asfaruddin? By that argument alone then can we justify an attack of the People'e Liberation Army of China on the US as being driven by Just and Righteous authority ? or for that matter Fidel's conquest of Miami ? We do know that Cummunism does talk about social equality and justice doesn't it ? Justice and Righteousness at the barrel of a gun is to be questioned all the times whether it was Halegu Khan or Bush Khan ( both of them in Baghdad). Unfortuntely Ms.Asfaruddin's article raises more quetions than it answers.

Dear Mr Schipf, Re your following comments:

"About a year ago, the Supreme Court in Afganistan condemned a man to death for becoming a Christian. Just recently, my TV showed me an Islamic spokesman shouting into the camera--everyone must accept Islam or die. You have a long way to go and I can't make excuses for Islam much longer."

The moderate Muslims do speak up against the extremists, but their messages are scattered due to four main reasons: (1) Unlike Catholicism, mainstream Islam doesn't have a centralized authority figure, like Pope, as a focal point to condemn the extremists from, for the world to hear (and see). (2) Many moderate Muslims do speak out against the extremists but they don't get enough media exposure. (3) Most of these moderates don't speak clear and proper English to make themselves understood by the mainstream Americans. (4) Most moderates do want justice served. Thereby, while they condemn the extremists, they also feel they have to condemn the perpetrators of injustices, i.e. Zionists, in order to not appear as appeasing to only one side. Thus, their condemnation is then diluted. (5) Many of these people were raised in countries where there is no guaranteed freedom of expression, thus, most of them aren't up to speed in seeking media exposure to let their views heard.

Unfortunately, Muslims aren't organized enough to challenge any anti-Islamic rhetoric spread over the airwaves. Last weekend I had two occasions to report to CAIR as well as to MPAC about a show on "anti-jihadist, Islamic extremism" about to be broadcast on the radio, and on TV. I couldn't get a hold of any live person. When I finally did, and explained the situation to the person who answered the phone, he appeared unfazed and asked "is this an emergency?" Muslims NEED TO WAKE UP AND RESPOND TO THE DISINFORMATION ABOUT ISLAM. But the my experience from last week shows WE HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO!!

Really,R. G. Schipf? Afghanistan is a country, as well as USA, neither one stands for religion. US laws are far from being Christian as well as Afghan laws are far from being Islamic. Only because the rulers happen to be either Christian or Muslim, it doesn't mean that their actions are, savvy? Oh, my friend, how many Christian pastors and priests, including the Pope called the Muslims as heretic, fanatics, barbarians and not fit to live among people. You have a long way to humanity, my friend, your spirits lurk in the gored marshes of the Dark Ages! You, Whites, are the cruelest people on the planet. Some of you atoned for their crimes against humanity, but alas, the majority are still complacent with their terroristic acts against the nations! Shame on you, that you even open your mouth! The US government with its criminal administration is the lead by a congenital moron toward international disgrace! A discerning child can see that. Why can't you see? Because you chose not to, and that my friend is dishonest and criminal! We all, as mankind, must stand by the truth and justice for all. But,hey, how can you expect that from a bunch of mobsters that run the world's greatest country? Will they apply Christian or Judaic values? No way, siree, they will apply their own values, those of the mob! Get real and watch less television and research more! Can you google?

Yes. Paint the right picture. Don't propagate terrorism for the sake of business and personal dislike.

This is a good article and it brings up many important points. As a convert to Islam, I am very distured by how many fellow muslims fail to know or understand their own history. Hopefully by realizing just how the islamic societes excelled in the world during the 7th to 17th centuries will change the current situation. Thanks for the article I will continue to read the great information on this website.

About a year ago, the Supreme Court in Afganistan condemned a man to death for becoming a Christian. Just recently, my TV showed me an Islamic spokesman shouting into the camera--everyone must accept Islam or die. You have a long way to go and I can't make excuses for Islam much longer.

Salam, please I have said this before, please when writing try to use such words that are not so long and uncommon that one needs to leave their train of thought in order to start looking up words. The point is to get the idea across and write sentences that are thought provoking. Please get the idea and point across, without using such extreme words. Jazakum ALLAHU Khaiyr! Salam

Every muslim should take the task of explaining and living a life that respects all individuals irrespective of their race or faith. Not everything is fair in this world & the answer to solve such problems is definitely not by killing people. Muslim scholars should be pro-active in condemning acts as those being committed in Darfur, not to mention the sectarian violence in Iraq. All of us should try to bring all this blood-shed to an end by educating people and bringing them to the core values that Islam represents.
My Allah guide us all to strive for the betterment of all of mankind.

Regarding the "militant underbelly of political Islam" and its ideology, would have made more sense in terms of 'cleaning up' if the Muslim community as a whole or at least a majority had adopted that ideology. However the fact remains that these organizations that call on killing innocent Jews or Christians or of any other faith for that matter are numbered only by couple of thousand followers in comparison with 1.2 Billion Muslims world wide. Hence the overall Muslim opinion is against these organizations who are in fact had been supported and created at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by the US to fight its former enemy the USSR. What the Muslims must be doing now is to wake up and try to identify these elements who are misguiding the youth and also coming in direct understanding of the Holy Quran and the Sunna on a one on one baises and call people to the message of truth. This is the only way that we can save our selves of this onslaught of Muslims across the world.

Good Article...

I have added a link to this article in my blog's post: Secularism, Laicism, Diversity, Pluralism: What's In A Name?

That is what i am fighting for, that is what i was looking for. I searched in Qu'ran again and again, where this violence is mentioned, where this martyrdom is mentioned which is killing so many our own innocent people. This is excellent article. I am going to read it in my next Interfaith meeting.

If Sr. Asma reads comments and reactions to her commentary then I would like to take this opportunity to say and ask; Great article. Totally agree. But how do you go about implementing your ideas (especially those in the last paragraph) when the boots of tyranny and occupation are stepping on our necks? Do we remove the political and foreign obstacles that make life impossible for hundreds of millions of Muslims then begin the moral housecleaning you espouse? Or do we purify ourselves from within (keeping in mind how limited we are in 'Muslim lands' in terms of religious freedoms and access to resources like education and healthcare) while the boot of corruption steps on our necks, all the while hoping that we are allowed to carry through with this "spiritual cleaning"?