Muslims Engaging the Other and the Humanum - Part I

Call unto to the path of your Lord with wisdom, and good counsel, and engage them by those means which are the finest.”(Q. 16:125) 


How do Muslims engage the religious other [1] in a world that increasingly defies geographical, political, religious and ideological boundaries? This is a world where the “enemy” is often the internal self (e.g., the Saudi/Iranian/Sudanese regime or the Shi’ite/Qadiani/modernists) and the asylum provider the external other (Christian relief organizations, Amnesty International / your non-Muslim neighbor, etc). How do Muslims respond when we come face to face with the humanum, the essentially human, and its manifestation in lives of a tireless quest for compassion and commitment to justice that the other may lead? How do the various forms of engagement with the other facilitate or militate against efforts to challenge unjust socio-economic systems and create possibilities for more humane alternatives?

The first part of this essay is a broad overview of the various ways in which different tendencies among Muslims relate to the other along with a brief comment on the ideological function of each. This relationship is discussed within a broader context of liberalism and globalization. Such a context problematizes overt religious or ideological proselytism when the object to which one is invited is often non-material (faith, God, salvation, etc.) but lauds more obviously similar covert activity when the objects are clearly material in the form of market commodities. The second part of this article advocates an alternative to the form of proselytization that regards the other as being in various states of damnation. The conclusion calls for intra-religious and extra-religious “proselytization” based on liberative praxis aimed at creating a world of socio-economic and gender justice where all human beings are free to explore and attain their unique fullness, intended with their creation.

Despite the risk of essentializing Muslims, after locating myself within the debate on Muslims and the other, I nevertheless, state the three main generalized assumptions which underpin my own understanding of Muslim responses to the question of engaging the other and the humanum.

I am a South African Muslim, belonging to a small minority community that have survived, lived and thrived among the other for three hundred and forty years. My years in Pakistan as a student of Islamic theology alerted me to the oppression of Christians in a Muslim country and my involvement in the South African struggle for liberation alerted me to the need to value religiousness and spirituality in the other (Esack, 1997). The challenges of poverty and Aids that face Africa particularly, and those of consumerism and the ongoing ravaging of our planet and its peoples by the forces of a faceless God, the Market, in general, lead me to believe that my South African Muslim appreciation of the other serves two purposes: a) It enables others to see how some Muslims are dealing with the challenges of pluralism in a world of injustice and b), it offers my Muslim co-religionists elsewhere a possible theological path whereby one can be true to one’s faith and to the voice of one’s conscience in a world where virtue is clearly not the monopoly of one’s co-religionists, nor vice a monopoly of the other.

Other than my own socio-historical context, the following assumptions about Muslims underpin my appreciation of how we relate to the other:

First, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, irrespective of the nature and extent, or even complete absence, of their religiosity, have an indomitable belief that the world would be a better place if people followed the religion of Islam. Comments such as “He’s such an intelligent guy; how come he’s not a Muslim?” or “Desmond Tutu is such a decent person, if only he were a Muslim” are common among Muslims. The notion of Islam as a given and all else as aberration is both based on and supported by a hadith (tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad that “every person is born in a natural state, it is the parent which makes the child a Christian or a Jew.” The fact that Christianity and Judaism are portrayed as non-natural religions leads to the refrain that Islam is al-din al-fitrah, “the natural - also understood as ‘the obvious’’ – religion”.

Second, the notion that the “world is hungry for Islam; if only we were better examples” is widespread among Muslims. They are, therefore, genuinely surprised when encountering someone who has studied Islam and not embraced it. When, for example, they first encounter a non-Muslim person interested in Islam they are generally patient and happy to assist. After an extended period when they realize that such interest is not transforming the researcher into a searcher ready to discover Islam then, for most Muslims, there is only one conceivable motive for that person’s: “He or she is learning about us in order to undermine us”. This contributes to the widespread suspicion and antagonism, which lurks underneath the polite surface of inter-religious and even academic forums towards the professional non-Muslim Islamicist.

Third, much of conscious religiously motivated interaction with the other is based on the assumption that there is a stable “self” or “own community” with a package of essential and unchanging values, principles and beliefs which stand in contrast with the other equally stable, even if invariably “lesser”, other.The presentation of this package is intended to destabilize the other and, upon this instability, open the other to embrace this new package.

Muslims, of course, engage non-Muslims all the time and at different levels. In this essay I am concerned with consciously religiously based forms of engagement, where the responses to the other are on the basis of that putative or actual otherness. [2]

1 The Other as Enemy.

At this level of engagement all manifestations of non-Islam - and the definition of “Islam” being the sole prerogative of that particular group and /or its leader - is viewed as a perversion of the natural order. This order, in turn, is regarded as synonymous with the Divine order. For many, such as the al-Takfir wa’l-Hijrah group in Egypt [3] or the Spain-based Murabitun, [4] this evaluation of the other may include “merely nominal” or “cultural” Muslims or those appreciation of Islam differs from theirs. While invoking the hadith “al-kufr millatun wahidah” (rejection or disbelief is a single community), the latter group is usually the object of greater vilification given their “betrayal” of the “real” Islam.
This level of engagement is usually the terrain of those described as “Islamic fundamentalists” who often come from a professional background and have a more pronounced ideological thrust. These groups, which include the JordanianHizb al-Tahrir, the Egyptian Gama al-Islamiyyah, and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), follow, a program aimed at destroying the political structures of kufr (lit. ‘rejection’, i.e., rejection of Islam) and replacing these with an Islamic state. While always welcoming converts to“true” Islam, their proselytizationwork is in large measure aimed at other Muslims in preparation for the eventual showdown with kufr. A small segment of this persuasion regard the other in general and more particularly, the ideological leadership of the other, as beyond redemption. They would, therefore, either resort to withdrawing from “kafir society” along the lines of al-Takfir wa’l-Hijra or engage in active, often armed combat, against the agents of kufr such as the GIA. In these circles hostage-taking would be justified as would the death of civilians in the pro-active jihad against kufr.

Much has been written on the subject of religious fundamentalism as a response to modernity (Lawrence, 1989; Marty & Appleby 1991 pp vii-xiii). Whatever the varying sociological circumstances in different contexts, many of these Muslims feel moved and/or sustained by their religious sensitivities to seek refuge in what they believe is the ultimate certainty; an ahistorical and reified Islam. The following are some of the factors responsible for this: a) the unfettered global hegemony of the United States of America and the many agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund - viewed as mere adjuncts of neo-colonialism -, b) the virtual powerlessness of Muslim states and their seeming collaboration in their own subjugation, c) the moral - particularly sexual - flexibility of modernity and d) the intellectual/philosophical tentativeness of post-modernity.

While many of the activists at this level are familiar with the discourse and utilize the instruments of modernity such as the Internet, they lack an appreciation of how inextricably interwoven the fate of humankind had really become. Thus they still believe that one can carve out pieces of liberated territories as dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) freed from foreign videos,  CNN and mini-skirts. More pertinently, they are indifferent to the attempts of numerous other entities throughout the world who share their concern and disdain for way globalization is becoming synonymous with McDonaldization, with the hypocritical and self-centred nature of USA foreign policy and the lack of political freedom and abundance of repression in their own societies.

In this lack of recognition of shared concerns lies both their greatest weakness and strength. As isolated entities, they are destined to remain on the margins of humankind occasionally bursting to the fore in acts of raw terror such as the massacre of tourists at Luxor or ofcovert terror such as the closing of medical care facilities for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Equally, as isolated entities, they can march forth undisturbed by questions of the humanness of the other which will confront them as soon as they discover a commonness in objectives to create a more just world.

2 The Other as Potential Self.

The second level of conscious engagement with the other is that of active proselytism with the stated intention of saving souls and increasing the numbers of “the believers”. This level is usually the domain of those who espouse atraditionalist and putatively apolitical view of Islam. They focus on personal sin, reformation, and salvation in the hereafter. Occasionally some form of charitable work serves as an adjunct to their proselytism. This view, conversely, lacks an awareness of socio-economic justice and an appreciation of its structural causes. Faith is narrowly defined as verbal testimony to a set of creeds and morality to the personal sphere with the focus on matters pertaining to sex. This group confines its activity to relatively mild forms of engaging the other. While the Tablighi Jama’ah [5] may concentrate on knocking on the doors of the non-praying or “unrighteous” internal other, those who opt for increasing the numbers of the nominally faithful adopt a wide range of strategies. These include the following: a) coercion such as withholding of food ration cards or complicating access to them in Pakistani villages, b) the incessant anti-Christian haranguing over mosque loudspeakers in Bangladesh and Indonesia, c) the exploitation of social problems such as lack of health and educational facilities by combining da’wah (lit. ‘invitation’) with concrete assistance in these fields by the Africa Muslim Agency in Southern Africa and, d) the regular public debates with Christian evangelists of the world renowned South African Muslim polemicist, Ahmed Deedat, an exception in a world where da’wah is rarely individualized.
The latter form of engagement is particular meaningful to Muslims who feel disempowered through colonialism and the seeming religio-cultural hegemony of “the West”. It is thus not unusual to find up to fifty video tapes of Deedat in a single Muslim home in Britain or Abu Dhabi. The compulsion appears to be “what we are losing daily in the world of economic and cultural power can be compensated for by our victories in religious slanging matches”.

3 The Other as Unavoidable Neighbor

There are numerous Muslims who are engaged in inter-faith or inter-religious dialogue in various parts of the world. With the exception of the Al al-Bayt Institute in Jordan, such activity rarely enjoys the support of mainstream Muslim institutions in the Arab world. Significant pockets of such initiatives are, however, found in countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia and, more particularly, in those countries where Muslims are in a minority. Other than the occasional high powered and largely symbolic gatherings of an organization such as the World Conference of Religion and Peace, much of inter-religious dialogue at a local level comprises one or more of the following: a) clarifying some basic guidelines for proselytization b) promoting good neighbourliness, and c) learning the basics of the other’s religion. In the case of the latter, presentations usually border on apologetics with each side keen to show the finest side of the religion’s heritage and careful to avoid reference to the actual historical or contemporary conduct of its adherents.

The number of Muslims, usually individuals rather than groups, engaged in such dialogue with the other are few and far between and where they are participants in organized forums then these have generally been organized by Christians. At this level there is some appreciation of the other, recognition of some worth attached to them and of the need to nurture this worth.(“These are good people; they would be even better if they were Muslim”). While there is an explicit acknowledgment of the duty of proclaiming “the good news” or “da’wah” the participants acknowledge the need to learn about the other for effective religious tolerance or proselytization. A number of Muslims initially enter such dialogues under the misunderstanding that their (usually) Christian counterparts are engaged in conversation because of the wavering nature of their own faith and, therefore, present fertile grounds for their own da’wah.

While many participants in inter-religious dialogue start at this level, the often ongoing nature as well as the unpredictability of the outcome of any truly listening experience ensure that, for some at least, the perception of the other changes and, along with it, their objectives in the dialogue. As for those who were incapable of listening, they normally just disappear after a few meetings, dismissing the exercise as “a waste of time”.

At a more scholarly level there are a number of Muslim intellectuals who form an intrinsic part of the ‘dialogue scene’. Some of them such as Jamal Badawi, the Toronto-based scholar, and to Mahmoud Ayoub, the Lebanese scholar based in Philadelphia, believe that exposing the other to the intellectual face of Islam, represented by them, is itself an invitation to Islam. There is little awareness among them that this very intellectualizing of the face of Islam means a transformation of the product and is, in effect, a denial of an essentialist Islam.

Despite the seeming objective nature of this approach, it is still essentially characterized by an assumption of superiority. First, it is not atypical to find suggestions in these circles that the Christians or Jewish partners - the “noble savage” - is actuallyy a muslim/Muslim, even if he or she is unaware of it. This notion of the “anonymous Muslim” assumes that goodness is synonymous with, even exclusive to, Islam. Many Muslims, when coming face to face with goodness, cannot relate this with integrity to the person as a person or as a Christian. Instead, they feel compelled to go through the initial act of making him or her “one of us”.

While the activities of this tendency are usually characterized by political non-involvement, it does often support moderate political action in support of “righteous causes”. At other times, those involved at this level may also co-operate with each other in seemingly benign activities such as tree planting or literacy campaigns. Seldom, if ever, in the forefront of challenging unjust socio-political systems or practices, they often play a significant role in the agenda of national states struggling to fuse diverse cultural religious identities into a broader national one.

4 The Other as Self & Intellectual/Theological Sparring Partner.

“In our age”, says Ghrab, “the purpose of dialogue must be solely knowledge. [...] of the other as the other wishes to be and not as it pleases us to imagine him, and on the basis of his texts, and his heritage and not merely on the basis of our texts” (Ghrab, 1987, 107).

This scholarly and “objective” approach to the other is the position of a growing number of individual Muslim intellectuals such as Mohammed Arkoun, and Ebrahim Moosa who eschew any hint of a da’wah, however subtle, agenda. These individuals, often working on the margins of Muslim society, nonetheless, embrace a calling: “the creation of a new space of intelligibility and freedom” (Arkoun, 20). Utilizing this space, they may embrace ideals of finding areas of commonality. In many ways this approach is a classic liberal one which values individual freedom and space, and the intellectual quest for their own sake.

What is often ignored at this level is that liberal ideology is not without its hegemonic interests. Leonard Binder has raised the pertinent question whether the critique of Muslim liberals has not been a “form of false consciousness, an abject submission to the hegemonic discourse of the dominant secular Western capitalist and imperialist societies, an oriental orientalism, or whether it was and is practical, rational and emancipatory” (1988, 5).

The call for “knowledge as a sphere of authority to be accepted and respected unanimously, a knowledge independent of ideologies, able to explain their formation and master their impact” (Arkoun 1988, 69), does little other than further the ideological interest within which such knowledge is located and formulated. Knowledge, like any other social tool, while it can be critical, is never neutral. As Segundo has argued, “every hermeneutic entails conscious or unconscious partisanship. It is partisan in its viewpoint even when it believes itself to be neutral and tries to act that way” (1991, 25).

While this group of scholars make for the most interesting partners on the dialogue circuit, I do not share the enthusiasm of those who insist on letting a million thoughts bloom for the fun of diversity and pluralism, a kind of social venture which often claims to not take side because “this is the perfect ideology for the modern bourgeois mind. Such a pluralism makes a genial confusion in which one tries to enjoy the pleasures of difference without ever committing oneself to any particular vision of resistance, liberation and hope”(Tracy 1987, 90).

A second area of concern with dialogue at this level is that it is essentially confined to those whom Muslims regard as “People of the Book”, i.e., Jews and Christians. In some ways, this reflects the relative qur’anic gentleness towards the People of the Book, the current politico-economic hegemony and the social location of these thinkers. However, I believe that this preference also betrays a more serious prejudice, a subject to which I will later revert: that people of the Fourth World, often adherents of “pagan” traditions, are of little or no consequence.

5. The Other as Self & Spiritual Partner.

For a number of Muslim scholars such as David Chittick, Fritchoff Scoun, Martin Lings and Sayyed Hoosein Nasr as well as a few Muslim groups such as the Deutsche Muslim Liga as well as host of loosely organized sufi groups in different parts of the world, “dialogue” is also an act of mutual spiritual enrichment against what is viewed as the march of modernity and post-modernity towards a world wherein God as the sacred is dethroned or confined to the margins of human life. Dealing with the negative impact of Western Education, Martin Lings, for example argues that one needs to teach “as far as possible, the whole truth, which would mean teaching many truths that were not taught in better times, for the needs of the eleventh hour are not the same as those o fthe sixth and seventh hour. (1988, 34) The extent of the acceptance of otherness is also reflected in Lings (ibid, 63-4) when he argues that a sense of the glory of God is one of the main objectives of religion. “For those who are not prepared to sacrifice that glory to human prejudices it has become abundantly clear that none of the so-called world religions can have been intended by Providence to establish itself over the whole globe.” (ibid.)
6 The Other as Self & Comrade

All of the forms of engagement cited above avoid any conscious political discourse and some would preach and work against those who seek some political expression of their Islam although they themselves are often players within political situations. In conditions of socio-economic or gender injustice where abstinence from overt political activity is invoked, this abstinence, willingly or unwillingly, acquires a political character. It serves a political purpose because it usually results in the accruing or maintenance of politico-economic advantages to the “abstaining party” and ruling class. These religious groups thus lose their “spiritual disinteredness” and become an intrinsic part of the dominant political/ideological discourse. In the words of Kuzmic, “to be indifferent to the way in which social life is ordered is, in fact, to take sides - to take sides with tyranny and reaction, since these social evils feed on the indifference of ordinary folk and count on it for their continuing existence (1985, 153)”.
6.1 Beyond a Disemboweled Pluralism

I now turn to the problem of disengaged pluralism before proposing a path of engagement with the other which does not only nurture the intellectual potential of the participants but also seeks to discover the humanity of all within the context of a broader struggle to create a more humane world.

We live in a world where individuals are less and less formed by the wealth of their traditions and their own cultures. Rather, it is one where the Market is so all-pervasive that all of our so-called freedom of choices are steered into particular directions - all of them ultimately serving the Market and impoverishing the human spirit. While one must guard against essentializing any community and culture, even more so against glossing over the multifarious injustices, ranging from xenophobia to homophobia, often intrinsic to these, the truth is that globalization and the celebration of individual liberty are not ideologically neutral. For me, as a Muslim theologian, this represents the single most significant ideological and spiritual difficulty. I can only truly be who I am in my unceasing transforming self within the context of personal freedom. In today’s world this freedom is intrinsically connected to all the ideological baggage of the modern industrial state along with the Coca colonization of global consciousness through a process of relentless MacDonaldization. In other words, my freedom has been acquired within the bosom of capitalism along with all of its hegemonic designs over my equally valued cultural and religious traditions.

While many ‘enlightened’ Muslim find Deedat’s video cassette peddling embarrassing, or door knocking by the Tablighi Jama’ah irritating, there is little awareness the proselytization of the global Taliban of the Market, every millimeter as ruthless, tenacious and dogged as their Afghanistan counterparts. Thus I am afraid of the other which, for me, is not another community or other individuals but one which has entered my consciousness, the intangible and faceless market forces, my eternal companion in my back pocket in the form of my credit cards.

The dominant public Muslim discourse, of course, rather simplistically reduces this problem to Islam versus the West or Muslims versus Christians and Jews. The underlying assumption in this defensive posturing that the other is ‘the enemy’. In Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism, (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997), I have argued that for those who struggle to survive on the margins of society, living under the yoke of oppression and struggling with those from other religions who are equally oppressed in the hope of liberation, a pluralism of splendid intellectual neutrality or gentle co-existence within unjust socio economic or personal relationships are not dignified options.

We need to ask what are the causes being advanced by our commitment to pluralism and shared existence. When ‘objective’ scholars fail or refuse to recognize that all of human responses and refusals to respond are located within a socio-political context then ‘understanding’ and ‘living together’, de facto, become an extension of the dominant ideological status quo. When such a status quo is characterized by injustice and exploitation, the reduction of people to commodities and death by starvation and over-consumption, then the pursuit of understanding is itself reduced to co-option to strengthen the overall ideological framework of the powerful. I am thus arguing for a theological and concrete engagement with the Other which recognizes the intrinsic human worth of each person and which takes place within the context of a struggle to transform our world into a more just one.

Second, the nature of the world wherein we live today and the potency of our weapons of destruction mean that the fate of all of humankind is irretrievably interwoven. There is no selective existence for any particular community. The cake of humankind is beyond unbaking; we cannot now separate the sugar from the flour or the water. We sink or swim together. For people committed to the noblest in their religious heritage though, the question is not merely one of the survival of our own. Today the survival of the self depends on the survival of the other as much as the survival of the human race depends on the survival of the eco- system. We have gone beyond “no man is an island unto himself” to “no entity is an island unto itself”. A vague and sentimental sense of attachment to the clan is not going to see us through the turbulent future of a world threatened by the gradual re-emergence of Nazism, environmental devastation, a triumphalist New World Order based on the economic exploitation of the Two-Third World, a world where women continue to just survive on the margins of dignity.

There are many ways of dying. There is, however, only one way to live; through discovering what the self and other and their ever changing nature are really about, to understand how much of the other is really reflected in us and to find out what it is that we have in common in the struggle to a world of justice and dignity for all the inhabitants of the earth. To do so requires transcending theological categories of self and other that were shaped in and intended for another era and context.

6.2 Beyond the People of the Book

Early in this paper I referred to the preference that Muslims have with either converting or conversing with the “People of the Book” The tension in the religious-ideological relationship between the Muslims and the “People of the Book” was inevitable from the dawn of Islam. The Qur’an claimed an affinity with scriptural tradition, and furthermore, claimed to be its guardian. An unwelcome response was inevitable on the part of those who claimed their own scripture to be legitimate and final, in and by themselves. Much of the Qur’an’s attention to the other is, therefore, devoted to this tension.

There are several reasons for the pre-occupation with this category. First, since most of the mushrikun(lit.‘associanists, i.e., the ‘pagans’ who associated other deities with God) converted to Islam after the liberation of Mecca (AD 630) , at the earliest stages of its history, Jews and Christians were essentially the communities that Muslims and their jurisprudence had to deal with. Second, the historical encounter over territory (both ideological and geographical) was largely between Muslims and Christians. Third, in the modern period, as Muslims are struggling to overcome the divisions of the past and to find avenues of co-existing and co-operating with those of other faiths, they find it theologically easier to focus on a category which the Qur’an seems to have some sympathy with. Fourth, the present pre-eminence of the Western world - itself a product of a predominantly Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish heritage - in the fields of technology, science and politics, requires some Muslim focus on relations with the People of the Book, even only as one way of coming to terms with the fact of this pre-eminence or domination.

There are a number of problems in focusing on the People of the Book as a distinct contemporary religious group in the belief that this is the same referent as that in the Qur’an. The qur’anic position towards the People of the Book and even its understanding as to who constitutes the People of the Book went through several phases. There is, however, agreement that the term has always applied to the Jews and/or Christians whom Muhammad encountered during his mission. The Qur’an naturally dealt only with the behaviour and beliefs of those of the People of the Book with whom the early Muslim community were in actual social contact.

To employ the qur’anic category of People of the Book in a generalized manner of simplistic identification of all Jews and Christians in contemporary society is to avoid the historical realities of Medinan society as well as the theological diversity among both earlier and contemporary Christians and Jews. To avoid this unjust generalization, therefore, requires a clear idea from their sources of beliefs, as well as their many nuances, which characterized the various communities encountered by the early Muslims. Given the paucity of such extra-qur’anic knowledge, one would either have to abandon the search for a group with corresponding dogma today or shift one’s focus to an area of practice and attitudes rather than dogma.

In practice, the latter option had always been exercised. In none of the disciplines of exegesis, Islamic history and/or legal scholarship have Muslims known anything approximating consensus about the identity of the People of the Book. There was even disagreement as to which specific groups of Christians and Jews comprised the People of the Book. At various times, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Magians and Sabeans were included among or excluded from the People of the Book depending on the theological predilections of the Muslim scholars and, perhaps more importantly, the geo-political context wherein they lived. In all of these attempts to extend the boundaries of the qur’anic People of the Book, Muslim scholars, implicitly acknowledged the situation-boundedness of the qur’anic categories.

A recognition of the need of solidarity of all oppressed people in an unjust and exploitative society requires going beyond the situation-bound categories of the Qur’an. I do not wish to suggest that there are no Christians who, for example, believe in the concept of a triune deity. Justice, however, requires that no one be held captive to categories which applied to a community or individuals fourteen centuries ago merely because they share a common descriptive term, a term which may even have been imposed on them by Muslims and rejected by them. “These are a people who have passed on. They have what they earned and you shall have what you have earned” (Q. 2:141).

There is another significant reason why the category of People of the Book should be regarded as of dubious relevance in our world today. In the context of the political and technological power exercised by the Judeo-Christian world, on the one hand, and Arab monetary wealth on the other, Muslim rapprochement with that world, based on the simplistic analogy that Jews and Christians are the contemporary People of the Book, could easily, and probably correctly, be construed as an alliance of the powerful. A qur’anic hermeneutic concerned with inter-religious solidarity against injustice would seek to avoid such alliances and would rather opt for more inclusive categories which would, for example, embrace the dispossessed of the Fourth World.

This re-thinking also has to extend to another category which the Qur’an particularly singles out for demonization, the mushrikun. Initially referring to the Meccans who revered physical objects such as sculptures or heavenly bodies as religiously sacred entities worthy of obeisance, the term mushrikun was also employed to refer to the People of the Book by some Muslim jurists. Two factors led to an early recognition that all mushrikun are not the same and were not to be treated equally: a) the qur’anic accusation of shirk against the People of the Book (e.g., Q. 9:31), while simultaneously regarding them as distinct from the mushrikun and, b) the subsequent wider Muslim contact with the world of non-Islam. Later, as the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam observes,

in the course of the dogmatic development of Islam, the conception of shirk received a considerable extension [... because] the adherents of many sects had no compunction about reproaching their Muslim opponents with shirk, as soon as they saw in them any obscuring of monotheism, although only in some particular respect emphasised by themselves [...]. Shirk has thus become, no longer simply a term for unbelief prevailing outside of Islam, but a reproach hurled by one Muslim against another inside of Islam. (S.E.I., s.v. ‘shirk’)

As with the category of the People of the Book, here, too, one finds that the actual application of the neat divisions has been far more problematic than what most traditional scholars are wont to admit. There is evidently a need to re-think these categories and their contemporary applicability or otherwise. It is now more apparent than ever that the religious situation of humankind and the socio-political ramifications thereof are far more complex than previously understood. The following are but a few indications of this complexity: a) the emergence of the new religious movements where, in some cases, people claim to be both Christians and Pagans or Buddhist and Hindu Catholics in Japan and India respectively, b) the situation in large parts of Asia, Australia, Latin America and Africa where people combine a commitment to Islam, Christianity and even Judaism, with other traditional ‘pagan’ practices such as the veneration of graves, sacred relics and invoking deceased ancestors for spiritual blessings or material gain and, c) in the aforementioned areas, formal and institutional religion has been systematically used to oppress, exploit and even eliminate entire nations among the indigenous people. In these situations, the marginalized and oppressed have often resorted to their ancient religions as a means of asserting their human dignity.

Like tawhid, (divine unity) shirk had its socio-economic implications in Meccan society and one needs to retain a sense of this in a contemporary consideration of the believers in tawhid and mushrikun (1982, 1). Referring to the early qur’anic texts, Fazlur Rahman has argued that they can only be understood against their Meccan background, “as a reaction against Meccan pagan idol-worship and the great socio-economic disparity between mercantile aristocracy of Mecca and a large body of its distressed and disenfranchised population” (1982c, 1). Both of these aspects”, he says “are so heavily emphasised in the Qur’an that they must have been organically connected with each other” (ibid.).

6.3 The Qur’an and the Other

The Qur’an presents a universal and inclusivist perspective of a divine being who responds to the sincerity and commitment of all His servants. Flowing from this twoquestions arise: First, how does traditional qur’anic interpretation present a parochial image of a deity which does not differ from that postulated by the Medinan Jews and Christians and denounced in the Qur’an, an image of a deity who belongs to a small group of people and who, having chosen His favourites, turns a blind eye to the sincere spiritual and social commitments of all others outside this circle. Second, how does the universality of the Qur’an’s message relate to the exclusivism and virulent denunciation of the other, indeed, even its exhortation to wage an armed struggle against the other?

While the context of individual verses dealing with the Other are often carefully recorded by the earlier interpreters, they do not show any understanding of the overall historical context of a particular revelation. The task of shedding historical light on various texts, has until recently, been primarily the domain of non-Muslim scholars. Muslim reluctance to deal with the question of contextualization beyond the search for an isolated occasion of revelation, has lead to a generalised denunciation of the other, irrespective of the socio-historical context of the texts used in support of such rejection and damnation.

The qur’anic position towards the other unfolded gradually in terms of their varied responses to the message of Islam and to the prophetic presence. Any view to the contrary would invariably lead to the conclusion that the Qur’an presents a confused and contradictory view of the other. The idea of the gradual and contextual development of the qur’anic position towards the Other has significant implications. One cannot speak of a ‘final qur’anic position’ towards the Other and, secondly, it is wrong to apply texts of opprobrium in a universal manner to all those whom one chooses to define as ‘people of the book’ ‘disbelievers’, etc. in an ahistorical fashion.

Beliefs and behaviour are not genetic elements such as the colour of one’s eyes in supposedly homogeneous and unchanging communities. It is to guard against the injustices of such generalisations that, texts of opprobrium referring to other religious communities or the associationists are usually followed or preceded by exceptions (e.g., Q. 3:75). Furthermore, qualifying or exceptive expressions such as ‘from among them’ (Q. 3:75), ‘many among them’ (Q. 2:109; 5:66; 22:17; 57:26), ‘most of them’ (Q. 2:105; 7:102; 10:36;), ‘some of them’ (Q. 2:145) and ‘a group among them (Q. 3:78), are routinely used throughout the qur’anic discourse on the other.

The Qur’an provides only the basis for the attitude of Muslims at any given time towards the other. The qur’anic position, in turn, was largely shaped by the varying responses of the different components which comprised the other, to the struggle for the establishment of an order based on divine unity (tawhid) justice and islam. More often than not, these responses assumed concrete political forms in decisions to side with the Muslim community or against it. Much of the qur’anic opprobrium is directed at the way doctrine was used to justify exploitative practices and tribal chauvinism. It was not as if the Qur’an avoided the discourse on power or denounced the exercise of political power; it was concerned about whom political power served and who suffered as a consequence of it.

The Qur’an, in general religious terms, refers to various groups or types of people by various expressions of which the following are the most frequent: ‘mu’minun’, ‘righteous’, ‘muslimun’, ‘people of the book’, ‘Jews’, ‘Christians’, ‘associanists’, ‘kafirun/kuffar’ and ‘munafiqun’. I want to make some brief observations about the qur’anic use of these terms before I examine the context of its attitude towards the other.

a) The terms usually used in translation are often, at best, approximations of their Arabic meanings. The Qur’an, for example, does not use the equivalent of the words “non-Muslim” or “unbeliever”; yet these are the most common English renderings of   ‘kafirun/kuffar’ in both the process of translation as well as internal usage within the Arabic language.

b) Some of these terms are frequently used interchangeably in the Qur’an, such as mu’minun (lit. ‘the convinced ones’) and muslimun (lit. ‘submitters’) or ‘people of the book’ and ‘Christians’ or ‘Jews’. It is essential to maintain the qur’anic distinction in their various uses in order to avoid a generalized and unjust rubbishing of the other.

c) In addition to these nouns, the Qur’an also employs descriptive phrases such as ‘alladhina amanu’ (lit. ‘those who are convinced’)  instead of ‘mu’minun’ and ‘alladhina kaffaru’ (lit. ‘those who deny / reject / are ungrateful’) instead of ‘kafirun’ (lit. ‘deniers’ / ‘rejecters’ / ‘ingrates’). These descriptive phrases express specific nuances in the text and indicate a particular level of faith conviction or of denial / rejection / ingratitude in much the same way as ‘one who writes poetry’ has a different nuance to it from ‘poet’.

d) References to these groups are occasionally to a specific community within an historical setting and, at other times, to a community in a wider sense, transcending one specific situation.

e) Besides the terms of opprobrium such as kafir, munafiq (hypocrite), and mushrik, the other terms are rarely used in a negative or positive manner without exceptions. While praise or reproach are usually inherent in some of these terms, this is not without exception Indeed, the Qur’an, at times, describes the reprehensible acts committed by some of those from among the Muslim or believing community as ‘kufr’ or ‘shirk’ (Q. 39:7).

f) These terms are often used in the sense of an historico-religio-social group, but not always. The hypocrites and righteous were invariably referred to as individuals and the term muslim, and its various forms, for example, are also frequently invoked to refer to the characteristic of submission in an individual, group or even an inanimate object.

The Qur’an’s general attitude towards the other which underpins the more specific injunctions and doctrinal issues that it raises from time to time are based on a number of fundamental principles. First, the Qur’an relates dogma to socio-economic exploitation and insists on connecting orthodoxy with orthopraxis. This is equally applicable to the communities and individuals, in Mecca as well as Medina, who rejected the Prophet’s message of tawhid and social justice. The Qur’an makes it clear that it was both the rejection and ignorance of tawhid that had led to social and economic oppression in Meccan society. (Eg. Q. 83:1-11, 102:1-4, 104) Chapter 90 asserts that a denial of the presence of an all-powerful God causes people to squander their wealth. “Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say: I have spent abundant wealth” Q. 90:5-6). Furthermore, this chapter links faith to an active social consciences: “to free a slave”, “to feed on a day of hunger” and “to exhort one another to perseverance and to mercy” (Q. 90:13-15). By implication, it also links kufr to the refusal to display mercy towards others. In this text those who reject ‘the signs of Allah’ are those whose actions do not correspond with the ones who have chosen to “ascend the steep path”. The rejecters of ‘the signs of Allah’ are, therefore, those who deny mercy and compassion. This linking of the rejection of Allah and din to the denial of mercy and compassion is even more explicit in Chapter 107.

Have you observed the one who belies al-din?
That is the one who is unkind to the orphan,
and urges not the feeding of the needy.
So, woe to the praying ones,
who are unmindful of their prayer,
They do good to be seen,
and refrain from acts of kindnesses.

The texts of opprobrium revealed in Medina which relate to the various Jewish and Christian communities and individuals encountered there by the Prophet and the early Muslims reveal a similar relationship between ‘erroneous’ beliefs and the socio-economic exploitation of others. Equally significant is the fact that, although the Jews were closer to Muslims in creed, the Qur’an often reserves the severest denunciation for some of them. Similarly, the Sabeans were widely believed to have worshipped stars, even angels, yet they were included among the People of the Book (Razi 1990, 3:112-113). According to the Qur’an, the Jews and Christians justified their exploitation of their own people by claiming that their Scriptures permitted such practices. The Qur’an denounced this exploitation of the ignorance of ordinary illiterate people who had no “real knowledge of the Scriptures” (Q. 2:78) by the priests of the People of the Book. The contempt for and exploitation of the marginalized by some of the People of the Book is further seen in their justification that they had no moral obligation to be just towards the illiterate (Q. 3:75). This text is followed by a denunciation of those who “barter away their bond with Allah and their pledges for a trifling gain” (Q. 3:77) and of “a section among them who distort their Scripture with their tongues, so as to make you think that it is from the Scripture while it is not” (Q. 3:79). Thus, we see that while their bond and their pledges were with a Transcendent God, their crimes were very much about the exploitation of the people of God.

Second, the Qur’an explicitly and unequivocally denounces the narrow religious exclusivism which appears to have characterized the Jewish and Christian communities encountered by Muhammad in Hijaz. The Qur’an is relentless in its denunciation of the arrogance of Jewish religious figures and scathing of the tribal exclusivism which enabled them to treat people outside their community, especially the weak and vulnerable, with contempt. This contempt for other people, the Qur’an suggests, was very much rooted in notions of being the chosen of God. According to the Qur’an, many among the Jews and the Christians believed that they were not like any other people whom Allah had created, that their covenant with Allah had elevated their status with Him and that they were now the “friends of Allah to the exclusion of other people” (Q. 62:6). The Qur’an alleges that they claimed a privileged position with Allah merely by calling themselves Jewish or Christian. In other words, it was a claim based on history, birth and tribe rather than on praxis and morality. Thus, they claimed to be “the children of Allah and His beloved” (Q. 5:18) and “considered themselves pure” (Q. 4:48). In response to these notions of inherent ‘purity’, the Qur’an argues, “Nay, but it is Allah who causes whomsoever He wills to grow in purity; and none shall be wronged by even a hair’s breadth” (Q. 5:49). The same text links these notions of being Allah’s favourites to their socio-economic implications and suggests that this sense of having an exclusive share in Allah’s dominion leads to greater unwillingness to share wealth with others: “Have they perchance, a share in Allah’s dominion?” the Qur’an asks, and then asserts: “But (if they had) lo, they would not give to other people as much as (would fill) the groove of a date stone!” (Q. 4:53).

The Qur’an denounces the claims of some of the People of the Book that the afterlife was only for them and “not for any other people” (Q. 2:94, 111), that the fire (of hell) will only touch them “for a limited numbered days” (Q. 3:24) and that “clutching at the fleeting good of this world will be forgiven for us” (Q.7:169). The Qur’an, furthermore, takes a rather dim view of the boasts of the Jews and the Christians that their creeds are the only ones of consequence. While the Qur’an does not accuse the Christians of claiming to be free of any moral accountability in their behaviour towards the non-Christians, they too, according to the Qur’an, held that they were the beloved of Allah. (Q. 5:18)
And they say: ‘None shall enter paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian’. Those are their vain desires. Say: ‘Produce your proof if you are truthful.’ Nay, whoever submits his [or her] whole self to Allah and is a doer of good, will get his [her] reward with his [her] Lord; On such shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. (Q. 5:18)

And the Jews say the Christians have nothing [credible] to stand on and the Christians say the Jews have nothing to stand on while both recite the Book. Even thus say those who have no knowledge. So Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection in that wherein they differ. (Q. 2:111-113)

Attempts to appropriate the heritage of Abraham and to make it the property of a particular socio-religious group is also denounced (Q.3:69) “It is not belonging to the community of Jews or Christians which leads to guidance, but the straight path of Abraham” (Q.2:135) who “was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but an upright person who submitted to Allah (Q. 3:67).

Third, the Qur’an is explicit in its acceptance of religious pluralism. Having derided the petty attempts to appropriate Allah, it is inconceivable that the Qur’an should itself engage in this. The notion that Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but ‘one of us’ (i.e., a Muslim) is at variance with the rejection of all exclusivist claims in these texts. For the qur’anic message to be an alternative one, it had to offer the vision of a God who responds to all of humankind and who acknowledges and responds to the sincerity and righteousness of all believers. The Qur’an, thus, makes it a condition of faith to believe in the genuineness of all revealed religion (Q. 2:136; 2:285; 3:84).

The Qur’an acknowledges the de jure legitimacy of all revealed religion in two respects: a) it takes into account the religious life of separate communities co-existing with Muslims, respecting their laws, social norms and religious practices and, b) it accepts that the faithful adherents of these religions shall also attain to salvation and that “no fear shall come upon them neither will they grieve” (Q.2:62). These two aspects of the Qur’an’s attitude towards the other may be described as the cornerstones of its acceptance of religious pluralism. Given the widespread acceptance, among the most conservative Muslim, of respect for the laws of the other, even if only in theory, and the equally widespread rejection of their salvation, I want to focus on the latter.

The Qur’an specifically recognizes the People of the Book as legitimate socio-religious communities. This recognition was later extended by Muslim scholars to various other religious communities living within the borders of the expanding Islamic domain. The explicit details, restrictions and application of this recognition throughout the various stages of the prophetic era, and subsequently in Islamic history, point to a significant issue at stake in dealing with the other. The socio-religious requirements of the Muslim community, such as community building and security, rather than the faith convictions, or lack thereof, in these other communities shaped the Qur’an’s attitude towards them.

There are a number of indications in the Qur’an of the essential legitimacy of the other. First, the People of the Book, as recipients of divine revelation were recognized as part of the community. Addressing all the Prophets, the Qur’an says, “And surely this, your community (ummah), is a single community” (Q. 23:52). Furthermore, the establishment of a single community with diverse religious expressions was explicit in the Charter of Medina. Second, in two of the most significant social areas, food and marriage, the generosity of the qur’anic spirit is evident: the food of ‘those who were given the Book’ was declared lawful for the Muslims and the food of the Muslims lawful for them (Q. 5:5). Likewise, Muslim males were permitted to marry “the chaste women of the People of the Book” (Q. 5:5). If Muslims were to be allowed to co-exist with others in a relationship as intimate as that of marriage then this seems to indicate quite explicitly that enmity is not to be regarded as the norm in Muslim-other relations. Interestingly, this text mentions the believing women in the same manner as the women of the People of the Book: “[... permissible in marriage] are the virtuous women of the believers and the virtuous women of those who received the Scripture before you” (Q. 5:5). The restriction of permission for marriage to the women of the People of the Book indicates that this ruling related to the social dynamics of early Muslim society and the need for community cohesion. The fact that most jurists, while agreeing on marriage to women of the People of the Book, who are also the People of Dhimmah, differ as to whether it is permissible if they are from states hostile to Islam, also reflects this point (Tabari 1954, 5:212-214). Third, in the area of religious law, the norms and regulations of the Jews and of the Christians were upheld (Q. 5:47) and even enforced by the Prophet when he was called upon to settle disputes among them (Q.5:42-3). Fourth, the sanctity of the religious life of the adherents of other revealed religions is underlined by the fact that the first time that permission for the armed struggle was given was to ensure the preservation of this sanctity; “But for the fact that God continues to repel some people by means of others, cloisters, churches, synagogues and mosques, [all places] wherein the name of God is mentioned, would be razed to the ground” (Q. 22:40).

The Qur’anic recognition of religious pluralism is not only evident from the acceptance of the other as legitimate socio-religious communities but also from an acceptance of the their spirituality of the other and salvation through that otherness. The preservation of the sanctity of the places of worship alluded to above was thus not merely in order to preserve the integrity of a multi-religious society in the manner which contemporary states may want to protect places of worship because of the role that they play in the culture of a particular people. Rather, it was because it was Allah, a God which represented the ultimate for many of these religions, and who is acknowledged to be above the diverse outward expressions of that service, who was being worshipped therein. That there were people in other faiths who sincerely recognized and served Allah is made even more explicit in the following text:

Not all of them are alike; among them is a group who stand for the right and keep nights reciting the words of Allah and prostrate themselves in adoration before Him. They have faith in Allah and in the Last Day; they enjoin what is good and forbid what is wrong, and vie one with another in good deeds. And those are among the righteous. (Q. 4:113)

If the Qur’an is to be the word of a just God, as Muslims sincerely believe, then there is no alternative to the recognition of the sincerity and righteous deeds of others, and their recompense on the Day of Requital. Thus, the Qur’an says:

And of the People of the Book there are those who have faith in Allah and in that which has been revealed to you and in that which has been revealed to them, humbling themselves before Allah, they take not a small price for the messages of Allah. They have their reward with their Lord. Surely Allah is swift to take account. (Q. 3:198)

And whatever good they do, they will not be denied it. And Allah knows those who keep their duty. (Q. 3:112-4)

continued in Part II