Muslims Engaging the Other and the Humanum - Part II

6.4. The Qur’anic Response to Religious Diversity
The Qur’an regards Muhammad as one of a galaxy of Prophets, some of whom are mentioned specifically in the Qur’an while “others you do not know” (Q. 40:78). The same faith, the Qur’an declares, “was enjoined on Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus” (Q. 42:13) “You are but a warner”, the Qur’an tells Muhammad, “and every people has had its guide” (Q. 13:08, see also Q. 16:36 and Q. 35:24). The fact that the Qur’an incorporates some of the accounts of the lives of these predecessors of Muhammad and makes it part of its own history is perhaps the most significant reflection of its emphasis on the unity of faith. These Prophets came with identical messages that they preached within the context of the various and differing situations of their people. Basically, they came to reawaken the commitment of people to tawhid, to remind them about the ultimate accountability to Allah and to establish justice. “And for every ummah there is a messenger. So when their messenger comes the matter is decided between them with justice, and they will not be wronged” (Q. 10:47).
We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying that which is before it of the Book and a guardian over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and follow not their desires, [turning away] from the truth that has come unto you. For every one of you we have appointed a shir`ah and a minhaj. And if Allah had pleased, He would have made you a single ummah, but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie with one another in virtuous deeds. To Allah you will all return, so that He will inform you of that wherein you differed. (Q. 5:48)

In a similar vein, it says: “To every community, We appointed acts of devotion, which they observe; so let them not dispute with you in the matter, and call to your Lord. Surely you are on a right guidance” (Q. 22:67). Viewing the deceased adherents of supposedly abrogated shari’ahs as the addressees of this text, as many orthodox exegetes are wont to do, dispensed with the need for any detailed discussion on the text itself or its implications for religious pluralism. The traditional interpretations of the text present several difficulties and are evidently inconsistent with both its context and apparent meaning. These difficulties compel me to choose an alternative inclusivist interpretation.

a) The entire qur’anic discussion, including the preceding sentences of the same verse and the subsequent verse, refer to the relationship between the Prophet as arbitrator in an actual community. The context of this text makes it plain that other religious communities co-existing with the Muslims in Medinah are addressed and not an ahistorical community existing in a non-physical world or in a different historical context.

b) The text under discussion says that, upon returning to Allah, “He will inform you of that wherein you differed”. If one supposes that this text referred to the pre-Muhammadan communities whose paths are acknowledged as valid, pure and divinely ordained for a specified period, as the doctrine of supercessionism holds, then there is no question of the Muhammadan community differing with them, nor a need of information regarding the differences.

c) The text asks that the response to this diversity be to compete with each other in righteous deeds. Given that any kind of meaningful competition can only be engaged in by contemporaneous communities who share similar advantages or disadvantages, one can only assume that the partners of these Muslims were to be those others who lived alongside them.

In the light of the above, the text can best be understood as follows: Looking at the context, one observes that it comes towards the end of a fairly lengthy discourse on the significance of specific Scriptures for specific communities. Q. 5:44-5 deals with the Torah which has “guidance and light”, “should not be sold for a trivial price”, and those Jews who do not judge by its injunctions are denounced as “ingrates” and “wrongdoers/oppressors” This is followed by Q. 5:46-47 which describes the revelations to Jesus Christ in similar terms (“light and guidance and an admonition for those who keep their duty”) and a denunciation of the followers of Christ who do not judge by its standards as “transgressors” (see also Q. 7:170.). It is at the end of this chronological discourse on the significance and importance of adhering to revealed Scripture that the text “To each of you we have given a “path and and a way” appears. Given this context of recognizing the authenticity of the Scriptures of the other, it follows that the text refers to the paths of the other in a similar vein.

As for its meaning, the essence of this text is located in the words shir`ah and minhaj; both relating to ‘a path’. While paths must be clear, comfortable and scenic and even, at times, a part of one’s goal, they are never synonymous with it. The word shari`ah and its variants appear only three times in the Qur’an; the word Allah approximately three thousand times. Hassan Askari, referring to the question of religious pluralism, asks;

How may it be that the One and Transcendent, the Creator and Almighty be equated with the form of one religious belief or practice? And if we equate thus, we make a God out of that religion, whereas we are all called upon to say: ‘There is no deity except God. (1986, 4)

The text thus means that God has determined a path for all people, both as individuals and as religious communities; that one should be true to the path determined for you. Furthermore, should it be so covered by cobwebs that it is no longer possible for one to move along it, then you are free to choose another of the paths determined by Allah. The purpose is to vie with one another in righteousness towards Allah.

The text cited and discussed above (Q. 5:48) is one of two such ones which specifically employ the metaphor of competition. Both appear in a Medinan context of the Prophet engaging the People of the Book. The second one reads as follows;

And each one has a goal towards which he [she] strives / direction to which he [she] turns) (li kulli wijhah huwa muwalliha); so compete with one another in righteous deeds. Wherever you are, Allah will bring you all together. Surely Allah is able to do all things. (Q. 2:148)
6.5 Competing in Righteousness
The metaphor of competition in righteousness is not regarded seriously in qur’anic exegesis. The challenge to competition is immediately preceded by a statement on the diversity of religious paths: “And if God had pleased He would have made you a single ummah. However He desires to try you in what He gave you. So vie with one another in righteous deeds.” Given that this competing in righteousness is between diverse communities, several implications follow: First, righteous deeds which are recognized and rewarded, are not the monopoly of any single competitor, as the Qur’an says: “O humankind, We have created you from one male and female. We have made of you tribes and nations so that you may know one another. In the eyes of God, the noblest among you is the one who is most virtuous” (Q. 49.13). Second, the judge, God, has to be above the narrow interests of the participants. Third, claims of familiarity with the judge or mere identification with any particular team will not avail the participants. Fourth, the results of any just competition are never foregone conclusions.
The Qur’an makes several references to the theological difficulties of religious pluralism and of kufr. If God is One and if din originates with Him, why is it that humankind is not truly united in belief? Why do some people persist in rejection when “the truth is clearly distinguished from falsehood” (Q. 2:256; 23:90)? Why does God not ‘will’ faith for everyone? These were some of the questions which appear to have vexed Muhammad and the early Muslims. In response to these, several texts urge an attitude of patience and humility; these questions are to be left to God who will inform humankind about them on the Day of Requital. Other than the text under discussion (Q. 5:48), which addresses the people who have a shir`ah and minhaj, saying “unto God you will return, so that he will inform you of that wherein you differed”, the following text also conveys the call to patience and humility:

God is your Lord and our Lord: Unto us our works and unto you your works; let there be no dispute between you and us. God will bring us together and to Him we shall return. (Q. 42:15; 2:139)

As for those who persist in kufr, the Qur’an says;

If your Lord had willed, all those on earth would have believed together. Would you then compel people to become believers? (Q. 10:99)
If God had so wanted, He could have made them a single people. But He admits whom He wills to His grace and, for the wrongdoers there will be no protector nor helper. (Q. 42:8)

Revile not those unto whom they pray besides God, lest they wrongfully revile God through ignorance. Thus, unto every ummah have we made their deeds seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return, and he will tell them what they used to do. (Q. 6:108)

6.6 The Prophetic Responsibility in the Face of Religious Pluralism

If, as I have argued above, the Qur’an acknowledges the fact of religious diversity as the will of God, then a significant question which arises is that of Muhammad’s responsibility to the adherents of other faiths. Rahman has correctly described the qur’anic position regarding this relationship as “somewhat ambiguous” (1982c, 5). From the Qur’an it would appear as if the fundamental prophetic responsibility was two-fold. First, with regard to those who viewed themselves as communities adhering to a divine Scripture, it was to challenge them regarding their own commitment to their own traditions and engaging them regarding their deviation from it.

Second, with regard to all of humankind, to present the Qur’an’s own guidance for consideration and acceptance.

There are two ways of approaching this ambiguity: a) to relate the first responsibility to the second one, for they are not entirely divorced from each other and b) to understand the context of different responsibilities and their applicability to specific components of the other at specific junctures in the relationship with the other.

The qur’anic challenge to the exclusivist claims of the People of the Book have already been dealt with above. At other times, various groups and individuals, among the People of the Book in particular, were challenged by Muhammad regarding their rejection of the signs of God (Q. 3:70-71; 3:98), their discouraging of others to walk the path of God, (Q. 3:98-99) and their knowingly covering the truth with falsehood (Q. 3:70; 3:98-9).

As for their Scriptures, Muhammad, as indicated earlier, was expected to challenge them regarding their commitment to their own Scriptures (Q. 5:68), their deviation from it, and their distortion thereof. Muslim scholarship have largely argued that, given the distortion of the Scriptures, nothing in it has remained valid. In dealing with the qur’anic references to the truth contained in these Scriptures and exhortations to the People of the Book to uphold it, they have limited this obedience to the Scripture to those texts which putatively predict Muhammad’s prophethood. Notwithstanding this recognition of the legitimacy of the other revealed Scriptures, Muhammad is still asked to proclaim: “O humankind! I am a Messenger of God unto all of you” (Q. 7:158). Muhammad thus had a task of proclaiming and calling in addition to that of challenging (Q. 16:125; 22:67).

On the face of it, these seem to be a set of contradictory responsibilities for, if a text is distorted, how can one ask for adherence to it? In the second responsibility, that of inviting, the question arises regarding the purpose of inviting to one’s own path if that of the other is also authentic. Firstly, the problem of the authenticity of texts as against its being distorted and, therefore, invalid, only arises if one thinks in terms of a singularly homogeneous and unchanging entity called ‘the People of the Book’ and all qur’anic references to it divested of contextuality. It has been shown above that this is not the case. The Qur’an itself is silent about the extent and nature of this distortion and castigates “a section of the People of the Book”. As indicated earlier on, the uniformity of praise or blame for a particular religious group is contrary to the pattern of the Qur’an. It is thus possible that the references to the authenticity of their Scriptures refer to those held by the rest. Indeed, even the qur’anic denunciation of particular doctrinal ‘errors’ is not uniform in tone, indicating thereby either a particular moment in the Muslim encounter with the other or different components of the other with specific nuances to those ‘errors’. Secondly, Muhammad’s basic responsibility in inviting was to call to God. For some components of the other, the response to this call was best fulfilled by a commitment to Islam, thus they were also invited to become Muslims; for others the call was limited to islam. The invitation to the delegation of Najran is one such example when, after they declined to enter into Islam they were invited to “come to a word equal between us and you that we worship none but God, nor will we take from our ranks anyone as deities” (Q. 3:64). The Qur’an, thus, is explicit only about inviting to God and to the ‘path of God’. In the following text, for example, the instruction to invite people to God comes after an affirmation of the diversity of religious paths. Here again one sees the imperative of inviting to God who is above the diverse paths which emanate from Him.

7. Conclusion: The Pre-Eminence of Pluralism
The basis for the recognition of the other was clearly not the acceptance of reified Islam and Muhammad’s prophethood with all its implications; nor was it the absence of any principles. The fact that it was Muhammad and the Muslims who defined the basis of co-existence and who determined which form of submission was appropriate for which community clearly implies a qur’anic insistence on an ideological leadership role for itself. This was explicit in the qur’anic approach to relationships with other religious groups. This is a significant departure from the liberal position which equates co-existence and freedom with absolute equality for all. A fundamental question arises here: How is this qur’anic position compatible with pluralism and justice?
The pre-eminence of the righteous does not mean a position of a permanently fixed socio-religious superiority for the Muslim community. It was not as if the Muslims as a social entity were superior to the other for such a position would have placed them and their parochial God in the same category of others who were denounced in the Qur’an for the crimes of arrogance and desiring to appropriate God for a narrow community. There is no reason to suppose that the qur’anic reprimand to other communities that they cannot base their claims to superiority on the achievements of their forebears, should not be applied to the post-Muhammadan Muslim community: “That is a community that is bygone; to them belongs what they earned and to you belong what you earn, and you will not be asked about what they had done. (Q. 2:134).

Furthermore, the Qur’an does not regard everyone and their ideas as equal, but proceeds from the premise that the idea of inclusiveness is superior to that of exclusiveness. In this sense, the advocates of pluralism had to be ‘above’ those who insisted that the religious expressions of others counted for nothing and that they are the only ones to attain salvation in the same way. The relationship between the inclusivist form of religion and the exclusivist form can be compared to that of a democratic state and facist political parties, as Askari has cogently argued

If a group or party arises which does not agree to the democratic rule and works to overthrow the government of the day by violent means in order to create a fascist social order wherein there is no room for democratic expression and exercise of opinion and power, that group cannot lay claim to those rights enjoined by a democracy. (1986, 328)

Inclusivity was not merely a willingness to let every idea and practice exist. Instead it was geared towards specific objectives such as freeing humankind from injustice and servitude to other human beings so that it may be free to worship God. As explained previously, according to the Qur’an, the beliefs of non-accountability to God and shirk were intrinsically connected to the socio-economic practices of the Arabs. In order to ensure justice for all, it was important for Muhammad and his community to actively work against those beliefs and not accord it a position of equality.

The responsibility of calling humankind to God and to the path of God will thus remain. The task of the present day Muslim is to discern what this means in every age and every society. Who are to be invited? Who are to be taken as allies in this calling? How does one define the path of God? These are particularly pertinent questions in a society where definitions of self and other are determined by justice and injustice, oppression and liberation and where the test of one’s integrity as a human being dignified by God is determined by the extent of one’s commitment to defend that dignity.

Arkoun, Mohammed, 1990. “New perspectives for a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue” in WCRP-Informationen- Weltkonferenz der Religionen fur den Frieden” Rundbrief von WCRP EuropaNo.26, June, 1990

Ghrab, Sa’ad, 1987. “Islam and Christianity: From Opposition to Dialogue” in IslamoChristiana, 13:1987,pp 99-110)

Kuzmic, “History and Eschatology: Evangelical Views” in BJ

Lawrence, B. The Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco. Harper and Row

Marty, E M, & Scot Appleby, R. 1991. (eds) Fundamentalisms Observed, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



[1]Hereinafter, “the other”.
[2] While I have grouped certain tendencies together on the basis of their responses to the other, like all human phenomenon, nothing can be neatly demarcated.It is quite possible for a group to comprise more than one tendency or for an individual to span more than one category depending on his or her context. E.g., I have often observed how individuals in their home contexts can be very comfortable with the other but once abroad in Europe as students, and faced with a greater personal need to hold on to their home - often religious - identity, they are involved in groups which espouse religious exclusivism.
[3] Originally known as Jama’at al-Muslimin (Society of Muslims), the group was formed in the prisons of Egypt in the late 1960’s when a number of Muslim Brotherhood activists were jailed by Anwar Sadat. This off-shoot of the Brotherhood, formed by Shukri Mustafa, an agronomist, argues for a position of mufassalah al-kamilah, (complete separation) from jahiliyyah (paganism) their description of all tendencies other their own. This group was responsible for the assassination of Sadat in October 1981, and have their stronghold in the area of Asyut and, based in mountain grottoes, go in search of recruits.
[4] Founded by ‘Abd al Qadr al-Murabit, a member of the Darqawi Sufi order, the group adheres to a strict perspective of Islam as they believe it was lived out of the city of Medina during the life of Muhammad and recorded in the works of Anas ibn Malik (d, 795), one of the four scholars upon whose views Sunni jurisprudence is based. The group advocates “supremacy of the Law of Allah above all man-made laws. To strive (jihad) in the way of Allah in establishing Deen, to be compassionate amongst themselves, to be firm against Kufr’ (Muslim Views, February 1994, p.4).
[5] Founded in the early part of this century by Muhammed Ilyas, a Deobandi scholar, in India this arguably most international of all Muslim organizations with millions of adherents are committed to a return to narrow and traditional form of Islam as seen through puritan Indo-Pak eyes. Clad in short tunics they travel the world exhorting Muslims to avoid the allure of the material world and to return to God through mindfulness of the obligatory prayers.
  Farid Esack’s website at  contains many excellent articles.