Pluralism: A model for society, not an excuse for ambiguity

Am I a pluralist?  I consider myself tolerant in that I accept the differences between people and do not judge them personally based on their beliefs. Moreover I would never impose my own beliefs on anyone else, and I firmly believe that various communities must build bonds of amity, cooperation and goodwill in order for society as a whole to thrive. People must build bridges rather than walls. Learning about other faiths can help us appreciate our own faith better. By exhibiting a willingness to learn about others faiths we afford them a level of comfort for them to learn about ours. For most people the basis of their faith (or for atheists, the basis for their lack of faith) forms an integral part of “who they are.” So I think it’s important, and I do try, to learn about other people’s faiths. However, I do not necessarily validate other people’s beliefs in the name of pluralism.  I think having grown up in multi-religious societies such as America and India, people tend to confuse “tolerance” and “pluralism” with “accommodation.” These are separate concepts.

A religion can be tolerant without being accommodating, and can be accommodating without being tolerant. For example, Hinduism is an accommodating religion. Within it you can find an amalgamation of different theistic concepts collected over thousands of years. Thus you will find Hindu deities that comprise the forces of nature such as Agni, Surya and Prithvi. You will find the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, the goddesses Durga and Lakshmi, animals such as the cow and the cobra, and even Buddha is worshipped as a Hindu god. You will find astrology and numerology. The basic idea is that all of these represent intermediaries to God (Eeshwar), so worship as you choose. As long as it can be brought under the overall umbrella of Hinduism, it’s acceptable.

Historically, attempts occurred to bring Islam in India within the Hindu umbrella, but the closest these attempts got were the outgrowth of the Bhakti movements and some forms of Indian-style Sufism. It’s interesting to note that you can find Hindus who will go to Peers and Murshads and ask them to fulfill a need of theirs and will give them money to obtain their blessing. The actor Amitabh Bachchan has a special regard for the number 786, which in India many people see as signifying “Bismillah.” Again, it fits within the concept of having an intermediary to God. However, you’d never see these people praying to God directly inside a mosque. The concept of Dargahs, Peers and Murshads can be accomodated fairly well within Hinduism. To wit, in spite of the obvious historical accommodation of Hinduism, no one could argue that those Hindus that embrace Hindutva and endorse genocide in Gujarat by electing Modi back to power are tolerant or pluralistic.

On the other hand, I see Islam as tolerant, but not accommodating. So the Qur’an tells us that “there is no compulsion in religion” but at the same time all religions are not the same. We are instructed to say, “to you, your way and to me, mine” but Islam does not legitimize other faiths in their current forms.

In Surah Ale Imran we’re told “And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.” (3:85).

In Surah Al-Fath, we are told, “And if any believe not in Allah and His Messenger, We have prepared, for those who reject Allah, a blazing fire” (48:13).

So, what do I make of the verse from Surah Baqara: “Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” (2:63).

Is there a contradiction between this verse and the other verses I’ve quoted? Well, this verse follows a series of verses addressed to the Children of Israel reminding them of Allah’s favors upon them and instructing them to fulfill their covenant and support the Messenger (SAW): “And believe in what I reveal, confirming the revelation which is with you, and be not the first to reject Faith therein, nor sell My Signs for a small price; and fear Me, and Me alone.” (2:41). Following true Jewish or Christian scripture and acting righteously thus entails acceptance of the message of the Qur’an. A few verses later, in the same surah it says “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 ye are truthful.’ Nay,-whoever submits (AR. “aslama,” the verb form of the noun Islam) his whole self to Allah and is a doer of good,- he will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (2:111-112). When I put these verses together, the apparent inconsistency dissipates.

Can I say what’s going to happen to a given individual on the Day of Judgment? No, because I have no way of knowing what state the person will die in. Can I say what will happen to a person who dies in a state of disbelief? Yes, but since I have no knowledge of his ultimate state, I have no right to be intolerant or judgmental towards him.

As to the question, “What if I was born into a non-Muslim family?” I’ve often asked myself a different question of similar import, “What if I was born among the Prophet (SAW) and Sahabah (RAA)? Wouldn’t it have been easier to be among those who “hear and obey,” to have the Prophet (SAW) as a direct guide in matters of faith, to be able to take example from his character?” And then I think of the Prophet’s own uncle who had seen him grow up since childhood and loved him dearly and knew that he wouldn’t lie. With all these advantages, he still failed the test. If I was born at the time of the Prophet, I might have turned out like Abu Talib, or even Abu Jahl. Basically, I believe that we all have different tests, some with fewer obstacles than others, but none with guarantees attached. For those who manage to scale harder tests, the returns are much greater. For those with easier tests, they have to accomplish more with the gifts they’ve been given in order to attain the same level of success.

There is no denying that the Madinese society the Prophet (SAW) built was a pluralistic society. In it lived Muslims, Jews and pagans. Individual and group rights were protected by the constitution. Religious discourse was common between the Muslims, Jews and Christians.  Yet the prophet did not hold to a notion of multiple shades of truth. Early on in his prophethood when the leaders of Makkah offered him a truce in exchange for him ceasing to denounce their gods and the practices of their forefathers, he steadfastly refused. Nowadays, I believe some proponents of “pluralism” would gladly accept an equivalent of this solution, whereby Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews would get together and agree not to denounce each other’s gods and agree that everybody has “got it a little bit right, but no one has all the answers.”  Therein lies the difference between the Prophet’s model of pluralism, and the religious accommodation being advocated in certain quarters today.

As a Muslim and a citizen in of the world, I hope to see a pluralistic society where people can express different ideas and live alongside with peace and happiness. I believe that encouraging tolerance among all faiths is very much a demand of our times.  At the same time, I do not wish to live in a society where anyone is forced to water down his or her convictions. Let people have strong personal beliefs, let there be free discourse and dialogue and let the best ideals win out on their merits.


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