Seven Pillars of Tolerance in Islam *

Fahmi Howeidi

Posted Mar 6, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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By Fahmi Howeidi

As long as your spirit of humanity is not controlled by your religious community, there is no cause for anxiety. The separation of society from creed is the key to peace in as much as the mixture of society and creed is the path to woe. But the “mother of all errors” comes when people think that society must be subdued to the power of the creed.

With the increasing prevalence of the ethic of the individual, the climate of cultural diversity and the activity of organizations for human rights and defenders of society in the world, coexistence and political and intellectual tolerance have assumed a particular priority among those concerned with our future welfare. In modern societies, therefore, it is no longer acceptable that one group—in theory at least—attempts to subdue another, not to mention banish them or annihilate them.

The solution which the secularists promote, particularly in light of the growing demand in the Islamic world these days of the implementation of Islamic law, is the separation of religion from state. Imposing religion on political affairs, according to this view, is a means of negating the existence of minority religious communities. Religion should remain neutral as a political force, in accordance with the saying: “Religion is unto God and the country is for all.” They warn of the increasing influence of religion on politics and that religious society is necessarily antagonistic to secular civilian society. Recently, the ethnic “purification” policy of the Serbs in divided Yugoslavia and the death and destruction caused by the civil wars there are cited as the natural outcome of attempting to establish national political systems on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliation.

Regardless of how sound this logic may be and how palpably they support their argument in terms of Western historical experience, it results in one of the predicaments I previously cited above. That is that religion, in our case Islam, becomes the victim and that Islamic law must be sacrificed as the price for religious coexistence, so that others can enjoy their political and religious freedoms. In fact, the matter assumes a peculiar dimension in a society that is predominantly Muslim, whereby the minority imposes its will on the majority in the name of tolerance and coexistence. Not only is it impossible to comply with the demand, it has very dangerous implications. We therefore must arrive at a formula for coexistence that does no injustice either to the majority or the minority.

Earlier I suggested that political and social duties should not be subject to the dictates of religion or society to the exclusion of the other and that there must be a form of separation between religion and society. However, I am not suggesting excluding religion from society. I am suggesting using religion for the benefit of society and relying on religious principles as the basis for coexistence and tolerance. And the Islamic message, represented in the Qur’an in particular, provides clear and explicit bases that support and further this cause. For our purpose, I mention seven that serve as the “pillars” of coexistence in an Islamic society.

The first is the absolute reverence of human dignity and honour regardless of religious and ethnic affiliation or philosophical outlook. Human dignity is defended above all else and it has even been said, rightfully, that humankind takes precedence in the Qur’an over Islam.

The second is that we all belong to a single human family in accordance with the strictures that say: “Oh people, fear your Lord who created you form a single breath.”

The third is that the diversity of mankind is one of the laws of God in nature. In other words differing ethnic and religious communities and differing political, philosophical and cultural outlooks are an integral part of life.

The fourth is the recognition of other religions and the fact that they stem from a single origin.

The fifth is freedom of belief after reaching adulthood in accordance with the stricture: “There shall be no compulsion in faith.”

The sixth is that one’s faith and actions are to be judged by God alone on the day of judgment, a notion repeated in numerous Qur’anic verses.

The seventh are the principles of fairness and justice in all human transactions and the equitable treatment of all human beings.

These seven “pillars” of the Islamic ethos offer mankind the honor and dignity which will protect and preserve it. They also establish a distinction between the beliefs and convictions for which men will be judged on the day of judgment and their rights and duties in life. In other words, they establish the division between religion and society and guarantee equality among all, regardless of religious or ethnic affiliations. Human dignity becomes an inviolable God-given right of every human being. Not only do these pillars offer a formula to accommodate non-Muslims, they offer a formula to appease the differences among Muslims themselves.

By proposing this formula for the separation of religion and society, I cannot claim to have invented anything new. At most, I can only claim to be putting forward a contemporary version of principles that are essentially Islamic in spirit in the hopes for reform and development. The respect for others’ cultural and religious identity is as old as Islam itself and the history of the Islamic world offers ample testimony to the Islamic spirit of tolerance and acceptance of “others”. It is still in evidence today with the large minority communities who continue to preserve their religious and cultural identities.

And now it is one of the ironies of fate that Islam is being declaimed as an element that threatens cultural and ethnic diversity! With astounding audacity, the legacy of history is obliterated and the Islamic experience is ignored, as people warn that merely to consider the role of Islam in government spells disaster for minorities, the disintegration of the nation, civil war, killing and ethnic purification. But this is the perpetual problem when the public’s notion of Islam is derived from the daily press and crime reports.

This article originally appeared in A1-Hewar, December 1992,  in the October 17,1992 issue of the English version of Al-Ahram Weekly, and in the Spring 1993 print edition of The American Muslim.